Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Here are some random thoughts I have been feeding myself on lately:

from Tarkovsky's book, "Sculpting in Time"
"When thought is expressed in an artistic image, it means that an exact form has been found for it, the form that comes nearest to conveying the author's world, to making incarnate his longing for the ideal.

The artist therefore tries to grasp that principle [life principle that the artist perceives] and make it incarnate, new each time; and each time he hopes, though in vain, to achieve an exhaustive image of the Truth of human existence. The quality of beauty is in the truth of life, newly assimilated and imparted by the artist, in fidelity to his personal vision."

One realization I have had from reading Kierkegaard, Tolstoy and Tarkovsky latley is that most modern Hollywood films don't satisfy, don't capture the heart and soul because they are not true, their creators haven't been students of life or atleast their fims don't reflect their passioniate search for the appropriate expression life's priciples. Dostoievsky said, "Life is more fantastic than any fiction."

An exception: I recently saw the movie, "The Nuns Story" (Warner Bros. starring Audrey Hepburn). It is based on a book about a woman who became a nun, her interior struggles, and the working out of those struggles. I found the depiction of her battle with pride so interesting and intricate. One reason I think the movie is satisfying to me is because it is accurate of the struggle of anyone who tries to submit their will to Christ's in their vocation. Its study of human nature is so satisfying, I think the movie is worth a viewing even if one doesn't appreciate all the facets of the depiction of religious life; it is one woman's experience of religious life interpreted by the director Zinnemann.

While we go along we should remember to bleed a little for those people and causes we hold dear. As St. Francis de Sales put it (paraphra sing) "We all like a little sugar sprinkled on our food, and likewise consolations in our spiritual lives, but consolations are not the signs of true love."

Thursday, January 25, 2007

We can help Beauty to save the world

There is something of value in the thought that 'we read to know we are not alone'. I find great consolation in the words of John Paul II and particularly in his letter to artists. (See link on sidebar) Please, if you haven't looked at it yet read it through a few times, it has countless insights essential to an understanding of the nature and call of the artist in the world. One that speaks to me is a passage found at the end of the letter. I have been thinking about Beauty so much lately. I have been looking over the interview with Patrick Pye by Father Paul Murray, O.P. and what has struck me so deeply is that living in an age of intense ugliness, many are still haunted by the vision of Beauty. As the power of the Ugly increases, the vision of Beauty rises closer to the surface. Look at this quotation from JP II's letter: "Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God which a lover of beauty like Saint Augustine could express in incomparable terms: 'Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you!'.(26)"

These words unsettle and excite me. They're unsettling to my comfort. But the status quo is to be put in its place in relation to the overall goal, our destiny. We can't forget that the gift of conceiving and bringing forth an image of Beauty is a gift and with it comes a responsibility to be a steward of that gift. Help it to grow and put it into action. Art is not about ideas. It is about passion, love. Its living in the tension between the spirit and the flesh. This passion is fueled by the tension between matter and spirit, the scandal of the Incarnation. We are all to be passionate about this vision of Beauty, it is a universal invitation.

I wonder if Eric Gill isn't on to something when he pondered that 'the artist is not a special sort of man, but every man is a special sort of artist.'

John Paul II's letter...
"3 . A noted Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid, wrote that 'beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up'.(3)

From this wonder there can come that enthusiasm of which Norwid spoke in the poem to which I referred earlier. People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that 'beauty will save the world'.(25)"

One insight I find so illuminating is Kierkegaard's that "the prevailing failure of modernity is not the depth of its sinfulness, but its lack of passion. The problem with the often superficial and self-congradulatory language of modern agnosticism is that it reveals not a genuine humility before a radically new awareness of cultural pluralism but a 'determinaiton to live within defining consciousness to grasp only that over which the mind can imperiously rule."

Look at the images that modern culture thinks are inspiring. I think of the scene in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle when the dwarves can't see the beauty and reality of Narnia because their pride blinds them; they mistake the disgusting for delicacy and reject the delicate as disgusting. If Beauty will save the world, artists who desire it better get to work!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Why blog?

Blogs are funny things. Sometimes they make you think you are writing editorials for a magazine with no circulation. I think I'll google 'blogger support groups'.

I check out other blogs from time to time to see how often people update their blogs. It seems very common that folks go weeks without blogging probably because you run out of things to comment on or it becomes a problem of time. (Couldn't the inventor of the term 'blog' have come up with a better term than 'blog'!) The question comes up for every blogger (hold on, am I really a 'blogger'?! Okay I submit, I'm a blogger, I blog out!) whether anyone is part of the conversation you hope your having with readers. Here's the bottom line: I don't have to say anything, but I believe someone needs to motivate people to think, act, pray, be inspired. Otherwise what happens is we start living less and less in a dignified, trully human and holy way. We get swept up in the flow of life that the world offers or imposes. Because we are called, and our nature doesn't follow very willingly we have to exert effort to change ourselves and encourage one another to keep going, to be faithful to the vision. Sometimes it is necessary to be overt, i.e. a blog. Hopefully what I say doesn't come across as pompous, or arrogant. Hopefully I can communicate my own desires and vision so that others may come to experience the power and the reality that art is meant to capture.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Tonight I would like to ask you to go to this address:$8054*436562.
It is St. Francis in the desert, by Giovanni Bellini from the Frick Collection, NYC. This painting has been one of my favorites since I came to love art. I thought I might share a few observations. One quality of Bellini I appreciate so much is his love of nature. This is one of the first things that strikes me about this work in particular. Notice the detail and the attention to the individuality of each leaf on the trellis, the character of the rock, the pebbles, the tree, the animals, sky, architecture, landscape, all of it with so much affection! It reminds me that passion, desire, authentic love sustain art and give birth to art (which are born from contemplation, reflection). The art of Bellini is a rejoicing in the union of God and man. Look at St.Francis. He is overcome. He went out to seek the Lord and yet God found him. He is being visited by the Lord out in the wilderness. Isn't it interesting that he has St.Francis having this union with the Lord outside his cell.

Bellini is painting the life of Francis and not without his death. The skull on his desk as if it were a model for a still life. And the scriptures, the word. It was almost as if St.Francis was reading the word and he was made flesh before his eyes.

I hope you sit with this piece and love it as I do.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Artists, read the lives of the saints and pray.

I have been reminded lately of the importance of humility and the necessary spiritual diligence required of a christian artist. I had and still have experiences of real growth as a result of the awareness that I am not as serious or faithful a christian as I thought. One thing has kept me honest when all the normal devices have failed: the wisdom of the saints. It is crazy to think that I avail myself of their wisdom so little. As artists it is so important, particularly in today's culture, to be guided by their living and tested example. It seems to me that we don't go to the saints because either we are ignorant of their wisdom, we lack the habit of seeking out their wisdom or we are prideful and don't like what they are saying. At one time or another I have been able to relate to all of these reasons and attitudes. I can remember reading St. Francis de Sales' "Introduction to the Devout Life" in college and really disliking it. I made myself believe that it was his 'style' and that his approach to spirituality did not appeal to me...Later I realized that I was the problem, I didn't like his advice, I didn't like being humbled by the truth about what he was saying which threatened my ego. God showed me my weaknesses so that I could grow from the knowlege of my character defects. The scales haven't all fallen off yet. Being faithful requires a spiritual life. It isn't an option for those who are hoping for the lasting vision of the Lord. I am talking about staying on track in real terms, in the work God has designed for your personal sanctification. But we need help, and the saints are there for this reason. Here are a few pieces of wisdom I have found to be helpful.

"Although in entering religion and taking care not to offend God, we may appear to have done everything, ah! how often certain worms remain, which do not allow themselves to be perceived until they have gnawed away our virtues! Such worms are self-love, self-esteem, harsh judgement of others, though in trifles, and a great want of charity towards our neighbor. But if, indeed, by dragging on, we satisfy our obligations, we do not do it with that perfection which God would expect of us." - St. Teresa of Avila

Here is a little more about perfection and God's will:

"Perfection consists in one thing alone, which is doing the will of God. For, according to Our Lord's words, it suffices for perfection to deny self, to take up the cross and to follow Him. Now, who denies himself and takes up his cross and follows Christ better than he who seeks not to do his own will, but always that of God? Behold, now, how little is needed to become a Saint! Nothing more than to acquire the habit of willing, on every occasion, what god wills." - St. Vincent de Paul

I can't help finishing this 'portfolio' off with a quotation from St. Francis de Sales:

"Observe that perfection is not acquired by sitting with our arms folded, but it is necessary to work in earnest, in order to conquer ourselves and to bring ourselves to live, not according to our inclinations and passions, but according to reason, our Rule [substitute your particular vocation], and obedience. The thing is hard, it cannot be denied, but necessary. With practice, however, it becomes easy and pleasing."

There is so much wisdom in those three quotes that if we got started living it out today, we might experience the union St. Teresa talks about, sooner rather than later. Art reflects the inner life, and the inner life feeds art. Let's get busy.

Monday, January 08, 2007

I realize I'm going in reverse with the presentation of a completed project back to what the church looked like prior to the project, but it is helpful to show what has been discarded.

I believe the changes in St. Bernard's are examples (almost answering the reactive anti-liturgy movement begun in the sixties) of the strengthening desire of the faithful for beauty. Let me be more specific. In terms of the response of the parishioners. Initially there was some skepticism as to the overall success of restoring a damaged mural. As the project progressed and the parish could see what was taking place before their eyes, daily improvments, people begun to see that this really was artwork which changed the way they experienced the liturgy. This experience of the parish was communicated in many ways. Many folks came into the church and expressed their experiences and love of the artwork. One of the most unusual (for us Catholics) displays of approval happened toward the end of the art restoration phase. Our pastor announced that there would be an opportunity for parishoners to support the project financially, that he and the pastoral council, in addition to the mural project, would be moving the tabernacle to the center of the church on a newly constructed altar of repose. This opportunity came in the form of a 'second collection'. Up to this point, the largest second collection of recent years had brought in about $7k for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The pastor and the two associate priests were guessing what the collection might amount to. The highest they thought it might be was $5000. . .The actual amount came to approx. $14,500!

I do need to mention that this project was initiated by the associate priests, who, after discovering that there was a mural at one time in the church, climbed up a ladder late one night and scraped away the old paint and uncovered the face of Christ. Afterwards they approached the pastor and encouraged him to allow them to begin raising funds to uncover the mural. So, without the initial and continual efforts of these young, faithful priests, and the openness of our pastor we would still be worshiping the lord in an environment stripped of beauty.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

This is the first stage in the restoration process at St. Bernard's Church, Keene. What you are seeing is the removal of two layers of wall paint which the church used back in the 50's or 60's (the date when the church covered over the mural is unclear) to cover the mural. The paint did not adhear very well to the artwork in general, however there were areas which did adhear well and it was extremely difficult to take the paint off without damaging, or in some cases, remove the artwork with the wall paint. This stage of the process took three men about 500 hrs.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Recent art restoration and altar construction

Today marks the completion of a three and a half month project that should be categorized as a miracle on many levels.

Since the middle of September 2006, myself, Paul Swingle, John Traynor and Keith Whippie have been working on uncovering a 114 yr. old mural in St. Bernard's Catholic Church, Keene, N.H. We uncovered it, touched it up, repainted a border, added a border of moldings under it, and constructed an altar where the tabernacle now sits. There is much to say about the project, just the reality of such a project in today's world is quite unusual, but that it should be happening in the parish I grew up in, and that I was able to be one of the agents of restoring beauty to its rightful place is more than I can fathom.

I have only to reflect on the history of the church to see how truly amazing this is. I need only to look around myself at the culture to realize that we are in a time of black and white, a time to make things clear.

The artwork uncovered is the crucifiction, full scale. It depicts Christ, the Father invisible and humanity. It clearly shows the son and his relationship to the father and how Jesus, in his suffering, directs our attention to him at Our Lord's final hour.

Now when one enters St. Bernard's, one is drawn into the space of the sacrifice where God is present in the sacrament, the Eucharist, the altar of sacrifice and thanksgiving.

I am grateful.