Hope-Words: Why Art? Why Write?
Virginia Bluebells are out in their pale blues - light azurite, to me, a mineral I use in my studio. I recall a time when I was in a very dark place, in my dark winter, the Bluebells that came out in Princeton gave my heart a slight lift. How about you this day?
What are the Virginia Bluebells of our lives, of your life? What are the beauties that come out of the frozen wintered earth, or the quarantined grounds of the Pandemic?
Now faith is the substance (hypostasis) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11).
The Greek word here for “substance” is “hypostasis”. “Hypo” suggests that we stand under the weight of hope. Rather than “hyper-stasis”, to stoically stand with all of our might to survive our crushing weight of despair - that will be “over-stand” and not understand. “Hypo” suggests we bury ourselves under that weight of hope, being fully present and immersed in it, paying attention in the midst of that darkness, like a poet living in darkness, or a prophet imprisoned, in order to “under-stand” our time. True faith in that darkness can lead to making - a kind of making that can only be done by “under-standing” and not “over-standing”. In that flow, beauty can lead to peace, lasting peace, not simply by desiring for it, but by creating it. Art, as part of Faith, can be the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Why should we write, when the world is shut down, and the fear of a war is realized, and our children are sick from long Covid? Why should we write when our marriage is falling apart, and we are hated for the colors of our skins? What can we invoke at this gathering? A gathering of “Hope-Words” - What if, to some, the beauty of the Virginia Bluebells even seem cruel, as T.S. Eliot found lilacs, traumatized by a war and mired in his personal darkness, he wrote “April is the cruelest month,” in The Wasteland, “April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.” Even beauty coming out in their regular seasonal rhythm can seem cruel when our hearts are still frozen, unable to feel not even to grieve for the lost, or lament for our nation, or mourn for a war stricken, unjust land.
My literature teacher at Bucknell University, Professor Taylor, had us keep a diary. As a bi-cultural student, I struggled with writing English, or in any language. As a first year college student, I remember having a hard time writing the weekly assignment of a short essay in response to an assigned short story. Every Thursday, it seemed, I ended up in this professor’s office, trying to see if I had crafted just enough content to hand in on Friday. But, my professor saw through my deficiencies, and, to my astonishment, encouraged me to write more. In my junior year, I ended up taking several creative writing classes with him.
In my entries of the diary homework that year, I pondered out loud,“why art?” To that cry “why art?”, my professor wrote back a long response in typical eloquence: “Mako, that is one of the most important questions to ask as an artist. And I would like to push you to ask a deeper question through your art and writing… ‘why live?’”
“Why live?” I have been trying to address this profound question “why live?” In all of my art, my writings, my lectures and my life.
Art and our lives are indeed deeply connected. For Christians, we may extend that question “why live” to “why faith?” If we allow ourselves to probe deeply into our psyches, we need to be writing in each of our own diary, we need to etch what we believe in the pages of our lives.
Conversely, that question ”why faith?” lies at the heart of the questions “why live?” and “why art?”
I have invested my lifetime in making of art. I create, knowing that my works may never reach an audience - in this sense I have gotten used to, and in some ways I must have the discipline to create for the “Audience of One”. Thus when a viewer responds to my work in any way, I consider it as a miracle. In that miracle of communication, and communing, I can then finally say that my work has been completed, when my art is received by a stranger.
But today in our divided culture, where culture has become culture wars, what we do as artists, writers, or a pastor or a plumber may also be fragmented beyond repair. What if we continue to preach the good news, but the world is inundated with only bad news, and death tolls rise in ways that we are found to be helpless? What if our hearts are supposed to be full of the fruit of the Spirit, but in reality, our hearts are stricken with fear, envy, and the metastasizing cancerous works of the flesh? To such a predicament, our writings are tested for their worths. By learning to express what we truly see and pausing to listen, we discover, one experience at a time, that the darkness within us is no longer hidden, but revealed in the light of painted words. Our writings can bring healing, by standing under each weighty experience, and loving each reader even experiencing the trauma of injustice.
One writer put it this way:
“But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Oh what words, what weighty words from Dr King. Where there is in-justice, where there is darkness and imprisonment, there can also be a letter, a letter from a prophet, from that jail cell from Birmingham.
Why write a letter in such darkness? During the Pandemic, I had the opportunities to think more deeply about the relationship between trauma, injustice and art. I came to the conclusion that if we removed all of the arts that were not a direct result of trauma (such as the Black Plague, invasions and wars) we may not have 90% of enduring art. ALL art, actually, flows out of the fissures of our brokenness and trauma. Think of the Pevensie children escaping the Blitz in London to find the Wardrobe, and Narnia: J.R.R. Tolkien imagines an entire sub-creation of peaceful and courageous little creatures while his friends lay dying in the fox hole, in the front lines of war. The arts are given to rise in such a time of darkness.
Writing inside the darkened prison, our jail cells, no matter what that may be, is hard. But that is exactly where we need to start. This is how we “under-stand” hope.
Van Gogh’s Starry Night was painted from inside his asylum cell. He certainly did not know that centuries later, this work, his cry of his soul, will be seen by the millions at MOMA: But that does not matter. He carried his torch of hope, stood under the weight of that hope, an ember in the darkness of his time, brought forth by one brush stroke (or paint squeeze) at a time, the greatest somatic hope (theological) statement of his time.
.Herman Melville sold only 3715 copies of “Moby Dick” in his life time.
"For what are the comprehensible terrors of man compared with the interlinked terrors and wonders of God!" Ishmael, Chapter 24
Melville was writing for the integrity toward that “interlinked terrors”, toward wonderment. He did not know that his novel will redefine American literature for centuries to come. To deal with our Captain Ahabs in our times, of our own making, we need these weighty words. We can make beautiful object of contemplation, or weapon of mass destruction. Melville managed to capture both the “terrors and wonders” in the same sentence.
Emily Dickinson only had a 17.5x17.5 inches cherry wood desk, waking up 3 am every morning to write.
Enduring works of art cannot be measured by our commercial successes, or by the size of our desks. It is measured by faithfulness, of standing under hope, to understand the night skies filled with abundance of hope.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
We are the caretakers of pain. We are the beholders of fractures. We trace that feather of hope floating into our hearts, a canary in a coal mine of culture, singing into our toxic air.
“There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people,” said Vincent van Gogh. We need to love well, to create. Even though the Dutch Reformed church, at the center of the painting (holding visually the entire painting) is the only darkened building in the entire painting. Light has emanated into the Starry Nights of our existence.
So “why live”? Through art, such deep questions are etched in our minds, and eternity: “Why write?”, “Why sing?”, “Why dance?”
Kintsugi tradition, as Haejin and I have endeavored to relaunch Academy Kintsugi in recent times, serves as an emblem of hope in such fragmented times.
Kintsugi (“Kin” means “Gold” and “Tsugi” means “To Mend” in Japanese) is a venerable tea tradition of Japan of mending broken ceramics with Japan lacquer and gold. After Bucknell, I had the privilege of being trained in traditional method of painting called Nihonga, the 16th and 17th century ancient art form, and during that time, I encountered this Kintsugi technique. A few years ago, I met a Kintsugi master, Kunio Nakamura, who wanted to teach Kintsugi to a broader public to bring healing in time of fragmentation, trauma and wars.
I am told that male Bluebirds feathers are most bright and resplendent because of the winter winds. So a bluebird bright color are created by being stressed. Perhaps our feathers are also brighter, having endured much. I look forward to my bluebirds nesting at Fuji Farm in Princeton, fighting their territorial battles with tree swallows making their flight path through these mountains. I look forward to painting them again, under-standing them, beauty forged through harsh winds, refracting in our own lives to birth a new community, toward a New Creation.
Toward that I want to read the end from my book "Art+Faith: A Theology of Making" (Yale University Press), a "Benediction for Makers" which is everyone here:
Let us remember that we are sons and daughters of God, the only true Artist of the Kingdom of Abundance. We are God’s heirs, princesses and princes of this infinite land beyond the sea, where Heaven will kiss the Earth.
May we steward well what the Creator King has given us, and accept God’s invitation to sanctify our imagination and creativity, even as we labor hard on this side of eternity.
May our art, what we make, be multiplied into the New Creation. May our poems, music, and dance be acceptable offerings for the cosmic wedding to come. May our sandcastles, created in faith, be turned into a permanent grand mansion in which we will celebrate the Great Banquet of the Table.
Let us come and eat and drink at the Supper of the Lamb now so that we might be empowered by this meal to go into the world to create and to make, and return to share what we have learned in this journey toward the New.