Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Matter at Hand

"The Dust Cries Out" (detail)
This afternoon, former Artist-in-Residence Karen Swenholt spoke at a Dean's Forum on her piece, "The Dust Cries Out: Twin Tower Memorial." This monumental work has been in our Refectory for the past several weeks, a silent witness to the terror that gripped our nation ten years ago and to the hope inherent in this artist's Christian faith. With hands outstretched, the two figures reach towards an unknown future, even as their downcast eyes and open mouths suggest the agony of the present moment.

Karen spoke passionately of her radical freedom in Christ to participate in God's ongoing creative action, translating eternal truths into a contemporary visual language. Her playful description of God adding stripes to the basic horse-shape to make a zebra, or elongating the neck to turn it into a giraffe, reminded me forcefully of the power of concrete examples and images. It is one thing to speak discursively, to say that to be made in the image of God refers to God's creativity rather than to any physical characteristics of either God or humanity. It is another to use an experience that is an everyday part of studio practice -- what if I made this yellow? what if I made this part louder? what if I added stripes? what if this passage were a bit quieter? -- to illuminate how God might interact with the infinite possibilities of matter and energy.

As Karen spoke, I was moved by her description of her own experiences as an artist, learning not only to see but to translate that vision into evocative works of art that tell the truth of human experience and our need for God's redemptive power. Now, I find myself reflecting on what I, too, have learned from a lifetime of engagement as an artist. How can the practices and disciplines that have opened my eyes and my heart be translated from the studio into the seminary classroom? How can help my students to open their imaginations as they try to shape something new from the matter at hand?

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