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Muse, Mess, Mastery: Working through the Art Process as a Christian

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

On September 9, at 7:00 p.m., Cornerstone will welcome Joe Di Bella, Professor Emeritus, Mary Washington University, as he gives his talk, “Muse, Mess, Mastery: Working through the Art Process as a Christian.” Everyone is invited to attend. In this blog entry,  Professor Di Bella introduces himself and what he plans to discuss.

Breath That Fades Away

Let me start off by saying that I am a Christian who is a visual artist. By no means do I find these two self-identifiers as mutually exclusive. For me I cannot comprehend a division between them. I am one and the other. I was an artist before I claimed the faith, and I seek to shape my art in terms of my faith.

If art has anything to do with communication, then our contemporary world is drenched in art of one form or another: music in its myriad genres, the proliferation of writing from Best Sellers to Face Book posts, the latest interior color choices for our comfortable domestic settings to the chic, slick design of much urban architecture, and orchestrated body movement from ballroom dancing to flash mobs. Even bloggers need to share thoughts, observations and opinions. And we often hear that most embracing statement of “everybody’s an artist” if they stitch, sketch, surf, or saunter in a skilled fashion.

There’s an art in and to everything.

Art is pervasive. That’s for certain. It is far easier to say what art does, where is it and who is doing it than to define what it is. The fact is art cannot be easily defined into a neat, brief equation. It is like water: It is practically everywhere, it’s been around forever, we like it, we need it, we can float or sink in it, and it can slip right through our fingers.

If art has anything to do with communication, then what is it that is communicated and why is there the need to communicate it? Even if we are not communicating with others, we are still attempting to communicate with ourselves the question of our being in this world. So, we use our abilities to make, to create. Why are we compelled to create? Christians often use the broad, overarching statement that humans create because they are made in the image of God, the Creator. While this is certainly true, it does not convey in what way we are not like the Creator: we are fallen, thus diminished and lacking, incomplete. Thus, our creativity is inherently flawed, though marvelous, and in our creativity we convey the full range of humanness still separated from perfection: awe, mystery, justice, pleasure, danger, desire, fear, power and so on.

The need to create is often as much about disenchantment as it is with enchantment. And so, as makers and viewers of art, it is fitting for us to realize that it is not only the wonderment of life that ignites creativity but also, and frequently, life’s disappointments and disillusions that prompt us to reflect, address, and form.

If, as Christians, we say that art must have an aesthetic purpose because beauty is truth, what do we mean? What is beauty? We believe that Scripture is beautiful because it is true. But the truth of our being is that we are incomplete, suspended, it would seem, between worlds. And this world may have beauty in it, but it also has a whole lot of ugliness, horror, pain and suffering. Are these not also intrinsic parts of life? Do we not address these in our faith? Then why should art only attend to a narrow view of beauty as truthfulness? What is truthfulness in visual art? What does that mean? Factuality? If we accept that we are flawed, then even our perceptions of what is factual are questionable. Our perceptions are shaped by our worldview. Are truthfulness and factuality best conveyed in realistic rendering? Not necessarily. Isn’t realistic rendering a deceptive means of forming a substitute for the real thing? Skillful, yes, but still deceptive. Does realistic rendering have exclusive hold on conveying truthfulness? If so, why do we connect with the rich metaphors in the Psalms, and the melodic lines and chords in music, but comparable aspects in visual art we often find alien? Is it that through metaphors and analogies we can read into rather than solely onto a subject?

I realize I am asking a lot of questions here but that is because I believe we are supposed to be discursive, we should question and we should think.

Tree Parables (Bear and Bare)

In my presentation on September 9, I will discuss my own development as an artist whose work is shaped by a Christian perspective. That perspective grew and changed during my life with its many failures and successes. I am an experimentalist and because of this, I don’t always have a set way of doing things. I really am averse to a single rote strategy or skill set because I get bored easily. Also, because I taught on the university level for forty years, I had to be competent in numerous approaches so that I could direct students with their individual interests. In my recent work, I embrace this approach: I save all my “failed” drawings and paintings—those that fall flat and are incoherent. Then I “revive” them by finding the unexpected and salvageable in them through new combinations and associations. I take that apparently worthless mishap, and reconfigure and redeem it. The theme of redemption is at the heart of the processes and materials I use. But this theme is not an overt illustration of the concept of spiritual redemption we experience as Christians. My approach is analogous to it. I am particularly interested in the Book of Ecclesiastes in its theme of the vanity and temporality of life. But in all of Scripture and in the writings of Augustine and others, I reflect on the fleeting nature of life and on God as transcendent Creator who gives form and life to the formless and lifeless.

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