Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Potter

Jeremiah's visit to the potter's house is a favorite scripture passage of artists, and not just clay artists. This is one of the few times when the visual arts play a major role in a scripture passage. This story, recorded in Jeremiah 18:1-11, is the reading from Hebrew scripture on Proper 18C/Ordinary 23C. The point of the visit is to give a (literally) hands on demonstration of how the nation of Israel - the clay - is in the hand of and ultimately at the mercy of the potter (God).

Jeremiah's point is broad and talks generically about the relationship between potter and clay, artist and material. In the text there seem to be two extremes: a perfect pot or one that was ruined, destroyed and remade. The potter makes the decision about the acceptability of the pot's form, and the potter decides when the pot is no longer acceptable and must be destroyed.

It matters who the potter is.
Left: George E. Ohr. Vase. c. 1900. NY: Cooper-Hewitt Museum. https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/51685221/
Right: George E. Ohr. Vase. Late 1890s - Early 1900s. Biloxi, MS: Ohr-O'Keeffe Museum. http://georgeohr.org/
Though Jeremiah's potter demands perfection, I don't know that perfection is required by our God. I would suggest that Jeremiah's God...our God...may share an aesthetic point of view with George Ohr...though the moustache style probably isn't shared. Ohr was a native and resident of Biloxi, Mississippi, and when he stopped making pottery at the age of 52, in 1909, he claimed he had not sold a pot in 25 years.
George E. Ohr. Pitcher. 1893-1906. NY: Cooper-Hewitt Museum. https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/18618529/
Ohr's personality set him apart from the general population, and his art set him apart from the art world. His critics said that his work lacked proportion, grace and dignity. He threw pots and vessels with wafer-thin clay walls that he then twisted, pushed, pulled, pinched and crumpled. The crumpling was not in preparation for re-forming the clay into a "perfect" pot, it was to create a unique form. "No two forms alike," the potter bragged. He also claimed that he brooded over each pot "with the same tenderness a mortal child awakens in its parents."

Many consider Ohr to be America's first art potter. Perhaps it was because of his skill at the wheel in throwing such delicate vessels. Perhaps it was due to his skill at manipulating such thin clay. Maybe it was his unique forms and glazes. Some claim that it is the clay Ohr used, much of which he dug himself from the banks of the Tchoutacabouffa River, that enabled him to create his unique pieces. Whatever it was, Ohr saw beauty in the crumpled, the folded, the imperfect. In his eyes those forms became "art" where others saw only oddness and irregularity and difference. That sounds like grace to me.

The clay matters. The potter matters. Because the potter determines what forms are acceptable and what forms will be reshaped. Do you know your potter?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Salt

A conference preacher once asked why in the world artists continued to depict Jesus as some sort of emaciated figure when all he did was eat! The gospel reading for Proper 17C/Ordinary 22C is (yet another) occasion when Jesus is invited to a dinner party. On this particular occasion (Luke 14:1, 7-14), Jesus criticizes the actions and behavior of the other guests. Awkward.

The problem is that the guests all work to seat themselves as the guest of honor. Jesus says, "How embarrassing will it be when the host comes to you and announces that someone more important than you has arrived and you'll need to move down the table!" Where all the guests wanted to be was, in medieval terms, "above the salt." Salt, which at one time was as valuable as gold, was placed in the middle of the dining table. People of noble rank were seated "above the salt" (between the salt cellar and the head of the table, where the lord and lady of the house were seated). Guests of lower standing and perhaps some of the higher ranking servants were seated "below the salt."

The traditional labor of the month for January was feasting. What else was there to do in the winter? In the January illustration from the Grimani Breviary, a boat-shaped salt cellar is on the table at the far right of the illustration. The ornateness of salt cellars is easily seen in the Burghley nef. Fashioned in the shape of a boat (tying the salt to its source, the sea) this 16th-century salt cellar continued a fashion that is documented as early as the 13th century. Royal household inventories list large ship-shaped salt cellars made of gold and silver.
 (Above left) The Burghley Nef. 1527-1528. Nautilus shell with parcel-silver gilt mounts and pearls. London: Victoria and Albert Museum. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O73113/the-burghley-nef-salt-cellar-unknown/ (Above right). "January" from the Breviario Grimani. 1510s. Venice, Italy: Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. http://marciana.venezia.sbn.it/sites/default/files/filemanager/file/UserFiles/File/Grimani-2.pdf

"Sit below the salt," Jesus says. "And then you will be honored when the host insists that you move up." He then suggests that if you are a host, perhaps the only people you should invite to dinner are those who would expect to be sitting below the salt...or those who would never expect to be invited to dinner at all.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Women Freed

The gospel reading (Luke 13:10-17) for Proper 16C/Ordinary 21C is the story of Jesus healing the woman who has been unable to stand up straight for eighteen years. There are images that illustrate that story, but two other biblical stories consistently show up in internet searches for the story. The three stories have some interesting commonalities. All have to do with women and freedom.

On the morning of the resurrection Mary stands weeping outside the tomb where Jesus' body was laid. John 20:11 says that as she is weeping she bends over (stoops) to look in the tomb. By the end of the scene she has seen the Lord and understands that his resurrection is real. Jesus has conquered death and she (and all of us) who share in his death will also share in his resurrection. Freedom!

In the other story, it is not a woman who does not stand up straight, it is Jesus. The text (John 8:1-11) is the account of the woman brought before Jesus in hopes of trapping him in a theological argument. The woman, apparently the only guilty party in an accusation of adultery, is made to stand before a group of men that includes Jesus. Rather than hurling the expected accusation (and stone), Jesus bends over and writes in the dirt at his feet. The other men begin to wander away and Jesus is left with the woman. He straightens up, and speaks freedom to her.
 Above left: Rembrandt/Style of Rembrandt. Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery. Drawing. Above right: Mary Magdalene at the Tomb. (Searching for further documentation and links for these two works.)

The use of these two other stories is in no way meant to belittle the pain of the woman in Luke 13. If today were the end of the eighteen years she has been unable to stand up straight, her affliction would have begun in 1999. In 1999 Bill Clinton was POTUS and Boris Yeltsin was President of Russia. In 1999, Star Wars Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace opened. Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" was Grammy's Record of the Year. Think of everything you have seen since that year. Eighteen years is a long time. At the midpoint of this week's gospel reading, however, her adversity has ended. Woman, you are set free from your bondage. It was not the last time Jesus would equate standing up straight with freedom.

For thoughts on the reading from Jeremiah, click here

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Looking at Clouds That Way

Both the Gospel and Epistle readings for Proper 15C/Ordinary 20C introduce the visual idea of clouds. In Luke's gospel (Luke 12:49-56, the cloud is literal. Clouds in the sky that are understood by humans are placed next to the signs of the times that people are unable to read. In Hebrews (11:29-12:2) the cloud is one of witnesses. Literal clouds and figurative ones.

Literal clouds are masses of water droplets so small that they float in the air. Though the sky is full of water, it is usually in the form of water vapor, which cannot be seen. The clouds, then, provide the opportunity for humans to see what is often invisible.

If literal clouds make water visible, is there a way that the cloud of witnesses can be rendered visible?

Visual artist Piper Mavis used twine in a sanctuary to celebrate the history of one congregation in London, England. In 2012 Heath Street Baptist Church commissioned five artists to conceive and execute works for an exhibit called The Long Cloud of Witnesses. Mavis' work, titled Fade Away and Radiate, speaks to
...the absence of the great congregation that met during the church’s heyday (A church built for a capacity of hundreds now had a congregation of 15). A thread of sisal twine (one for every member in the church’s history) emanates from the original pulpit outward and upward until it reaches every seat in the pews, once again filling the church to capacity many times over.

The twine indeed fills the space with a cloud of witnesses. In memory of the cloud of witnesses that had indeed filled the space of the church sanctuary throughout the congregation's history. The twine reaches to the farthest corners of the sanctuary and to the upper reaches of the balcony.

It is appropriate that the higher parts of the sanctuary are included in the work. Nephos, the Greek word for cloud in Hebrews 12, refers to a mass of cloud/vapor that obscures the heavens. The highest point, the farthest seat, are both touched by the great cloud of witnesses. Let's look at clouds that way.

For more on this installation and more of Piper Mavis' work, see her website: http://www.pipermavis.com/home/artworks/completed-works/fade-away-and-radiate/