Game of Interpretation: Denver Art Museum’s Audacious Interpretive Beads

[Art: Number 8, 1949 by Jackson Pollock]

Perhaps you’re familiar with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, the ones that art critic Craig Brown (a contemporary of Pollock) called “decorative ‘wallpaper.’” My own reaction to one of Pollock’s abstract works, on a first viewing, was disgust – couldn’t a five-year-old do an accurate impression? What made a splattered canvas so noteworthy that a curator hung it on a stark museum wall for millions of people to view on class field trips or high-brow vacations? Why was one of these paintings valued and sold at auction ten years ago for $140 million, setting records at the time for the most expensive painting in the world? (Not to mention the fact that even a fake Pollock painting can sell for 3.1 million dollars.)

The challenge of viewing and enjoying Pollock’s abstract expressionist paintings exemplifies the issue that many outside the art world take toward museum art: viewers want to know, what does it mean? And if the meaning can’t be determined at a glance, is it really “art” at all?

Pollock himself responded to the issue of interpretation in a radio interview with William Wright in 1950 by saying, “I think they [the public] should not look for, but look passively — and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for… I think the unconsciousness drives do mean a lot in looking at paintings… I think it should be enjoyed just as music is enjoyed — after a while you may like it or you may not —

…at least give it a chance.”

The Denver Art Museum’s recent effort at addressing this question of interpretation is noteworthy. In an email, Danielle St. Peter, the Interpretive Specialist for Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum, described to me that she had wanted to implement a similar method for the current (and still ongoing) Audacious: Contemporary Artists Speak Out exhibition, as curators hope the exhibit will cultivate conversation amongst viewers.

St. Peter elaborates: “We were hopeful that visitors would recognize…multiple perspectives… and experience the exhibition as a safe space to explore and discuss difficult, emotionally charged issues that relate to our contemporary world.”

The question St. Peter and the curators of DAM asked themselves was, how do we encourage viewers to give the art the time of day required to engage it thoughtfully?

St. Peter continues: “To me, [viewing contemporary art] is about spending time with an object. At the museum, we often see people stop for three seconds and move on, but art really demands more of your time. I think the trap [of] contemporary art…is that it doesn’t always have a recognizable subject matter that you can relate to or doesn’t look like it took a lot of artistic skill to make (some of the age-old criteria for appreciating art). Maybe it looks too simple, maybe it doesn’t look like art at all. Whatever the reason, if you find yourself not wanting to spend time with a work of art, that is exactly the work that you should be spending time with. As artist John Cage so aptly put [it],

‘If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not that boring at all.’”

She and the DAM’s graphic designer (Matt Rue of McGinty Co.) came up with their own version (based on something St. Peter had seen at the Columbus Museum of Art): dropping colored acrylic cubes into test tubes beside the artwork.

audacious_gallery_hero2

[Photo from Denver Art Museum blog]

They introduced it to visitors with a display that explained, “The artworks in Audacious deal with emotionally charged issues. We invite you to share how the work makes you feel. Here’s how: 1) Each of the colored blocks represents an emotion. Select a few to take with you through the exhibition. 2) When you see an artwork with a test tube, drop in the color block that best represents how the work makes you feel. 3) Look at how others have responded. Does seeing this alter your perspective?”

audacious_blocks_0

[Photo from Denver Art Museum blog]

The cubes were either blue or pink, ranging in shade from light to dark, and each signified a different emotion: either empathetic (royal blue), optimistic (teal), empowered (light blue), hopeless (magenta), angry (pink), or confused (light pink).

And just like that, viewers were handed a framework for interpretation: start with your own emotion. Then examine other’s emotions, as displayed in the test tube. Ask yourself, why might someone else see this differently?


I myself participated, a handful of plastic beads clutched in my palm as I walked from piece to piece, drawn to spend more time at the artworks where clear test tubes had been fastened to the wall beside the work. (Initially, only 9 works of art had accompanying test tubes; but within three weeks of the exhibit’s opening, the museum staff added more). It felt like a game. I had permission to decide what each piece meant; the power of meaning-making had flipped from artist to viewer.

St. Peter agrees: “By choosing both positive and negative reactions for the cubes, we are giving visitors permission to feel confused or angry about what they are seeing. I sometimes worry that visitors think they need to like everything that we install in the galleries, that they have to ‘get it.’ That certainly is not the case. Some of my [own] most powerful art experiences have been with objects or installations that I didn’t understand at first, or ones that made me angry.”

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[Photo from Instagram, provided by Danielle St. Peter of the Denver Art Museum]

Their hunch has paid off: the public has loved this game of interpretation. While DAM has not performed a formal study, visitors enthusiastically shared photos of the activity on social media. Visitors also requested that more test tubes be placed by art works in the show (even pointing out particular pieces that elicited strong responses in them). And in the interim, before more test tubes were placed, museum goers stacked cubes on the floor, below the installations without test tubes, so eager were they to share their responses to the artworks.

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[Photo from Instagram, provided by Danielle St. Peter of the Denver Art Museum]

The gallery hosts also had stories to share, like the story relayed to St. Peter about the group of middle schoolers on a class field trip who viewed Marc Quinn’s Jamie Gillespie, 1999, a marble Greek-style sculpture of an amputee. The sculpture made the students “angry” (pink cube), but their gallery host asked them to look closely: how had others responded to this piece?

marc-quinns-jamie-gillespie-1999

[Art: Jamie Gillespie, 1999 by Marc Quinn, from the artist’s website]

But the test tube rattled with teal and light blue cubes (“optimistic” and “empowered”). The students felt perplexed –  hadn’t a terrible thing happened to this man with one leg? Their gallery host facilitated a discussion with the students then and there, reminding them to read the placard nearby, which discribed how the man had participated in the paralympic games. This figure represented an athlete at the height of his physical abilities, even missing one limb.

Perhaps this story alone makes the DAM’s interpretive experiment a success: an entire class of students middle school students, hormone-ridden and self-conscious, suddenly stopped in their tracks and passionately discussing a work of art, a piece that the same viewers might ordinarily have spent a glance on before continuing through the museum. Those walking the halls beside us usually remain anonymous, and their differening perspectives stay private; but here, a different read became obvious, unignorable. Perhaps a test tube full of acrylic beads provides an anathema to the casual or even dismissive art viewing culture that Pollock responded to over 60 years ago, a culture that still persists today –

maybe it can teach us to give the art a chance.

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Review of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom

When it comes to director allegiances, most artists I know will put Wes Anderson on their lists — he’s certainly on ours! Jeremy and I were eager to see his latest, “Moonrise Kingdom,” and we were even willing to shell out $20 to see it in the theater — with popcorn in our laps! (We typically wait to see movies until they come to the library, Redbox, Netflix, or our local cheap-o dollar theater.)

You probably already know the story: 12-year-old orphan Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), reared in the foster care system, falls in first love with 12-year-old Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) on an island off the coast of New England in 1964 during a “Khaki scout” camp. They write letters to each other all year and plan to run away together the next summer when Sam’s back at camp — which is where the film picks up. The rest of the movie involves the couple running away, exploring first love, and being chased by a crew of khaki scouts, the girl’s parents, local police, and social services, with a climax on the top of the spire of a church during a hurricane (a bit of drama for your buck).

As in all Anderson’s films, the cinematography is gorgeous (interesting lens filters and colors, angles, and settings). His characters are dynamic — in every scene, ALL of Anderson’s characters have motivations, desires, and obvious back stories. His writing shows without telling, and the dialogue says nothing more and nothing less than is needed.

Oh yes, and just like every single story he has every made, “Moonrise Kingdom” includes eccentric, dysfunctional family relationships. His characters are true misfits, sometimes painfully so. (Sam is called “emotionally troubled” and has bounced around from foster family to foster family because of his antics, while we see Suzy shoot one of the khaki scouts with a bow and arrow and, in an earlier scene, fight a classmate in the middle of a lecture.)

Sam and Suzy display more self-knowledge than any of the adult characters, however — they are the grown-ups and the grown-ups are the children. They pursue love in spite of family opposition while Suzy’s parents struggle in a marriage without love (it might not help that Suzy’s mother is having an affair with the local police officer).

Yet one of the charming features of this film is watching Sam and Suzy’s puppy love unfold. Even Jeremy found his heart warmed by the loyalty Sam and Suzy display toward each other throughout the drama of their running away (ending with their spur-of-the-moment wedding in a khaki scout chapel by a rogue khaki scout leader played by Jason Schwartzman).

[THIS NEXT PART IS A BIT OF A SPOILER]
And while all these things make the film enjoyable, we did find one element, as believers, that troubled us. Watching two young lovers read library books together at a camp fire and hike across an island as they are being chased by khaki scouts and parents at every turn is truly endearing.

However, there are a few highly suggestive scenes during the time when Sam and Suzy camp together that made us uncomfortable. You saw part of this scene in the previews — Sam and Suzy strip down to their underwear to swim in the ocean. After that, they dance on the beach (still in their underwear), and you cannot help but smile. Then they move closer and kiss, and Suzy notices Sam’s erection and mentions it, saying she doesn’t mind. Then, in the next scene, they are waking up inside their tent to a helicopter and angry mob of pursuers on the beach — and they are lying in the same sleeping bag together, still in their underwear.

Now, initially, Jeremy and I saw this part in different ways. I imagined that nothing happened — they simply slept close to each other in their underwear. It was a (mostly) innocent interpretation. Jeremy, though, assumed that they had sex.

“If the adults in Wes Anderson’s films are children and the children act as adults,” Jeremy said, “then I think it would be safe to assume that they DID have sex. If we saw two adults act out the same scene on the beach and then we saw them wake up together in the same tent, we would assume they had sex.” Point made.

Furthermore, we were concerned with the medium of film portraying this adolescent sexual exploration. Yes, every person goes through a sexual awakening around the age of twelve, and most adolescents explore. The scene is honest in that respect. But is film the best medium to show this? With child pornography as rampant (and as evil) as it is, and without being able to choose the viewers of this movie, are these scenes at all exploitative? We can assume that Anderson did not have this purpose in mind when shooting these scenes, however, we cannot assume that every watcher will view these scenes as innocently as we viewed them.

Our view is, why contribute to the problem in any way? Why even walk the line? There is no need to add anything else to the pornographic imagination. We would prefer if Anderson had either made it more vague or just stuck with the truer puppy love feeling we think he wanted to portray in this movie in the first place.

[SPOILER OVER]

All in all, we found the movie to be funny, engaging, and interesting. In all of his movies, Anderson seems to ask the most basic question: if all our relationships are dysfunctional, are relationships worth pursuing at all? Unlike a director like Woody Allen, who would say that because relationships do not work, we should chuck them and live alone, Anderson continues to say that we need each other. We need relationships, and we need them in spite of (and perhaps because of) how messed up we are. Obviously he has not given up hope that relationships are worth it, even if he cannot put his finger on exactly why.

We find this so redemptive! Personally, we would say it like this, Wes: we are sinners. We are all messed up, and so our relationships with each other are messed up. We cannot help but hurt each other. But Jesus came so that we could experience freedom and forgiveness from our sin, and so that we could live in redeemed relationship with each other (by the power of his Spirit — we’ll explain that more later, Wes). We think relationship is possible only through Jesus, and that’s the answer you’re looking for.

…We are praying Wes Anderson finds his answer soon! In the meantime, see “Moonrise Kingdom” and rejoice in the redemption that can be found in it.

A Tangible Salvation & Why Art Matters

Lately, Jeremy and I have been reading and discussing Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God with our small group at church. Other than the book being a phenomenal and simple exposition of the parable of the prodigal son (found in Luke 15 in the Bible), the book also touches on an idea that, I believe, applies to the question of why art matters at all in these brief lives we live.

Near the book’s end, Keller discusses the last section of the parable, where the younger son’s return home to the father (who represents God) is celebrated with a great feast that represents “the great festival of God at the end of history” (p. 106).

In the section “Salvation is Material,” Keller continues to develop this idea:

“A meal is a very physical experience. Jesus left a meal, the Lord’s supper (communion), to be remembered by, and the final goal of history is a meal, the wedding supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19). The resurrected Christ ate with his disciples when he met with them (Luke 24:42-43; John 21:9). What does it all mean? It is a sign that, for Jesus, this material world matters.

“The book of Genesis tells us that when God made this world, he looked upon the physical creation and called it ‘good.’ He loves and cares for the material world. The fact of Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of a new heavens and a new earth show clearly that he still cares for it… The ultimate purpose of Jesus is not only individual salvation and pardon for sins, but also the renewal of this world… The climax of history is not a higher form of diembodied consciousness but a feast. God made the world with all its colors, tastes, lights, sounds, with all its life-forms living in interdependent systems.

“If the material world were only an illusion, as Eastern philosophy says, or only a temporary copy of the real, ideal world, as Plato says, then what happens in this world or in this life would be unimportant. All that would matter would be issues of soul or spirit. However, Jesus was not simply saved ‘in spirit’ but was resurrected in body” (pp. 110-111).

As Keller clearly sees, Jesus himself, in his incarnation and then in his bodily resurrection, shows us that our bodies and this material reality that he’s created matters. In fact, our own bodily existence matters, just as our bodily lives matter.

I believe it’s easy as Christians to rely on the disembodied, gnostic view of heaven as our future life and discount the drudging reality of our days — “It’s all gonna burn anyway,” Jeremy’s sister likes to joke. It gives us an excuse to check out, to give in to fear and sin, and to escape from bodily suffering with a fully spiritual heavenly existence.

But what I love so much about this teaching is that it makes what we do in our lives so valuable. Thankfully, what we do does not matter enough to disqualify us from the grace of God (being deeply rooted in sin as we are); however, our material actions count for something.

In particular, as Christian artists, we have an instinctual urge to create out of material objects (or to write about material objects, people, and circumstances) and we also have an inherent knowing inside us that tells us that what we see and taste and feel matters. There is something eternal about our physical lives, though we cannot quite say what it is.

In fact, our art is richer for all its concrete details. The best writing does not abstractly describe a scene; it shows us the world of the character, taking us into the tangible, physical world the character lives in, allowing us to walk around in the character’s body for a moment– to see through the character’s eyes, to feel with the characters hands, and to taste with the character’s tongue.

In Jeremy’s found object sculptures, he literally takes material objects that have been discarded and deemed worthless by someone else and turns it and other pieces of trash into an orderly composition. It’s not eco-art; it’s redemption art. It is a remaking of the chaotic material world into something meaningful, something with beauty instead of just burying it in a landfill to decompose over decades. Sounds a lot like how God will remake the earth itself, right?

I cannot tell you definitively that your art and mine will last eternally. I have heard others try to make that argument from the Bible, and I find it a bit weak. Art in itself is not eternal (for example, moth and rust have often destroyed the pieces of trash that Jeremy likes to turn into art). But you and I are eternal, and what we do matters, and because of that, I believe that making art reflects the Creator God himself and that art-making helps us to value God’s material world — and these things have eternal value.

An Arts Revolution & the Documentary “Press Pause Play”

We all know that technology has changed things. New technologies have changed how we cook, how we heat our houses, how we make clothing, how we grow vegetables, and even how we go to the bathroom.

But this recent influx of technological changes in our global culture has been unique. We are connected to people thousands of miles away from us through the Internet, people who we might never have met, and we can stay connected to them at a lower cost than ever before. In the last seven days, this humble blog has gotten hits from 22 different countries around the world. (Actually my brain started smoking when I thought about that fact too hard.)

In the past ten years, arts technologies have also taken major leaps forward. It used to be far too expensive for an ordinary person to own a professional quality camera; today, most people can take HD video and photos on their phones. It used to be too complicated for anyone outside the industries to use graphic design or movie editing programs; today, they are cheaper and simpler, and they’re taught as high school electives. Musicians had to go to a studio in order to record and produce tapes and CDs that sounded professional; today, anyone can record and mix an EP in a home studio.

Of course with technological change comes cultural change. As technologies become cheaper, easier to use, and more widespread, the number of artists experimenting with the new technologies grows. The arts have experienced a democratization. Anyone can do it, right? Just look at Etsy: anyone with a paint brush and yarn are now able to sell their paintings and scarves online.

But the question remains: does more art mean better art? The documentry that we’re featuring today, “Press Pause Play,” asks this question. Both Jeremy and I found it fascinating and it provoked a lot of discussion for us about what makes art ART (if you know what we mean), and also how this new cultural movement allows for truly good artists to rise to the top, as mastery of craft and focus on one medium becomes more important in distinguishing true art from mere experimentation (we hope).

The whole documentary is online at Vimeo, and features interviews and commentary from such notable people as Moby and Seth Godin. We hope it makes you think. You can also download the film for free here. They have a Paypal “donate” button and I’m sure they would appreciate a few bucks if you download the film.

RECKONING: Terry Maker Interview

One of my favorite shows of this year is currently at the Fine Art Center, downtown Colorado Springs. Boulder based artist Terry Maker‘s awe-inspiring body of work “RECKONING” is on display now through June 3rd. Maker’s show is full of intentionality, packed with meaning and metaphor and each of the 50 pieces will reward careful inspection yielding surprise, insight and emotion.

I emailed Terry, and she was gracious enough to answer a few questions which I’m sharing with you here.

“Ship in a Bottle,”2011, resin, rope and hand made bottle
12 x 20 x 34 inches. Photographed by Chris Rogers

Jeremy: Where do theme and process overlap for you?

Terry: I generally have a theme or direction that I am taking and am on the look out for materials that will support this path. Of course, I am sensitive to the the happenstance of the upexpected material discovery that may take me on a totally new thematic course or may be a related off-shoot of that direction.

Jeremy: How/when did you start using resin and casting techniques? Is there a particular significance to the resin?

Terry: I’ve been interested in casting methods and resin for over 10 years now…the resin in particular, has a very appealing, seductive surface and color – this plays into the theme of want and desire that has interested me for some time now.

Jeremy: I’ve read that you keep poems, and excerpts of literature around your studio as inspiration. How else to you stay inspired in art-making?

Terry: My art making is integrated into my entire life and is not a separate activity. This co-mingling makes me aware of every step of the day and how each step can be necessary and integral to this calling.

Jeremy: I immediately noticed an archeological element in many of your works (and later read Tracy Mobley-Martinez’s article where you mention an “intellectual archeology” ) Where does that come from? have you studied archeology, or are you just inspired by it?

Terry: My work is all about the layers – both literal and conceptual. This embedding, unearthing, digging, scraping has been a necessary part of the message. I am very interested in what lies behind and beyond the surface of the piece both aethetically and metaphorically.

Jeremy: Who are people that you look up to?

Terry: Tim Hawkinson, Tom Friedman, Lee Bontecou, Vik Muniz, Sarah Sze …to name a few.

Jeremy: Do you have any advice for young artists? Things you’ve learned to do (or not do) on your journey?

Terry: Go out – travel to the great art centers and see art, lots of it. Try to connect with artists that inspire you and if
possible go to their talks and ask questions…like you’ve asked of me – thank you!

Jeremy: Thanks for making time for me, I really appreciate it.

“The Garden of Nineveh-Bitter,” 2008, resin, plastic, aluminum foil, human bone replicas, bubble wrap, plastic maze puzzles, and shredded money, audio recordings
16 x 20 x 2 Ω feet. Photographed by Chris Rogers

“Jaw Breaker Series, 1, 2 and 4,” 2008-2009, resin and jawbreaker candy on panel
40 x 40 x 2 inches. Photographed by Chris Rogers

“Reptilius Consumerus Devourus,” 2010, Shredded US Currency, various bank documents, and glue
100 feet x varying sized bread slices. Photographed by Chris Rogers

I highly recommend this show. And if you’re strapped for cash, the FAC has a free admission day the third tuesday of each month – the next one is March 20th.

header image:
“S¸ss,” 2011, resin, jaw breaker candy
30 x 19 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches. Photographed by Chris Rogers

6 Books that Move Me

I (Liz) am often asked for book recommendations when people hear that I’m a writer. “What are you reading lately?” they’ll ask, or perhaps, “What’s your favorite book?”

I read a lot (though not as much as our friend Anthony Ashley), and on a brief perusal of my bookshelf, I’m going to share with you six books I love, books that have moved me and stuck with me though time has got between us.

{Oh, and I should warn you that many of these books deal with characters struggling to make sense of death — I noticed that cheery theme when I was putting this post together. They are simply stories that matter, and so of course they deal with death (though they also deal with happier themes).}

I present to you…
(in order of when I read them)…

1. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2007)

Robinson’s novel, Gilead, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005, and if you sit down to live with it for a few months, you’ll find out why. Many people struggle through it on the first read because its pace is leisurely, conversational, and downright slow. Essentially, you’re invited to enter Reverend John Ames’ last days in the rural town of Gilead, Iowa, as he writes an extended letter (i.e. the story of his life, which makes up the novel) to his seven-year-old son.

This stroll through the Reverend’s life is poetic and simple, marked by stunning everyday scenes, like this one:

“I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping into the air, our insouciant Soapy! …Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world.” (p.9)

I found myself so caught up and in love with the characters in this novel — the Reverend Ames, his son, his wife whom he loves dearly, his best friend Reverend Boughton and Reverend Boughton’s family, who causes Reverend Ames some trouble in his last days.

Not only that, but the Reverend is constantly talking about God. He wonders about forgiveness and heaven and grace, and struggles through extending grace to a man who has deeply wounded him and his friends. Ultimately, love wins, in every way that it should. I often found myself in tears. The words of this novel seeped into my skin and the characters informed my soul.

2. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2008)

“Nine months and five days ago, at approximately nine o’clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death” — so begins Joan Didion’s life without her husband John (pp.6-7).

Joan Didion is a journalist, and it shows; even in this heart-breaking true account of her husband’s death and the year that followed his death, she repeats the facts over and over to herself, as if taking stock of what she knows will help explain the one thing she does not know: how she will live without him. You feel the waves of her grief wash over you like a tide as Didion comes back to same instances, trying to make sense of them in a new way, grasping for understanding and begging the facts to return John to her. This memoir rends the heart, painting a stark picture of death and grief without Christ.

And yet Didion writes strikingly honest prose, facing the facts with courage — after all, how many people write of the days and year following any loved one’s death? At the memoir’s end, Didion writes, “I think about swimming with John into the cave at Portuguese Bend, about the swell of the clear water, the way it changed, the swiftness and power it gained as it narrowed through the rocks at the base of the point. The tide had to be just right. We had to be int he water at the very moment the tide was right. We could only have done this a half-dozen times at most during the two years we lived there, but it is what I remember. Each time we did it, I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong. John never was. You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that. No eye is on the sparrow, but he did tell me that.” You are left with a sense of deep loss and deep courage, knowing that to lose someone and choose to live is the greatest act of courage of all.

3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison (2008)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who lived and wrote during World War II. He and the confessing Christian church in Nazi Germany strongly opposed Hitler, and Bonhoeffer even went so far as to join a group plotting to assassinate Hitler (as you may have guessed, their plot failed, and Bonhoeffer ended up spending the end of the war in a Nazi prison and was killed just before V-E Day). He was a man of great courage and sound theology, as many of you know.

However, when a professor of mine assigned this collection, his essays and letters written to friends and family while he spent his last days in a Nazi prison cell, I found I couldn’t put it down. Bonhoeffer had intimate relationships with his family and friends that mirrored the type of Christian community that anyone would dream of. Not only that, but his theology leaked onto every page of the collection; you saw his theology lived out in his relationships and the everyday words he shared with them. It reminded me of the apostle Paul in some sense, and I found myself intrigued by the thoughts that go through someone’s head when they have decided to die for the name of Christ, or at least to love Christ in the midst of persecution. This book inspired me to follow in the steps of the apostles and martyrs that have come before me, loving Christ with their all: this is our great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12).

4. William Paul Young’s The Shack (2009)

The Shack is an allegory for our time: it describes a father’s struggle to make sense the horrific kidnapping and murder of his youngest daughter, Missy, through the lens of Christ. The tale begins with Mack (the father) receiving a note in his mailbox from God, beckoning Mack to meet God at the “shack” out in the middle of the woods where his daughter Missy was probably raped and then brutally murdered. Of course, Mack thinks this is crazy until he finds himself trekking out to this shack, trudging through thick snow, and then sinking down into the floor of the shack to fall asleep. Then, you as the reader assume that Mack has a vision of the Trinity, who helps him face Missy’s death and who heals him. He leaves the shack a changed man. End of story.

God the Father is portrayed as a large, boisterous, and joyous black woman because Mack’s own father was an abusive alcoholic. The Holy Spirit is portrayed as a shimmering woman, never quite stable in your line of sight, and Jesus is portrayed as the brawniest, friendliest Jewish man you’d ever meet. (There’s been some controversy over these Trinitarian portrayals, but I believe the people who are concerned about this have forgotten the importance of the imagination and of theological metaphor.)

During the reading of the book, I started to imagine the members of the Trinity with me in this way– holding my hand in the car, lying on the floor with me during the deep breathing exercise at yoga, walking along a path in the woods with me, ever-present, behind and before me. I have to tell you, I have never felt so close to understanding all the members of the Trinity as I have through this metaphor — somehow telling me that God is like the different forms of water or the parts of an egg is just not relational enough for me.

Not only that, but I believe this story has a powerful message to share about suffering. Why does God allow suffering? How could a good God allow THAT to happen? Why ever? Why at all? I don’t know any of us who have not asked these heart questions of our good Father, doubting His Sovereign care of us.

I should note that the writing, the editing, the dialogue, and the characters themselves are not good… Sad to say. However, I believe that you and I can read this book as a heartfelt plea to know God, not a Pulitzer-prize winning novel. (Swallow your literary pride on this one, friends)

5. Marilynne Robinson’s Home (2011)

http://www.aholyexperience.com/ companion book to Gilead, Marilynne Robinson continues the tale in small town Iowa, but from another angle. This time, we hear Reverend Boughton’s family’s voice, focusing in particular on the Reverend, his prodigal son, Jack, and his daughter Glory.

I wept through this novel. Robinson’s writing is spare in comparison with her writing in Gilead, which almost falls into prose poetry at points, but the point is clear: grace and forgiveness are extended freely to those who will accept them.

You watch the Reverend Boughton and Glory struggle with the sudden return of Jack to his childhood home after a long, silent absence. Jack himself comes home only to remember the years of alienation he has felt from his family because of his immoral choices, which has shamed the family more than once. You watch the family dig up old quarrels and old misunderstandings about each other and their lives, and you watch it simultaneously hurt and heal them. And as the truth about Jack’s past comes out over the course of the novel, a past that was previously hidden from all of Jack’s family, you watch a sweeping grace envelop them as the honest truth sets them free.

(I’m going to resist being more specific simply because the secrets that come out about Jack are what drive the plot forward and keep you reading!)

I’m going to leave you with the Reverend’s beautiful prayer over the first meal he eats with his returned runaway son:

“Holy Father, I have rehearsed this prayer in my mind a thousand times, this prayer of gratitude and rejoicing, as I waited for an evening like this one. But when I think what it is that brings us to our Father, it might be grief or sickness–trouble of some sort. Weariness. And then there we are, and it’s a good thing at such times to know we have a Father, whose joy it is to welcome us home. It really is” (p.41).

6. Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts (2011)

Again, Ann Voskamp’s memoir begins with tragedy: readers are taken to the day her two-year-old sister died, run over in the driveway, her mother weeping over her small form, blood on her apron. I put the book down at that point — I didn’t want to read a sad story. But I’m glad I picked it up again, because One Thousand Gifts has become my favorite book of 2011.

So why begin with such tragedy? Because it shaped Ann’s heart, making it small and bitter, closed to the love and gifts of God. Yet through the course of the memoir, you watch her heart open as she learns that gratitude, “eucharisteo,” for the daily and ordinary gifts of God is the way to a life of freedom in Christ: freedom from anxiety, freedom into joy, freedom to serve and love like Jesus. Recognizing God and His gifts brings freedom.

I read this book as a daily devotional, soaking up Ann’s poetic words and ordinary moments like I would a sermon. Her daily life as a farmer’s wife and mother of six inspired me. Her decision to write 1,000 thank-you’s to God, in the form of a list, became a mantra for me: I’m feeling unhappy? Give thanks. I’m feeling rejected and powerless? Give thanks. I’m feeling unknown and unloved? Give thanks. I’m feeling joyful and successful? Give thanks! Why? Because of God. Because of who He is and what He gave us through His Son Jesus!

As Ann captures so well, “One lone stem of wheat bows its head before me. Behind it, the perfect backdrop of pure moon full, pregnant with the grandeur.

“I reach out my hand, run my finger up its silk slender shank. This is how. I learn how to say thank you from a laid-low head of wheat. From the wind rustling glory through the dried blades of grass raised, from the leaves in the silver maple hushed awed still. I pay tribute to God by paying attention. I raise one hand high. And another hand high. I bow the head down. I lay the body down.

“‘The life of true holiness is rooted in the soil of awed adoration. It down not grow elsewhere,’ writes J.I. Packer. I am bowed like wheat, raised like grass blades, grounded and rooted to now, and from Him and through Him and to Him are all things and all is His and everything that has breath praises Him and I whisper it again, again, again, remembering, remembering, remembering.

“…All beauty is only a reflection.”

And for that, I give thanks!

Beautiful Plastic: Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang

In my experience, most of what is labeled “eco art” ends up being a garrish, kitschy mess with more ecological value than artistic. I’ve seen more than my share of piles of plastic, covered in paint and artist statements that make themselves out to be the savior of the world.

When I saw Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang‘s exhibit at the Smokebrush gallery in 2010, the artfulness of their exhibit startled me. What I saw was a celebration of discovery, a good eye for composition and color, and a matter-of-fact statement about how much plastic is polluting our oceans — without a guilt trip.

I recently found this video of the artists where they talk about their process, how they got started and where they’re going. It is informative, interesting and gets their point across without bludgeoning the audience. I hope you enjoy it.

Below: Photos I took at the Smokebrush exhibit

Book Review: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

I (Liz) recently started a book club. I have never been in a book club before, but it reminds me happily of literature classes (without the test at the end!). Luckily for you, I have decided to review the books we read on here, so you get to join the club vicariously! Hooray!

**Note: THIS REVIEW IS A SPOILER because the ending is the best part, and I can’t help but write about it. (Just skip the end of the plot summary)**

This month, we read Graham Greene’s 1951 novel, The End of the Affair.

RATING ***
3 out of 5 ain’t bad

PLOT SUMMARY
The plot goes something like this: narrator Maurice Bendrix runs into his ex-lover’s husband Henry two years after his affair with Sarah, Henry’s wife, has ended. Henry tells Bendrix that he believes his wife is having an affair and that he’d considered hiring a private detective to investigate, but that he’s decided against it. Bendrix then visits the same private detective because he is jealous that Sarah has a new lover. The private detective gathers evidence that seems to convict Sarah and delivers Sarah’s diary to Bendrix. However, when Bendrix reads the diary, he discovers that Sarah still loves him. However, she feels she cannot be with him because of a vow she made. Once just before their affair had ended, they were in Bendrix’s apartment when a bomb exploded outside and killing him (this is in the middle of World War II). Sarah, in her panic, prayed that if God would save Bendrix’s life, she would never see him again. A minute later, Bendrix awakens to Sarah’s horror. Sarah is in agony over it, but it seems to have awakened in her a love for God. In any case, Bendrix, upon finishing his very interesting before-bed reading, tries to convince Sarah to run away with him. Sarah eventually concedes, and they make plans to run away together. Curiously, eight days pass without a word from Sarah. On the eighth day, Henry calls with the alarming news that Sarah has died of a severe chill. Yes, she dies of a bad cold. Henry then asks Bendrix to move in with him to help him make the funeral arrangements, and Bendrix moves in permanently. Then, all sorts of evidence comes out that Sarah is really Catholic: her mother tells Bendrix that Sarah was baptized Catholic when she was two, a priest tells him that she visited him and expressed her desire to become Catholic, and a little boy and man are healed of illness through what looks like a miracle done by the deceased Sarah. The book ends with Bendrix raging at God because God took Sarah from Bendrix and because God may exist.

COMMENTARY
Greene wrote himself in this novel. He had multiple affairs throughout his life, sometimes simultaneously, as was the case when he wrote The End of the Affair. Mysteriously, he dedicates this book to an unidentified “C.” I’ll leave you to make your own guesses about that.

And while the autobiographical notes are interesting, most fascinating is the play between love and hate of God. Throughout the novel, I felt I was watching the “Hound of Heaven” at work as He pursues Sarah, Bendrix, Henry, and really every other character in the novel.

Sarah struggles desperately with a God she did not believe existed until she witnesses a miracle: the seeming resurrection of Bendrix. Suddenly her life changes. Her prayer had been answered, and she cannot not explain it away. She begins meeting with Smythe, an anti-God anarchist street evangelist (if you know what I mean) in order to become indoctrinated into his anti-religion, but in fact, his teachings have the opposite effect. Smythe’s hatred toward God seems to prove God’s existence to Sarah, and she finds herself inexplicably drawn toward the Catholic church. She fills her diary with prayers. And at the book’s end, she confesses to Bendrix that she desires to become Catholic.

Yet near the book’s end, we learn that Sarah’s mother had her baptized in the Catholic church on a whim at the age of two. And though Sarah had disbelieved God all her conscious life, Graham Greene seems to make a case for the mystical and inescapable fact that baptism has made her God’s. She has been sealed.

I find this particularly meaningful. At a church service I once attended, a woman was called up to share her faith story. She told the congregation that she had been baptized at an early age by her mother into the Catholic Church. Yet from the moment she could rebel, she did. She lived a wild life, scorning God and her mother’s religion. Her mom prayed for her feverishly, and God continued to call her back to Him. And finally she broke. She couldn’t live the way she had been living and she stopped running and fell into the arms of love. She told us she wanted to reaffirm her faith vows and her life to Jesus through baptism, and I watched my priest sprinkle water on her head. Her mother sat in the front row snapping pictures. She and her mother and the whole congregation dabbed wet eyes, and I sat in the back just weeping along with them!

And though many things about this novel drove me crazy (Sarah’s unspecified illness, the narrator’s whiny voice, the slow first half…), this picture of a reckless God in pursuit of His sons and daughters made it a worthwhile read.

My Mother Vs. Modern Art

I (Liz) don’t know any artists with artist parents — okay, maybe a few and they’re a troupe of singers from Austria. The truth is that most artists live among a majority of nonartists, or at least people who would never dream of calling themselves artists. They probably cook and sing and knit and decorate their houses just like artists do, but “art” seems like such an extraordinary (read: odd, strange, quirky, incomprehensible, etc.) activity that is far removed from their real living.

And in fact, these views about art are not really that surprising. When you look at the art that has been lauded for the past fifty years (since Modernism), you can see why most people feel that art, particularly art that hangs on the walls of art museums, was not made for them. They “just don’t get it.” (Though, really, who does?)

Just for fun, I thought I’d give you a peek at one of my favorite so-called “nonartists” — my mother. Two years ago, we went to the modern wing of the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and I took notes. Does this experience feel familiar to anyone else?

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My mother and I walk into an art museum. Already this sounds like the set-up for a joke, and really it is; you could even call it a small miracle that my mother was even willing to step foot inside a building with something called “art” on its walls. Probably the last time we entered the National Gallery together was for my class field trip in fifth grade when, just to be nice, she signed up to be a chaperone.

We buy tickets; she treats — the first reason I brought her along. And as we walk toward the modern wing, she now discovers the second.

“Mom, is it okay if I write down your responses to the art?” I ask, pulling a small black notebook out of my backpack before she answers.

“Yeah, I guess so,” she says.

We walk toward the wall in front of us. “What do you think of this one?” I ask her.

In front of us a canvas stretches across the wall, the length and height of a man, except that no forms or colors are painted onto the canvas’ surface.

“Well…” she says, “Am I missing something?”

“What do you mean?” I say.

“I mean… is this it?” she asks.

I stand next to her, just to her right. “Hm. I see what you mean,” I say.

Then suddenly I step backward. “Let’s look at it from back here,” I say.

My mother joins me, taking steps backward, continuing to stare at the canvas in front of her, her head still. We look for a few more seconds.

“I think there may be a white paint on the surface,” I say, watching my mother’s face.

My mother squints her eyes. Her mouth squirms. Then she sighs, turning to look at me. “I’m sorry, Lizzy, I just don’t see anything at all. It just looks like a blank canvas to me.”

“Fair enough,” I say, grinning. I make a note in pen on a page in my notebook.

We move on to a sculpture hanging on the wall just a few steps away. We pause in front of it.

“Is that what I think it is?” asks my mom.

I laugh. “Almost definitely,” I say, “Marcel Duchamp was famous for his urinals.”

“And that is ‘art’?” says my mother, pointing at the urinal, “Who decides these things?” She makes a few furious hand motions and then turns to leave.

“Hold on, hold on,” I say, scribbling in my notebook. “I came to find one piece in particular. We can leave after I see it.”

My mother sighs and follows me deeper into the gallery. Soon I catch a glimpse of purple and grey paint from a few rooms away: one of Jackson Pollock’s lavender masterpieces.

“Here it is,” I tell my mom. We sit down in front of it on a wooden bench.

“Okay, so what do you think of this one?” I ask.

“Well,” says my mother, “On a first glance, it looks like some of the paintings you created in pre-school.” I laugh.

“And on a second glance?” I say.

My mom stares at the painting for a bit before answering. “As I stare at it,” she says, “I begin to feel sad. It seems sad to me. Is that right?”

“Sure,” I say.

“And… it looks like it might be raining. Isn’t it called ‘Lavender Mist?'”

“Yeah, that’s great, Mom,” I say.

I nod approvingly, trying to encourage her to go on. Instead she says, “But, hun, I still don’t get it. So can we leave now? I’d like to grab some lunch before we head home.”

I smile. “Okay, Mom,” I say, and we make our way toward the cafeteria and then out into the open air, both convinced our outing was a success: for me because my mother was willing to stare at modern art for thirty whole minutes, and for my mother because she knows I will not force her to step into another art gallery for another ten years at least.

Contemporary Santa Fe Roundup

Just a few weeks ago, Liz and I celebrated our first anniversary in Santa Fe, NM. Being the art geeks we are, it was a great decision. Santa Fe has a thriving art community with lots of contemporary and even ground-breaking art.

Here are our favorite artists and selected works.

David Nakabayashi’s collage work at the Box Gallery.

Jon Lee‘s work at the Jay Etkin Gallery.

We saw Nina Tichava‘s show being hung at the Nuart Gallery

 We LOVED Mark Horst‘s work. This is “Embrace #37” at Canyon Road Contemporary Art.

“The Invitation #3” by Mark Horst.

Detail of “The Invitation #3” by Mark Horst.

“I am not I (brothers 17)” by Mark Horst.

Some gorgeous, abstract found object work by Randall Reid at Nuart Gallery.

Paintings by Pam Cobb at the Jay Etkin Gallery.

We caught an emerging arts festival here at The Railyard. Aside from being our favorite art district in Santa Fe, the Railyard is also home to Second Street Brewery which has a real solid Imperial Stout.

And then there were giant fish head sculptures by Colett Hosmer. What’s not to love?