By Kim Thomas
It is the beauty of his holiness that lights the way to making and being creative – this is what calls me to simply be faithful in daily fidelities. I must walk the well-worn path of my calling, in the restfulness of his providence. The One who was, and is, and is to come has got everything covered. I can relax, respond in worship – not try to “be” or “fix” or “do” what is the Almighty’s prerogative. I joyfully step into the day, breathing morning mercies of grace to respond to his initiating love, in the fullness of all he has given to me.
This is who I want it to be. But I confess that more often my reality is a wrestling match of priorities urging anxious fight or flight waves of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine that overtake my obedience to daily fidelities of worship. The well-worn path of calling is washed out in the tsunami of to-do’s and distractions, and soon the path must be worn anew.
But I continue to rehearse the way there. I pray for the discipline of time and gift of space, and for the memory that worship is often a result of my time there.
My studio is steps away from my everyday life. It is in my home, and this is both good and bad. It is convenient, which serves me well, allowing me to fit times of making, prepping, thinking, between times of working and other details of life. But this proximity to my everyday life allows me to be easily distracted on days of less focus.
Aside from the proximity of my studio, I must negotiate my time. I am the Curate of our church, The Village Chapel, and there is truly no real definition to my work hours. One tries to “do what only you can do”, and “delegate to develop”, and utilize the “60/40” principle, but when it comes down to it, ministry has an all-consuming aspect that is just part of the package. So surrender and adapt, or resent and wither. Some things can be compartmentalized and set aside, and wisdom requires that, but other parts require blood flow 24/7, and also cannot be contained. I have sometimes been good at it. The surrender and adapt part. My calling is expressed vocationally in a variety of ways – I am a multiperspectivalist. Doesn’t fit well on a business card, and it wasn’t one of the options for “what do you want to be when you grow up”. But I fully inhabit it, to all the edges of my being.
When I have a sustainable rhythm of working in my studio, I find the liturgy of routine to be a contributory tether. Simple daily steps create habits that ultimately lead to fruitfulness. From the beckoning, to the thinking while I’m waking the studio, to the rhythmic preparing of materials, to starting, creating and finishing. The fullness of each of these things is that they are acts of worship.
My second language is metaphor, and the studio speaks it fluently. Therein hide the gifts of communion and worship, offering, and presence. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning spoke clearly – “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes – The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” The studio is aflame with holy moments. Some are plain-speak, some are soulful moments of worship, and some are contemplative times of reflection. Some are just the steps – wash the rags, hang the brushes, change the paper on the tables.
Always there is first the beckoning. Come. The pull is strong, and yet I have a million reasons not to go. Is it important enough? Is art valuable in the grand scheme? Can I take time to step into the studio when there are people hurting? Does God bless the work of my hands? Can I do it, am I kidding myself…?
These are essential questions that can prevent good work from happening. They actually can become excuses in the guise of benevolent considerations. The immobilizing dualism that thoughtful Christians have often misunderstood values the spiritual over all other work, beauty or creativity. Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper said in his 1898 lectures that art “is no fringe that is attached to the garment, and no amusement that is added to life, but a most serious power.” Similarly, Pope John Paul 2 said “The Church has need especially of those who can communicate the message on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force. Christ Himself made extensive use of images in His preaching, fully in keeping with His willingness to become the Incarnation, the icon of the unseen God.”
Whether it is 10 steps into the studio or 10 miles, there is always an odd struggle and fight to get there when you have been away. It is like my one year Bible reading – when I miss a day, and then 2 or 7, it is so difficult to get back. And yet the Father beckons “come”. It is not an invitation to rote duty or forced obligation but to communion, giving and receiving, which happens as a result of relationship with Christ. Every time I know this. Every time, well, it requires intention. My studio requires intention. I want to do the work, to make and create, but the longer I’m away from it, I must jump in with more muscled intention. The invitation, the beckoning is always there.
Once there, the rehearsed routine of waking the studio begins. This also primes my thinking, gives it time to stretch and wake up as well. Plug in the six strip first, heating the crockpots, water pot and warming station and turning on the light that signals everything is on and the studio is open. I approach the papers, and pigments, comb out some brushes and pull out carefully folded rags. There are always large stainless water bowls holding remnants of previous days’ work, and they must be rinsed, cleaned and filled with new water for the day. The metaphors begin to speak as I scrub the sides of the bowl – begin a new day with confession, and be washed clean, receiving from the Father the forgiveness the Son purchased, be filled anew with the Spirit and the living water for today. Thanks be to God.
It is a slow medium I work in. Slow and ancient, with a historical legacy that is to be respected and yet whose boundaries I am obliged to push as I am the dissident in my studio. The slowness is in process and preparation, and in waiting for the work to dry. The work itself is abstract, exciting, responding to chaos – I am a vice-regent at work imposing a form of order on the disorder that spreads and bleeds on the paper. In the beginning, God spoke order into the chaos of the cosmos. I might tremble at the gravity until instead, I bow my head in gratitude. There is only a tiny taste of this for me as an artist when I prepare to work, the terrible honor of nothing becoming something at the bidding of my hand. This is what I think Dorothy Sayers meant when she said we are closest to God when we are creating, because we are image bearers. Creating something from nothing, (or in our case, rearranging things that God created that are in a semblance of nothingness), is to be taken as a privilege.
The papers I work with are paradoxical – delicate and yet when used properly, they have great tensile strength and archival reliability. The pigments are natural minerals, powdered in differing gradations that will reflect light in their own ways, layering in relationships to build unique textures and colors, the expression of the church, all over my studio. Ground azurite and malachite, or graphite and cinnabar, each require the appropriate binder of cowhide melted down to allow it to adhere to the handmade papers. And I hear “living in union with Christ”, or “Godliness with contentment is great gain” – the metaphors of two.
I grind the sumi stick of pine soot and hide glue in a small pool of water in the suzuri stone. Slowly the clear water becomes inky black. Transformation – the grinding of the soot stick transforms the water to thick black ink, reducing the stick. But the artist can then take that and use a brush and apply it with the proper pressure, water and skill and create beauty from ashes.
To prepare the luminous base coat for the paper, I pour out calcified shells that have dried on the shores of a beach in Japan for years. I apply pressure with my pestle, breaking and crushing them, adding in melted cowhide as a binder. Then they will be rolled into balls and thrown one hundred times to remove air bubbles, rolled out, hot water poured over them, and later will be ready to press into pigment. The body broken. My sins. Crushed for my iniquities. Oh Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.
There are precious silver and gold leaflets to be bonded to the surface, burnished, reflective, sometimes heated and patina’d. There are stains and bleeds, water and high-pressure air. And other various trials.
While paper is my favorite surface, sometimes I work on linen, sometimes a well-worked base of marble gesso, or sometimes just a lovely smooth birch board. Each carry the pigments with the essential foundation for the saturation of the work. The Psalmist said, “Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.” Gloriously Lord, you have labored for our daily place, we stand as works upon your foundation of old.
From the meditation of materials to the starting there is the leap of faith for the artist. As an abstract artist, I do not prepare a sketch, but more of a mood or overall theme. I have worked representationally and enjoyed it, but abstract has allowed this wonderful contemplation where image doesn’t hijack my thoughts. Neither is right or wrong. Both are beautiful when the artist is joyfully in sync with their own process.
The leap of faith for me in this medium is a wonderful wildly and mildly controlled experience. I have carefully prepared my materials as a chemist, and now with no way back, I will mark the surface. Unlike oil or acrylic, there is only a razor’s edge of opportunity to change marks. Too much scrubbing and the paper will felt, or you will interrupt what has been done, or lose the rhythm of the marks. This is good for me, because faith, belief has not been hard for me. Mystery is a welcome aspect of thought, snuggling in well with imagination. So the pathos of pouring or painting or making marks onto expensive paper that took hours to prepare, is indeed building my faith muscles. Trust – it will work. Do the steps. There is history to your skill and experience. Put the brush to the paper. You cannot respond until you begin. And I am packing my own sling full of stones, preparing to greet my giant, remembering God’s faithfulness to deliver from the lion and the bear. How good and great is our God to know our fears and needs, and to care to build us in our courage?
When the studio is so full of worship and communion, the anticipation of completed work is less pressure than joy. It is a byproduct of daily fidelities. But it is a fullness, and a celebration that affords yet another occasion of deep thanks that I get to create things. When I send the finished pieces out of my studio, there are layers of prayer patina, layers of communion that travel with them. NT Wright said that for him, when God is “known, sought or wrested within a place, a memory of that remains”. I can’t help but think that somehow applies to my pieces as they go to their new homes.
And this is all within the context of when my heart is in tune, and I hear and see…somedays, the brush is just a brush, the paper is just paper, and the pigment is ground dust. But whether there is a visceral sense of worship, or a good day’s work, doing whatever we do well, is an act of worship. Aware that we are invited, as those who work in imagination, to help display the glory of God in ways that are perhaps as yet unknown, or seen or heard, our work is the medium of His glory.
“Work well done rises like a hymn of praise to God. — all who are doing the work of the world as it should be done are joining in a great act of worship.”
— William Barclay