An example of my work (measuring 9′ x8′), and thought process from 2007, for those visitors who might not personally know me – Shalom!
Artist Statement : Blessed to be a Blessing Silk Painting
When Bruce Robbins and Sally Johnson asked the church ministry staff at their weekly meeting to think of the times they had most felt welcomed by another person, and what that person had done that made them feel welcomed, the consensus response (as any good Methodist might agree!) was abundant food. Right away it was clear that the perfect subject for the Blessed to be a Blessing banner was a banquet table heaped with food. Immediately I thought of a painting I had studied in an Art History course long ago, which became my original inspiration, Jan de Heem’s Baroque still life, Still Life with Parrots. De Heem worked in both Flanders and Holland during the 15th century after Holland had converted to Calvinism, while Flanders still by and large practiced Catholicism. While the relationship between the two traditions was not exactly ecumenical, it produced an interesting effect on the work produced by artists of the time and area, particularly regarding still lifes, which became a medium for moral instruction, rather than a beautiful visual study. Many of these still lifes including de Heem’s, address the concept of Vanitas, the vanity of all earthly things. They combine the symbolism of everyday objects as developed during the Catholic church of the Medieval age with the particular moralism of Calvinist theology at the time to speak to the “brevity of life, the inevitability of death, and the passing of all earthly pleasures.” Cheerful right? I decided that while de Heem’s still life represented an idea or viewpoint of an earthly banquet I wanted mine to represent a heavenly banquet. A banquet provided to us and to everyone by the host of hosts, an invitation not to the inevitability of death, but rather to the inevitability of life.
But what would a heavenly banquet look like? In some ways for me this goes back to the title of our theme over the next few months – we are blessed to be a blessing. Since we have been guests of the host of hosts we must now be host to others. And this type of hosting is less about passing along a moral lesson than it is providing a free gift. As a result this type of hosting can be pretty humbling for not only the host, but the guest also. It’s this type of hosting that is of heaven, that is life giving, that resembles our creator.
The heavenly banquet portrayed in this banner reflects Christ’s declaration that the kingdom has come, the banquet has already started (notice the peeled orange) and so it reflects our current reality, as well as the abundance of life beyond our current reality. In a technical sense, to reflect this marriage of reality and heavenly abstraction I have visually exaggerated vibrancy of color, form, line and proportion. This banquet like de Heem’s of almost 400 years ago is also rich is visual symbols, but it’s symbols are a merging of not only beautiful delicacies (such as oysters, citrus fruits and melons) but of the foods here on earth that provide nutritional and/or sustenance to the largest populations of the world. One example of this is the platter of ugali to the left of the golden urn. Ugali is the Kenyan name for a corn meal product similar to grits or polenta that is a relatively flavorless staple food in most parts of Africa. In each part of Africa ugali has a different name but it remains a beautiful food in that it is inexpensive, relatively easy to grow during droughts, easy to mill and dry, and keeps well without refrigeration. Other staple foods in the banner include potatoes (in this instance mashed), rice, and bread. Some foods were included for their nutritional value such as bananas, carrots, squash, eggplants and grapes. Some foods represent ethnic diversity and come from different parts of the world such as figs, olives and coconuts. Some also have a classical symbolism (while also being nutritional or diverse) such as the pomegranate which typically represents purity or honey which represents sweetness. The flowers also have classical symbolism, the Azalea represents abundance, the white Tulip represents forgiveness, the Stars of Bethlehem represent hope, the Apple Blossoms represent promise, and the Lily represents resurrection. Finally some foods are included because, similar to ugali, of what they represent in and of themselves. There are two main examples of this, the first, the bowl of South American stew (above the watermelon) is considered by many who work with poverty and the hungry on that continent to be a “golden triangle” food. This means this meal while only made of three ingredients, squash, tomatoes and beans, is a complete source of nutrition that is affordable to the poor. The second example is the watermelon, which is originally thought to have grown wild in the Kalahari Desert, and was a major source of water to the indigenous people of that area. Of course at any banquet there must be beverages to wash down all that food! And here we have the wine of community in Christ, and pure water, something that the World Health Organization estimates is still unavailable to close to 1 billion people worldwide.
A banquet in heaven must be a banquet of all nations, all cultures, all ethnicities, and all orientations. A banquet in heaven would be for the rich and for the poor, for those on the fringes of society as well as those who fashion society. For the faithful and the doubtful. Most of all a heavenly banquet, a meal prepared by the hosts of hosts, would be a meal of reconciliation and sibling-hood. The suffering and the forgotten would be joyfully served by their oppressors. This means I would be given the wonderful opportunity to serve those whom I have oppressed, mistreated, and wounded in my own human journey. And I would be served by those who knowingly or unknowingly had done the same to me. Yes, a heavenly banquet would be a meal of reconciliation, a freeing opportunity to truly be forgiven and to truly forgive.
* The item in quotes is taken from the following resource:
Janson, H.W. and Anthony F. Janson. History of Art. Revised Fifth Edition. New York:Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997.