Van Gogh’s Ecumenism

I’m reading Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life, and enjoying every page. A year ago I took an art class with Chad Hines, who has an infectious love of Van Gogh.

Naifeh and Smith detail Van Gogh’s religious influences. His father was a Dutch minister. His work in London as an art dealer brought him into contact with Charles Haddon Spurgeon and his Metropolitan Tabernacle. Van Gogh was a close reader of Thomas A’Kempis. His depictions of the sower were inspired by his experiences in the countryside, but also by his father’s favorite parable. Before he discovered his calling as an artist, Van Gogh wanted to be a minister. During a period which brought him back to Dordt, Naifeh and Smith write:

Vincent spent every Sunday going from church to church in a marathon of devotion, ignoring differences between Lutheran and Reforemd, Dutch and French, even between Catholic and Protestant, sometimes logging three or four sermons in a day. When Görlitz [his roommate at the time] expressed surprise at his ecumenism, Vincent replied, “I see God in each church . . . the dogma is not important, but the spirit of the Gospel is, and I find that spirit in all churches.” For Vincent, only the preaching mattered. In letters to Theo [his brother], he described how the Catholic priest lifted up the poor, cheerless peasants in his flock, while the Protestant preacher used “fire and enthusiasm” to sober the smug burghers in his.

Inevitably these Sunday tours rekindled Vincent’s ambition to preach. At home, he began studying the works of the most inspiring preacher he had ever heard, Charles Spurgeon, and drafting sermons during his late-night study sessions. He regaled his scornful fellow borders with impromptu inspirational readings, even as they laughed and made faces at him. He tested everyone’s patience, even Görlitz’s, with interminable dinnertime prayers. When Görlitz urged him not to waste his time on his housemates’ souls, Vincent snapped, “Let them laugh . . . someday they will learn to appreciate it.”

Van Gogh later abandons his pursuit of religion, of theology, and of ministry. Following a family conflict, he abandons belief in God. I knew of Van Gogh’s disagreeableness and his declared atheism. I did not know about his early religious pursuits and that they were informed by figures like A’Kempis and Spurgeon.

But now I know. And so do you.

LEGO: For Every Size of Imagination

e3fb2082011863.5d10fe8a88203This artwork from Asawin Tejasakulsin is absolutely brilliant, perfectly capturing the spirit and reality of working with LEGO. Check out the gallery. This too. And this. I first came across this design layout here.

I’ve had a longtime love affair with LEGO. I’m in the process of handing that same affection to my kids. I love the sets; I’m particularly fond of the Star Wars line. I build LEGO with my son, or I watch him build.

Occasionally we break away from the sets and come up with our own creations. My parents hung on a ton of LEGO pieces and eventually passed those on to me. We have plenty to work with. I’m always excited to see what my kids come up with.

Our creations are usually something like the dragon above, the seed of a grander vision. The small dragon is just as much of a wonder to behold as is the large dragon. Both spring from the imagination. Whatever we create, the important thing is that we can see it, we can share the wonder. We can celebrate what we do make. Then, the next time, we make something bigger, more detailed, grander. We learn and grow.

Don’t Miss It.

Seb Agresti

This is artwork by Seb Agresti, who has had work published in The New Yorker and elsewhere. I think I saw this image in the Dense Discovery newsletter.

The icon for this image has been sitting on my computer desktop for weeks. My six year old son, sitting in my lap and observing it asked, “What’s that?” I opened it and said, “What do you see?”

He said, “Those people are sitting on a phone!” I then asked him what he thought the artist was trying to convey, which led to a discussion of interactions with technology. Our exchange boiled down to this: “People spend so much time looking at their phone that they miss a lot of what is beautiful in life.”

So, as you likely are reading this from your phone, turn it off. Put it away. Look at the ocean, the mountains, the sunrise (all three appear in the image above). Hopefully in the company of a friend. Have a conversation. Climb. Go on an adventure. Or sit still.

Don’t miss it.

Drawing

kobu-agency-651905-unsplash
Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash

The past several years I’ve had the itch to draw and this year I took a step forward and enrolled in two art classes at McLennan Community College. I’m taking an art appreciation course online, and attending an entry level drawing class. I’m loving it.

As my kids have matured they have both expressed an interest in art, as we all tend to do, and from an early age my daughter impressed me with her ability to conceptualize ideas and put them on paper. She was very fortunate to meet a few of our young adult friends who were skilled in drawing and painting and making, and, when we invited them to babysit, they’d create alongside our kids, inspiring them to do their own work. When my son entered the picture he jumped right in and started expressing himself with pencils and markers. The past two years we’ve enjoyed doing stuff together at Art for Kids Hub.

It has been a blast to watch them make. I know everyone’s kids are virtuosos and geniuses, math whizzes and little artistic masters from the moment they crawl out of the womb. But mine are exceptionally exceptional. Mine are the best one’s I’ve ever had. So I’ve tried to encourage them. The biggest way I think I can do that is to do the work alongside them. As Austin Kleon writes, “If you spend more time in your life doing the things that you love and that you feel are worthwhile, the kids in your life will get hip to what that looks like.” That’s translatable to sports, faith…anything really.

In order to be the best teacher, I decided that I would become a student. The best teachers are usually those who never ceased to learn. I was asked by my friend Matthew yesterday why I’m taking a drawing class. Here are my reasons.

1. Pleasure. And I Have the Time.

When I think back to my growing up years, I can remember making stuff with my hands and being interested in drawing, even though I didn’t think I was very good. I would take comic book images, like Spider-Man and the Hulk, and I’d break out an old notebook and take a pencil and some colored pencils, and I’d do my very best to replicate what I saw. Then I’d step back, think it was horrible, and then quit, all because it wasn’t realistic. It wasn’t “right.” It wasn’t true to what I saw. And though my parents had enrolled me in a couple of art classes, and my great grandmother was a painter, and my mom and aunts and grandmother made stuff , I got to the point where I stopped drawing, stopped coloring, stopped painting.

Except I didn’t. I’d doodle in class, and when I had my own computer, I’d draw cartoons using the rectangles and circles. My friend Jason can probably remember me spending more time in seminary classes creating panels than I did taking notes. Most of my cartoons had something to do with the class.

So I have always enjoyed drawing, even when my work hasn’t been “good.” But the more I’ve practiced the better I’ve become. When stepping into the classroom, it helps to take pleasure in the work, it aids the learning process, and helps me to keep going even when it is tough.

In addition to enjoying it, I have the time to take the class, to learn. Both kids are now in school, and my writing schedule allows enough flexibility where I can complete my coursework, keep my volunteer commitments, and complete my writing projects. So far, I’ve found that drawing engages another part of my brain and helps me see things a little differently. I don’t know. It’s a nice complement to other things I’m doing.

2. For My Kids

As I mentioned before, I’m taking a drawing class for my kids. Now, I have work to show. This has led to my kids wanting to show their work, so in the future you may be seeing what they’ve created on this website. Art has basic concepts and principles that guide the work. By learning those ideas and principles, I can teach them to my kids and help them grow. Simple, really.

I also think I got kind of inspired when I made this tank for David last Halloween:

IMG_E2810

3. Because of My Influences

Members of my family were creators, makers. There are several paintings by my Nanny, rural landscapes and farming scenes, that are still with us, hanging on the walls. So when I take photographs and share them, or when I make something, maybe I hope it’ll be around after I’m gone. Maybe I hope that the work of my hands will be established, at least for a little while.

But I also had a seminary professor named Howard Hendricks who encouraged us to be creative, to draw, to make, to find ways to express ourselves and to tell stories that pointed others toward the glory of God. He understood that God was a creative being, and that people, created in God’s image, were made to create, to reflect the glory of the Creator in the things that were made.

Hendricks did not limit this idea to crafting words, preaching sermons, or making presentations. He saw that the arts could powerfully convey truth and encouraged his students to use their gifts. Most of the things I made for his courses involved photography or poetry. But I drew stuff, mainly on my computer. I own Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (and the Workbook) because of Hendricks, and worked my way through some of the exercises. He inspired me to draw.

Lastly, I’ll loop back to comics. I used to enjoy trying to recreate the heroes I encountered in the Marvel and DC stories. I collected comics in middle school. I’m so thankful my parents hung on to my collection. As comic book stories have come alive as movies, I’ve gone back to them, checking out the bound collections from my public library, reading backstories, checking out the evolution of the artwork. And I’ve become a patron of Bankston’s, a local comic books store. Right now I’m reading Detective Comics (Batman), Miles Morales: Spider-Man, The Batman Who Laughs, and Wolverine. The art is incredible.

That’s why I draw.

The Restorative Power of Art

I’m reading Jeff Tweedy’s memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back Again) because of my decade long listenership to Wilco. The book was a Christmas gift. My fascination with the band began with a friend named Clint Newlan, who was a shift manager and fellow barista with me at Starbucks in 2005-2006. I saw a Wilco show with Clint at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City on March 21, 2006, saw them again at Crossroads KC with my friend Mike Hibit on October 6, 2009, and then went to see them with Molly at Bass Concert Hall in Austin on October 1, 2017. I’m a fan.

mohammad-metri-421904-unsplash.jpg
Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

In the book Tweedy comments on the purpose of art, and expands his thought by reflecting on art’s restorative power. He writes:

I think that may be the highest purpose of any work of art, to inspire someone else to save themselves through art. Creating creates creators. When I was in the hospital going through treatment for addiction and depression, they would have everyone in my group do art therapy. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was watching a catatonic sixty-three-year-old woman who had been hooked on heroin for close to thirty years become human again by holding a pencil and being asked to draw. I’m an agnostic by nature, but seeing that made me believe in staying close to the notion of a creator. The one we identify with most easily by finding it in ourselves.

I think that is about right. Art puts us back together; creating heals, connecting us with something that is elemental to being human. Art is not a self-salvation project, as Tweedy suggests, but it does have restorative potential.

There is a theological dimension to Tweedy’s observation as well, one Christian theology affirms. The Apostle’s Creed begins with the words, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and when God gets around to creating humankind in Genesis 1:27, we read, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

While Tweedy is an agnostic, his impressions point him toward a truth that Christians agree with: “Creating creates creators.” Human beings, created in the image of their Maker, make.

The creative impulse is stamped upon us, and creativity takes many forms. When it finds outward expression it is not only revelatory of something within, but also something without–the existence of a Creator who first created, making creatures who then, in turn, create.