Kintsugi Grace: Prismatic Art beyond the Rainbow (2023 Kuyper Prize Acceptance Speech)
I am deeply honored to stand here to receive this prize as a visual artist. I speak to you today as an artist, but also to convince you, in our Kuyperian path, that you are also an artist. We are all created to be creative. We are all artists of grace, of Kintsugi grace.
“If God is and remains Sovereign,” Kuyper wrote, “then art can work no enchantment except in keeping with the ordinances which God ordained for the beautiful, when He, as the Supreme Artist, called this world into existence.”
So, the power of Art flows right out of God’s own heart. Art reflects God’s Love. Kuyper adds, “And all this because the beautiful is not the production of our own fantasy, nor of our subjective perception, but has an objective existence, being itself the expression of a Divine perfection.”
I became a Christian by reading a poem. An epic poem “Jerusalem” by William Blake. This “Supreme Artist” called me, a little artist through a poem. This Grand Artist who called the world into existence, saw a little ember of flame of faith burning within me and graced me with God’s own breath of life. As I note in my Art+Faith: A Theology of Making book, God is, to me, the only true Artist (with a capital “A”, “The Supreme Artist”).
God sent me, a Japanese American who grew up in both countries, back to Japan to meet Jesus. I studied under several masters of Nihonga (Japanese style painting) and spent 6.5 years mastering this craft. My M.F.A. thesis painting was purchased by the Tokyo University of Art Museum. To our significance, however, that painting, “Twin Rivers of Tamagawa” is my visual testimony. It depicts how I saw this historic river everyday as I went to my studio, the twin rivers coming together under a bridge, and gold sheets, representing the City of God, descending into our City of Men, that city symbolized by the tarnishing silver underneath. The “objective existence” of art became real to me through this arduous path of the craft of “Slow Art”.
But then, instead of being part of the highly coveted Nihonga salon system, God then took me to be in the world of contemporary art of New York City, having trained me to live out my newly found faith in complex and public reality that is not entirely friendly to Christian faith. Just as I had to immediately learn to swim in the dark, powerful currents of Japanese culture that can swallow one’s faith into the deeper depth of despair, I had to learn to swim in the shark infested waters of New York art world and be called to move in the city. To me, having public faith is to navigate such powerful undercurrents.
I knew that then in a city of impossible dreams, I was there only there to be the best artist that I could be, and to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. I became known in the 1990’s as one of the few artists in New York City to speak of the idea of “beauty”, when that was taboo to do so. I first spoke of the word “beauty” in the mid 1990’s, “a startling act”, a critic noted later, given at the site of my exhibit in Soho, from the passages of Isaiah, and from the history of Japanese aesthetics. Even the use of gold was not only unusual but frowned upon back then as remains of the imperialist past. I posited then, that the material gold is a dust remnant of Eden in our fallen world and explained how the Japanese artisans have learned to hammer gold into microscopically thin sheets, and how a pure gold is nearly transparent and liquid. Gold is a sign of divinity in all cultures, and I explained that my use of gold is to inject the sublime in my art.
I did not realize that in doing so, not only did I break the taboos of the art world then, but I created a new form of how artists could serve their community. We need to re-contextualize what art and beauty means in the broken world that has lost such moorings.
Knowing now Kuyper, and how “God ordained for the beautiful”, reframing the context was the only path to open up to a deeper understanding of beauty as common grace. There was an epistemological crisis that we were facing as contemporary artists. So, I re-contextualized and reframed the conversation about beauty using non-western, Japanese means. I founded International Arts Movement, now renamed as IAMCultureCare, as a path to advocate for all artists caught in between the gaps of the art world and the church. Many of us feel very alone, especially artists who have been granted the gate-pass to enter and exhibit in the very limited venues of art world at large. I only realized later that I was Biblically assimilating Japanese aesthetic into a world lost in the frenzy of New York City market, but also the burgeoning Culture Wars. But in doing so, I had to carry along with me brothers and sisters in Christ, as the Church has become the harbinger of Culture Wars.
My work has always been about peace making, seeking the Shalom in the exilic home of Babylon, called New York City and beyond. Culture Care (a term I coined in mid 2000’s) is to see the soil of culture as an ecosystem to steward, a garden to tend to, “to settle down and build houses” (Jeremiah 29) rather than as a battleground to fight over and decimate ourselves in the process. I was very fortunate to have encountered renowned Reformed theologians then. Theological mentors like Calvin Seerveld, Tim Keller, Richard Mouw. More recently, the theological acumen of N.T. Wright and Miroslav Volf helped me to see my path as an artist to be a witness bearer of grace in the contentious world of art.
These mentors helped me understand that if God is indeed the Supreme Artist, then we are all artists with a small “a” and that we are all invited to be artists of the Kingdom as part of the beauty of the church. We are God’s masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus to do hard, generational work of stewardship of culture. That is my paraphrase of Ephesians 2:8-10. That is how the New Creation breaks in through the gospel of Jesus. We are to all participate to create into this “Divine Perfection” of the New.
I take Kuyper’s use of the word “Perfection” here to echo Matthew 5:48 – “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Greek “Teleios”).” I want to humbly suggest that the word “teleios” translated here – “be perfect” – is a bit misleading to our post-industrial ears, ears still attuned to industrial utilitarian perfection. Kuyper’s use of “Divine Perfection” extends beyond what this translation can signify to us today. He is, indeed, addressing the Divine Teleios, but rather than the industrial “perfection”, he is speaking of the End Point. Rather than cosmetic beauty or efficient perfection, we are pointed to the Divine path. As one good, faith-filled poet put it, “In my end is my beginning” (T.S. Eliot).
Kintsugi, creates an alternative perspective on this Divine Teleios, because the end point is different from industrial perfection of flawless surface. Kintsugi teleios is the broken Newness, broken perfection, as Kintsugi masters behold the fractures until the fragments in themselves become beautiful – “in my end is my beginning”.
Kintsugi flows out of the venerable Japanese cultural traditions of the tea ceremony, or Sado. Tea masters who perform the tea ceremony continue this liturgy of tea today, practicing the art of peace-making, refined by Sen no Rikyu, the greatest aesthetic master of 16th century, who daringly created this liturgy of peace during the Feudal war period (Sengoku jidai). He reinvented the art of tea, and in doing so, reframed the Japanese aesthetic to what we know it as today. In the ensuing generations, when precious tea bowls break, the families of tea masters will often keep the broken bowls as fragments for generations, to have them be mended by artisans with gold and a lavish technique of Urushi (Japan lacquer made from poison sumac) known now as Kintsugi, which is the theme of this conference. My art and my public theology flow out of Rikyu.
A Kintsugi master mends tea bowls with Japan lacquer and gold in honor of Rikyu. A bowl mended with gold is more valuable than what the original tea bowl was worth before it broke. The Kintsugi tradition offers us a vision for our times in a fragmented world.
The Japanese word Kin means “gold,” and Tsugi means “to mend,” but Tsugi also means “to pass onto the next generation.”
Kintsugi is somatic knowledge of healing that resists our tendency to rush to “fix” the world in the industrial sense. Instead, in Kintsugi we can “mends to make New”.
What is broken, we think, must be fixed right away or be thrown away, and our flaws must be covered, at least cosmetically, so that we can be seen as perfect. This is an epistemological problem that leads to the exile of true beauty. There is a false dualism that divides the “broken” and what is “perfect” at the opposite ends. At the heart of every “we versus them” mentality is a notion that brokenness comes from “them”. The broken world certainly needs fixing, but not necessarily by wiping away the imperfect, by scapegoating. Kintsugi, by contrast, embraces the complexity, mystery, and beauty of brokenness. We behold the fragments, perhaps for generations, and we name the fissures to open us up to a new generative possibility.
I know something about brokenness. I am a survivor of 9/11 in 2001, having been trapped in the subway underneath as the towers collapsed on top of me. My work since has become elegies to a stricken world full of Ground Zeros, from Nagasaki, Columbine High School, 9/11, to 3/11 Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunamis (like this “Walking on Water” series) that devastated northern Japan. So, it is not surprising that I find resonance in the history of Kintsugi, and the art of Rikyu who wisely imbedded generational stewardship of art of creating peace that will outlast feudal wars. I wonder, and pray against, my sense that we are in a new Sengoku jidai (War Period) again, times of violence, conflict and generational wounding.
Kintsugi anticipates such a violent world. There is another form of Kintsugi, which amplifies the message of Kintsugi-Peace Making, as a gift to the world. This is called Yobitsugi. Yobitsugi brings together two or more fragments of broken ceramics originating from different cultures. Often, large pieces are missing from the broken vessel. If Kintsugi is a golden joinery, then Yobitsugi is to “call into” (Yobi) “mending” (Tsugi).
In Yobitsugi, ceramics from two nations in conflict with each other are brought together intentionally by Kintsugi masters to create a new vessel. Korea and Japan, Japan and U.S., Israel and Palestine, and so forth. Today, we can foresee the broken ceramics from Russia and Ukraine or India and Pakistan as potential candidates for Yobitsugi.
I am reconnecting Nihonga, too, as the tributaries of Rikyu’s Sado, and Kintsugi and Nihonga technique can be connected – through broken pulverization. (Slide 10) Minerals must be pulverized into minute prisms, and when layered over and over with animal hide glue, it creates a refractive hue over the surface, what the Japanese call “Fuka-mi” (“poetic depth”). Here again, though, I find myself somewhat lurking beyond the typical Nihonga terrains by exploring this “Fuka-mi”, the mystery of the surface, much more as a philosophical aesthetic position that echoes Rikyu, and theology that flow outside of normative categories. In order for “Fuka-mi” to manifest, something has to be pulverized. And that pulverization can result in a fantastic mixture of unique shapes of prisms; rather than uniformity and homogeneity, fuka-mi is poetic beauty of mystery and complexity, and sometimes jarring juxtapositions can result in a new reconciliation. In my studio, every day, I mix pulverized minerals to create “Fuka-mi”. I layer over and over, some paintings over 200 layers in my “Slow Art”, to fully generate the potential of these base materials. Each stroke, each layer is a prayer, painted with Christ’s tears.
A theological term that Kuyper is often associated with is Common Grace. How does Common Grace help us create depth, “beauty through brokenness”? What is the Teleios here?
Jesus’s post-Resurrection appearances present a different Teleios - of perfect brokenness. Jesus could have come back as anything or any form that he wanted. But, even after going through all that he had to endure and suffer as a human being, He chose to take on the form of a human body. He chose to take on that form, as a glorified human being despite all that he went through. Because “in my end is my beginning”, not only did he come back as a glorified Human Being, he came back as a glorified Wounded Human Being, and it is “through his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Stigmata is the source and the origin of the New Creation. It is only through Jesus’s wounds, we are healed: He is the only savior with glorified wounds, and through them the light of New Creation shines into our broken world.
“There is a crack/a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Sang Leonard Cohen, a local legend to offer us an Anthem for our time.
If Jesus’s wounds are the portal into the New Creation, then what does it signify for us, for our wounds, for our broken lives? Because God is perfect, God does not glorify our brokenness. God’s particular grace is a pin hole through which we, sinners, are saved. But the world which we see through that pinhole is an “upside down world of grace”. In such an upside-down view, what is a curse, or fallen realities can also be an entry point into our Emmaus road journey toward the New.
In our Reformed thinking, the Biblical notion of grace can operate in two distinct paths. One, through General Revelation, to reveal God’s Grace in a wider lens, and universal realities of all cultures, regardless of religion or tribe, which is also called Common Grace. Second, Special Revelation which is a gift of grace bestowed upon those whose heart has been opened to receive Jesus as their Savior, a pin hole of Grace. (Slide 14) The image through a pinhole camera, projected on the back of the shoe box, is inverted. Both of these revelations can together lead into God’s Kintsugi Grace.
Kuyper in several ways frames the doctrine of Common Grace to the Noahic covenant. (Slide 15) After the deluge caused by our depravities that made necessary the Noah’s Ark, God sends a promise through a rainbow: “I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:8-17).
Kuyper writes, “Many people, including pious children of God, behold and admire the rainbow without being aware of the underlying covenant that is so powerfully addressing them.”
Common Grace is grace extended to all people and creatures under this rainbow. God’s grace to preserve our lives in such a way as to allow all people, regardless of their faith or inclinations, to thrive. We all need to be grateful. In addition, Common Grace, according to Calvin, is also a “golden bridle” through which our sinfulness is curtailed by the Spirit to limit damage we do to God’s sovereign world. In this sense, the beautiful rainbow is a symbol of restraining our sin from fully manifesting in the way that human depravity reigned before the flood.
Thus, even those who reject the faith of the church are covered in the greater grace of God, even in the art world of New York City. Such grace can be amplified, even by a non-believer through a sense of gratitude. Jesus expounds this promise to us followers, connecting Special Revelation with General Revelation, when he reminds us:
“…that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:45 (NIV)
And, this often-used “common grace passage” cannot be separated from the previous verse, raising the bar for us as the followers of Christ – this is the pinhole:
"But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven." Matthew 5:44 (NIV)
Common Grace flows out of the Noahic covenant, and not only do we share in the blessings of the sun and rain, but through that rainbow (which actually requires both the sun and the rain), we may even end up loving our enemies. What is of particular interest here is that Jesus is speaking to those cognizant of special grace, those who have seen the “upside Kingdom” in their special revelation, to see that they are marked by this capacity for the impossibility, to “love our enemies”.
Since I create intentionally prismatic surfaces of “Fuka-mi”, I am ever mindful of the rainbow hue that hover over my own works. My art is a prayer for the fallen world to see the rainbow of grace. My art, as part of that prayer to be a portal into the New, a world in which we have fully and emphatically have loved, even our enemies.
In Kintsugi, there is no mending without beholding first. In art, there is no painting, without first beholding the surface of canvas, paper, or silk. Beauty restrains sin, because by seeking beauty, we must behold. Beholding reveals both our “errors within” (see Elaine Scarry's "Beauty and Being Just", Princeton University Press) and the act can humble us. There is nothing more beautiful than a surface ready to be painted on, whether it be Belgium Linen, or Arches’s Watercolor paper or Kumohada paper (the largest hand lifted Japanese “Cloud Skin” paper in the world) stretched over a surface. How dare I, I ask myself often, to create a mark upon such perfection? Divine Teleios presses me on.
I can only begin that first stroke by believing by faith, that such one act of obedience, to the Maker inviting me to create, will somehow make the New World more abundant. If my work is inadequate on this side of eternity, I pray my gestures will resonate on the other side.
Kintsugi, on the other hand, offers an entry point on this side of eternity. Such a path to be Present in the fissures of our lives, facing a world stricken with broken pieces and pulverized lives, we cannot be like Job’s friends who had all the “right answers” for suffering Job. Beholding the fragments, in silence, is the only presence we can gift when our friends are suffering. That we learn by beholding the surface of Kumohada paper as well. This is the way of Common Grace.
Common Grace leads to the understanding of the world outside of the church to behold beauty (“there is a crack/a crack in everything”). The reading of Matthew 5:45 is also revealing of an extension of Common Grace, and this is the link between our brokenness and Christ’s wounds, in Kintsugi (Yobitsugi) Grace journey, what I call the Common Curse, shared among all peoples.
The warm sun can give us delight in life, or the severe sun can scorch the land and devastate us. Rain can bless us to nourish the growth or create floods and damage to the crops. Nature can wipe away, like on March 11th, 2011, when an entire village of generation of fishing town, Ishinomaki, in northern Japan. When Jesus mentions the sun and the rain, this new Reality of the world comes with a cost. Jesus has to be the broken vessel, to mend us to be made New in light of the curse. Again, it is “through his wounds, we are healed”.
What I call Common Curse is the “flip side” of Common Grace, a juxtaposition, or a chiasma, part of God’s sovereign path of Kintsugi Grace.
There is not a single person alive today who has not experienced the Covid pandemic directly. I was thinking of that during the quarantine period, layering pulverized minerals over and over as a form of prayer. Even now, when the accursed spread of Covid is abated into an Endemic, we are still marked by this curse, even if we are fortunate to not suffer from long Covid symptoms. But this curse also means that we have Common Curse experience of this Pandemic to understand with total vulnerability our shared experience of living through such a time as this. Common Curse is shared with total strangers across the globe, including our “enemies”. The curse becomes a lens through which we can see the world with Christ’s tears.
In Kinstugi, Japanese Urushi (lacquer) is made from poison sumac. A poisonous tree of the fall, is turned into a medium through which Kintsugi mending is done. Urushi can be the symbol of common curse and grace, as Gold is the “Teleios” of Jesus, of special grace. “Special” not because we are special; special because Jesus is special.
Common Grace and Common Curse can be considered to be like the relationship between Kintsugi and Yobitsugi. Common Curse is to “call upon” (Yobi) of a shared trauma, that can break down the enmity set up between warring tribal zones. It is in shared suffering and shared grace (Tsugi) that we can learn to love our enemies. Our wounds, our imperfections, then can also be a bridge to love to be paired together, but with borderlines of our distinctions still intact. So, without glorifying our sins, or abolishing our tribal identities, we are led to a communion of broken bread, and to share in our cup of suffering with our Savior. And such a view, seen through the Broken Body of Christ, can lead to a greater awakening of our hearts toward that mosaic beauty at large in the world.
Noah’s flood that ended in a promise of a rainbow, is reflected in Jesus’s tears in John 11 which leads to his own suffering and death. The Ark of Noah saved us from the deluge: the Ark of Jesus saves us through his tears, and his blood of Atonement. A new type of “rainbows for the fallen world” to remind us of Calvin Seerveld.
A rainbow is a prismatic refraction in the sky that not only requires both the Sun and the Rain, rainbow, this rainbow, now includes Jesus’s tears. We, who are cognizant of God’s grace, need to learn to see the world through Christ’s tears; and it is through Jesus’s tears, that the rainbows for the fallen world can be seen.
Finally, by applying these principles, Common Curse and Common Grace through Kintsugi, we can see the world through Common and Simple Beauty. (A nod to Dr. Nick Wolterstorff).
There is the beauty of simple, everyday grace. There is countenance in the light of imperfection and of the ordinary lives. This I call Common Beauty, or Simple Beauty.
Common Grace and Common Curse leads to Simple Beauty. Why? Because of the grace shared among all nations, and curse shared among all tribes, beauty can arise out of humility and preservation of cultures created out of trauma. Beauty can arise out of the ashes, and beauty can arise out of (as in Kintsugi) the curse of brokenness. Common Beauty is to be found in Simple Beauty all around us.
That is what Soetsu (or Muneyoshi) Yanagi (March 21, 1889 – May 3, 1961), taught, and he coined the term Mingei (“folk craft”) to look for this simple beauty in the crafts of Asia. This term originated when Yanagi, a Japanese writer and the founder of Shirakaba aesthetic movement, visited Korea, the land Japanese occupied. There he encountered humble everyday ceramics of what he termed “beauty of sorrow” (悲哀の美) in Korean art. Yanagi, who carried Rikyu’s work into the 20th centry, saw simple beauty of sorrow in Korean ceramics in this “enemy” land of Japan.
Simple Beauty is ubiquitous, greeting us in every culture, especially among the oppressed. Such beauty is the beauty of humility, of the ordinary, of even sorrow. ( Here is an exemplar of Mingei, Sadao Watanabe, Slide 19) What we share in our suffering is taken up, all together lifted up, by the Suffering of our Savior.
I gave a Commencement Address at Judson University in 2019 called “Kintsugi Generation”, and stated the following:
The imagination can cause hatred to expand or create empathy in the world. We can create weapons of mass destruction, or beautiful paintings. Imagination can turn gold into an idol of a calf; it can take good gifts of God and warp them into narcissistic snares. It can forgive, or it can be hardened to remain bitter. Our imagination can rewire how we view ourselves and our past . . . .
Yours is a traumatized generation, with bullet holes in schools still causing flashbacks every time there is an “active shooter drill.” You are numbed by never-ending terrorist threats and brutalities, and images of destruction all over the news. You grew up with metal detectors at sports games and concerts, and other “new normal” of our fear-filled age . . . .
You see, when you create and make into the fissures of life — when you rebuild from a devastating fire — when you create, despite scarcity — when you “consider the lilies” (Matthew 6), especially when you are afraid — then God chooses those moments to reveal God’s Presence in our lives. We are makers, as our God is our Maker. God did not promise us an easy life but did promise us an abundant one — an abundant life of creativity and imaginative freedom.
To be a Kuyperean is to not only be fully human but to be a glorified human being, with wounds. God the Kintsugi master who beholds such brokenness in tender care, invites us, and asks of us, to be present in suffering and incalculable losses. To be a Kuyperian is to worship a Wounded Glorified Human Being, and to be that ourselves.
This is not a reversal, back to Eden – no! The New is being revealed through the fractures of the Old. The Ashes of Ground Zero that I had to stand on as a 9/11 survivor, is now being transmuted, given a new breath, a new DNA of the New Creation through Jesus’s tears.
Art is not an escapist fantasy, but the world, through art, is to be seen inverted just like in a pinhole camera, a shoe box camera of simple beauty and grace. We are all survivors now, especially after the pandemic, in such an inverted picture of the stricken world, but through the pinhole of Jesus’s wounds. Our art of common curse struggles can lead us still into a greater awareness of grace in our world.
Common Grace is a rainbow. Like Noah’s rainbow, we stand under the hope and the covenant of God. May our lives refract God’s prismatic lights of broken shards, our Common Curse, of our unfulfilled promises, and even a lost sense of the future. May the generations to come indeed become Kintsugi masters of grace, even if there are missing pieces. Yobi-Tsugi, the mending of broken generations, by intentionally connecting to “love our enemies”, and calling to make into the New – because of those missing pieces requiring such bold and courageous acts – can call us into the Kintsugi Grace of the New Creation. To again quote the good poet, but now with an inverted lens of Simple Beauty, “In my beginning is my end."