The “Stone Hefter”, a small wood engraving and lesser spiritual lever
Does It Matter
The question “does this matter” is part of the consistent and insistent background chatter every day of my life. The question never goes away and has a thread of doubt woven through it, but it is balanced with the choices that I’ve made as an individual, and also as part of a family and part of a community that says “yes, it does matter”. It is a faith wager to keep doing it every day. It is not unlike lifting this stone.
When I make art I am praying. I am listening and I am seeking. Please do not misunderstand, it is not a righteous act but a desperate one. When I labor to make a print like this I am asking – begging God that it will be a lever for His Kingdom and His goodness- that it might become part of His own expression. The images and the labor are connected to a mystery as a spiritual practice. Everything is more than it seems, in the same way that a single word in a poem can become a passageway into a new story or a different world that, as it turns out, is vitally interconnected to this one.
Then I have to navigate what to do with it once I’ve made it. The path (in spite of my countless attempts to take it other places) always leads to a wide river called “marketing”. I am on one bank and the rest of the world is on the other. I’m all but convinced that I will drown if I go in. It is a strange baptism.
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.
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.
…If we set the little paraffin lamp out at night, flying fish were attracted by the light and large and small, shot over the raft…
…It sometimes happened that we heard an outburst of strong language from a man on deck when a cold flying fish came unexpectedly, at a good speed, slap into his face…
…They always came at a good pace and snout first, and if they caught one full in the face they made it burn and tingle…
…But the unprovoked attack was quickly forgiven by the injured party, for with all its drawbacks, we were in a maritime land of enchantment where delicious fish dishes came hurling through the air…
…We used to fry them for breakfast, and wether it was the fish, the cook or our appetites, they reminded us of fried troutlings once we had scraped the scales off… Thor Heyerdahl, Kon Tiki, 1950
…There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?……Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all……Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted……When they were satisfied, he told, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”
…So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets… John 6, 9-13 NRSV
In the dark and unlit ceiling of the Loretta Chapel there is a lonely painting of a chunky fish atop a heavy slab of bread. At the moment Thor Heyerdahl’s balsa log raft was colliding with a dusty man breaking bread in the grass of Palestine. The long pilgrim road leading through elder drifts, slabs of rock, mountains of hailstones, unearthly fish with a mouth like a grave. The sign of Jonah. Provision comes unlooked for, and fear is weathered away.
Those of you who are regular visitors know I have been slowly overhauling the pages here at The School of the Transfer of Energy. If you are new, know you know too. There are still some pages to rebuild, but for the latest, please take a few moments to visit the new Painting page. This has been perhaps the most personally interesting page to remake. Seeing so many of my paintings re ordered and in a fresh context has been revealing. Below are a few samples. I hope you enjoy them, and thank you for visiting. -Jack
The Ancient Ocean (detail) (in progress)
Go On, John the Baptist (2008)
all images are held in copyright by Jack Baumgartner. use by permission only
This is a blog about images and stories, technology and craft. For the sake of Yaakov as well as others I will risk a distance from the normal sparseness of words and do my best to write a little about the symbolism in Jacob Wrestling With God.
When I make a painting, there is always a tension between intent and intuition. In the painting of Jacob, there is meaning that I intended to place there and there is meaning that emerges as I work, often pointed out by an outside observer. Both are placed there in faith, and both are discovered again in faith. I receive requests to reproduce the image of Jacob Wrestling with God regularly. Whatever other arrangements are made, I always beg the insight of the requestor, because I want to know what has been placed in my work by God, which is hidden to me, but perhaps not to them. One gracious responder was Robbie Pruitt, who actually wrote a review of the work, which can be read on his blog.
Violence and intimacy. The violence and intimacy of this wrestling match. What did it sound like, how did it smell, the sweat of God and Jacob mingled in the dust? Those who are willing to pursue God and his blessing with such force receive honor from me. I don’t know what Jacob was thinking. But I know I wish I had the guts to engage my God with such an intertwined closeness. I despise the distance of religion. I use that distance to keep myself “safe” in this life, but at what cost. Even if I am annihilated, at least I may have a glimpse of His glory before I am withered back to dust. I want to know who He made me to be, why I am here, what my name is, even if I have to wrestle with one who could wither me with a glance. This story is a profound mystery to me, but I love it because God made himself vulnerable for the sake of this man whom He loved. I don’t get that, but it makes me love Him even more. I would rather be undone by the _ord than sit here safe and placid before my computer.
The banner has been present in my work for decades. I won’t go into all it’s permutations, but in this case I think of it as God’s declaration and promise over Jacob. It contains mysteries and words spoken in the Spirit from the beginning of creation until the end of days. They are blank, because, who am I to presume.
The curtains speak both of intimacy and story, as they are drawn back to reveal a glimpse of the man Jacob’s story and intimacy with his God. The curtains as well always recall to me the curtain that separated the most holy place of the temple, where the presence of God would come. Then when it was torn apart when Jesus was crucified; another time of violence and intimacy, when God made Himself vulnerable for those He loved.
The hands reveal the glory.
There is something important to me concerning of the knee of Jacob near the stone in the corner, but I do not understand what.
The nudity of Jacob, perhaps goes without saying. But nothing is hidden from God.
There used to be a couple of ladders toppling about in the struggle, recalling a previous encounter Jacob had, but I decided to paint over them.
There is more in this story, because it is God’s. But this is what I have painted. Please, be welcome to offer your insights, and I thank those of you who have risked writing comments and emails.
(Below is a progression of the painting)
Below is the drawing that came first, and a linocut based on the painting.