Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Art and Spirituality: To Satisfy the Hungry Eye

Art and Spirituality: To Satisfy the Hungry Eye
Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
January 5, 2014

It could be said that each of our lives at the start of a New Year is a blank canvas. As we heard in the Time for All Ages, we can be open at this time of year to new experiences, new possibilities. A quote by the Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki is worth sharing: "In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few." Lynn Ungar, editor of the Church of the Larger Fellowship’s Quest newsletter, says, “when we are experts at something, we know how it is supposed to be done. We are ready to judge whether we, or anyone else, are doing it the ‘right’ way. But with Beginner’s Mind there is the possibility that the ‘right’ way could turn out to be entirely different than what the experts had imagined.” (‘Resources for Living,’ Quest, Jan 2014, 7)

Grown-ups usually say they can’t paint or draw, they don’t know the right way to do it…but our children have no such inhibitions!

I first began painting in the late 1970s when we lived in England as a very young military family; I taught framing and crafts at the base arts and crafts center. Then when we moved to San Antonio I decided I wanted to work on a degree, and one of my classes was an art class. I was really hoping to learn the ‘right’ way to paint, since I had been self-taught, and I enjoyed the class. One day because our daughter Molly wasn’t in school I took her with me to class; to my chagrin the instructor totally ignored my work but obviously enjoyed seeing Molly paint!

Sometimes our creativity is stifled because we are too concerned with being seen to know what we are doing…but the creative impulse actually thrives on the experience of not knowing! The first stroke of the paintbrush is a commitment, but not to what you’re ‘supposed’ to do. It’s a commitment to opening yourself up to something new, to many possibilities – including the possibility that actually you might not be really good at it, but enjoying it anyhow – it’s what Suzuki describes as Beginner’s Mind, a state in Buddhism that is considered creative and optimistic. Shoshin is the state of being open, of being without assumptions or preconceptions.

Another concept in Buddhism that I associate with this openness to creativity is the phrase, ‘heart and hand are one’. It comes from Carol Ring, who reflects on beauty and the calligraphy of Chinese Buddhists in the Spring 2013 issue of Parabola magazine. Ring writes that the innermost secret of calligraphy is oneness, which “like all secrets, has to be revealed. A revelation that both comes of itself and takes years to attain. So often it is my disconnectedness that I become aware of. So many efforts are necessary before this effortless unity appears. For a moment, heart and hand unite and there is a brief taste of being completely engaged: at one within myself and with the practice.” (Ring, "Shodo: the Way of the Brush," Parabola, Spring 2013, 65).

This must be what the artist Cezanne meant when he said, “A minute in the world’s life passes! To paint it in its reality, and forget everything for that! To become that minute, to be the sensitive plate…give the image of what we see, forgetting everything that has appeared before our time.” (John Berger, Ways of Seeing,1972, 31)

As with other opposites - body and spirit, being and doing, center and extremity –we live our daily lives within these creative tensions. “Heart moving the hand, spirit and body reunited and whole,” Ring says this engagement is a “returning to original unity”.
And this is what, in a very different context, John O’Donohue was talking about when he wrote the blessing we heard earlier, for “the artist at the start of day” (from To Bless the Space Between Us) – the artist as a vessel for what wants to ascend from silence, ‘the gift within you’ that is beyond imitation, ‘something original…grow[ing] stronger in your heart.’ I love the image that he creates with the phrase ‘to surprise the hungry eye’ and I want to explore it a bit more in depth. Why do we feel the urge to create? Is it a real hunger that drives artists to create something new out of the stillness?

Using the term to “surprise” the hungry eye is to make a statement about the unpredictable impact of the visual image. The theologian William Lynch says, “the images that a person perceives can carry a profound impact in a person’s life. But he then goes on to argue that “People not only perceive, but they perceive according to a pattern, a paradigm, an imagination or according to a faith.” (Gerald Bednar, Faith as Imagination, 1996, 140). 

So even though an artist may be open to the possibilities of creativity, our reaction to art as observers is driven by how it conforms to our paradigm or confounds it. It sounds strange to us now, but Edvard Munch’s artwork entitled The Scream, done in an early Expressionist style that portrayed emotions through distorting form and color, caused such an uproar when it was first exhibited that the Berlin exhibit of 1892 was closed. Munch, on the other hand, was quoted as saying, “I want to paint pictures that will make people take off their hats in awe, the way they do in church." (Munch, The Scream,

I must say that when we were hanging these beautiful pieces of art yesterday I stopped frequently in awe – if I’d had on a hat maybe I would have taken it off!

It was then that I understood what the writer and broadcaster John Berger means when he writes that “every image embodies a way of seeing…the more imaginative the work, the more profoundly it allows us to share the artist’s experience of the visible.” (Ways of Seeing, 10)

So there are two different perspectives in any piece of art, the way the artist sees it, and the way another person sees it. And even within those perspectives, Berger reminds us that we employ assumptions, or to use Lynch’s term, a paradigm, based on beauty, truth, genius, status, and taste, to name a few cultural norms. We can be awestruck, or we can be let down, even offended, by what we see – the ‘surprise’ for the hungry eye. People use the term ‘taste’, as in ‘it’s not my taste in art’, but there is really so much more going on than that.

I come back again to the hunger that is articulated by John O’Donohue, because we may have a spiritual hunger that can be expressed or satisfied by the act of creating. And the creativity of an artist can spark a spiritual connection in us.

The composer Aaron Copeland said that
“a masterwork awakens in us reactions of a spiritual order that are already in us, only waiting to be aroused. When Beethoven’s music exhorts us to be noble, be compassionate be strong, he awakens moral ideas that are already within us. His music cannot persuade; it makes evident…A concert is not a sermon. It is a performance – a reincarnation of a series of ideas implicit in the work of art.” (Bednar, 138)
And since we have called this our month of art and spirituality, for those who need to know more about what that means, I like the description by Veronica Brady: “Genuine spirituality, like art, is open and dynamic...both are the hope of a world so badly in need of transformation” ( She goes on to say, “Art reminds us that life is stranger, more beautiful, demanding, joyous and painful than common sense knows.  The holy then, is mysterious.  It underlies the vision of tragedy and, indeed, of any good novel which gives us a glimpse into the mysteries of the human condition.  Far from being unworldly or abstract, this mystery exists in the midst of our lives.”

We may hear during this month about the way in which our artists seek to make meaning, or paint to express the feelings or desires they have. And even when they know what it is they want to see on the canvas, the resulting image still may surprise, delight, or horrify them. There is something unleashed and mysterious that they cannot control, sometimes a completely different image results…and this creative space can be where they confront the transcendent and transforming power of art. The artistic impulse creates something that escapes control, surprising the artist whose hand is responsible for that very creation.

Henri Matisse said that ‘creativity takes courage’; I would suggest that the artist who accepts the wild nature of her art, in the sense that it is untamed and unanswerable even to her, paints as much with courage as with color. This courageous attitude is expressed by artist Terry Lee Getz this way: “I will risk plumbing unknown depths that release and fulfill my spirit, and I’ve arrived at a point in my life, creative or otherwise, where the ‘unknown’ is my preferred orientation.” (“Embracing the Unknown” in Siminaitis, Kaleidoscope, 2007, 126)

As I was writing this sermon the other evening, our daughter Molly sent a message on Facebook, a quote from Gilda Radner, that wonderful and much-missed comedian: “Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next.....Delicious Ambiguity.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that every artist was once an amateur. Rather than use the common definition, which is someone who is not very good at what they are doing, I go back to the root word, which is Latin for ‘to love.’ An ‘amateur’ does something out of love and not for gain.

But amateurs as well as established professional artists need to keep their creative juices flowing - love may not be enough! Writer and artist Jill Jones identifies seven concepts that are at the heart of any creative project (“Keeping Your Creative Spirit Alive” in Kaleidoscope 2007, 122-3), and I thought I would conclude my message this morning by listing them for you. If this month of art and spirituality has inspired you to try your hand at some kind of artistic endeavor, then this list might be very handy.
First, Jones suggests that we find ‘religion’ by establishing the habit of working regularly on the creative plane; if we consistently, ‘religiously’ carve out designated time in our calendar and treat it as ‘sacred time,’ we are more likely to go to that space and create.

Second, a way to start off the morning right might be with some sort of ritual to situate ourselves in that creative space; Jones says this can take many different forms, from reciting mantras, lighting candles, to ‘singing four songs in the shower’. The action we decide to take, she says, is not as significant as the meaning we grant to it.
Third, talk back to your self-talk. Never mind the way others can be judgmental, your own self-talk can be negative and even abusive, so be proactive and think of ways to get rid of the trash-talk in your head, even perhaps by writing down answers to your negative self-talk and practicing them out loud.

‘Work with what you have’ is her 4th piece of advice. We have limitations and some of them might be financial, so if we can’t afford top-notch materials, then recycled materials from the kitchen can make good art. But Jones says, “The more important elements needed in the equation are passion, courage, focus, motivation, desire and follow-through. If we think we have to wait until all the stars are aligned and all our ideal conditions are met, we will never move any closer to our goals.” (123)

Fifth, begin again: if you have a day when things don’t go well, it doesn’t mean all is lost – rather, there is another day to begin again. Jones says, “Learn to work in the middle of things and not wait for inspiration or a magical burst of energy. The muse will visit more often if you are working on a regular basis.” (123)

The sixth piece of advice follows on from the fifth one, and it is ‘do whatever it takes’. Keep moving forward and “stay open to opportunities to learn about yourself and the world. Love your creative expressions, and do whatever it takes to keep at it.” (123)
Finally, establish a supportive network. Jones says that we need to find others who enjoy working together and learning, people who will be positive influences and who will cheer you on in your creative endeavors. She says we need to weed out those negative people who discourage you; who form, in the words of John O’Donohue, “the sticky web of the personal with its hurt and its hauntings and fixed fortress corners.”

With these seven concepts, the artist can hope to maintain a positive and creative approach. Come to think of it, just like the blank canvas of life that we spoke about earlier, those seven points can also apply to our lives. If we get into the habit, start the morning right, end negative self-talk, work with what we have, have the courage to begin again and do whatever it takes to move forward, supporting our creativity by establishing a supportive network, then we too can create what O’Donohue calls ‘a rhythm not yet heard’ – that rhythm that is our own life’s unique work of art.

May each of us find the courage to accept the mystery of existence and the lack of control over our lives, and yet, in the face of it, resolve to make the best of what we’ve been given… and as we reach to put the brush to the blank canvas, may our possibilities continue to be many.

Blessed be, Amen.

Rev. Dr. Gaye Ortiz