art


DSC07425{Holy Week…2017…a Tuesday without much going on, and a mug that fits just right.}

There’s not much going on with this mug. It holds no printed message, no child’s art, nor any design that says, “Hey, write about this!” This mug isn’t even drunk from. It’s purely decorative, occupying a shelf in the kitchen. Where did we get it? Isn’t there some story to tell?

I turned it over, and etched into the bottom of the mug it says, “Williamsburg.” And it’s in the trademarked logo script. So that makes it official. And probably expensive, at least compared to most of the other mugs in our kitchen. Nice design. Love the color. But what does it prompt me to write about as this forty day retreat into the wilderness of my imagination heads toward a conclusion?

Unlike some of the other mugs we use for daily coffee and tea, this one is real pottery. I suspect it’s handmade, out of clay. Earthenware, we call it. Imagined, then shaped and molded, formed into a useful vessel, and then painted to make it more attractive. I’ve never been to a pottery class, and I won’t try to write about the creative process that puts hands to wet clay, tactile art, sensuous touch, massaging earthly elements into some ceramic shape, artistic or practical or both. I’m mostly interested in the clay.

When I was in youth ministry, so long ago that those teens may be grandparents now for all I know, I led a retreat at a lovely place in Virginia called Shrinemont. Located in the northern reaches of the Jefferson National Forest, the conference center is operated by the Episcopal Church. The weekend focus was the gift of music, and one activity I planned centered on using art materials to interpret some of the songs we were listening to. One teenaged guy used pipe cleaners to sculpt a rock band! I had bought a lot of modeling clay, the kind that was non-drying, non-hardening, so it could be reused after our event.

Obviously, it wasn’t pure clay from the earth. More like some plastic goo from a factory. But it met our needs for the weekend. I really got into that exercise. As is the case with some sculptors some of the time, I had no preconceived plan. I just grabbed a big hunk, and worked it. Yes, it was therapeutic, I’m sure. All the tension and anxiety of programming and leading a retreat for over a hundred teens dispersed as I squeezed and pressed, and gouged and shaped that ball of clay into…a head. Eventually, an old man’s head. Long face, deep set eyes, a weary look, a few lines here and there.

It was no masterpiece, but I liked it. Then I saw that there was a bit more clay left. I rolled it into a ball, and sculpted the head of an infant, to contrast with the old guy. When the retreat ended on Sunday afternoon, I packed up the art supplies and saw my creation(s) there, waiting for me to mash them into a shapeless lump, art recycled. I had told everyone that they could keep what they had fashioned if they wanted to. So, I listened to myself and carefully packed the old man and the infant in a box to take home.

Those clay heads remained in my office for years, and the manufacturer was right: the clay never hardened. When it was time to move out of state to new work, I made the hard decision to finally blend the two lumps together, and leave them for someone else to play with. That ended my sculpting days.

Thankfully, some art is permanent, as lasting as anything on this planet Earth can be. The paintings of the masters, massive cathedrals, The Pieta, castle tapestries, and great-grandma’s quilts. The words of published authors and the music of whatever is considered “classic” these days — words and music live on, for generations. And carpentry, too. The old family hutch and the hand-carved pulpit.

But some art is temporary, too. And intentionally so. At a Montreat, NC, conference a few years ago, huge paper banners, perhaps 20 feet long, decorated the cavernous auditorium. The designs were religious symbols, intricately cut into sturdy paper, letting the light shine through the patterns with stunning effect. The uninitiated wondered aloud how the artist would roll up the huge sheets without damaging the delicate creations. But for those who were present when the plain sheets were first unrolled to be scissored into art, the artist had made it clear: this was to be tempoarary art, inspiring only for a few days, much like sand art on a beach, ice sculpture in winter, or a sand mandala of Tibeten monks. It was a celebration of the temporary.

As were my plastic clay figures.

[It just occurred to me that if there were any “art” to my years of producing music-oriented radio programs, with sometimes, not always, thoughtfully-written scripts, that was temporary too. You hope to write creatively, join the script to popular music, voice it with sensitivity, edit the tape, and then it all airs. Within a few minutes, the tape could have been erased, and the effort begun for the following broadcast. And before we ministers could preserve our sermon manuscripts on the church website, blog them, or at least print them out for the reading public in our pews, what we preached was surely a temporary art too. OK, many of my radio programs and maybe most of my sermons didn’t achieve the status of art, per se. This paragraph was inserted for only illustrative purposes.]

But back to clay. It’s a cousin to the dust and ashes of Mother Earth. It’s related to the soil that brings forth crops, and to the mud we track in on a rainy day. It’s red there, and black here, and gray, too. The earliest use of clay? Pottery. We date civilizations by the remaining shards we dig up. But clay was used for bricks, too, to build structures that sheltered and memorialized. Archeological discoveries included toys and idols made of clay. And, of course, clay tablets preserved ancient writings.

When Jesus gathered his disciples together in an upper room to break bread with them one last time, that bread sat on clay plates. There was some gravy in a clay bowl. And wine in pitcher and chalice of clay. Maybe today we would consider doing pottery, bread making and wine making as “arts,” but in Jesus’ time, it was just the customary stuff of a meal shared with friends. Except when it was a ritual meal, like Passover. Except when it was transformed into what has become a sacramental meal, when Jesus took bread and wine and said, “Remember me.”

There on the table was the clay-ware. Nothing sacramental about it, but the same elements as gave life to the grain and the grapes and to humanity, for in the second of the creation myths in Genesis we read, “The Lord God made man from the dust of the earth.”

On Maundy Thursday, look for that day’s “mug” to look more like a chalice, clay pottery with sacred meaning.

Until then, remember that all the ground we walk on is holy.

 

 

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SONY DSC{By my count, we have just passed the halfway mark of Lent 2017. If I’ve kept up with my own posts, we should be at day 21 now. Here is the 21st mug from the Kellam kitchen cupboard.}

This is one of three mugs that carry the artwork of my grandson Ryan. I wrote about his 2007 mug earlier in this series. Two years later, then, came this interpretation of Atlantis. I assume that he had read a book about the lost continent and was inspired to draw this picture. I love the details I see in it.

And I love that, like our dreams, our art is influenced and shaped by the stuff we live and experience day by day. Ryan read a book, and was inspired to illustrate what his imagination conceived. Pardon the pun, but he drew on his imagination, didn’t he? A song I subconsciously heard during the day, or an ad on a passing truck, or an aroma…a color…a voice — all might be a seed that springs forth in a dream one night. Or, if someone assigned or suggested it, I might use colored pencils to sketch my own Atlantis.

Of course, dreams come to us uninvited or involuntarily. Art is more intentional, unless we are the genius whose muse is so insistent that our hands cannot help but shape the clay or splash colors over canvas. (This reflection of mine is running awfully close to my first Ryan’s mug musing. So, on the cusp of redundancy, I segue to the next paragraph.)

Muse. There is the verb. And there is the goddess. First, the action word, and then the actor. To muse is to be absorbed in thought. The word has a French derivation (“muser”) and the now obsolete meaning is (was?) “to meditate.” The more contemporary meaning is “to waste time.” That is, to trifle. How sad. As a daydreamer from way back, I can identify with that kid in the middle school classroom whose seat was right by the window, the window looking out on springtime, on a warm, sunny day that beckons, invites, or to use another obsolete meaning, beguiles, said child to play hooky at least in his/her mind.

Naturally, the word is akin to “amuse,” to entertain, which is in itself another form of escape (deviation), from that classroom or from life’s routine. The response to being amused is to smile or chuckle (guys chuckle and girls giggle, right?), or laugh aloud at absurdity or irony or silliness that has tickled us. Why do people go to amusement parks? To enjoy a great escape from the ho-hum-drum rhythms of the everyday.

Still, I like the very idea of musing. It is no waste of my time to reflect, or to pause for a few quiet moments, and let some pleasantry restore my soul. I should muse more deeply over these writings. I should spend (or waste — see above) more time thinking before sitting at the computer and pecking at this keyboard. But, there is only so much time, even in Lent, to accomplish this quirky ambition: writing inspired by mugs. So, I guess I could say I am content to depend on The Muse.

We move to the noun. Turns out that in Greek mythology, there were nine muses, goddesses who inspired literature, science, and the arts. When writers say that they are awaiting the muse, they may not be able to name the one of the nine they await (Godot isn’t one of them), but they would be content, I’m sure, for any muse to show up with a plot, the right words, one damned good sentence! The muse who appears transforms blank pages into the great American novel or the deeply satisfying short story or some piece of trashy tripe that the author mistakes for fine literature. If it’s a waste of pulp, blame it on the muse, or on the muse not showing up. If the Nobel or Pulitzer is in view, credit the muse, but only if you are humble. Otherwise, grab the credit and run.

It’s no secret that I am a retired pastor, a preacher who dislikes the very implication of “preaching.” It’s gotten a bad reputation, akin to harangue, droning, moralizing, and pulpit-thumping. Yet, almost every week in my last two churches, I had to preach. I had to redeem that form of speech, so that the Word, the Gospel, would as the old saw goes, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” in a loving, faithful, and creative way. Oh, and effective. And while I did “muse” over the ancient texts, I did not wait for or count on any “muse.” That would be a misnomer for the Holy Spirit, which I take far more seriously than a mythic goddess of old.

Some who read this may well consider any religious or theological God-figure “mythic.” But it wasn’t a myth that called me into a life-long commitment to ministry (I could have been a deejay, you know). It wasn’t a myth that showed me authentic life-signs of healing, hope, family, love, peace, and redemption. As a ninth grade kid, I had what I have come to call a “God-consciousness.” I know how weird that sounds. But from that point on, to this moment, I can’t shake this Holy Presence, this Light, this cosmic Christ whose embrace has drawn me into communities of faith that muse and amuse, that serve and salve, that anoint head and heart for something more than daily trifles.

So, I have to assume that anything I’ve written that contained some fragment of truth, some helpful word, or trustworthy comment was inspired, given breath, by the Spirit. And that sentence is written in both humility and gratitude.

Thank God children read books, draw pictures, sing songs, and daydream. Thank God the child in us adults is led to do those same things. I hope that this Lenten day, we can take the time to find a window, look out, and muse. And may the Spirit turn our best daydreams into better days ahead.

 

DSC07317.jpg{Almost halfway through Lent, and another mug appears. Number 18.}

Once upon a long time ago, Bill Carter, Presbyterian pastor and pianist of the jazz persuasion, asked me to help produce a two-hour video about the lively intersection of church and jazz. There’s the title and the logo, right on the mug. (It’s still available through www.presbybop.com, not the mug…the video.)

As I type this I am anticipating a local jazz jam at which the Rev. Mr. Carter and some of the Presbybop organization will be playing. The word “jam” may have the connotation of a free-for-all. It’s not quite that. There is some structure involved; one might even call it “ritual.” Generally a player comes out of the audience with his or her instrument and some sheets of music for the other musicians to play from. There are actual notes written on those pages, and, while I’m not a musician myself, I assume that the whole band begins with those printed notes. Then after the melody is established, one instrumentalist begins to improvise. And then another. Twelve measures? Thirty-two? Maybe the pianist, followed by a sax player, and then the bassist. And after these featured soloists, the band plays again as one and finishes the tune together. Usually.

What makes this a jam and not a polished concert is that no one really knows what music will be suggested/offered/played that night. No one knows who will show up to play (beyond the few hired for the rhythm section). There is certainly no rehearsal. And the improvised riffs are a surprise to the accompanying band members, the audience, and probably to the soloists themselves. “I never know what’s coming out of that horn,” a player admitted to me once. Did I say admitted? It may not have been so much a confession as a boast!

Now, I know nothing about chordal leaps and neighbor tones, nor about interval inversions or … all I know is improvisation frees the musician from the page and she can swing, fly, dance, play until there’s a landing place or resolution; you can’t improvise forever. But the good news is, you can improvise. That said, jazz musicians usually have to be taught to improvise; there are some basic rules. Beyond the teaching/learning process, young jazz musicians then have to be not merely allowed to fly, but encouraged, urged, even forced out of their comfort zone, and right there in front of classmates, right there in front of the audience. I’ll bet it’s scary at first. But eventually, liberating. As is creativity itself.

Jazz belongs in church. For one reason, churches, like most well-established institutions, get used to routine, rituals that become worn, patterns that lead to boredom. Keeping things safe, keeping things in check…the way they’ve always been…is the main idea for many organizations that have been around for more than a while. So, engaging the creativity of improvisation can be freeing for bogged down churches. Risk something new!It’s scary, but eventually liberating. And enlivening.

Jazz belongs in church also because a jazz composition is never played exactly the same way. With every jazz group (trio, quintet, big band), and with every individual interpretation of the printed notes, and every improvised motive, the original song becomes a new song. The Psalmist said (sang!) “O sing to the Lord a new song.” If anyone can model new directions, fresh approaches, creative mission for old churches, it’s the jazz musician. Jesus said, “Look! I make all things new!” Jazz can be the soundtrack.

Jazz belongs in church because its compositions involve recurring themes and countless variations. In church, consider the theme of grace. Look for its variations. Love, forgiveness, hope, reconciliation…recurring themes throughout scripture. And as we adopt those themes in our lives, daily circumstances demand our improvisations. Life happens, you know. So, improvise a new take on grace. Or home. Or justice. It might be scary, but will lead to liberation.

Jazz belongs in church because both share a rhythm. For the church, its time signature is the liturgical year. Advent. Christmas. Epiphany. Lent. And…wait. Lent. It’s time for the blues. Let it play in the colors of gray skies and violet bruises, of silver spikes and scarlet blood. A minor chord…or no chord at all…one note, a piano’s pounding hammer.

Lent: the rhythm is at once funereal, and then an irregular beat, maybe an unsteady pulse. Sounds more like Holy Week. We are getting ahead of ourselves.

I improvise as I write these reflections. That’s fairly obvious if you have read the whole lot. The mug in the cupboard is the given. Its design or logo is the motif. Then, I improvise during Lent and hope for some resolution by the time the last word is typed.

Like now, man. Like now.

 

 

 

DSC07357.JPG{Another day in Lent, and another mug. Yes, it is a mug.}

This is the newest mug in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. Joan gave it to me for Christmas, having chosen it from similar ones that weren’t quite as realistic. On the plus side, it IS realistic, and it’s insulated so it keeps coffee hot. On the negative side, look at the narrow bottom. But it’s not supposed to be practical. It’s fun!

And it’s so me. I’ve been taking pictures since I got my first camera for Christmas, maybe 1957? It was a Kodak Brownie Holiday Flash. Then, an Ansco Color Clipper. And on to a variety of 35mm and digital cameras. Add the video cameras, and you can imagine how much fun it is to travel with me. If I can’t pause to capture memories…why even go?

My brother Kim is also a photographer, and is far more artistic than I, more creative, I could say without being redundant. Kim pointed out not long ago, in complimenting me on a Facebook-shared photo, that I had a way of seeing things in the moment, noticing the potential of a glimpsed scene, and capturing that picture on film, or digitally as is the case these days. Kim, too, has a keen eye for such potential. He can make a manhole cover into stunning photographic art. I agree that some of us do have a way of looking at things and seeing something special in the ordinary.

Isn’t that true of every artist? A certain grain in granite or mahogany inspires the sculptor or carver. The curve of the river suggests a painting. An iris’ soft color insists it be preserved by pastel chalks. Someone else just walked by and glanced (or didn’t), but the artist saw something enticing, and responded. The words occurred to the poet; the musician heard a rhythm. Pen, brush, shutter, chisel, chalk, fabric. A scene, a moment, a vision, a risk.

It occurred to me just now that I know many artists! Judy makes jewelry in her basement. Joan and Bill are musicians. Matt and Bob write stories and publish books. Carol, Joanna, and Kim are wonderful photographers. Jack is a fine poet. Some artists are twice blessed, now that I think about it. Joan is also a quilter and Matt is a musician. Oh, I could go on, of course. I don’t have room or words to list every person I know who has a way with words (Pat), music (Mike), or even flowers (David)!

I used the word “potential” in a preceding paragraph. The artist sees potential in a piece of metal, in the way light strikes the snow, in a chance encounter at the market. A pendant, a photo, a poem results. Potential: latent power. Art is power awakening. And the open-eyed artist is powerful. Art is political, and can change the world one perception at a time.

For me personally, photography and videography are usually just ways to preserve enjoyable times, as on vacations. I want to relive, remember, even restore the good times by looking at my albums, my computer files, my DVD “movies.” But now and then, and not often enough, I am startled to see some beautiful thing I had overlooked in the 1/60th of a second. The bee in the aster or the twinkle in the eye of a child. IMG_20170304_115812297_HDR[1109]Or, just recently, the color, the light, the angles, the sweatered dachshunds staring up at me in my daughter Wendy’s kitchen. It’s a memory. Is it art? Why not?

Imagination feeds art and art returns the favor. We see things in new ways, refreshing ways. Art enlivens us, informs us, inspires us. (Thus the essential National Endowment for the Arts, to help preserve that which so enlivens, informs, and inspires!)

Now, Kellam, how are you going to tie this into Lent? Look! During this forty day time of turning around, reflection, and preparation for the new life to come, isn’t it a good time to keep our eyes open to potential, to see old things in new ways, to imagine how a moment of insight might have lasting benefits? We needn’t have the ability to paint a portrait of Jesus in the wilderness, or to write a cantata for Holy Week. It may well be enough to glimpse a vision of peace. And to create the space or the energy in which that peace grows from potential to lasting wonder, when the Spirit moves…or muses.

During Lent, open eyes and perceptive creativity can lead us from shadows to Easter. Focus on that for awhile, that art is theological.