Yes, I’m still thinking about the artist retreat

As much as I can with the new job I’m still trying to keep the goal of an artist retreat in front of us. Last week I learned about a property in eastern Nebraska that is going to come on the market soon, an old farmstead, that could be perfect for our idea. I doubt we’ll have the ability to move on this particular property, but this morning I was thinking a little bit about how such a farmstead could be converted for the retreat and sketched the following.


You wanted proof, instead of mystery . . .

I saw Mako Fujimura post his Letter to Churches of North America back in October, but didn’t read it through at the time. It seems as though I can’t avoid it as its posted again and again by fellow artists around the web.

So I went back to it in full today. Originally I figured it wouldn’t have much new to say to me, and while that was true it was still worth taking the time to read.

You began to believe in the late 18th century that we needed rational categories, to try to protect “faith” from “reason.” Reason began to win the battle in this false dichotomy. As a consequence, you began to suspect the mystery of our being and the miraculous presence of God behind the visible. What you call “Secularism” is your own offspring*, given articulation by the division and fragmentation within the church. As a result of this dichotomy, you began to exile artists whose existence, up to that point, helped to fuse the invisible reality with concrete reality. An artist knows that what you can see and observe is only the beginning of our journey to discover the world. But you wanted proof, instead of mystery . . .

You should read it all the way through as well via this link.

Show, don’t tell: Tolkein versus LaHaye/Jenkins

One of these stories is not like the other. One shows, one tells.

A link via Opus to a SkyeBox blog entry that responds to a recent Relevant article asking why Christian movies are so bad. The SkyeBox author believes — and I with him — the Relevant writer missed a crucial point.

He believes that our modernist Evangelical theology prevents us from non-literal thinking, from using our imagination and accepting the reality of mystery.

American evangelicalism, for the most part, has rejected a sacramental understanding of creation. Unlike Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some other high-church traditions, evangelicalism is rooted in modernity and a literalist vision of the world. The bread is just bread. The wine is just wine (sorry, grape juice) . . . Our brand of theology tends not to feed or cultivate the imagination.

A sacramental theology, on the other hand, requires one to see on multiple layers at once. A thing may carry multiple meanings simultaneously. Symbols dominate space and teaching. Mystery is embraced, and the imagination encouraged . . .

Is it possible that creative story-telling, like the kind necessary to produce great films, is particularly difficult for evangelicals because our instinct is to come directly at a something? . . . Rather than create a fantasy world like Middle-Earth to speak about the dangers of industrialization, a task that requires imagination and comfort with ambiguity, we’d rather just create a film about the dangers of industrialization.

The Left Behind books/films are an example of this direct communication style. Clearly LeHaye and Jankins [sic] created the series to teach their particular end times theology.

The SkyeBox writer goes on to describe a Van Gogh work painted in response to pieces by his friends Gauguin and Bernard. He thought his friends’ depictions of Christ in the Garden of Olives were too literal and responded with his own painting of Christ in the Garden where there was no visual depiction of Jesus.

I’ve been wondering if my own work has been too literal recently, although I understand that part of the reason for that has been an attempt to further my craft. In some ways it’s all a moot point though: I just haven’t had the time or a consistent enough schedule to properly iterate in my sculpture.

I’m eager to get to a point where my imagination becomes a greater part of my current sculptural work, where my ideas shine through my craft in a way that communicates with depth. I am moving in that direction, just not as quickly as I’d like.

Hutchmoot recap

I wasn’t the typical attendee at this little conference quite ingeniously called a Hutchmoot — which seemed to at times mostly like an Andrew Peterson fan club. I’m not saying this is good or bad, but I didn’t really know who Andrew Peterson was before this trip (though I had heard a couple of his songs at some point). So the excitement over being at one of his release concerts Friday evening was lost on me. Further, I wasn’t subscribed to the Rabbit Room blog, which was the driving force behind the moot, until after my wife had registered us.

So far as I know, I was the only visual artist at the Hutchmoot other than Evie Coates, who Rabbit Roomer Pete Peterson, Andrew’s brother, lovingly cajoled into hanging a show of new work and giving a gallery talk (95% of the attendees went to a literature session during the talk instead), despite the wonderfully overwhelming task of cooking for the delegates (which she did a fabulous job of). I was glad though to meet the lady who edits the Stoneworks publication on the last day, Jennifer Trafton. She had spent most of the conference trying to remember why my name was familiar before finding the chance to ask.

Hutchmoot for me was mostly three things:

The Walt Wangerin keynote. I really had no idea who this guy was, other than an author, before this. And he didn’t say much that we didn’t already know, which he kept telling us. I didn’t get all that much out of the weekend related to story like I was hoping, with the exception of Wangerin’s keynote. My wife took notes that I’m going to have to look over later. I wrote down three quotations (some significant paraphrasing involved per my notes):

When art works, it becomes the cosmos [alive] for a while. – Walt Wangerin

You have to know your medium’s history and tradition (all of art moves over a little bit when you create a new work.) – T.S. Eliot

If we think we can create out of nothing, all we’ll create are monsters. – C.S. Lewis

Evie Coates, both her cooking and her artwork. Her assemblages represent a direction my own work could have very easily gone with the use of a variety of rusty found objects. I learned during the course of scattered conversation we were able to have that she has strong family ties to Siloam Springs. Her dad is actually a John Brown University graduate.

Kenny Hutson, a name I had probably read at some point in some Over the Rhine liner notes but didn’t really know. In the scheme of the Hutchmoot, Kenny played what most attendees would consider a very minor role, playing in Andrew Peterson’s band, but I was excited to hear someone who tours regularly with Over the Rhine.

On pricing art, art as a hobby, art in the church . . .

Another great article from Comment to highlight today that talks about pricing art and art as job vs. art as hobby. A few quotes to highlight and respond to, and then a link to point you to the writing in its entirety.

I had a professor in my first year of college tell us fresh-faced art majors that if there was anything in the entire world that we could imagine doing besides art, we should do that other thing, because art was just too difficult to pursue without an unwavering dedication. He was right, and those of us that stuck with it knew we had been duly warned about what we were getting into. In a sense, the moment we decided not to change majors, we relinquished our right to whine about being underappreciated or undercompensated. What we did receive, however, was a new responsibility regarding stewardship of the discipline into which we had been adopted.

We talked about pricing a couple of times, but I wasn’t blessed with this kind of accurate bluntness at the beginning of my art schooling. (Does this mean I still get to whine about being underappreciated or undercompensated?) Of course, I sort of eased into my studio art major through pre-architecture, and then graphic design.

On more about doing that other thing besides art, read this post.

The one conversation I really remember on pricing was Eddie Dominguez telling us why his dinnerware was priced as high as it was. Paraphrased as I remember it: “I’d rather sell one platter at $10,000 and have nine to give away than sell ten platters for $1,000.”

Crafting images and objects can legitimately operate as both a form of recreation and a means of cultural reorganization and critique. Making things in order to enjoyably pass a Sunday afternoon, and making things in order to operate as lenses for interpreting the meaning of the world, are both justified endeavours—but they are not the same endeavour. The problem is that distinguishing between the two is complicated by an insidiously ordinary similarity in material and posture. If we imagine two people standing before two blank canvasses with brushes and paints at the ready, how are we to know which one is trying to unwind after a long week, and which one is trying to change the world?

Castleman, the author, describes the difference between art-as-vocation vs. art-as-hobby better than anyone I’ve seen so far, and tactfully too. I’d been thinking about this distinction more and more recently, and his writing on the topic puts my mind at ease.

This article may serve as a personal manifesto of sorts for me. Most of Castleman’s thoughts aren’t necessarily new to me, but they are organized in such a way that the piece is very enlightening. I could end up reposting it in its entirety if I keep going with excerpts and brief responses. That said, go read it for yourself: Will Paint for Food

The artist retreat has a name

Image from Seabamirum's Flickr photostream.

Thank goodness!

Now I can stop calling it “my idea” or other such nonsense. During our third official meeting to talk about the retreat, the wife and I decided on the name Scissortail Art Center. I’ve registered domains and will let you all — whoever you all are — know when a website (probably just built with at first) dedicated to the project is up.

On a related note, I chatted with a friend, also interested in art and missions, via Facebook a week or so ago who affirmed our reasoning for establishing a retreat like this on the Great Plains, for their ability to foster a contemplative spirit. Mind you, he hasn’t ever lived on the Plains (to my knowledge). He grew up in New York City, moved to Florida and presently lives in the Ozarks of Arkansas. Still he drew the line between wide open spaces and said contemplation.

More on the feasibility of an artist retreat

Some months ago now my wife suggested I look up Randy Elrod on Twitter. Randy, a Christian man, seemed to talk regularly about an art retreat he was affiliated with. So I did look him up.

The retreat in question is called Kalein. Don’t ask me how to pronounce it. If I recall correctly, I attempted to ask him a few questions via Twitter about the retreat center, but wasn’t very satisfied with the answers. This, of course, may be a problem with the chosen mode of communication. Regardless, I revisited the Kalein website this morning in the course of an email conversation and it got me to thinking about some retreat related things again.

While the website isn’t very clear about what Kalein actually is (or if it’s actually up and running yet as a physical place; it does already have a board of directors, but also still lists start-up costs), it’s described on the About page in terms very similar to my own idea:

    “Kalein exists to provide a place to encourage and equip gifted artists of all genres (i.e. songwriting, screen writing, sculpting, fashion design, culinary arts, painting, writing, cinematography, communication, comedy, etc.) and leaders to discover, develop and discipline their dreams.”

    “An esthetically pleasing and solitary refuge where respected and recognized master teachers provide personal training, encouragement and mentoring to small groups of leaders and artists.”

Mr. Elrod also lists, as I eluded to above, start-up costs for the retreat center. They come to approximately $2.7 million dollars. I did similar math a couple of years ago and came up with a very similar number. Working out the idea from the ground up is not an inexpensive proposition.

The little house we hope to move into in April.
It’s only 720 square feet on the main level though,
not large enough to share with an artist in residence.

Recently my wife suggested we think about starting out in our own house (when we get a house large enough for such an idea). Another more economically feasible idea, it seems to me, is to look for an existing farmstead or acreage, something I’ve mentioned before. The other day I saw this in our local newspaper’s classifieds:

    Reduced to $249,000. or possible lease with purchase option. Acreage 12.5 acres. 1.5 acres of bluegrass, w/ underground sprinklers. 3,500 sq ft. home, 4 bedrooms 3 baths, 4,000 sq.ft. Heated Garage.

Of course, we can’t afford $250k at the moment either without a lot of help, but it’s a lot more personally attainable than $2.7 million. The location isn’t my favorite, but it could work and would be plenty large to get going. And I wish it were a 4,000 square foot barn and not a “garage”, but again, it would work.

Another thing Kalein has me thinking about is the number of somewhat similar ideas floating around out there right now. My wife and I are fans of collaboration, partnerships, when they present themselves, and if at all possible we want to avoid unnecessarily duplicating other efforts. There is a limited quantity of both manpower and funding in the faith-based nonprofit realm. We hope to work within the larger Body of Christ as efficiently as possible. If someone else gets around to founding a comparable retreat center before we do that’s just fine and dandy. However, comparable is the key word here. From what I can tell, my idea — the wife and I really need to come up with a name for this thing so I don’t have to call it “my idea” anymore — still bears a number of unique facets that I believe warrant a unique effort. The three facets that most readily come to mind are the longer stays, the strict focus on the tactile or plastic arts (which the church seems to have a harder time with than music, writing, drama etc) and a focus on getting these artists plugged into cross-cultural missions work.

This morning was the first time I realized that there might also be validity in multiples. I like the Great Plains for a location. My wife and I understand and believe in Kathleen Norris’ assertion that the Plains foster a contemplative spirit. We might be somewhat biased though, having both grown up on these flat lands. They are our roots. Other people might might prefer the beach or the mountains for inspiration or meditation (even though Norris argues convincingly for the Plains, despite growing up in Hawaii).

And could it be that multiple smaller retreats scattered around the country could also be more financially feasible, for the artists and the organizers? Artists wouldn’t have as far to travel, and organizers might have less managerial overhead. I haven’t thought this through all the way yet, but it seems like YWAM’s DTS model which has persisted for quite a while now.

Artist retreat, felt need

One of the things I haven’t been able to accurately gauge with respect to the arts and faith retreat idea is the presence of real felt need among artists of faith for this kind of resource.

As I’ve continued to write about the idea this year I’ve heard from more and more people affirming the idea. Last week I received another email from someone saying

    So, I’ve seen some questions/ideas of starting a Christian art commune on the site, and I’m wondering if that is going to happen. I’m looking for one to live at this summer, desperate for one really. Know of any?

I thought of asking the Urbana09 organizers for their list of people who signed up in the Arts Lounge to receive newsletters with the intention of sending them a brief survey. I’m not sure how much they’ll like that idea, but it’s what I’ve got at this point.

The wife and I plan to begin some more serious discussion about the idea in the near future, working out some of the details and continuing to determine feasibility.

“Art was not made for evangelism”

This is an H.R. Rookmaaker quote that I read on Rebecca Horton’s Passionately Alive blog quite a few months ago. It’s chalk full of pithy goodness on a few different topics.

    So there are many strange problems in our culture. We have to think and work to solve these problems. They are not just Christian problems but problems of culture in general; many people are working on them, and no one has yet been able to find a solution. Now, the solution is never just a little book or a little definition or a little plan, and it will certainly take one or two generations to accomplish. The answer is not another kind of utilitarian art, Christian utilitarian art, because we shouldn’t be prostituting art to become something it was never made to be. Art was not made for evangelism. We should start a new development that bridges the gaps and solves the problem of the unreality of art in the museum. But first we have to pose the right questions. However, we are only just beginning to see those questions.

Urbana arts and a tea bowl

One of our fellow exhibitors at Urbana had tea bowls made (by the father of one of the staffers). He made 250 for the event, which might not be quite enough but is still quite a few. Unfortunately the staffer I received this bowl from didn’t know the artist’s name. I’ll have to go back and ask again for that.

The arts lounge is in room 280 of the America’s Center in downtown St. Louis. The schedule for the room is in the photograph below. Follow the Arts Lounge on Twitter @UrbanaArtLounge.