What does it mean to be a steward of life? It is an unspoken question threaded through my days. Each winter we carry more lives through to the hope of spring. It is the nature of a farm and a family grow, a response to a holy invitation. In our stewardship, we learn to leverage the outward death of winter to build the inner life. Roots and bones. Back to the earth in the compost of the old year, manure and trampled hay, sawdust and wood shavings, in cover crops and dormant roots, even the bones of the dead under the heap or in the earth. Those failures of the past year kindle study and deeper investigations into the principles of agriculture and life. The wheel of life rolls away as a witness to the nature of God, always redeeming death and turning it into the living.
The oblique light comes with a more subtle potency not felt in the haste of summer, illuminating details made bare by the dearth and otherwise overlooked. It is not all romance of slanting light. There is the mud and the death and sickness. There are the broken systems and the unfinished jobs, and the detritus of unclean life scattered everywhere. The butcher sighed and smiled and cried “Ahh, life!” and thanked God as he cut the throat of the lamb. It seems that to live is to accept and know death, and to die is to understand and accept life. It is a mystery that I don’t claim to understand.
“For I know that this shall turn out to my salvation through your prayer and the support of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and my hope that in nothing shall I be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always so now also, Christ shall be Magnified in my body, whether it be by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:19-21
The first glazing layers on Thomas Touching the Side of Christ
After years of working on the underpainting, this autumn has seen the first color appear on my painting of Christ and Thomas with all of the disciples gathered in a room together. I am taking a lot of cues for the colors in this painting from Rogier Van Der Weyden’s famous Descent from the Cross in Madrid’s Prado museum.
It is a clunky and halting phase of the process, trying to use the appropriate colors, and the right medium, and the right balance of medium to paint ratio. I’ve had to rub out hours of work at a time, when I’ve come back the next morning to realize the color isn’t working.
It is tempting to render the layer to a finished state, even though I know there will be subsequent layers. It is foolish to carry detail too far just yet, and it is difficult to leave certain problems alone until a more appropriate time. I caught myself over-rendering the blue of Nicodemus’ robe and had to stop myself midway through.
Glazing takes advantage of the semi-transparent nature of many pigments when mixed with linseed oil as a binder. By building up multiple thin layers of paint, it is possible to achieve unique and special color and luminosity in a picture, especially in the correct light.
This painting is a huge learning experience. They didn’t teach this sort of thing in art school while I was there, so I am having to work through a lot of discovery and failure, even while taking advantage of the many written treatises on painting throughout the centuries.
A Drawing Exploring the Holy Invitation to Labor and Rest With God, a Cry of my Heart.
This drawing, a work in progress, represents an effort to illustrate and pray into the swirling cloud of thoughts, feelings and impressions I have surrounding the deep nature of work. It is something continually at the front of my consciousness. I think about the invitation to Adam and Eve on the eighth day- to enter into creation and labor as an act of cooperation with the Divine Creator. I often think that work is more than just earning provision. I wonder even if labor could be a sacrament. Could the labor we undertake from day to day be like Archimedes’ Lever, positioned to move something really big? Is it doing more than our perspective allows us to see? My questions are shaped by a belief that the spiritual reality of the Universe is more vast and more real than the realm of our physical perceptions and measurements. More specifically, is my conviction of a deeply interconnected relationship between everything we see and do in a physical sense with the unimagined unseen vastness of God’s goodness. I believe creation and our place in it is, in a manner of speaking, a technology God gave us to engage the invitation to know and worship Him. It was shattered almost immediately, it would seem, but through the finished work of the Cross, Christ established reconciliation. (This is not a sermon, nor am I trying to prove anything, its just about a drawing and I’m leaving so much out!)
So, I think about that original invitation: to labor in creation before “the Fall”, but there is more in that idea than my hopeless facility with language is up for. Because it means tinkering intimately with the voice and breath of the King of the Universe, His output, His design. It is like Thomas putting his finger in the side of Jesus, exploring.
Everything is Spiritual
Everything is spiritual, because it was created by Him. What am I really doing when I plant a tree, work in the soil, plane a board, move sheep, or make a drawing? I adopted a monastic prayer decades ago: “Jesus make the work of my hands into a prayer.” It has evolved at times to, “Jesus make the work of my hands into worship.” I know that I cannot. I may be moving into the realms of heresy with that prayer- among other things. At least may it be for His kingdom. At least may it be for His glory. How can I not worship Him when everything I touch and see was made by Him, and becomes part of our relationship? If it is true, than the earth and everything that is in it is more sacred that we can possibly imagine, and it is laced with the fear of the Lord, in spite of everything that we have done to corrupt it, and in spite of everything God’s ancient enemy has done to corrupt it. For the love of God!, all creation groans! How long, Lord? (ok, that felt a bit like a sermon.)
Sonship & Apprenticeship
Work is a teacher. The dynamic in this drawing that could sum up what the School of the Transfer of Energy is all about (though it is essentially about everything) is the sonship/apprenticeship of man to God in the field of the Earth. The son/apprentice has the dignity of his learning being a part of something real, something bigger than his own mind and sphere. He labors with discipline beside a father and master, absorbing more than can be said or written. He sees the care and the purpose unfold on a daily basis. He moves from confusion to understanding as more of the process is revealed to him through practice and living. In a whole system, work is the technology of the teacher, the school and the relationship. To work is being a daughter and a son. It is also being a mother and a father.
I can’t stop. Sometimes I feel that I am made to work to such a degree that I cant stop until I’ve used myself up. I admit it’s not the most balanced perspective, and it often surfaces when I’m neck deep in lambs or hay, or stacked up projects. I’ve been accused of working too hard, never sitting still, never resting. There is the burden of my wealth of gifts and resources, the annual flood of ideas and inspiration, and the endless need of the world. There is so much I desire to make and build and accomplish, which has resulted in a life-long struggle with the concept of “rest” in the sabbatical sense. I am not good at it. That is one perspective. On the other hand, it could be that rest is inherent to labor. The sleep of the labourer is sweet, whether he have eaten little or much. Ecyclesiastes 5:12.
The rest, then, is intertwined with labor. Holistically speaking, it is “natural”. It is woven in the fabric in the same way that the spiritual is with the physical (picture a well marbled steak or a vein of silver in a rock face). The sabbath is part of the weave of the week., and also of the agricultural “week of years”. In this way rest starts to become something that measures and punctuates, more about a pace or a cadence, a governor for the laborer’s engine.
I wish I had language to talk about the sacredness of “body mechanics”: how to dig a hole, how to bend properly, posture, etc., and how doing them properly integrates rest into the system. How it isn’t just mundane, but part of our design and thus beautiful and “sacred”.
By being about so much, this image is sort of a repository for many symbols I think about and use. Tools themselves become symbols and can’t help but transform into speaking objects. Saying their words and singing their songs about the work they do, and how they do it with grace and beauty, or lamenting how they must do it with heaviness and sadness. The axe, the shovel, the pen… every symbol unlocks a door to another world.
Then are the endless books of the trees and roots. How growing trees lead me into appreciation of the seeming contentment of God to develop and grow things slowly (from my perspective). Trees remind me that it is not about me, but about my children and their children, and the people I can’t foresee. The 100 year or 200 year farm plan. And there is more, there is so much more- but language can’t say it. Only trees can say it.
There are more symbols, so many more it is mind numbing and I just can’t go on. Another time, perhaps.
At first this little building was something I wanted to build on my dad’s land, when I was attempting the hermit’s life there. I made drawings of it and multiple block prints functioning as prayers, asking God if it was something I could make. I was truly desperate to build something that mattered, that could bring Him a tangible expression of glory. It has yet to manifest, though I’ve always wondered about the sanctuary as I’ve aged. Was it only a spiritual building? Is it something that He is building me into? Is it my cumulative life’s work? Is it a foolish dream? Idolatry, even? Maybe I need to be older and more experienced to build it? Can I build it now, on my own land?
I was intrigued to see it resurface in this new drawing. I can’t say I know why, but i’m asking. As a symbol it represents much, but perhaps most significantly, of my desperate struggle to make my work into a prayer: to tangibly engage with God on the physical space, my world, of paper, wood, soil, and pigments about what is in my heart – the relationship and the meeting place. I’m on the earth grappling with heaven, or am I from heaven grappling with the earth? I don’t know, but I am not among those who say we are just sojourner’s here, that we are just “passing through”. I get it, and it is probably true, but I just can’t say it. I live here, and I can’t ignore that it is part of His design.
Perhaps this weaving of work and rest is the sanctuary? I have more questions than answers. Which is why I am on my knees. Which is why I am making this drawing. And which is why I work. I do not know where else to go.
I have been doing this weblog for twelve years, which may be a pretty long time. I haven’t offered much in the way of words in that time. I’ve felt lately that I need to begin to venture into that territory. Words tend to terrify me a bit. I don’t always like them, because they never do what I want them to do. They always leave me short, and feeling a little cheap or fraudulent. I write one thing, then immediately see it from another perspective, so I write that, then it moves on me again, and it never ends. Eventually I have to settle, knowing that I’ve said one thing that may or may not be true, but I’ve left greater multitudes unsaid. I have failed. That is what writing is to me, a perpetual string of failures, which is really unsatisfying. So I have avoided taking that risk. Until now.
Elie Wiesel wrote down this quote of the Kotzker speaking to a disciple:
Certain experiences may be transmitted by language, others- more profound- by silence; and then there are those that cannot be transmitted, not even by silence. Never mind. Who says that experiences are made to be shared? They must be lived. That’s all. And who says that the truth is made to be revealed? It must be sought. That is all…
Thanks for reading, friends. Thank you for your mercy and your grace and your acceptance. Be at peace.
Marketing my work has always been precarious territory for me. At a fundamental level, I am much more interested in making my work than trying to sell it. Philosophically and morally, I struggle with the slippery slope of salesmanship and authenticity. Authenticity as a word has already been pretty much trashed by our cultural trend towards filtered-authenticity in order to generate likes and sell products. I am certainly guilty of it, myself. Likes are addictive. But it all leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth. It is hard to not feel like marketing breeds a certain level of dishonesty that we have decided to be ok with as a society.
Usually my work is both deeply personal and (I hope) deeply spiritual. I struggle often with the feeling that I am prostituting both myself and the things of God when I set out to peddle these visual representations in the marketplace. I don’t really have a satisfying resolution for this uncomfortable feeling, except for the opposing weight of the reactions of “my” audience, expressing a desire to share in these things.
I do want to sell my work and provide an income for my family and finance future projects. It is a part of life and a part of growing, of being fruitful. It is part of work, which is a divine invitation.
I have a calling to make art and what I hope are beautiful objects, and useful pieces of furniture. I have a calling to make that work accessible to the culture I am a part of. I want to try to do that in as straightforward a way as I know how. This new web store is an effort to do that.
You can get to the store by going to https://baumwerkshop.com, or you can select the menu of this sight and click on “Purchase Work“. I really do hope that you will visit and let me know what you think. I also really hope that you might purchase something, if you see something you like. There should be some exciting new things showing up there in the coming weeks.
Thank you, for supporting me and following along on this journey. God is good.
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40 NIV
He came to see me when I was on the margins, lonely and far away and he celebrated the paintings and the puppets I made. He was not a common man. He made room for me and the others like me to exist in a world that drew lines so sharp that we were cut off. Not only did he make room- he invited me in to a wider place- with light and life and hope. My wife, Amy, received word of the passing of the Reverend David Bridgeman only a few weeks ago, though he left for home back in August.
I know woefully little of his personal story. I know that he was born in China to missionary parents- and he was always drawn back to that land, returning as often as he could to share the God that he loved wth the people that he loved. He delighted to share stories and photos and artifacts of the land and people of south western China whenever I saw him.
Always an old man to my eyes- older by at least a decade than i am now (42) when I first encountered him nearly 30 years ago. His prayers were beautiful and rich, authentic and long. I respected them, though my tired teenage body would often nod then lurch back awake in my pew before he finished. He possessed both ancient wisdom and childlike awe with genuine humility. His old blue hatchback was a persistent reminder of his values. It was a solitary and quiet voice amongst the ostentatious suv’s and sedans in the church parking lot, not unlike Colombo’s oxidized Peugeot.
We shared a love for Gruenwald’s unparalleled Issenheim Altarpiece, and especially the figure of John the Baptist, of which he would speak with a beautiful passion. It could bring us both to tears. He once bought for me a reproduction of the closed state of the altar, featuring the crucifixion, from a seminary in China. Framed and on my wall with its captions in Chinese characters, it is more than a relic of my favorite painting, but of mentorship, friendship, and of a man whose embrace circled the globe.
I have long considered David one of my painting teachers. When I came home on break from art school in Kansas City, I would bring the paintings I was working on with me so that he could see them. He would prop a picture up on a chair in his office and look at it in silence. Then after a while he would start to speak about what he was seeing. He would go through every detail and talk about what it made him think about- how he saw it relating to God’s story. As a spiritual painter in a secular school, I had no shortage of technical conversations about composition and color and line, but nobody would touch the spiritual implications with a ten foot pole. David could talk about the formal aspects of art, but he would dive right into the symbolism and wouldn’t come up for an hour. When he did he had more associations and story from a picture I painted than I had ever imagined could be in there, and I was the one who painted it. He helped lay a foundation for a core belief I hold about painting; being a deeply poetic visual language that always caries more information than what the artist intended. At my best, I am an apprentice/collaborator with the Holy Spirit, and any viewer might hold keys into the symbolism of my work that I hadn’t seen before. This dynamic has become one of the things I treasure most about making art: learning from the insights of the audience about what is really in there. It is a big part of being a student in the School of the Transfer of Energy.
David and His wife Mary waited patiently, over five years, for the painting they had requested. I had free reign and it took quite a while before I felt I had a fitting subject. On one of my repeated visits to the Loretta Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a dark corner far above and to the right of the altar is a painting of a fish resting on top of a loaf of bread. I had never noticed it before- but it captivated me now. I loved the simplicity and power of the image- so straightforward in the story it was referencing, the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Soon afterwards as I contemplated the image and how I might approach it, I was reading Thor Heyerdahl’s account of his and his countryman’s pacific voyage to the Polynesian Islands from South America on a Balsa log raft named Kon-Tiki. I was struck (as were the sailors) by the almost miraculous provision of flying fish that helped to feed them on their long journey. From that day the flying fish became a new symbol for me of God’s unexpected provision. It became the centerpiece for David’s painting.
I wish my account of David wasn’t so self-centered. But I knew him through his self-less investments into me and my family. He also sponsored my wife Amy through her own ordination process. I am grateful for all that I have received from God through David. The greatest honor I can give him is to say truthfully that he was like John the Baptist in our painting, always pointing and crying “behold! the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world!”
The Reverend Jason Carter, who also grew up under David’s mentorship has written a much more fitting and beautiful remembrance of David here.
Is labor a sacrament? The invitation of the Eighth Day? A sacred collaboration with the living God? I can’t help but to note that the call to labor in the garden came before the curse of toil. I am certain that labor is about more than just earning my bread. There is something deeper there, not just for the artist, but for the ditch digger and the roofer, the farmer and the nurse. “Whatever you think, it’s more than that…” ISB.