Note to Refractions readers: This was a letter written to a Dallas high school group that toured a private collection of my paintings. The teacher guiding them asked me to help the students “see” my works.
I’ve often been asked, “Can you explain your work to me”?
I usually respond by speaking about the following issues:
First, we have to realize that each of us has assumptions about knowing reality (philosophers call it epistemology) that often prevent us from seeing the generative possibility of the world, and even of God.
For instance, we “know” that 1+1 = 2. Correct?
Well, if you chew two pieces of chewing gum separately, and put them together, what do you get? 1+1 actually remains 1!
Art is where the 1+1 = 2 assumption does not—or does not have to —hold.
There are no “right answers” in art, but art is a place where 1+1 = infinity.
So, in looking at my paintings (or any work of art), the first thing we need to do is to try to see the image as a child.
What do you see?
It takes a while for us to actually “see” the work.
We are trained to reduce perceptive data (to make 1+1 = 1) because of our need to survive, and our need to make sense of the fear-driven world. But to “see” an art work, we must not allow that part of our brains to override our perceptions.
If we see a truck coming headed straight at us, we see a truck, categorize it as dangerous, and get out of the way.
But what if you see the truck, and the truck’s rusted fenders and license plate, and begin to think about the beauty of how things rust, and the story behind that old truck? Then your wife says, “Get out of the way, Mako!” (This has really happened to me.) Artists are creatures who see beauty even in oncoming danger.
It usually takes at least 10 minutes of sitting, quieting our hearts, and beholding the work before our eyes start to truly see, and our brain stops trying to categorize.
My friend and fellow artist Bruce Herman says: “If you want to understand something, learn to stand under it. If you stand over it, you are ‘over-standing’ (bringing in your preconceptions and presuppositions) and not ‘under-standing’.”
If you have been standing (or “under-standing”) in front of my work, your eyes will see more than when you came into this house. Now, simply spend a little more time looking at the work, and observe what your eyes are seeing.
Perhaps you will see beyond the “colors” that you thought you saw at first. You might see that the works are all done with Nihonga (Japanese style painting)—with layers and layers of pulverized minerals as well as gold and silver. (The Lily painting has 60 layers of azurite and malachite.) The colors refract, so if you let them, your eyes are able to detect prismatic colors surrounding the pigments. King David sang, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139), and our eyes can actually see much, much more than what our brains will categorize. The individual grains of pigment are literally prisms, creating rainbow refractions. Some of you will be able to see that…after perhaps 20 minutes or so.
William Blake wrote:
To see a world in a grain of sand
and heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palms of your hand
and eternity in an hour.
Every work of art and poetry invites us to see a “world in a grain of sand” and “heaven in a wild flower.”
This perceptive exercise allows for another amazing experience.
We actually can - by truly “seeing” - experience the possibility of opening the “eyes of our hearts.”
In Ephesians 1:18-19, St. Paul writes:
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.
Art can train us to “see” with our eyes, or even “listen” through our eyes, and that experience can help to tap into the “eyes of your heart.” Your faith journey depends on being able to see things through these eyes, to see through the “dangers of the world” to the “mystery of the Gospel” that St. Paul speaks of.
So, after seeing my work, my desire is that you open the eyes of your heart and see the world and the people around you a little differently. Instead of being filled with anxiety about the world, we can truly see the prismatic possibilities of the world around us. I am sure the Ebola issue has been causing anxiety in your community. Well, I think of an artist like Fra Angelico (1395-1455) when my heart gets anxious. He was painting during the Black Plague that killed half of Europe’s population. Yet if you see Fra Angelico’s work, you will find it is filled with color, faith and hope. I think of the conviction he had to paint these weighty images. (I wrote about this in an essay called “Fra Angelico and the 500 year question.” )
Instead of fearing what the world brings, what others may say, or what you think of yourself, an encounter with beauty allows you to see its refractive, prismatic image: It’s like seeing a rainbow after a storm. That experience of beauty can then be applied to how you see yourself and your neighbors through the “eyes of your heart.” This is what Jesus meant by “consider the lilies.” This splendid image of even an ephemeral beauty can lead you to under-stand how God sees you now: 100% success, 100% complete, 100% loved and secure in Christ Jesus.
Go into the world, and pay attention to miraculous things. See “heaven in a wildflower” all around you! Share that with each other and begin to “name” these experiences through art, music, drama and poetry… actually, through any activity. You can be a nurse or doctor dealing with Ebola (pray for them with the prismatic power of God’s Word!), or an engineer trying to solve how to create a better city, or a politician who leads with compassion and empathy rather than usurping power. You can bring beauty into the world through all these means. Ponder why St. Paul called the Good News “the mystery”. Your life will then become generative.