Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Classroom as Holy Ground

This semester, I've been teaching a course called Art, Visual Culture, and Christian Understanding. This afternoon, I met with my students for the last time as they presented their final projects. The assignment was to create an artistic work, in any visual or plastic medium, that could be used as a focus for private devotion or for use in worship in a church. For some, making an art object felt completely natural, something that they do on a regular basis. For others, it was a huge stretch, something that they haven't done since at least the third grade.

All semester, each student has been required to keep a blog documenting their progress on the project. The first entries were simple descriptions of what they planned to do. In the next weeks, they included photographs of early sketches, lists of art supplies, and frustrated accounts of failed attempts to turn their visions into physical realities. One or two took me up on my offer of up to two weeks of reporting "Too busy with other classes to do anything this week." Over time, each student's project began to take shape, and I thought I knew what to expect when I came to class today.

Of course, I was wrong. Yes, I had seen photographs of each project in its various stages. But, once more, I was reminded that nothing takes the place of real presence. No photographs could prepare me for the visceral response to the textures and colors in a painting about the woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus' cloak; the elegant arrangement of elements in a portable altar; the welcoming presence of a clay cross that seemed to invite the viewer to leap into the arms of God like a small child greeting a beloved parent at the end of a long day. These, and all the other works we saw today, were tokens of incarnation, the Word of God, if not exactly made flesh, then certainly materialized, given real presence through the work of a struggling artist's hands. Today, an ordinary classroom became holy ground.

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