I gave this artist talk in February 2020, but didn't publish it anywhere at that time. I still think, three years later, that it should be shared and so I am including it here.
I want you to think about a moment when you felt stuck, like maybe you were struggling to button your jeans or a window wasn’t opening, or a pickle jar… You might have said aloud “Oh come on.” Yes? In that moment you were in conversation with a material. Theorist Walter Benjamin writes about being in conversation with material as central to the work of making art, and while he means something slightly different than talking with the pickle jar, it is also similar: this idea of being in conversation with the things around you, being aware that there is a relationship playing out.
These paintings are a conversation with material and were created as earnest prayers to the creator G-D. They started as small paintings, eight inches by ten inches: ipad size. They were very precious. My studio mate, Eric Tai, has an important phrase painted on his easel,“Not a thing is precious.” This reminder constantly calls us back to the paradoxical reality that, yes, objects are not precious in the sense that they cannot be interacted with or must be placed on shelves away from realities of life, but precious in the sense that care can be taken and love can be extended to all people and things. And I painted 50 small precious paintings, and learned a lot the paint in the process, and moved from an affinity for the color to a love for its essence.
The color is called Payne’s Grey, and is very diverse depending on how much water you add to it. It rarely looks grey, but frequently is blue. It doesn’t split apart when the salt is added to it, but rather pushes and pulls around it. The paint interacts with the way the definitive way the salt box is shaken. I shake the box so that the salt forms all-over patterns or clusters, in conversation with the paint pigment. As I was practicing, with the salt and pigment, I wanted more room to play, so I sized-up slightly to 14 by 20 and then 18 by 24. And talked with the material the whole time. Learning that there is a point where there actually is too much water and pigment so all nuance is lost. By the time I got to 18 by 24 inch paintings, Maria Fee, who invited the work to be shown here when it was still 8x10 and was my encouraging studio mate throughout this entire process said, “You have to go bigger.” She said this for two weeks and then one morning she literally put a large roll of paper in my hands and said “Paint on this.” She was in dialogue with the work as a viewer, and could see the expansiveness of the form long before I could. This is why it is important to have community around you in all of your work: paper writing, speaking, theologizing, painting; you need people that see the things you can’t, things in your proverbial blind spots. And while this may be implied I think it is important to state explicitly: Have people around you who see things differently than you, so that you do not get lost in an echo chamber of stagnation.
As evidenced here, I did paint that roll of paper that Maria placed in my hands, that paper that she had the ability to envision covered with this dialogue between pigment, water, and salt. I had the thought that if I could wallpaper this room with paintings, if I could change our perspective even just a fraction, it might help our community to gain a sense of hope in a time of disruption. A time when our school is figuring out its vision, on a metaphoric and practical level, the United States is facing another contested presidential election, our world is facing a potential viral pandemic. So what is the work of an artist right now and right here? How can I speak into our current situation with images? How can I create paintings that point towards a hope? A future? As I painted I was particularly focused on light in the eucalyptus trees of our campus, the fires in the Amazon, the perpetual motion of clouds in the sky. Places that point me towards the direction of a new earth. A place free from disease and destruction where suffering is not the dominant motif, but rather thriving and flourishing are de rigor.
This work is called “a subtle hope” because as I painted last summer and thought about what this community might need in the middle of winter, at the beginning of this reflective season of Lent, the idea of an almost pernicious invasive hope came forth. Something that stands in the face of cascades of doubt and uncertainty. These paintings are done as puddles and pools of paint. I mean, gallons of water get poured onto them and how fast they dry depending on humidity and what air currents pass over and by them all contribute to the final effect. That being said, while those gallons are being poured onto them, there reaches a kind of equilibrium where the pigment estuaries form aesthetically pleasing landmarks, and at that moment I chuck the salt over the entire image in an attempt to stop the entropy that can lead to muddy paintings. The paintings themselves are an act of hope, that the actions I take will lead to future beauty.
Osheta Moore says that “Beauty is at the heart of shalom,” Shalom being the Hebrew word for pervasive peace and wholeness, a sense of wellbeing that operates down to the cellular level. The artist Gerhardt Reichter says that “art is the greatest form of hope” and I think what he means is that it is a bold thing to work towards beauty in a world that is continually destroying itself. How do we find hope when confronted with the climate crisis? Uncertainty about the future? Serious sickness of loved one? For me, it is found in the things the paintings reference: interior and exterior elements, micro and macro: cells under microscopes, light through philodendron leaves, icebergs, and the paths of waves on embedded sand. They are asking you, my beloved community, to enter the ongoing conversations about embodiment and imago dei, what it means to be made in the image of G-D, what prayer can look like, and the serious need for climate care.
The works function like signposts, wayfinders to wayfarers presenting a vision of a new earth. I would encourage you to spend time with the discomfort and questions that these paintings might bring up, knowing that you might think you don’t like the visual, because of the feeling it creates, but like everything else in seminary and life, I would encourage you to do some excavation and see what question is really being asked and what you want to say in response.
As a response to one of the frequently asked question about these paintings “How long do they take to paint?” I will tell you the answer to that is, quite simply, they have taken my whole life. Every moment of observation, conscious or unconscious, every practice stroke with a paintbrush, every hour of study in school, every moment of conversation with materials has lead to these paintings. And so I would encourage all of you to think about what you are doing that takes your whole life, and what you are creating with that work. I have no doubt that your work will be different than mine, but perhaps together our conversations with words, materials, images and relationships can point others towards hope, and bring about glimpses the new earth.