Elizabeth Duffy is a writer and blogger in Shelbyville, Indiana. Among other places, you can find her writing here, and here. The following is a three month long email interview that took place in 2014.
Questions from Elizabeth Duffy:
E.D. I was wondering first off if you could talk a little bit about the title of your blog, The School of the Transfer of Energy. What does that mean to you, and how does it inform your work?
J.B. I started thinking about “The School of the Transfer of Energy” and applied it as a description over how I was trying to live my life long before I had a blog, or a computer, or even electricity. I tried to see it like an umbrella to cover all the wide disciplines and the efforts I made at growing in them. It has a usually invisible subheading: “The Society of Craftsmen and Farmers”. When I started the blog in 2008, it was an obvious choice for the name.
I have spent the better part of 14 years, since it was lent to me as a phrase, trying to understand “the School…” or define how I understand it. I have folders filled with my efforts, and I may not be any closer now than I was then. My attempts at defining what the school covers range from being almost absurdly comprehensive, to extremely personal and specific. Facets of understanding will come into focus as I change and grow, but it is always driven by hunger to see and participate with more of God in every particle of everything.
One fairly persistent way I think about “the School” comes in terms of technology and applied energy. I really like thinking about and using “old” technology, where I can really see and feel the principles at work. Where I can experience the relationship of design and purpose in my hands. The partnership of a wedge and lever in a well-made axe is filled with grace and wonder. So it goes with many tools: a moldboard plow, a scythe or a block and tackle. Even in more “modern” tools where it may be harder to see or feel with the system, the beauty of design and purpose is still there to witness if not participate with on a certain level. The mix of wonder and labor give way to a parallel dynamic of how tools (and the definition of tools becomes quite broad now) help me to live and relate to the land, my community and my God -what interests me most is “spiritual technology”.
I read once about the arts of Africa and the South Pacific being described as technology by which the practitioners were able to relate to and engage the spiritual, as they understood it. I recognize a truth in that concept, and I see technology now as God’s provision for me to engage Him, and to worship Him.
The understanding that my God can turn anything into a “technology of provision” for me to be closer to Him- suddenly the most mundane things that I had shunned become places of relationship and revelation. The slow toil in my workshop, studio, or field begins to have a deeper purpose, though I may not feel it. Even my failures get redeemed. Then it begins to seem that the heavy curtain of separation between the spiritual realm of God and the natural world I walk in is maybe not so stout. A man name Arthur Burk talks about something like this as the line between the secular and the sacred being removed.
I move differently when I see that how I relate to the earth when I plow it is a spiritual activity with spiritual consequences even as it is a physical activity with physical consequences. I really like that things like an axe or a mound of yellow ochre are spiritual tools. I think maybe that a beautiful thing about the arts is that they already sort of function as “bridge technologies”. Where people are more willing to accept natural things dancing with spiritual things. Truly though, I am getting to the point where everything has an opportunity to speak to me about my God and who He is and what His world is like and how He made me to live in it. All of creation will ultimately be used to bring glory and honor and worship to my God. I am stuck on the first part of the 19th Psalm right now.
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
I long to participate with my God in that restoration and reconciliation of creation: from my own heart, to my children, to my land and my work.
In a book on traditional sheep shearing with blades, the author made the statement that sheep help us to live on the land. It is well put, and the sheep and goats I raise are sacred instruments helping me not only to live on the land, but also to live with God in a way I could not otherwise. They also help me share the wealth and provision of the land with my community.
All that being said, I hope, intelligibly, I would currently define the School of the Transfer of Energy as learning and practicing the technology of relationship and reconciliation of creation (including myself) to God. But I am ready for my definition to be blown apart by God. It always is. I try to hold on to things like this loosely. There is a line in the song Job’s Tears by the Incredible String Band: “Whatever you think, it’s more than that.”
E.D. How did you get your start in art, music and woodworking? And do you speak more fluently in one of those mediums over the others?
Is there symbiosis between the three, and how also do they work with your vocation as a spouse and father?
J.B. It is how I was made. My family had a lot of artists and craftsmen in it. I was always around people making things. The longing to be an artist was there as far back as I’m able to recall.
My granddad was a gifted woodcarver and I spent a lot of time with him in his workshop. My dad too is a builder and carver, so the weekends and summer were often spent making things. I have quite a few aunts and uncles who are talented visual artists and musicians and were willing to invest in me. I was encouraged and nurtured in many mediums.
As far as fluency goes, I have invested a lot in each area over time, so I feel comfortable in each realm. Each discipline seems to have its season of focus and a more specific purpose. For example, probably because of my father and granddad, wood has always been the default medium for solving problems. Woodworking is my primary means of earning money to help support my family, my trade. And it brings support to the other mediums. There are aspects too that lean into the realm that painting holds sway over.
Painting belongs to God. Visual art is a kind of frequency where a special kind of communication takes place. You could say it is where I receive from God. But it is also pretty darn more complicated. But I am profoundly visual, and so much of the communication is visual.
Music is prayer more than anything else -as much as I could call anything prayer. But I also call farming prayer, so what can I say to that? It functions mostly within my small community and for my family. Though I have started to share small amounts of it on my website.
I am going to add agriculture and husbandry into this list. It isn’t an accepted art form per se, but it functions in my life by holding footing and sway with these other voices. It too is a place of provision materially, and of revelation.
Honestly there has been a struggle and tension between the disciplines, though it is slowly becoming reconciled, as I grow older. The core of the tension is that I could be a much better artist if I wasn’t a woodworker, or farmer, or musician. Or I could be a much better woodworker if I wasn’t a painter or puppeteer, etc. Each one has a voice, many voices, that call out to me throughout the day seeking my attention. Learning to understand seasons and timing and rest have helped me to not to get overwhelmed by them as I once did.
I am learning slowly to approach each day from a place of provision for my family, my community and for myself: a place where I see my Father’s heart resting. Before, and still sometimes now, it was with fear in a place of a deficit that I approached the day. I would grasp desperately at the area I felt the most insecure in, trying to survive the anguish of not having enough time or purpose to rest upon.
As far as all of these things fitting into my family life, it is just how we live. My wife is a minister in town, so I am home with the children. They spend a lot of time with me in my workshop, studio, barn and fields. We have different priorities; instead of going on vacations we harvest wheat together, carry hay or catch big catfish. Instead of saving for a trip or paying for cable, we invest in animals and our land. It isn’t quite as idyllic as I am making it sound. It is hard, but joy gets in by accident sometimes. Our life together is defined by our hunger to grow and learn about God and our place in His land.
E.D. Formal training? Influences and progenitors? Current inspirations?
J.B. I studied painting at the Kansas City Art Institute, and before that at Butler County Community College. “Progenitors” is an interesting word choice that gets me thinking. Influences are easy to name, but to think of what line I am descended as an artist or maker of things is another matter.
I would name my community and my closest friend especially, as mighty and invaluable contributors to my work, to the point where I can hardly call the work mine. The land itself cannot be ignored; both in the form of landscape but also the persistent voice and witness that issues from it. Separating and defining all these things out, feels like saying water is hydrogen and oxygen. Scientifically it may be true, but the mineral rich, life-giving water of the earth is something else entirely. I can’t really draw the line where one thing ends and another begins.
I hope, maybe, to be in the line of Bezalel, who fashioned so much for the tabernacle, making the sacred things that were part of the “technology” of worship of His God for his community. Personally, I couldn’t ask for more than that. Bezalel is valuable as a paradigm of an artisan of broad experience and skill. He could work in many trades and arts with skill worthy of God’s Tabernacle. My good friend reminds me of the value of a man of that breadth of experience and skill in contrast to a culture that places a premium on experts of high degree in a single field. When I wonder if I am hurting myself by embracing so many disciplines, I am grateful for Bezalel and his place in God’s story, and a few other men I have encountered who are champions of excellence in this way.
In this vein, I might venture to name the prophet Zechariah, at least as an inspiration. I recognize in the language and imagery of Zechariah a deep familiarity. Imagine being isolated in a foreign land where there is no one who speaks or writes in your own language and suddenly you discover a man who does. That is how Zechariah is to me.
Ultimately I hope to claim the multifaceted nature of God as the influence and the progenitor, as I labor in my role to continue the work of creation. My desire is that He is the greatest of both, though He will judge that at a later date. But I can see and bare witness to the thread.
Amongst human or stylistic influences, the Renaissance of Northern European has had the largest visual impact on my painting work, though I suspect its influence in some of the other fields as well. Mathias Grunewald’s Isenhiem Altarpiece stands above all, having a mighty spiritual influence, followed by Hieronymus Bosch especially, and then Brueghel, Hugo Vander Goes, and Has Memling have all made an impact. I also admire the Pre-Raphaelites, especially William Holman Hunt. For woodworking influences, I would name my dad and granddad, both, then there is Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima, Michelle Holzapfel and Walker Weed. W.A. Dwiggins was a typographer in the middle 20th century who built amazing small-scale marionettes and two different marionette theaters. Dwiggins and the Vienna artist and puppeteer Richard Teschner are whom I would name as the primary stylistic influences of my puppetry work.
E.D. You wrote that your etsy site was an exercise in “provision.” This may seem indelicate, but do you have a day job? If not, how does your family live?
What do you think is the proper attitude a believer should have towards art and other creative pursuits?
Could you pick a couple of your favorite pieces, and talk about how they came into being? (if there are blog posts that already address this question, feel free to substitute a link).
J.B. Regarding the School of Transfer of Energy, you spoke in depth about the “school” portion of that title. I’m wondering if you’d talk a bit more about the transfer of energy. Energy is kind of a confounding word these days. People tend to talk about how to get more of it (the physical kind), or what to pay for it (utilities), or they talk about a new age concept of energy that radiates from an aura. But you don’t seem to be referring to any of those things. If I’m reading you correctly, you seem to be talking about energy qua energy, or ergs as the input or outcome of the use of technology and tools. Is that correct?
Maybe so, I guess I think about the “energy” most simply in terms of cause and effect- or as you put it “input and outcome”. I try not to confine it too much with my own limited understanding, which settles on the truth that the causes and effects are more than meets the eye. In that way maybe the energy takes on more of an aura. But tools are often in my hands, so they are a natural part of my language. I tend to gravitate towards an understanding of energy as it relates to the trades, arts, crafts, and agriculture.
On the good days I really see that the input and outcome I experience and help to manifest in the natural world is a partner in a tapestry of endless life with a world we don’t readily acknowledge. On the bad days I am hoping blindly that what I do, and how I do it matters… to my God, to my community, and to my earth. And on those days my only compass is my integrity to a skinny guy with a beard, which would be me.
E.D. There is an element of the grotesque common in the works of many of your influences. I’ve read some critics who posit that Grunewald’s altarpiece, with its emphasis on Christ’s human suffering, lacks the hope of Resurrection, and that Bosch’s work is perhaps overly focused on the sinfulness of humanity.
I am glad that you brought up Gruenwald’s altarpiece again. I have spent so much time contemplating that work over the years. It is hard for me to grasp the criticism of the Isenheim altarpiece for many reasons. Since Christ’s suffering is the very door by which we share in His resurrection, and quite literally in the case of this altar, on which the crucifixion is the very door, opened on Sundays and feast days, depicting the glory of the resurrected and restored Christ.
When I read James Snyder’s essay in Northern Renaissance Art for the first time in art school, I was overwhelmed by his account of the painting and it’s ministry. To have such a precedent for a painting having a ministry of its own, not just being a “tool”, was deeply stirring. The Monastery of Saint Anthony, for which the altar was commissioned, was renowned for treating terrible skin disorders associated with the plague and ergotism or “Saint Anthony’s Fire”. As a patient of the monastery, the first part of the treatment was this deliberate encounter before Gruenwald’s massive crucifixion, the outer panels. They could see their own battered and torn bodies reflected back to them in the suffering of Christ in His profound compassion. As I said before, the altar was opened on Sundays and feast days revealing the inner panels (although, there is still one more layer behind those) of the annunciation, nativity and resurrection. The resurrection is supremely significant as the rotted flesh of Christ has been restored to a radiant glowing white, and the wounds themselves “sparkling rubies” as Snyder puts it. There are layers of hope for the ones suffering here. The portrayal of the process of the unseen promise of the annunciation to the small and fragile hope of the nativity to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection across the inner panels is brilliant in its intent and atmosphere.
This ministry, among many other aspects of Gruenwald’s work touches me deeply. I have a few reproductions of it in my home. One is not of very good quality, but it has a lot of value. A very dear friend who is both a spiritual and artistic mentor acquired it for me from a Chinese seminary. He himself had been born in China, his father being a missionary there. He has continued to work as a special liaison between the church in the US and the church in rural southwest china. Often I have heard him talk about John the Baptist in Gruenwald’s piece pointing to the Lamb of God. Few things move me to tears, but that John of Mattias Gruenwald does.
Without the Holy Spirit, it is just pulverized earth, cemented with expressed flaxseed oil and egg emulsions to a wooden structure. So it is with my own work. Thankfully there is life there; even pulverized earth is not just that. It is the creation of God continued, with a voice of its own, combined with the hearts and intentions of many men, and the purpose of God, and the Spirit of God- collaborating to be that beautiful technology of reconciliation and restoration and relationship to the living God. If only I could make work that works like Gruenwald’s did.
As for Bosch, he is certainly very mysterious. What always strikes me about Bosch, other than the wonderful intricacies of his work, is his authenticity. He had many imitators. The great Brueghel himself, when he made similar bizarre worlds of demons, brilliant works that they are, lacks the authenticity of Bosch in the realm that Bosch is famous for. Brueghel’s authenticity is in the lore and daily life of the Flemish countryside and villages he captured- in that I think he might be one of the greatest painters in history. Now, when I look at Bosch’s roiling and turbid scenes of turmoil and sin and even a few glimpses of ecstasy, I am convinced of his honesty towards his own vision and revelation. I would not doubt that he truly saw for himself, in some fashion, much of what he painted. I am not in the position to judge Bosch for his vision and resulting message, but I admire him for his faithfulness in carrying it out in such a convincing way. It is possible that there are not enough now who focus on such things as Bosch did.
E.D. Puppetry strikes me as an ironic pursuit for the believer/artist, since puppetry is often used as a metaphor for free will, or lack thereof. And I also notice that your Walking Man is frequently depicted with horns. What are your views on the nature of man, his suffering, sin and redemption–and how do you see your work participating in that narrative?
J.B. I have never thought much about the symbolism of puppetry as a whole, interestingly enough. What I have discovered about puppetry is that it is a beautiful and brilliant medium for sharing my heart with other people. As a curious matter of timing, I have been involved in an ongoing conversation/ interview with Clive Hicks Jenkins about my puppet theater that may answer some of the questions you may have about it. I often feel that puppetry represents more than any other medium, my “life’s work”, at least it embodies the story of my life’s work most holistically.
The horns on Walking Man started showing up about a year ago. He has been a character I have dealt with for more than 15 years. So the horns are a relatively new development. Steven McCabe, an artist in Canada and a regular commenter on my blog, had some his own insights about them:
My thought was the ‘thorns’ or ‘horns’ were hard…and grew for self-protection or fierceness of mission or expressing a revelation, as if they were frozen fire. Maybe expressing a ‘law.’ So the voice I’m imagining (a voice coming from a man with horns growing from his skull) has gone through experiences the opposite of softness. That doesn’t mean without tenderness. But he’s more like wood. Some knowledge has been cast upon him by his own perception. By how he perceives and receives the world. Like a tree that has seen different times, and events, come and go. The pageant. The sorrow. The ecstasy. And internally he is somehow connected to it all like a tree with roots down into the ground and branches upward into the air. And thorns or horns.
It would be difficult for me to say that at all. Let alone say it any better. The only thing I feel comfortable adding at this point is that they may represent a manifestation of the glory of God, not unlike Michelangelo’s carving of Moses with horns upon his brow. Is he one who has seen God, or encountered some powerful expression of God’s goodness? What does it mean to be there in the some crevice when God passes by and to somehow manage to not be utterly destroyed by it? Walking Man wrestles and engages continually with these questions.
As far as the nature of man goes, I can really only speak with authority to the nature of two men, one that is myself, and then Christ. Christ’s nature is utter wholeness and unity with God the Father. He is good. I am another story altogether, apart from Christ. Thank God that I am not apart from Him.
Concerning suffering, I am not a theologian. I know that suffering is real, and that God is good. I will not run from suffering in others or myself. I will not curse God for its existence. As far as my reach goes, I hope to be a hospitalier to those who are engulfed in its fire. A great deal, if not all of sufferings are caused by human intent, though the ones who bare the immediate consequence may not be guilty. But God can do with suffering things that no one has seen or imagined before. Who can even begin to grasp what He has done with the sufferings of Christ? Who has scratched the surface of the power of that blood? It is my belief that our culture is profoundly guilty of casting judgment upon God for the existence of suffering that we have brought about, without ever asking Him to redeem it. And the innocent and the young suffer for it. But I rejoice, because He can do more with suffering than any one can imagine. We talk about justice, but it is my impression that we have no idea what God’s concept and intent for justice is.
As for sin… I have used the Roman numeral “V” as a symbol for many years. I adopted it from Saint Francis when he proclaimed, after receiving the stigmata, that the five wounds of Christ are doors or windows by which Grace has entered the world. Just as my sin is the very pathway that leads me to Christ, so is suffering the door I leap through to find His grace.
As far as my work and my role. I can only bare witness to what I have seen and encountered. My hope is that my work serves the kingdom and God’s heart of reconciliation and redemption. And once restored to grow into deeper intimacy with the God of creation.
E.D. Your piece “Go on, Adam Breathe” and Holbein’s “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” seem to be in conversation as well. What are they saying to each other?
That piece is born out of Holbein’s Dead Christ a few times removed. A number of years ago, I made a series of drawings, which ultimately led to the painting “Go On, Hermit Version”. The drawings were a direct response to Holbein’s piece. I made them when I was still in school, struggling to see myself in the death of Jesus. I have learned, over the years, that when I struggle with a concept or my position relative to God, I make work about it. It is usually a fairly intuitive process, without a lot of verbal language going into it. Holbein’s piece may seem especially morbid, but I have a hard time seeing it that way. The cycle of death and life is so vital to my community and myself, that it has become difficult to see them as two distinct concepts. I watch it play out in the growth of my children, the life cycle of plants and seeds, the birth and death of my livestock, and the seasons of the year, and in the cycle of spiritual death and life, which I believe is integral to our journey with Christ to God. Death is a place of nothingness, where I am placed naked in the hands of my God. The ultimate in both insecurity and security; I can’t bring any thing with me, and only He can restore me. I am born anew daily and I die daily and nothing is wasted. It is how I live out my life, trusting my life and death into the hands of God. One moment dust, one moment alive with the breath of God.
E.D. In one of your first emails, you spoke about maintaining your integrity, and it would seem that maintaining the integrity of your school, and discerning which technologies to allow into it, means that there are also many technologies and cultural influences that you have to reject. Can you talk about some of those tensions and trade-offs, and about your discernment process. (Are your Walking Man of the Woods and City related to this discussion?)
My aim is to be intentional about what I choose, which I feel, or hope, defines me more than what I reject. Kind of like choosing the wheat out of the chaff, the chaff much doesn’t come to mind. I can’t forget the season of threshing that frees the wheat from its surroundings, or all the other seasons of tillage, sowing, harvest, etc. for that matter. It is part of that life and death cycle. It is hard to see the choice as a trade-off, because I don’t feel like I am really missing anything. Culture simply cannot offer me anything that God doesn’t have an immensely better original version of.
In some way, it is hard to talk about what to reject and what to allow, because these conversations tend to lead towards formulas for living, which is stagnation and lifelessness to me. I am new everyday and I have new choices to choose everyday. What will I choose? Where will I encounter God today, will my toil be light or a burden? I live pretty intuitively in that way.
Towards integrity: I am not sure that the integrity of the School is mine to maintain. My own personal integrity is, however, and if I am authentic towards my design as I see it mapped out in the confluence of my heart with God’s heart, I am making significant growth towards being a man of integrity. My friend, who has made many significant investments into my life, said once that there is a difference between perfection and excellence. I used to see my journey as relentless striving towards an unattainable perfection. I see it quite differently now. I pursue God’s heart and my excellence is my sacrificial worship to Him. And at least for now, I see excellence largely through the lens of authenticity.
E.D. I promised you more brain picking, and I’m wondering if you might elaborate on the significance of a phrase that appears often in your work, “Go on.”
I notice it and several other themes forming a refrain in your art, and I’m wondering if you see repetition as a means of improving on what’s gone before, if it is more of a mantra, or something else entirely.
“Go On” is essentially a part of my story. At a time it was my story entirely. John of the Cross wrote about the dark night of the soul. My darkness consisted of fear and dread, profound depression, paranoia, anxiety, and countless hours on my face begging for relief. In one of these empty fits I thought I was close to the end of my life –at least I certainly wished I was, I felt the voice of my Father say to me “Go On”. It had the character of both a stern rebuke and of gentle encouragement. From there I had nothing else but those words. I had little choice but to go on. There was no relief, until years later, but there was a choice to continue. Like a great deal of language and symbols, it has taken on meaning as I have lived within its atmosphere. Sometimes it is like pressing through a season of death. Sometimes it is laboring until a time of rest. “No man who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Sometimes it is being made to rest when I want to work. Sometimes it is like the disciples telling Jesus, when he asks if they will leave him as well: “where else would we go? Only you have the words of eternal life”. I think it is like the journey to the altar. In all of these things I must “go on” in faith, without confirmation or affirmation. In a way it speaks to faith and belief when it feels the least like faith and belief. It is not a secure place to be especially when we are raised to establish definable security by all means. Am I willing to believe God is who He says He is? To put my life and even my wife and children’s lives where my mouth is. Like Abraham who led his only son to death with absolutely no conception that God would provide a way out. Isaac’s death was the way. How do you willingly kill the very heart of your life and purpose? I have a hard time doubting that Abraham would be in prison, or a mental ward and reviled in our society today. But God celebrates who Abraham is. Go on.
Right now, this morning, it feels like a form of grace, intertwined with the altar. The hardest part of Go On for me is receiving the grace of it, because the most debilitating part of life for me has probably been this fear of failure. I have been given a profound range of provision. I grew up under the mindset of productivity. To whom much is given, much is required. I can do a lot, well, very well in fact. To deny my gifting would be an insult to my God and creator. However, I have always carried a lot of weight that I must achieve something great to prove that I am worthy of holding all that I have. The weight of that self-imposed expectation can be debilitating. I am coming to recognize that the work is really seeing my life in the hands of God and my heart to live my life consistent to the heart he put in me. Can I maintain myself in a long season of fruitlessness hoping that the pruning work is God’s hand and not my failure? So “Go On” has been replaced or been joined by “I’m in the Day”, and “the Eternal Present”, as I live each day in covenant with the Eternal God. I don’t really know what that all means. We are still living that out. But a great deal is about my position with God. I face problems from a place of relationship and covenant, and my failures are about my growth as a son and steward.
There is a lot of repetition in my work. Whether it is themes or symbols, phrases, or even subjects like Jonah. I have so much to learn, and so many ideas. I have to revisit things often or continually because my perspective is always changing. Some new facet is always being uncovered to me and I have to explore the subject from new ground. There is certainly an element of improving or refining or sanctifying that goes on in the process. It is like knowledge, or wisdom, that, if I held on to it, would become a wall between my further movement, whether in skill, stewardship, or towards God. So I let go (eventually) and learn it new. I keep making paintings about Jonah, as I have been doing for more than fifteen years, and I am a child each time as I approach the story of Jonah and his God.
E.D. Your work reveals wide ranging Biblical literacy, but also (as one of your commenters noted) a certain world weariness. Were you raised in Church? Any rhyme or reason to what Biblical passages translate into your artwork?
J.B. World-weariness…? Maybe. I’ll be honest that sometimes I don’t want to be here. I also feel that I have a lot to do. But my concept of time and eternity is always changing. I know a few people who have more reason to be world-weary than I am, so I end up trying not to consider my own “weariness” too much. I do want to be home. But I feel like that it isn’t by leaving that I will get there, if that makes sense. I think that is what Walking Man is about in certain respects. And what Go On is about. And I have noticed that in your writings as well -that there is a vast ocean under the surface of the mundane things. The hidden sacred nature of life that God himself established. If creation is groaning for the sons and daughters to be revealed, I don’t think I am called to abandon it, I think I am called to find a way to be a son. But I sure do want to give up sometimes- like today as a matter of fact- facing another day of drought, when my heart longs to grow things. But I am in a season where, in-spite of my heart, drought is part of my provision. I’m not so happy about that. But I will trust my Father.
I don’t think I am all that Biblically literate, especially compared to my wife. As far as my work goes, I am just deeply drawn into certain stories, Jonah for example. Obed Edom is another example. I am profoundly affected by Obed Edom’s brief story. I only see or hear his name and I get pretty stirred up inside. I can’t explain why very well, nor do I even know why for certain – I could guess, or even say it in a way that makes me sound like I know what I am talking about- but whenever I do I feel like a cheat, so I won’t. I love Obed Edom. Sometimes the stories mean a lot because God has used them so intimately, so they are part of me. Jonah is part of me, so is Job and also Jacob and his wrestling match, and John the Baptist. Then there is Zechariah- who is kin to me. When I choose to make a piece about a story it is usually because I have seen a picture or vision in my imagination and I start making it. And then I have a new relationship with that story, and a new facet of my relationship as I am steeped in the making of it. If I share it, other people have a new relationship with those stories, and maybe even a new perspective, or a greater revelation into who God is. It’s pretty cool.
I grew up Presbyterian. My wife is actually a minister in the Presbyterian Church. Growing up in that system has certainly shaped me a great deal, though I have had to walk out from under a lot of it. Today, I would not call myself a Presbyterian, however, it is part of my heritage that I am grateful for.
E.D. Do you have a conversion story (or stories)?
J.B. There are two levels that I want to try engage your question about conversion stories. The first is kind of ambiguous and troubling to me. It is troubling because you have come upon some fresh tilled ground. I think even that you have had a hand in tilling it, if you want to know the truth. It is something new (and old) that I haven’t yet resolved, but He is working it out in me. I think it has to do with being a public private person. One of my friends remarked how my heart (described as such for simplicities sake) is outside my chest. Most of the deep things and intimacies are worked out in my art and are on display on my little blog. It has a humble following of about 200. People come to my land and shop to buy eggs, milk, soap, and sometimes some woodwork. Everything I care about is fairly evident. It is a garden and a sanctuary for my family and my community. It is a safe place.
I tend to think of my heart as the intersection of my body, soul and spirit, and essentially the most holy place of the tabernacle. That view is subject, like all of my theology to being destroyed and redefined by the hand of God, but for now it is the definition that is in my keeping. I trust that God will ultimately protect and restore my heart. But I also have a role in being a responsible steward of that place.
Most people don’t know they are encountering my heart, and even if they do I can keep myself insulated pretty well by avoiding words as much as possible. I can easily be written off as an eccentric artist, with a compassionate longsuffering wife and miraculously sane children. Invariably though, someone asks a question or two, or I am compelled in my spirit to risk some intimacy, to risk being misunderstood. I tried being a hermit for about 4 years. I tried vows of silence. They didn’t work. Now, here I am, back at having to give verbal account for who I am.
I have a pretty tenuous and ambivalent relationship with words. I know that I can use them, even quite well at times, but I do not trust them. I do not like to use them. I am happy to make as many drawings in abundance about my story and encounters with God. It is another matter for me to use words to describe them. And the labor, when I choose to write or speak, is profoundly difficult. I will take the risk, when obedience or compassion stirs in me. But to use something so definite and restrictive as a word to describe something so indefinable and unlimited is very painful. So maybe you are beginning to see your hand involved in this tilling, and why it takes me so dang long to return to you answers to your questions. Don’t mistake me though, I am grateful for it. But it has stirred me up a bit. And there is some apprehension about being misunderstood.
It is one thing to be misunderstood by someone where there has been no investment, but to be misunderstood when a great deal has been invested is gut wrenching. I long to give a complete picture, but it is an impossible task. No matter what I choose to write or say I am left frustrated. I can’t approach the mountain. I can’t even describe or measure the mountain.
Maybe all that is to say, I don’t know how to write about my conversion stories- my ongoing conversion, especially in specifics. I can try approaching it from how I see conversion as a concept…
…I was born into my parents’ faith, and in spite of being beat over the head with the need to be saved, when I already was, I do not have that kind of conversion story. I am being converted and reconciled to God, and my story is ongoing. Hunger is my story. I long to be changed. I long to be converted to worship- for worship. I hunger to be made into a son. I yearn for the distance to be less. I can testify to the nearness and the vast gulf at once and it is mystifying to me. I don’t understand it. The glimpses I have had of heavenly things- diminish me. Under the council of the eye, who am I? I founder in the dust looking for signs of heaven and Eden growing like microscopic crystal orbs and fountains and gem trees. Even when I find them, and I do – I have seen amazing things, but it doesn’t close the gap between Him and me. My heart is still broken by the hunger. The thousands of deaths and resurrections I must undergo following the path of His blood. The only open door is the tomb. But I can see what He does with death. Death is a sweet thing, and I rejoice that my sin qualifies me for death, because my death qualifies me for the blood and for life with Him and for more hunger. I assume that I will be satisfied someday, but not until I am lying at His feet, my work being done.
E.D. I’m also interested in the composition of your pieces, architectural elements and beasts in the backgrounds, disembodied hands pointing or holding back a veil or curtain, wings–it seems there’s often more going on in the margins than at the center of a work. How do these elements find their way into a piece, and in general, do you conceive your works gradually, or in a singular inspiration?
J.B. Much of how I compose my paintings can be traced back to Bosch’s Seven Deadly Sins table in the Prado, and his Extraction of the Stone of Madness or Folly, also in the Prado. I remember being greatly inspired by Bosch’s use of frames and shapes and text, creating multiple images within a single group of frames. I began to experiment a lot with these visual concepts in my own work, making paintings that were framed with trompe’loie structures, or were composed of multiple smaller compositions.
I think of my paintings as sacred architecture in a way, symbolic of an unseen reality. In a much smaller way than how the tabernacle is an earthbound structure- not just symbolizing but representing a heavenly structure (Hebrews 8). I have a lot of unrealized ideas along those lines.
The window idea is a strong concept in my work, along with some blurred lines between the puppet stage and the painting window. I am reluctant to nail any of my symbols down- because they mean more than words can offer. And they hold more than I have realized. However, the hands, the hands reveal. Hands are always a point of focus, probably the most powerful point of focus after the face. They work. They reveal. They uncover. They point. They direct the attention of the witness. They seem to say, “tell me what you see”.
The veil or curtain- is both a stage and a curtain in the temple. The veil is that which conceals the hidden interior heart. The veil is that which Moses used to conceal the fading glory after he came down from the mountain of God. The veil is that which separates the natural realm from the spiritual realm. The veil is always being opened or torn because the veil is always being open or torn. It is the work of reconciliation.
The beasts are messengers, appointed servants that do the will of God. They are creation as a witness. They are the appointed whale, gourd vine, and worm in the story of Jonah. They are my sheep and goats, my dogs, the bobcat watching me from the shadows, the pileated woodpecker flitting through the timber making jungle noises, and the raccoon coming after my hens in the night. The large horned beasts are the Holy Spirit sometimes. They are a lot of things I know nothing about yet.
I generally start a piece from a place of “singular inspiration” as you put it, but as I work through the process of making the painting many elements are unfolded and developed. It really does seem like cooperation, as I work and respond to the ideas as they come. I have to have the discipline to respond to the intuition and the inspiration, with time, care and skill. It is like a small life, only comparable as a metaphor, to Abraham, who receiving a word and direction from God, lived many years, decades at a time, living out in faith and discipline, responding to the original word by going forward with his family and livestock. So I embrace the toil and apparent mediocrity of thousands of small brushstrokes, building an image that I hope I believe is significant to God’s heart. He will judge whether it was so or not.