Thursday, February 23, 2012

Making Images

One of the biggest perks of my job is that the faculty are encouraged to keep learning, growing, and thinking. This objective is fulfilled by a great many things on the gritty, daily level and also in terms of soaring mission and vision. Near the end of last semester, I shyly sidled up to one of the art teachers and explained that I've always liked drawing and painting and would like to deepen my skills. With sharp eyes and warm smile, she responded with a hearty invitation to attend her class the next semester. Most of us have two hours carved out of the six-hour day as preparation time, and I would trade in one of those to sit in the large-windowed art room with eighth grade girls once a day, surrounded by the comfortable smells of acrylics, charcoal, and hard work.

As it happens, spending an hour a day staring at things - well, changes your eyes. And if you're like me, it makes you think about how those changes affect the person, the human being. What if my eyes, in turn, change the world? What does it mean to look at a thing and copy it? Are there moral implications to the way I crouch over a piece of paper and scratch a piece of charcoal over it? If this seems overly thoughtful, I am not the first one to find this process worrisome. We are told that the Israelites, for example, received the following command:

"You shall not make yourselves a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them for I the Lord am a jealous god." (Exodus 20:4)

Similar (though not identical) preoccupations haunt Plato's Republic. My senior high students and I are read about the philosopher's uneasiness with the way that art imitates real things. His argument is based on different reasoning than that of the second commandment. Plato thinks that this world (trees, people, etc.) are already a copy of the True Reality (or Forms), so copying them again through art makes them even weaker, like when you make a photocopy of a photocopy and the quality diminishes. The Lord God, by contrast, is Reality, and so is His creation all around us, but He does not want us putting those two realities on equal footing in terms of worship. Either way, it seems as if art is anything but a neutral activity.

I bend over a piece and scribble in the bus, trying heard to make the peel of the orange "pop out" from the rest of the drawing, when a gentleman asks if I am an art student. I respond with a half-smile - "in a manner of speaking". He looks at what I am doing, copying from a magazine cutout, and says: "That's cheating." My eyebrows heighten. "Oh?" "You're going from a two-dimensional source to a two-dimensional drawing. The real thing is to copy from a three-dimensioned thing." I mumble something about how we do still-lifes in class, but inside my head the wheels are turning. Cheating - why does he think that? Rather than offended, I'm fascinated by his reasoning. Like Socrates, is he saying that if you copy from a copy from a copy from a copy-?

But sir, every student starts with this. Copying. And doing so changes your eyes.

Last Sunday, I noticed the carpet in church for the first time in eleven-some years. It is a grid pattern, made to look like swaths of woven strips. The color is a deep grayish purple. I listen to the sermon and imagine how I could blend that color with poppy red, indigo blue and white. The details in wood grain, and shapes of shadows, and the lines that define someone's face all leap out at me as details that my usual, big-picture take on life would normally gloss over. You know how most humans read - they see the first and last letters of a word and the brain deduces the rest. I normally do that with everything. It's an integrated, cosmic way to look at life, but it is good to learn how to be a careful observer, too.

In that vein, I have been appreciating the wise words and life of Jean-Henri Fabre, the French entomologist and writer. I came across a collection of his writings in a thrift shop this week. This man led a deeply-observant life, deliberately confining himself to his home in Provence during the final 40 years of his life. Weary of the dry, dead specimens in the laboratories that had marked the first part of his career, he chose a spot where he could be surrounded by the living, buzzing flora and fauna of his neighborhood. He writes to an imagined group of former colleagues:

"You rip up the animal and I study it alive; you turn it into an object of horror and pity, whereas I cause it to be loved; you labor in a torture chamber and dissecting room, I make my observations under the blue sky to the song of the Cicadas, you subject cell and protoplasm to chemical tests, I study instinct in its loftiest manifestations; you pry into death, I pry into life." (5, The Passionate Observer, italics mine).

Some would argue that to hide oneself away and study only the forms of life located in one's backyard is tragically provincial. However, his voluminous writings - both delightful to read and scientifically well-respected - confirm that careful, minuscule considerations of the reality that immediately surround us can be of utmost importance.

Back in the art room, I turn the paper upside-down to change the perspective, to get a fresh look. But I'm still wondering. When I create a picture - whether it be in the deliberate arrangement of words that make up this blog post or with the strokes of a pencil that somehow call to mind a sleeping woman at a table - what am I doing, exactly?

It is a heady thought, yet inescapable: like my Creator, I create. Does this sound presumptuous, especially given the stern Exodus warning? Here is mystery, but a sure thing. To make images is to participate in the divine nature. First we observe and we see what God has made. Leaves, noses, insects, mountains, color, shape. Then comes the remarkable leap. As Christ said of himself, we "do what we see our Father doing." To copy things is not to reduce them, like Plato said. Rather, we bring the Creator glory; like all symbols, our rendition points to His handiwork. Or, as Mark Noll writes: "for believers to be studying created things is to be studying the works of Christ" (Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind). I would add that for believers to study and copy His masterpieces is to be an apprentice to him and share in his labor. Perhaps we can become more like the students of the great painters, our words and deeds bearing the name of our Master's workshop and not our own.