Finding My Muse – Part 2 (A Mirror Into The Soul)

In my last post Finding My Muse – Part 1, I explored what I called the Mona Lisa Effect. It is when a painting draws you in to discover the story revealed in part in the painting, that something that keeps you coming back again and again.

It is no easy endeavor to take a blank canvas and capture a moment such that it compels us to stop long enough to enter into a time and place other wise unknown to us.

When we look at a painting (the same is true of photographs), we are voyeurs peering at moment captured on canvas. If the viewer is a voyeur, how much more so is the artist who contemplates the image for an hour, a week or perhaps years, the image slowly emerging as the brush caresses the canvas. The artist takes what is seen with the eyes, reshapes it in the  intimacy of the theater of the mind, and releases it to make the journey to the cold white canvas.

The story captured may be profound, sublime or entirely pedestrian. IF the artist has excelled and  final work hung upon a wall, we are compelled to stop and play the voyeur peaking through the bushes to see the world in a way we have never seen it before.

Perhaps “voyeur” is an unfortunate term in that it has obvious negative connotations that are not intended here.  Unlike a voyeur, we enter in at the artist’s invitation to participate in the story. Yet, like the artist, what we see is both present and untouchable, real and unreal.

In the creation of art and the viewing of art, there is a danger, a precipice that entices us like a sirens call. I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said, “You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use art to see your soul.”

When a painting reveals what could be or should be or even will be in a way that makes us desire to be who God created us to be, that is a good thing. When a painting reveals the lust and covetousness, the evil that lurks in our hearts, that too is a good thing, since in so doing we see our selves as we are. We see our selves as being far from who God created us to be.

The precipice is not in revealing of who we are, but in pushing so far that the mirror into the soul, the work of art, becomes a source of perpetuating the evil that lurks within. It is painfully obvious when the line has been dramatically crossed. In the extreme, we have graphic blood and gore movies, and blatant pornography. At this extreme, the images have but one purpose, to inappropriately arouse our primary senses — our lower brain functions.

On the other extreme we have whitewashed walls lacking anything human or aesthetic. They are devoid of life. They are devoid of story, of humanity. It is like staring into mirror that reflects nothing back. It is disconnected from our experiences.

As a Pastor, I work with real people with real stories. Some stories are painful, others more joyful, but no story is whitewashed…at least not for long. We are a messy people living in a messy world.

As an artist, I seek to tell a story, often obliquely. It may be a story of hope, of the passing of time, of inner struggles, the desire to be loved, the pain of brokenness, of new beginnings, the stories of people and the stories of creation. Whether it is a buffalo on the plains or a contemplative elderly woman, there is a story and it says something about us. What do I love, what do I hate, what do I seek, what do I fear…?

As a Pastor and as an artist, I seek to draw people away from the emptiness of whitewashed walls, and to draw people from the primeval side of the precipice into a place where we see our selves as we are that we might find hope in the one who frees us to be who we were created to be.

…to be continued

Finding My Muse – Part 1 (the Mona Lisa effect)

Now that my masters studies are behind me I can turn my thoughts to a question that has been plaguing me for some time.

What interests me as an artist? What is it that inspires me to paint? 

As I reflect on my own sketches, paintings and photographs, there are some that I like and many I would rather shred, paint over or otherwise delete. I am also drawn to some other artist’s work, but find other works hold fleeting interest.

I do enjoy dramatic landscapes, subtle landscapes, for that mater almost any landscape, but my attention is only held by a few. There is something about those few that keep me coming back to look at them, something that stirs something within. It is that special something that makes one painting rise above the rest.

The same is true of figurative or life work — paintings with people as the dominant subject. Some are romantic, some may even stir a more sensual response, some are stunningly well done (I am certainly not talking about mine in that context). Other life works are informative, perhaps a historical rendering. Like landscapes, only a few capture my attention and keep me coming back.

There was I time when I thought composition was the key. No doubt it is very important. A poorly composed picture lacks visual interest. That is true of geometric composition, values and colors. These are foundational. If these building blocks are not working, the painting will not hold my attention. That said, I have seen some wonderfully composed paintings that just do not ‘do it’ for me.

So I move onto a second answer that keeps coming to mind — “story.” Paintings that lack “story” can be magnificent realistic representations of creation’s grandeur to abstract pieces with no discernable point. Unfortunately I find many still life works to be like this too, well done but static. The exceptions are delightful, but it takes more than pretty flowers to hold my interest. I know some (many?) of my own work easily fits into this storey-less category.

If there is one human sociological thread, it is story. We all have them. They define who we are, where we came from, why we do what we do, who we look like, how we dress, what we eat, where we sleep…you get the picture. Even when we talk about pedestrian things like the weather, we drift toward telling stories. “Remember the late snow we had in May this year?” “I remember back when I was kid…”

When a painting tells a story, suggestively, subtly or even abstractly, it draws me in. There is something human about it. It’s like over hearing a piece of a conversation as you walk down the street and wonder what the rest of the story is. Our minds are quite happy to fill in the details even if preposterously inaccurate.

On the other hand, in some art the story is too overt and over powering. The “story” is so in your face that there is nothing more to discover, the viewing experience is self terminating. Such pieces are little more than a stop sign on the imagination highway. No interpretation is needed. These can be technically wonderful executed works of art, but there is an element missing.

As I look at works of masters and amateurs alike, there is a common thread that draw me in and holds me. It is more than composition or story alone. There is an engagement, a conversation. When the story is suggested, but not all told, when questions are asked but not fully answered, when the viewer is drawn onto the scene and compelled to participate in the story each time they look at the painting, that is when it rises above the prolific common.

Perhaps we can call this the Mona Lisa effect. In some ways it is an uninteresting painting, little more than a simple portrait, a “snap shot” from an age before cameras…except for that smile. What was she thinking? I wonder if da Vinci knew we would still be trying to figure that out 500 years later.

Of course not many paintings rise to this lofty level. As much as I desire to attain some sense of the Mona Lisa effect in my own work, only a few of my paintings have even approached the foot hills, let alone begun to climb to such lofty heights. Yet this dialog between artist and viewer, this engaging story telling is the muse that keeps me going back to my easel. 

…to be continued



PS – There is a profound parallel to how we communicate verbally. Do we respond to questions in ways that terminate conversations or do we open a door to meaningful dialog? I suspect that there is a degree of laziness in all of us that wants simple answers that keep us from having to engage.