Saturday, June 05, 2010


The first thing that religious studies (including the best preparation for ministry) does for the student is to destroy the assumption that his or her faith stance is true, unique, or even properly understood. The second thing that the same program does -- if properly continued -- is to restore that faith stance enriched, universal, and far more deeply felt because it is connected to patterns that can be seen everywhere. This is an academic version of a transformative experience that is universal in various guises.

How is it that ordeals like the vision quest of Plains Indians, journey quests like King Arthur’s knights, near-death experiences, experiences of intense intimacy, and the ingestion of certain drugs can cause a crisis that appears to be death and turns out to be transformation? All these are potential religious mysteries. Some of these mysteries provoke imitations in hopes of capturing their efficacy, Christian communion included. Nor does the latter community want their crucifixion story to be interpreted by the ordeals of the bondage S/M community. Each wants to claim that their own version of this phenomenon is the only one with power, the only one that should be awarded status or given control to protect their own interests.

But the deep pattern of death/rebirth is built into nature, the whole structure of existence on this planet whether it is plant, mammal or fungus. One thing comes out of another, self-evidently, scientifically, poetically. When the claim of one dominating authority is broken and the universality of redemption (more often through transformation than restoration) becomes obvious everywhere, one’s idea of salvation moves from individual existence to participation in the great interwoven intergalactic oneness of everything that is or could be. You cannot be extinguished -- because you are simply the recent incarnation (flesh-version, carne= flesh) of everything that came before and continues through you to everything that comes after.

One way of preserving the morality humans crave is by invoking the principle of beauty. Is what you are doing likely to contribute to the beauty of existence? This calls the artist to morality, which is why many of the great subversive protesters have been painters, sculptors, composers, photographers, and writers. This kind of morality is not middle-brow, bourgeois, “nice” beauty, but the kind of terrifying beauty or majestic beauty that are characteristic of the great religions.

Along these lines, I was thinking about AIDS and how many children it kills, how indifferent and simply unknowing so many people are, how much the very existence of the continuing patterns of civilization depend upon the strands woven by generations -- adult to living child to grown adult to new child. So I thought I might make a little figure of a crucified child.

Sculpture is an art form I know well because of being married to a sculptor. In fact, I was with him when he was commissioned to create a body of Christ on the cross, what is called a “corpus.” We did a lot of research and experienced quite a lot, especially Maurice who was actually ON the cross as the model. Bob’s daughter, a year older than myself, was dying of cancer at the time and her suffering and death became conflated with this sculpture. I own a bronze casting of it.

There’s no way I can create a corpus as exact and inspired as the one Bob made and I have no access to a foundry in order to cast it in bronze. However, over the years I’ve made a lot of crude little dolls and puppets. Technologies like polymer clay have made available materials easy to work and then harden in a kitchen oven. I started with a wire armature (floral design wire meant for stems) with aluminum foil crumpled onto it to make a core.

In some ways I always want to stop with this half-done, because it is so evocative. The brain’s wish to respond to suggestion and incompletion has been exploited by many artists: in blurs and vagueness we see our dreams. But I lay my figure on my computer scanner to record it, took a photo and went on.

When I had the whole thing roughed out -- and I knew to consult artists’ and medical resources (now online) to get the proportions of a half-grown child right -- I put it on the scanner again. I’m using Super Sculpey, which is so soft that it was clear I couldn’t keep doing that without squashing detail. So I bit the bullet and bought a cheap digital camera, groaning at what I would have to learn about it.

One of the truths of art is that there must always be technology. I don’t care how instinctive, skillful, inspired, the artist is, practical and acquired study counts. Only those who know nothing about it insist that artists spring out of the mist effortlessly. Charlie Russell was NOT painting at the direction of some frontier angel. He was a man who studied, observed, shared with other artists, and knew his materials. Artists who are kept from doing these things will hit limits. Sometimes those limits evoke solutions that are quite beautiful but not often.

My limits are very tight. I don’t know whether I can even get my digital photos onto this blog. But I’m not putting so much energy into that as I’m exploring my own vision by sharing it with the young artists-at-risk of Cinematheque. I have no idea what their response will be. But in thinking about how it would affect them, I began to think how hard they must fight despair and withstand pain. I thought to myself that they were already in the midst of crucifixion, so how was I helping them?

I gave my figure wings. Just on one side to see what it would look like. I’d already taken a look at the feathering of wings, the design of wings, because of the sculpture of some of the major American Beaux Arts figures: Daniel Chester French and Saint Gaudens. And, of course, since Bob was a taxidermist as well as a sculptor and often kept pet birds from eagles to ducks to finches, I’d handled them and could “feel” them. I just cut a wing out of paper and laid the unfinished figure on it. I don’t know where it will go from here.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

I enjoyed these thoughts very much.

You're right about arts and technology, how art always depends on technology. The flip side of that is that sometimes new technology enables art. I wouldn't be half the visual artist I am today without Photoshop, because Photoshop enabled me to start making art that reflected my inner vision, which had not the skill to paint or draw. It freed me, and opened doors, because I could use my camera and my scanner as the tools to bring images into the digital realm that I could then combine into Photoshop pieces. Now I'm finally teaching myself to draw, and all those years of photography and Photoshop make a difference to the learning process.

Art school is like religious studies in the sense that there must an unlearning as well as learning process.