One day, while zooming down the stairs of The National Gallery in London to see a collection of Gaugin paintings on loan, I was stopped in my tracks by a famous painting. I had never cared to see this painting because I had seen prints of it in art books and on dorm room walls; and, frankly, I wasn’t impressed. But, here, in it’s original splendor, on the landing of a stairway, I was transfixed.
The painting was Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. I could not believe how beautiful it was, how vibrant the colors were, the background looked like real gold, and the flowers almost seemed to dance on the canvas. I could feel the warmth from the colors in this painting. I was humbled and captivated by this painting. The description informed me that Van Gogh intended this painting for his guest bedroom where Gaugin stayed for some time.
I later recounted this encounter as a secular-religious experience until a friend informed me there is no such thing as a secular-religious experience. She made the point that I had encountered the divine in the mundane. I have another friend who told me nothing is mundane, everything belongs to God. Just like God to be everywhere and reveal himself to us in countless unique ways.
Has this ever happened to you? Think for a minute, have you ever encountered God in the mundane? Do you have a story you tell over and over because it was such an unusual occurrence? Jot down any thoughts that come without judging them, like a brain storm session.
When my friend told me I had encountered the divine in the mundane, I was sad that I didn’t know it at the time. I was concerned that maybe I had missed a golden opportunity. Fortunately, God is not limited by time and space; so, I prayed and asked God, “Why did that painting strike me? What would you like to reveal to me through that painting?”
It came to me that when we encounter God, we know it on some level whether we have words for it or not. And, God is more vivid and captivating than any cheap image the media might try to give us of him. In life, don’t settle for the cheap imitations of God the world will offer, such as an old guy in a robe smiting people. There is a world of difference to be found in the real thing. Finally, God is warmth and light and something tells me he has the most inviting guest bedrooms ever.
Try this mental exercise I created:
In 2010 I had to figure out what faith looked like so I could paint it. I was creating a series of paintings inspired by the life of St. Nicholas for a church of the same name. While summarizing my research the word faith kept coming back to describe how St. Nicholas lived his life. I couldn't get around faith so I had to dive into it. I now teach the method I used to find my image and I call it The Devotional Art Process. I still practice this process when I am trying to create an artwork to help me understand Biblical truths, solidify important life lessons learned, or remember things I don’t want to forget. I think you'll find this method useful if you too are trying to come up with an original work of art that will communicate more than a mere representation of things that already exists.
The Devotional Art Process
1. Ask God for help. Whenever I begin a new task I say, “Here I am God, use me.” In this way, I am inviting the divine to reveal what he will to me. I am letting inspiration know that I am sitting down to work and it may visit me any time, the sooner the better!
2. Flesh out the concept. I never have trouble with a blank sheet of paper because I just do a brain dump first thing to try to see what I already know or can know. A brain dump looks something like this:
4. Create the final image.
5. Share the final image with others and receive feedback.
In my “Faith” painting (pictured above), you see an anchor firmly caught in a cloud to represent St. Nicholas’ faith pointing others to God. I decided on this image because you can't really see "faith", you feel it. It made me think of boating. You can’t see if your anchor is holding onto anything under the water but you can feel it’s found something to hold because you don’t drift away with the tide or current. Likewise, when believers cast the anchor of their faith into the heavens, they learn that God holds them steady through the currents and tides of life.
A student from my alma mater was writing an article for The Chimes about Calvin Alumni who entered ArtPrize this year and saw my name listed on Calvin’s website. She asked me to answer the following three questions; and, although I didn’t get back to her in time for her publication deadline I thought I’d share my answers with you.
-How did Calvin College impact your journey as an artist?
My Calvin education taught me to care for our culture and contribute to the redeeming work Christ is doing in my sphere of influence. I take that charge seriously and hope it informs my work. On a practical level, photography and graphic design classes I took really inform my process as an artist.
-What inspired this installation and what is your hope for how the public interacts with it?
I was deeply touched by the #MeToo movement and the number of people it has affected. A few years ago I drew the image of a woman on a pier tied to a barge of trash for a friend. She was sexually abused as a child and this was an image that came to her in her healing process. The meaning, she discovered, was that she should forgive her grandfather and let go of those memories so she could move forward in freedom and not have those past events define her. It didn't matter who put the rope around her neck, she could take it off. She suggested the image could be improved if I painted my own trash and what freedom would look like for me. I was not eager to undertake this project and was avoiding it until I saw a Facebook video on forgiveness that gave me the title for my painting. I realized art could begin a journey for others who need to find healing for their past through forgiveness. They may not find justice, but they can find freedom. On my website I have links to many tools for working out forgiveness that I've come across since undertaking this project. My hope is that this painting will provide a way forward for those who are still held hostage to painful memories tied to them by un-forgiveness.
-Have you entered anything in ArtPrize before?
This is my first year participating in ArtPrize. I chose to enter ArtPrize so that this painting might contribute to the conversation around #MeToo in our country. These problems won't be solved in the courts or legislature; but, by individuals taking courageous steps to heal their fractured identity.
"While discussing the growing antipathy toward Christians, a friend remarked to me, "There are three kinds of Christians that outsiders to the faith still respect: pilgrims, activists, and artists. The uncommitted will listen to them far sooner than to an evangelist or apologist." Although nonbelievers do not oppose a spiritual search, they will listen only to those Christians who present themselves as fellow-pilgrims on the way rather than as part of a superior class who has already arrived. Activists express their faith in the most persuasive way of all, by their deeds. And art succeeds when it speaks most authentically to the human condition; when believers do so with skill, again the world takes note." Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace p. 89
As artists, we have the opportunity to be grace dispensers. We can add to the truth and beauty of the human experience. It is important that we are the best artists we can be so that our lack of skill does not impede the image we feel compelled to share. If we do our job well, we should bring hope, clarity and a curiosity about what we believe and why we live our life the way we do. Artists are not needed to add to the chaos and noise of our world. There is plenty of ugliness on display in the nightly news. Sadly, I can’t undo the tragedy that happened at a Florida school last week, but I can accept the invitation to share in the task of dispensing grace and hope to a hurting world. How will you be a grace dispenser today?
My husband met Philip Yancey at an event last year and received a copy of his book Vanishing Grace. Justin enjoyed his dinner conversation with the author and suggested I might enjoy his book. I finally got around to reading it and this part really grabbed hold of me:
While discussing the growing antipathy toward Christians, a friend remarked to me, "There are three kinds of Christians that outsiders to the faith still respect: pilgrims, activists, and artists. The uncommitted will listen to them far sooner than to an evangelist or apologist." Although nonbelievers do not oppose a spiritual search, they will listen only to those Christians who present themselves as fellow-pilgrims on the way rather than as part of a superior class who has already arrived. Activists express their faith in the most persuasive way of all, by their deeds. And art succeeds when it speaks most authentically to the human condition; when believers do so with skill, again the world takes note.
As a Christian artist I have a responsibility to dispense Grace. To do this effectively, I must become the best artist I can be so that my skills do not interfere with the message. I must spend hours practicing and refining my art in order to present the most clear and understandable images possible.
I am often quoted as saying, "Just because you're a Christian doesn't mean you can suck at your job". As Christians, we must be better at our jobs than the average person because we are representing the King. Christian art should never be synonymous with second rate, just okay, cliche, or predictable art. If we do our job properly, Christian art should mean inspired, beautiful, truthful, insightful, excellent. I may not be there yet, but I have a life time to perfect my artistic skills and leave something that outsiders of the faith will hopefully respect, admire, and stir them to investigate the source of my beliefs and their own. In the end, I hope to be remembered as a dispenser of grace-filled art for a hurting world. What are you dispensing?
Sherry Barrett is an active artist who takes inspiration from great works of literature, historical figures, and wise people.