Monday, November 3, 2014

Dancing with Art by Faith: A Tribute

It is the evening of October 21, 2014, nearing the close of a beautiful and auspicious day.  I sit at home, feeling “full”, as I have felt many times over the course of this day.  On this day, Dr. Deborah Sokolove was celebrated and commissioned as a full professor of Art and Worship at Wesley Seminary, adding this achievement to her directorship of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion. Today was also the day that our community celebrated 25 years of the Dadian Gallery’s presence on Wesley’s campus.  In both of these events, there were festivities full of joy as the Arts proclaimed God’s Word in liturgy, table and presence.  Distinguished Artist in Residence, founder of the Luce Center and pioneer of the Arts in theological education, Catherine Kapikian, gave words of wisdom, grace, blessing and history.

As a liturgical dancer, witnessing and participating in these events, I have felt a profound connection to the Arts at Wesley and especially to my mentors and now colleagues, Catherine Kapikian and Deborah Sokolove. I wish to say a few words of gratitude and try to express what it feels like to be a performing artist in the company of truly great visual artists who combine their art with faith, theological discourse and community engagement.

The feeling of being “full” – do you know this sensation?  It is as if I have been on the brink of tears all day and, at times, have literally felt tears on my face.  Tears of joy? Yes. Tears of resonance, connection, promise, and deep gratitude that are hard to describe in words. In chapel today I danced the spiritual, “I’m going to live so God can use me (work, pray, sing).” Though no one would have noticed, because it was a lively piece and I was breathing hard by the end, I felt my body quake as I knelt before the cross. The scripture lesson, read beforehand, was Exodus 31:1-11. “The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. “ (Exodus 31: 1-5) The dance was meant to embody the commissioning of artists in the Bible – noble, anointed work that gives glory to God. At the close of Deborah’s sermon (see post below), she talked about the way God’s light shines through the material world.  In the words of two of my heroes, Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter, this might be called the “physicality of grace.”

Wesley Seminary is a truly unique environment for a dancer to inhabit. The founding of the Arts at Wesley is decidedly rooted in the visual arts, but the merging of dance with faith also finds a home, alongside storytelling, drama, music, literature and poetry. Perhaps because there is no dance studio on campus (we have spilled over, into every room and hallway on campus), I and my dancer colleagues and students find companions in the artwork that fills the walls of the Seminary. The two classes I teach meet either in our multipurpose room, Elderdice Hall, or in Oxnam Chapel. And in both places of learning, where the body is an important vehicle for prayer and proclamation, I am in conversation with the visual renderings of theology. Take the painting, “Angel and Prophet” in Elderdice. So often have I danced that painting, directly and indirectly – it is always before me beckoning and guiding. Take the moveable space of Oxnam, replete with stations of the cross and sometimes great paper cutting or fabric hangings: often I have asked my students to wander and wonder with bare feet, to stand and move in the crevices of the space, to feel the ground and the breath of a multitude of prayers.

Dancing with Brianne Barrow Little - in conversation with Woong-Sik Chon's,
The Healing Spirit, Wesley Theological Seminary, 2005. Photo by Jim Coates.
My medium is not paint or canvas, not thread, ink, clay or wax. It is, instead, eyes, face, shoulders, torso, hands, feet, muscles, bones, cells and highways of vessels. Yet together, all of this, is the material stuff of life which nuances faith, yearning and communion with God, self and others.
Dance is immediate, revelatory, and is over seconds after it is performed. But I believe that movement generates energy in a space in which the Holy Spirit can dwell and be felt by those gathered. Visual art hangs or sits as a labor of love and also generates an arena in which the Spirit can play. And these two offerings talk to each other: the physical yet fleeting sensation of being touched by the Holy and the tangible renderings, co-created with God, that last for years and years to come. When this occurs, and I believe it does occur at Wesley Seminary, we see the many forms God’s Word can take – yes, we “see” in new ways.

Catherine Kapikian, Bruce Birch, Fredericka Berger, Bruce Stewart and Deborah Sokolove have been the wind beneath my wings. They have guided and encouraged and collaborated with me, a liturgical dancer. Our Art – joyful burden that it is – has been and remains in conversation. 

I give great thanks for the ongoing opportunity to dance and teach beside such accomplished and faithful visual artists. We give form to and are formed by the Word made flesh. Thanks be to God!  


Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Message from Bruce Birch

Early in my studies at Wesley Theological Seminary, I took a class called "The Hebrew Bible and the Arts" from Bruce Birch, in which he encouraged seminarians to look at artworks as primary theological texts. Later, during his long tenure as Dean, I often heard him say that his hope was that everyone who taught at Wesley would be able to talk about the arts as easily as they talk about the Bible. Bruce has been my teacher, my boss, my mentor, my friend for twenty years. This is a video that he sent from somewhere in Russia on the occasion of my installation as Full Professor. I would not be in this position is not for him.


 Thank you, Bruce, from the bottom of my heart.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

More than Bread and Roses

a sermon for Oxnam Chapel at Wesley Theological Seminary 
on the occasion of my installation as Full Professor on October 21, 2014

More than Bread and Roses, 2014
copper and acrylic on panel, 16" x 16"
"The world is full of problems: war, homelessness, global warming, domestic violence, AIDS, hunger, drug abuse. The list goes on and on. In a world that seems to be always on the brink of disaster, there is an endless amount of work to do to help the earth heal from pollution of every kind; to insure adequate nutrition, housing, education, and health care to every person; to bring peace among the nations and in every city and village and home. And yet, if all of this is done, and there is no art, then the world will still be a sad, sorry, joyless place." [Sanctifying Art, p 11]

In todays reading from Mark 8:22-25, Jesus gives the gift of sight to one who is unable to see. It is one of six different Gospel stories about Jesus healing blind people. That there are so many suggests that seeing is really important. But it seems to me that these stories are not so much about the physical Inability to see than about seeing in the metaphorical sense, about sight as awareness. To me, they are about Jesus healing us from willful blindness, from all the ways that we refuse to see what is right there in front of us. One of the things that we as a society, we as a church, keep refusing to see is that we need more than bread, and more than the natural beauty of flowers and trees and oceans and mountains. We also need what artists give us: we need artists to help us face our nightmares, and to show us the shape of our dreams.

When I came to Wesley as Artist-in-Residence a little more than 20 years ago, I never dreamed that I would be standing here today, celebrating the publication of my second book and being installed as Full Professor of Art and Worship. As I carried my art supplies through the cold, January morning into the warmth and light of the studio in Kresge, all that I knew was that I was being welcomed into a place where I did not have to keep my art separate from my faith.

While that may seem like an odd notion to some of you, the secular art world is often not kind to Christians. In my own training and experience as an artist, I quickly learned that if I wanted to use Christian imagery and themes in any way that was neither ironic or critical, I would have to disguise it in some way. When I eventually became brave enough to be honest about my faith, I found myself in trouble, no longer respected or welcome in the place where I had been teaching. As James Elkins explains in his 2004 book, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, the concerns of serious artists diverged from those of the Church in the last 500 years or so. By the 19th century, many artists, poets, and musicians had become so disillusioned with Christianity that they were openly antagonistic to it. There are many historical reasons for this, but I'm not going to talk about the art world and its argument with Christian art, because it would take too long and there is not much we can do about that here. If you would like to know more about it, you can read Elkins' book or take my class, Picturing the Church,in the spring.

What I would like to talk about today is why the arts, and the artists who practice them, are necessary to the Church for the healing of the world. But first, I want to tell you a story.

The first class that I ever took at Wesley was Larry Stookeys course on church architecture. I say at Wesleyadvisedly, because most weeks we piled into cars and drove all over the greater DC area so that we could experience firsthand church buildings as widely varied as the venerable Sandy Springs Friends Meeting House, built in 1817; the rigorously modern Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg; or the serenely ornate Saint Nicholas Cathedral, the seat of the Orthodox Church in America just down the street from us here in DC.

On those occasions when we were actually in the classroom, we looked at slides of fortress-like Romanesque country churches; towering Gothic cathedrals; the great Baroque Il Gesu, built by the then-new Jesuit order in 1580 in Rome; and the elegant churches designed by Christopher Wren following the 1666 Great Fire of London.

While I had, of course, studied many of these architectural styles in art school, I had never before considered how these buildings were responses to the theological and liturgical needs of the people who built them; and how they, in turn, shaped the way those who worshiped there encountered God. The saying seeing is believingdoes not mean only that we trust what we see. It also means that what we see shapes what we believe even when we aren't really paying attention. So what we decide about how our places of worship look affects what our children, our visitors, and even our own future selves believe about Gods relationship with us human creatures.

What I learned as I looked at those slides, and, even more, as I stood and sat and walked around in those varied church buildings, was that even before the first word is spoken, what a worship space looks like how it is arranged, the colors and shapes and sizes of the walls, floors, furnishings, and decorations tell us what to believe about God, about humanity, and the relationship between them. Is God far away, unreachable, formal, unchangeable? Or is God nearby, among us, living with us and among us and around us, and responsive to our changing needs? Does God really love us in all our human materiality and imperfection? And does God call us out of ourselves into some greater reality, so that we can aspire to be better tomorrow than we are today? What do the aesthetics of your worship space tell you about the nature of God?

Of course, as in any class, we had readings. One was an article titled Bread and Roses.Let me tell you a little about the song that inspired that title. The lyrics were originally printed as a poem in American Magazine in 1911, the same year as the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 garment workers most of them teenaged girls died because they were locked into a room on the 9th floor with inadequate fire escapes.

The poem was soon set to music and the following year, textile mill workersagain, mostly young womenin Lawrence,Massachusetts, took up the song and marched carrying a banner declaring "Bread and Roses" as they struck not only for living wages, but for the right to live and work in decent conditions, for food for the body, yes, but also food for the soul.

In 1974, Mimi Fariña set the words to music again, and  after it was recorded by her more famous, elder sister, Joan Baez, it was taken up again by the poor women who worked in not only in textile mills, but also in sweatshops, as domestics, and in other difficult, dirty, dangerous, underpaid jobs. They, too, yearned not only for enough money to feed their families, but also for the kinds of small graces that more affluent people take for granted: a small bunch of flowers on the mantelpiece; attractive dishware on the kitchen table; a fresh coat of paint instead of a peeling wall; or even a few new pillows to liven up a faded couch. In those days, I myself was a poor, uneducated, single mother, working as a weaver in Venice Beach, California, and the song became my own, personal anthem. 

So when Larry assigned an article with that beloved, evocative title, I was eager to read it. Sadly, I lost my only copy in some fit of clearing out old study notes, and I have never since been able to find it. But I remember clearly that it recounted the struggles of an affluent Georgetown church as they planned to do some necessary repairs. One faction, aware of the historic importance of the building, wanted to do everything possible to restore its former beauty, to make it a showplace that visitors to Washington would want to see. Others, all too aware of the abysmal poverty in other parts of the city, wanted to do only what was needed to keep the building from falling down, and give the rest of the money they would have spent on renovation to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and emergency aid. The author was clearly sympathetic to this argument, but also offered the observation that in many poor communities, people dress up on Sundays and make their churches as beautiful as they can, precisely because there is so little beauty in their daily lives. It is only the affluent, those who can afford fine things in their own homes, who  want to skimp on the furnishings for the church.

This is even more true when we create places for those whom we say we want to help. Too often, in the church as well as in other areas of society, social justice and art are set up as opposing forces, as if it were true that to work for justice is to be oblivious to shape and color and even comfort. It certainly looks that way whenever I visit the soup kitchens, homeless shelters, free clinics, and housing projects that are set up to feed, clothe, shelter, and heal the body, but have no regard for what makes people's hearts sing.

Too often, the places where poor people are served are ugly, bare, graceless spaces, with gray, cinderblock walls or aged, dirty paint; and filled with castoff, broken, rickety furniture and beat-up flooring. If there is any artwork at all, it is likely to be grimy, ragged drawings by clients or by children who grew up years ago, tacked up crookedly with pushpins years ago and long ignored. Most often, there are countless signs and placards telling both clients and staff what to do and not do, with no thought to how to help anyone make sense of all the visual noise. Rarely are there any roses at all.

What do the aesthetics of the places where poor people live and work and receive help tell them about who God loves?

When I use the word aesthetics,I am not thinking so much about beauty, but about the qualities that make one place feel welcoming, and another harsh and sterile. These qualities are what artists think about, notice, and use to convey meaning. When artists attend to color and form, order and rhythm, contrast, harmony, and unity, they help us become aware that our bodies our material selves are the locus of our spiritual lives.

Scripture reminds us that we need more than food for our bodies, and also more than what the natural world offers us. We also need embodied meaning, which is another way to say art.

For example, when the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they were homeless, refugees from a place of poverty and oppression and danger. Then, as today, refugee camps tend to be ugly, makeshift places, with little thought given to anything more than mere survival.

But Exodus 31:1-11 tells us that out there in the harsh desert, God commanded that a place of grace and elegance be made, a place where the people could refresh their spirits in the presence of the holy. God understands that hearts starve as well as bodies. Yes, when the people were hungry, God provided manna for food. When they were thirsty, God made water flow out of a gray, unyielding rock. But when the people needed a place to encounter the living God, Holy One also commissioned Bezalel, Oholiab and others to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft  to make the Tent of Meeting as ornate and beautiful as possible.

Was it wasteful to use scarce resources in this way when the people were living with so little? Apparently, God does not think so.

I think that its not an accident that Paul was a tentmaker, too. In our reading from Romans 12:1-8 this morning, Paul says that just as in our own bodies each part does something different, so too the various members of the Body of Christ do not all have the same function, but that all are needed. While Paul doesnt include artists and artisans in his list of essential parts of the Body of Christ, his own skilled use of tools and materials required aesthetic as well as practical decisions. Its hard for me to believe that what he learned from his craft did not carry over into his understanding of the Church. In fact, that is exactly what we hope will happen when students learn to paint or draw or make prints or sculpt or sing or dance or act that something from the studio experience, from working with matter in an intentional way, will carry over into their work with words, ideas, and people. As I tell my students, every artwork that I make is a compromise between the original inspiration, the properties of the materials and tools I am working with, and the degree to which I am able to make my hands do what my inner eye sees.

Bill Rock, "The Fish Trees" (detail), 2014
That ability, however faltering and imperfect it may sometimes be, to make visible and audible and palpable what the inner eye sees, what the inner ear hears, with the heart feels, is what artists bring to the church.  And we ignore them at our peril.  When we make ourselves willfully blind to  the truths that artists tell us, we lose sight of the full humanity of everyone, rich or poor. When we forget that hearts starve as well as bodies, when we hide from our nightmares and run away from our dreams, when we pretend that the spiritual is not grounded in the material, we deny the mystery of the Incarnation.

So thank you to all the musicians and dancers and storytellers and poets and visual artists who keep bringing your gifts to the Church, even when nobody pays attention. Thank you for showing us how to celebrate and how to lament; how to remember the past as well as to be present to this moment; how to face our nightmares and see the shape of our dreams. The Church needs you to keep showing us what we refuse to see: that all matter shimmers with the light of God.

Monday, March 10, 2014

On Beauty and Saving the World

Matthew Adelberg, Rosary, 2013, oil on panel, 9" x 12"
I have noticed that several people have understood my chapter on beauty in Sanctifying Art to mean that I do not believe in beauty. On the contrary, I believe very much in beauty. I believe in beauty as an experience that is so deep and moving that it changes peoples lives. Experiences of transcendent beauty feel like being in the presence of God. Indeed, in my deepest heart I believe with Dostoevsky that beauty can save the world.

Where I part company with so many who write about beauty is, first, in the easy conflation of beauty and art; and, second, in the assumption that certain works of art are intrinsically, undeniably, beautiful while others are simply not. In my book, I wrote extensively about the difference between personal taste and objective judgment, noting that we can like or dislike works of art while simultaneously noting that this does not necessarily correlate with whether those same works of art are well or poorly designed and executed. I also pointed out that, since works of art that one person declares beautiful another person might describe as ugly, it is not possible to say that any given artwork is definitively more beautiful than another.

I do believe that is is possible to say that some works of art are more harmonious than others, that some point more directly than others to transcendence, even that some invite us more intentionally into contemplation of the divine. Such works are more likely to be called beautiful by more people than those, for instance, that reveal human brutality or suffering. Artworks that are disquieting are less likely to be called beautiful even when they reveal important truths, perhaps precisely because the artist has rejected the qualities of harmony, balance, and unity that classically have been associated with beauty, or because they depict situations or persons that society calls ugly,

So can I call any artwork beautiful? Yes, of course I can. This morning, I was reading Makoto Fujimura's blog post, Tears for Fragile Emanations, and saw an image of his astonishing painting, "Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ)", from his Four Holy Gospels Project. My first thought was, Oh, it's so beautiful! Without being at all literal, Fujimura's painting evokes sky and water, fragile flowering bushes and rocky cliffs so stalwart that they seem eternal. The thin, transparent layers of paint invite me to look ever more deeply, to wonder what is hidden as well as what is revealed.

Similarly, a small painting that now graces my office, "Rosary" by Matthew Adelberg, is so beautiful to me that I can hardly stand it. The two hands, clasped tightly together around a rosary, suggest both hope and despair, the dirty fingernails and carefully-observed folds of skin at knuckle and joint contrasting with the smooth purity of the beads, the tightness of the grasping fingers held lightly against an infinite field of gold. At once iconic and illusionistic, this painting asks me to consider the palpable reality of both heaven and earth in one, single, gasping breath.

Partly, these two paintings evoke the experience of beauty in me because they exhibit exactly those qualities of harmony, balance, unity and technical skill that the classical aesthetic theorists described as essential elements for a beautiful artwork. Likewise, each of these paintings suggest both ecstasy and pathos, exhibiting the kind of beauty that encompasses the truth of both human suffering and divine transcendence, as suggested by many of those who write about aesthetics theologically.

Finally, however, I experience beauty in these two, very different, paintings because each of them resonates with something in my own experience of life, with my own deep yearnings and memories. I acknowledge that someone else with different taste and life experience might find Fujimura's abstraction utterly meaningless and opaque despite the title that points to Christ. Alternatively, some other person might find Adelberg's finely rendered, rosary-clutching hands trite and sentimental rather than evocative of deeper realities. Indeed, as beautiful as I find both of them, and as much as I would like to believe it, neither of these paintings is likely to save the world.

But Dostoevsky said that beauty would save the world, not art. And this I do believe. To say that something is beautiful is to love it, to cherish it, to feel a thrill in its presence, maybe even, as in the story that Fujimura tells, to give one's life for it. An experience of beauty is an experience of love, of joy, perhaps even of eternity. Just as Holy Communion is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, an experience of beauty is a moment of beatific vision, in which we not only experience the immediate, immanent presence of God but also see the thing we call "beautiful" through God's eyes of love. I'm not entirely sure about the world, but I do know that the experiences of God's love have the power to save me from despair over all that is broken in the world around me. And that is beautiful.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ushering In

The liturgical dance class at Wesley Seminary this semester is embracing wonderful conversations on the forms dance can take within the context of Christian worship.  We discuss, we practice, we question, we explore; the experience of being with these students is enriching my life and thought.

I am methodically taking the class through an overview of liturgical dance, drawing from my own experiences but enhanced and deepened by our wonderful, primary resource: Introducing Dance in Christian Worship.  Gagne, Kane and VerEecke lay out the forms liturgical dance can take in as clear a way as I have come across and, what I find so compelling, emphasize that any dance done as part of worship must be tied to the ritual structure of which it is a part (see especially, pp 99-111).  I have found this to be true for every piece I have danced in worship over the last 20 years.  Most of my dances have been tied to a particular service.  Some are tied to a season within the church year (Advent, Lent, Easter, Pentecost) but most have a fairly narrow application. Context!

With these teachings as a backdrop, our class recently explored dance as Procession and I found myself wanting to reflect on this form as we lean into the season of Lent.

Liturgical Danced Procession:  To take oneself and others on a journey from point A to point B.  To be a vehicle for a holy shift – helping to shift the internal landscape of the human heart or the external environment of the physical space.  To usher in.  To make ready.  To lead out into the world.  To ritualize.  A function of transformation.  And the prayer is, always, that the Holy Spirit accompanies the liturgical Procession.  It is my understanding that liturgical dancers have the anointing to usher God’s Spirit into a space.

Processions are happening all around us, all the time. Procession – through dance or walk (or any locomotor movement) – can be a powerful metaphor for how we administer the beginnings and endings in our lives.

I am drawn to the idea of Procession as a way to enter the season of Lent (lining up to receive the imposition of ashes); as a way to walk with Jesus during these 6 weeks (taking on a discipline, letting go of what holds one back); as a way to dance into new life (the promise of Easter).  Lent can be a dark time for the soul.  The yearly journey we take with Jesus is a kind of stripping away of what does not serve our relationship with God.  Though difficult, we are invited to Process with Jesus into Jerusalem, to walk beside Him on the way to Calvary and, ultimately, to let Him be lost so that we might be found.

During Holy Week this year, the Wesley community’s Tuesday chapel will include embodied prayer and also a danced Procession.  This beautiful group of students will dance Were You There? (...when they crucified my Lord) at the end of the service, propelling the community forward into the remainder of the week.  As I create and teach this dance, my prayer is for all the beginnings and endings in our lives; for the courage to move through them; for the grace to dance in Love.  May it be so and Amen.

by Kathryn Sparks, with thanks to my students in Liturgical Dance, spring 2014