Saturday, 29 November 2008

On Beauty

As a painter I am very interested in the way things look. Likewise, when I write I consider carefully the aesthetics of the words I choose and the allusions they create.

For those of us whose day to day business is the pursuit of what might be regarded by some as light fancies or vanities there are many misconceptions to navigate beyond and pitfalls to avoid.

Beauty is both objective and subjective- being a virtue we all seem to admire yet likewise being in the eye of the beholder and so forth. There is something universal about the beauty of the sunset, the spring blossom or fluffy kitten but our taste in painting seems to vary from person to person / culture to culture. We might say that beauty is both subjective and objective: subject to personal choices and preferences whilst working within an objective framework of absolute values. What are these values?

The Greeks understood beauty in terms of symmetry, clearly illustrated in the geometric order of their pantheon. Plato described beauty in terms of the harmony and balance of aesthetic order deriving from advancements in the understanding of mathematics, physics and philosophy. The Greek system of aesthetics greatly informed the thinking of the Modernist abstract painters and minimalists of the mid to late twentieth century such as Mondrian, De Stjil, Donald Judd, De Kooning and their infamous champion, art critic Clement Greenberg, in their quest for an absolute aesthetic.

Many of our popular notions of beauty are still influenced by the Greeks but the Greek notion of aesthetics should not be confused with biblical concepts of beauty. The Greek system of aesthetics moved beyond the visual language of architecture, art and design towards a higher meta-narrative. We should be careful not to confuse the Greek notion of beauty in metaphysics with God who transcends all. Whilst the bible affirms the absolute values of harmony, balance and order (we see this in the Genesis 1 and God’s creative method) it likewise gives great dignity to fallen humans who are a broken reflection of the beauty of God. If you over invest in beauty in the Greek sense you will eventually come to loggerheads with the gospel which recognises not just ugliness but also the noise of children and the beauty of someone singing out of tune.

The bible makes a distinction between aesthetic beauty and redemptive beauty.

In Genesis 2:9, before God describes his trees as “good for food” he first declares them, “pleasing to the sight”. The visual qualities of his creation are declared good along with the rest of the universe. God is clearly interested in the way things look as well as their function. Rachel, Sarah and Esther were all noted for their beauty.

In the bible, notions of beauty is aren’t just limited to formal aesthetics. This is where God’s word has much to our contemporary creative culture, cutting deep to the false values we place on how things look on the surface. God’s word also describes beauty in terms of redemption.

In Revelation the church as Christ's bride wears beautiful garments. These beautiful clothes aren't from Armani - rather, the beauty is the good deeds of the saints. In Proverbs the woman of noble character isn't noted for her looks but rather her godly character. Why do we sing of the beautiful Saviour? We sing of the beauty of redemption.

The arts can serve to enhance our lives, enlarging our understanding of God and His creation and offering glimpses of hope to the lost. Where the arts reflect the redemption of Christ they are at their most beautiful.

Paint Thin Boy Paint

Follow a Painting in Progress

Four weeks into the residency and finally I'm painting!

Monday, 24 November 2008

Tea, Prayer and Painting

Today has been fueled mostly by prayer and tea. Three weeks into the residency and an idea for the final work is emerging at an encouragingly rapid pace. Paul and Richard (two of the church leaders) have just left the studio after a very helpful discussion on how its all going.

I decided to make the central figure of the painting a woman to reflect the high demographic of Mums and toddlers who come in and out of the building for one of the weekly nurseries and mothers groups. The Factory also hosts the Options pregnancy resource centre.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Working Sketch

Last night at the studio in the Factory we enjoyed something of a consultation about the ideas so far. Thanks to those who came and for your contributions. This working photo-sketch is the closest I have for a working drawing of what the final piece might look like and below - an image of what it might look like in position.

Imagine the background of the painting to be a little mute in colour, allowing one or two of the characters to stand out in vivid colour. I've been working on the idea of representing those who are 'alive' and in Christ and those who remain under God's wrath but showing this as an everyday scene in raynes park where no-one really knows who is who. The working title of the painting is onean(d)other. What do you think? CAn you imagine this as a painting?

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Fear and Expectation

Monday morning I arrived to the studio to find one gargantuan canvas all wrapped up in cardboard. All primed now and ready to go. Writers talk about the fear of the empty page. For painters it's much the same - the intimidation and expectation of the blank canvas.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Painting and Theatre, Light and Dark

When I walk into the Factory it reminds me of the theatre. There's something very dramatic about the broad sweep of the auditorium and the layout of the chairs all facing forward towards the stage.

A few strides from the main door of the church, the centre of Raynes Park is equally theatrical. The wide open space in front of the train station and Starbucks looks set for some kind of event, framed nicely by the backdrop of houses and shops.

Painting and theatre have always enjoyed a mutually inspiring relationship with artists like Degas and Toulouse Lautrec painting behind the scenes at the theatre and painters David Hockney and more recently Jamie Hewlett designing stage set for opera.

Both disciplines employ light and dark as a means to creating a sense of dramatic reality and likewise both are concerned with issues of colour, composition and visual aesthetic to create space and atmosphere.

How might Raynes Park might be used as a kind of backdrop to a painted event? What might that event be? Perhaps the busy comings and goings of commuters, friends meeting and lovers greeting. Perhaps the stage is set for an event of John 3 proportions, where those in Christ as illuminated or alive in contrast to those still in the shadow and dead. Painters have often used light as both a metaphor and a compositional device. Here, I wonder if a late night twilight scene might evoke a sense of the coming return of Jesus and the glory revealed through the light of Christ as the judge of all men. Some remain in the light and embrace it whilst others are exposed in the darkness. Some are in fear and trembling. Others ignorant or in denial. I've never made work with an overtly biblical theme before and rarely seen contemporary art that does it sensitively and credibly... so there's the challenge!

Resident What?

Two weeks into my residency at the Factory, it's going well and I'm encountering all manner of stimulating questions and dilemmas. The staff have been brilliant in accepting a strange arty lad into the fold and we're enjoying a good working relationship. Here's a few sketches so far.

Artist Residency at The Factory, Dundonald Church

I've just started a new job as the artist-in-residence for The Factory which is the main building for Dundonald Church in South London.

In the spirit of artistic endeavour I’ve decided to hijack my own blog for the next couple of weeks. As well as the usual stuff I’ll be using this site as a kind of artists journal, chronicling ideas and images as they emerge from my studio practice at the Factory. If you’re willing, I’d love you to join me in this new adventure. Please do feedback your thoughts on the work over these next two months and any ideas they stimulate.

What’s the job? Essentially, I’ll be making a painting for the main church auditorium that reflects something of the values the church share and want to communicate to visitors. The painting will hang on the large side wall that greets you as you enter the main auditorium (above) and will hang beside a quote from John 3:36.

At this stage I’m obviously very excited about making work for the church but also, if I’m being honest, absolutely terrified having never made work for a church setting or with a religious theme. The challenge is to make art in collaboration with the church whilst retaining artistic credibility. I’ve been given a cracking studio space (below) and there’s no shortage of ideas but time’s going to be a factor. I’d really value your prayers for this project and please do keep tuning in.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Beyond the Horizon

Hearty thanks to all of you who came down to my exhibition last week in Camberwell. I was very happy with the work and a joy to show with Jonathan and Charles. You should really check out their websites linked to the right.

Quite a few people took an interest in the Japanese paintings. If you didn't make it to the show here's a little background info on these paintings.

"In Denial of Horrific Events" (below - oil on canvas 190x160cm) documents the centrepiece of the theme park, Gulliver’s Kingdom, near the village of Kamikuishiki, which shut down in 2001 when the bank financing it collapsed. The 360,000 sq metre park, based on episodes of Swift’s novel, was built in 1997 as the village sought to shake off its notoriety as the base of Aum Shrinrikyo, the sect which released lethal sarin gas on the Tokyo underground in 1995.

"Shadow Beneath Mount Fuji" (above right - oil on canvas 65x54cm) juxtaposes the outline of Mount Fuji - traditionally used as a symbol for eternity in Japanese art - with the peaks of a temporary hospital cum market set up over the original meeting sight of the Aum Shrinrikyo suicide cult.

The Scottish Interface in Pictures

When Will It Ever End?...

Well this painting is fast becoming the longest endurance race of my painterly career to date! I think I've been working on it for over five months now in repetitive cycles of destroying and resurrecting it. Perhaps it's time to give it a rest for a few months then come back to it with fresh eyes. In the meantime I've been working on new paintings including some of the above. Sometimes it's hard to know whether a painting is within a hair's breath of completion or a few weeks off yet. This one will need to stay as it is for now. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Camilla Starts Blogging

Camilla Symons has started blogging about her year as a Relay Worker with UCCF and her art including this piece of silverpoint drawing. For more check out

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Mud, Art and Grace at Forum 08

Many centuries ago – no, but really, man made art out of mud; sourcing pigment and colour from the earth itself. Last week at UCCF Forum the mud made art out of man.

As the rain poured down and the floods came up 50 female campers were displaced from their tents turning the art gallery into the largest open plan dormitory this side of Amsterdam. Better still, a great piece of collective performance art.

It’s a shame. Not just for our poor campers but for the art gallery which was the strongest I think we’ve done so far. Best laid plans of mice, men and so on. On the up side, this year’s Forum was by far the best yet on size, teaching and, well, monument. Thanks so much Lois, Lou, Marsha and Steph.

Every year, Forum feels more and more like a festival with more art and music and after hours and, well, fun. Now I seemto be having a few problems with images on my Mac so until I work it out... Dave Bish has a few clips on his blog of Linda’s great wellie performance and Cully and I doing something silly on stage. Follow teh link to the right.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Painting In Progress

Anna and I are away over the month of August but you might like to see how the current painting is progressing. Here are two snaps. The first taken two weeks and and the second from the studio yesterday. We're back again in September and look forward to ressuming normal service then. Bye til then.

Spot the difference.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Painting Through Turmoil

Here's something interesting...

Oscar Wilde used to say that great art comes through great times of celebration or turmoil. This clip appeared on the bbc news website this morning (I think you need to click on the "?"above - anyone know how to get bbc clips up on to blogger?) An Iraqi artist who found solice in her art as the bombs exploded around her. I find it very interesting how God devises art to help us make sense of the difficulties around us and bring some kind of order from the chaos. I guess in part she escpaes through her art but she also models what Calvin Seerveld called rainbows in a fallen world.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Capricious Guest

The composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky called inspiration The Capricious Guest. Wait for him to arrive and you may be waiting for a long while.

I've been doing a little writing recently and finding the hardest part is getting going. Inspiration doesn't fall from the sky. The apple of isn't hovering above my head ready to plummet any time soon. The word inspire means "breathes in". Sometimes the creative process feels just like that. Breathing. Sometimes we just need to show up at the desk (or the studio) and work, process, hoping that good comes from just keep going.

In the bible the word inspire appears in 2 Timothy 3:16, "All Scripture is inspired by God..." The Greek word here is theoneusi which translates "breathed-out". The bible writers were inspired in a very different way than we are. The words of the bible were breathed out by God rather than breathed in by men.

Since all creativity originates in the character of God, ultimately all inspiration, in all its forms, comes from him too.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Follow a Painting in Progress

Here's a thought...

Blogs chronicle something of the creative mind in process, right? Ideas are aired in an unresolved manner to stimulate a little discussion online? I thought I'd try that visually.

I know artists aren't supposed to show their work until it's finished but I've always been interested in artists' creative process (their sketchbooks, painting methods and ideas etc) as well as the final result.

Last year, our UCCF team enjoyed a few days away together in the south of France. We visited the studio where Paul Cezanne painted some of his salient works. Incredible. What an extraordinary experience to handle his palette, view his sketchbooks, brushes and abandoned canvases albeit at a somewhat forced sanitised distance for tourists.

Not that I would compare myself to Cezanne but I thought it might be interesting to record my next painting online as it evolves. So… here we go – my latest painting from conception to (hopefully!) completion.

The working title is ‘East of Pingvellar’. The idea for this painting came from the drive away from the Alping church towards the horizon with no sense of imminent destination. A journey. The haunting, almost cinematic light. The pull of the horizon. Just a drive towards the fading evening sun of Iceland, east of Pingvellar.

Monday, 21 July 2008

New Works on Show

bleep... bleep... bleep... News Flash!

For anyone around in London at the end of the month I'll be exhibiting new work at the Mile End Arts Pavillion 31st July-2nd August as part of the Mile End Art Exhibition (clever title, huh?). I'll be exhibiting with a group of emerging and contemporary artists from London's East end and giving an artists talk on the Saturday night. Please do come along if you're in the area. Here's the info...

One of the works on show will be 'Requiem (Green Mist)', a lament for the former dockland workers of Glasgow. The painting shows park benches surrounded by the encrouching mist, empty and isolated. To me they were something of a forgotten memorial to the workers lunchtime gatherings and the mist seemed to emphasise the melancholy of the rememberence.

Also showing are Mary Gayton, Semmmab Guhl and Charles Reid. Charles moved to London from the States last year with his wife, Kim and now works as artist in residence at the London City Mission. He's making some really intersting work about word, words and 'the Word': weird fusions of science fisction creatures, comic book landscapes and deconstruction theory. Something like these...

Art as a Blessing

At the Interface conference two weeks ago we spent quite a bit of time discussing what it means to make art that blesses those it reaches.

In the bible, the word bless means ‘enlarge’. To bring a blessing is to enlarge the thinking, living or actions of another.

Blessings and good feelings are not the same thing. Sometimes God gives a blessing but it comes as a painful experience. Think of Jacob who wrestled God in the middle of the night and came away with a blessing that caused him to limp. When the Holy Spirit convicts me to change my attitudes or my actions this always comes as a painful experience yet I am enlarged as a result.

Sometimes art needs to ask the difficult questions. Sometimes the making of art can be a painful experience for the viewer and also for the artist but the fruit of such labours can bring great blessing. Recently, I saw Steven Spielberg’s, ‘Schindlers List’ again. I couldn’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ the film or it made me feel good yet I was certainly enlarged by being reminded of such sacrificial kindness and genuine heroics. The film is beautiful and excellent: a memorial and a blessing. It shows so much of what is good in God's world, finding beauty (truth) in the most horrific of circumstances but it does not make us feel good.

The opposite of blessing is curse. The biblical word curse means ‘reduce’. To curse someone is to reduce then in some way.

Sometimes art appears as though it is bringing a blessing where actually is brings a curse. Art that offers sentiment, insincerity or that panders to popular ideals serves more as an anaesthetic than is does a blessing. Art might feel good but actually brings a reduction in thinking, living or actions. Dare I go on about it again but much kitsch art brings more a curse than a blessing in that it reduces our understanding of God and his creation rather than enlarging our relationship with him.

As I head to the studio this morning my prayer is for the Holy Spirit to help me work at my art so that through difficulty there might be something that enlarges both my understanding of God’s reality and the thinking of those it reaches.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Excellence and Mediocrity in Art.

Sorry to be away for a while. For the last three weeks my mind and body have been caught up in the Interface 08 conference - a very special weekend and morer about it in the next blog. One of teh subjects on the plate for the weekend was the idea of artistic excellence.

A defining moment in Michael Parkinson’s career came during his TV interview with Pablo Picasso shortly before his death in 1973. Recognising the great painter’s age Parkinson took the opportunity to commission his own original drawing live on air. Picasso accepted and took two minutes to sketch Parkinson’s portrait as the interview continued. Parkinson was thrilled. It was an excellent sketch

“Out of interest,” asked Parkinson, “How much would this sketch sell for?”

Picasso replied with a rye smile, “Around six thousands pounds,”

“Six thousand pounds! How can something so quick be worth so much?”

The audience was shocked by Parkinson's somewhat out of character affront but Picasso, easing back into his armchair, was completely unfazed.

“Michael, this drawing did not take me two minutes,” he said. “I’ve been working on it for over eighty years.”

Picasso knew, as all true masters know, that excellence does not come overnight.

Good art doesn’t happen quickly. Like Picasso, Bezalel would have worked hard over several years: Developing the gifts God had given him and grafting hard. Therefore, hard graft is a thoroughly biblical value.

As a student worker, I sometimes meet young artists who use their artistic gifts as a license for laziness. Sometimes this is manifest in simply not working all that hard at their art, perhaps skipping the odd tutorial or crit. On occasion, I meet students who think God would rather have them at another bible study than go to lectures. Not only does this crave a false segregation between the sacred and the secular, it also undervalues the gift of God’s Spirit for skill, craft and knowledge .

In the Exodus account we see an anointing for hard graft: for skill, ability and knowledge. In so doing we have a challenge to work hard in our own discipline. Paul writes to the Colossians in 3:23;

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for men”.

Whatever you do: Be that painting, sculpture, dance or writing; Whether you work in a city centre office or a studio under a railway arch. All our work is to be considered worship to the Lord and we are to work well for His glory.

This is not to say that there is nor room for the mediocre in art. Franky Shaeffer wrote a pretty venemous book on the subject of Christians being 'Addicted to Mediocrity'. I don't agree with some of his ideas. It strikes me that God gifts some with a lavious degree of artistic gifting whilst others receive less. The same might be said for other spiritual giftings such as evangelism, administration, preahing, prophecy and hospitality. Surely our responsibility is to fan into flame the measure of gifting God has given us, working with all our hearts with the tools at our disposal as working for the Lord and not for men and asking that God might lavish us with more for His glory. We need excellent artists buit I likewsie believe we also need the mediocre. What do you think?

Friday, 20 June 2008

Cultural Transformation: Authentic Art

Christ called us to live in a way that reflected the truth within us: the truth of Christ.

How then, does our art communicate something of this truth? Perhaps it begins by making work that is rooted in authenticity. By that, I mean art that is honest, sincere and points to the truth.

The dictionary definition of authentic is that which is “genuine and original, as opposed to something that is a fake or reproduction.” Art that moves beyond Air Guitar mimicry will always seek to be authentic. We might be inspired by or reference greater artists, even imitate but always as an act of tribute and not one of mere copying or plagiarism.

An authentic artist seeks to point to the truth. When Christ explained what the Kingdom of God was like to his followers he chose to do so in the form of a story. “The kingdom of God is like a pearl”, he said or “the kingdom of God is like a net” elsewhere.

These stories were artistic keys that unlocked a door to understanding something infinitely more difficult to understand yet true. His storytelling art was an authentic use revelation of a greater reality. Was Jesus telling lies when he told such parables? Was he tricking his audience or posing riddles to confuse? Of course not.

Like the actor who tells a story through someone else’s eyes or the painter who constructs a visual myth, the stories of Jesus were as compulsive as they were revelational. Christ’s followers kept coming back for another listen. Even the disciples asked, “Teacher, what did that mean?” "Tell us more."

In the same way, our art can stimulate the same intrigue over matters of truth. Rather than spoon-feeding reality to our audience we can engage, get under the skin, cause the audience to come back for more and ask, "What does this mean? Tell us more." All the while pointing to a greater reality found in Christ. This is authentic art.

Interface 08

Interface 08 is approaching fast for 4-7 July.

INTERFACE 08 is a creative convergence I'm involved with of students and professionals in the arts and media who love the Lord and want to see him glorified in the creative industries. As the end of term beckons it’s the end of a year for some and the start of a career for others. Before you jet off for that beach holiday or summer project why not meet with fellow Christian creatives to converse the joys and challenges of serving Christ in the arts.

Interface is a mentoring conference; our speakers don’t talk at you: we talk with each other: This year we'll be thinking through... Life After Art College. Creative Careers for Christ. Self-Expression versus Godly Communication. A Christian Understanding of Dance. Design. Music and Art. Art and the Bible. Visual Communication and Why Evangelicals Don’t Do Art.

There’ll be all the usual open mic shenanigans, show and tell, plenty of prayer, worship and good times. Everyone has the chance to show recent work and to bring your own ideas to the table. Would be great to see you there.

Check out the link on the right.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Cultural Transformation

How are cultures transformed for the glory of Jesus?

You may have spotted the underlying theme of this blog is the role Christians can play in the cultivation of the creative arts for Christ. What role can art play in the transformation of minds and character?

I wanted to write a couple of blog entries reflecting on this question. Please do leave a comment with your ideas too.

Whenever we speak of transformation we have to begin with the gospel. The only means by which our broken culture can find hope is through the redemptive power of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection. As we hope for transformation we hope by the grace of the gospel. It’s the gospel that brings salvation.

Paul encourages the Philippians to live in a manner that reflects the glory of God. We might say the same of our creativity,

“Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life.” (Phil 2:14-16)

In our art and in our lives we hope that there is something attractive to those who don’t share our deepest beliefs held in synergy with the proclamation of Jesus’ gospel so those who don’t know might hear, in hearing believe and in believing receive eternal life. We shine like stars and we also hold out the word of life – the gospel of Christ.

Second, we hope for transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit (Christ’s Spirit).

Think back to how Adam made culture in Eden. As he worked the land, the Spirit brought a groundswell of water to cultivate his efforts. When we make culture we always do so in partnership with the Holy Spirit. Think of Bezalel who developed skill, ability and knowledge in design which were gifts of the Spirit (Exodus 31). Think of David who wrote music primarily for the Lord and then later used for communal worship.

Third, we hope for transformation in the name of Jesus.

If we read that with Hebrew eyes we read it as “in the character” of Jesus. Our art is a gift to the name and character of Jesus Christ and for him to do with as he will. Imagine art make with excellence for the fame of God and not the artist. Imagine art with credibility, authenticity and character by the grace of Christ’s gospel, through the power of Christ’s Spirit and created in and for the name of Jesus Christ.

What might that look like? I invite you to keep dancing with me as I try to work this out in my own art and thinking…