Friday, August 21, 2009

How's your French?

With sawdust and old coal dust and probably asbestos flying around as I try to "make room for one more" in our old house, this is a day that seems far away from so many of the things and projects and people who have been so central to my life for the last decade. La Fonderie: to value, encourage, inspire, and embolden Christians working in the arts.

Then, a quick pause to check email. Like a cool breeze on a hot Missouri day, a message from a friend. No text, just a link to an article made up of a series of interviews with several artists who are a part of La Fonderie. It is in French, so maybe not accessible to everyone.

Reading their perspectives and a bit of their stories reminded me why we worked so hard for so long in Paris, and why we still care so deeply for the city. (Okay, there are also the cafes and bridges...)

Still waiting for the mist to burn off in Missouri, these voices were a promise that what we do can make a difference.

And for that I am grateful.

Where are you investing?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Nonprofit art galleries

The relationship between money and art can be an ugly one, and the realities of how tough it is to make a living as an artist is never so obvious as during economic periods like the one we find ourselves in right now. But it is never easy to make one's living through art, whether in visual or performing arts, on the stage or behind the camera. When things get tight financially, it is even more difficult for artists to do their art...and pay the bills.

In an interview by Zoe Feigenbaum, Daniel Joseph Martinez said that commercial galleries and museums are mechanisms in a system that is "well fortified and very difficult (for artists) to penetrate. Yet it seems to be in full control of what we think of as taste. This suggests that there is a relationship between sales and the actual meaning of art, which, of course, there isn't."

Martinez, a controversial L.A. artist, suggests that the end of the nonprofit art movement in the 90's limits the potential of the distribution of ideas and the dissemination of art through exhibitions. I don't agree with his politics, but here he and I are on the same page. Because I, too, am interested in the distribution of ideas and the dissemination of art.

One of the reasons la fonderie opened an arts gallery/cultural space in Paris was to provide a platform for artists and musicians and playwrights. It is not a commercial gallery or concert venue, but it gives artists a chance to have their work seen and heard. And it is a very busy place.

Some have rightly thought that it was a unique space because of the values and spiritual commitments of the team of volunteers who run it. But at the deepest level, it is a space that is committed to unleashing the voice of the artist in whatever art form he or she might work. It is about entering into the conversations that are happening in culture, and about starting a few new ones.

And although that does not make what we do unique, it makes it the kind of place we hope will increasingly be found in our towns and cities. What is going on where you live?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

When things are multiplied

Twenty-four hours in St. Petersburg is not nearly long enough. The city, built to be "the Vienna of the north" is lovely, and a welcome relief from Moscow. The purpose of my visit was to meet a couple who have recently moved into their appartment close to a park which is a monument to the hundreds of thousands who died in the siege of the city in WW2.

After several years of working through short term trips to improve conditions in orphanges in St. Petersburg, and impact cultural attitudes and policies concerning these children, they have determined to move here in order to invest more.

I guess there is no clearer mandate than the one to visit widows and orphans "in their distress". Through the years I have visited a few. But while his child took a nap, Charlie showed me a couple videos. The second one was an Oscar nominated documentary about homeless children in Moscow. There are about 4 million homeless children in Russia. Many are there because they don't want to go to an orphanage or to be returned to the homes from which they fled. My heart was breaking.

Which brings me to the first video, which was one that this couple shot in an orphanage for handicapped children. The images provoked emotions in me that are difficult to express.

As the father of a child whose handicaps are more severe than many of the children in the video, the shear number of children was still overwhelming. I know some of what it takes to bathe, feed, communicate with and help a child develop. There were about 100 children on that ward, one of four in the orphanage.

At times the pressure to be a good father is intensified by the special needs of that weakest member of my family. Sometimes I nearly buckle under the weight. But what do we do when things are multiplied? I could barely watch the screen.

Bed after bed crowded into one large room, children everywhere. Rocking, waving in the air, laying quietly alone. The camera paused on the lovely face of a Downs girl, her nose all red, eyes closed, wrapped tightly in her bed. Standing behind me, Charlie whispered: "She didn't make it".

I have seen the power of one life touching another. When things are multiplied, our efforts must also increase. And if it is only by grace that one man can help lift his son towards a life of dignity, it is clear that much grace is required to stretch far enough to impact the lives of children who are so far away.

We get tired too quickly, overwhelmed by the enormous need. I will never forget those videos. I hold one child in my arms. Who will hold the others?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Monuments and Alters

What kind of monuments do nomads build?

In L.A. last week everything was about leaning into the future. First I was with others who resonate with the values of the Mosaic Alliance, of which la fonderie is a part; then with Origins, participating in building a network which is a community of followers of Jesus who are passionate about seeing people know God and experience life as He intended. Then Catalyst, a high potency leadership conference focused my eyes on the horizon, towards the things of which I am certain.


This week has been full of conversations with friends that have been in my life for nearly thirty years. As if the path forward led me past monumental alters and vistas that had inspired and motivated me, propelling me forward from that time until now. It has been an unexpected time of remembering and celebrating.

These markers were placed together, mostly unconsciously, as we ran forward into the future. They are monuments that others might not understand or appreciate, but are significant to us because they are ours. Our moments of clarity. Of commitment. Of sacrifice. Of passion. Of joy.

Perhaps nomad has too weak a connotation. Pilgrim is a better term for those on a journey, in movement, with a destination. From then until now, we have not wandered.

We build monuments that help us remember our deepest motivations and most powerful, transforming moments. When we pass them again on our way, they push us towards the future. We remember our strength, and the grace that made everything possible, and we are brave.

“….miles to go…”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

In my place

My transition from European to Midwesterner is nearly complete. Unsure of the meaning of the concept of roots, foreign to my experience, instead I am embracing the idea of place. To comfort the heart of one of my children who after coming into adulthood in Paris found herself in Jackson, I quoted one of Mississippi’s great sons:

“I was trying to talk about people, using the only tool I knew, which was the country that I knew… I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.” William Faulker.

And one of her daughters, Eudora Welty, wrote: “It is by the nature of itself that fiction is all bound up in the local. The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in place…fiction depends for its life on place.”

There is perhaps something of my own longing for a connection to a specific place that turned my eyes away from any house that had not been standing longer than I have been. Or it may be a passive aggressive protest against living in a suburban community (oxymoron?), instead of some new urbanist development that at least attempts (though rarely succeeds) to create shared spaces and intentional diversity of shape and function.

Never mind all that. The deep rumblings in my soul that started us on this journey back to the land of our birth included the realization that it was possible to be so focused on the horizon that whole sections of the path on which we walk, and the people with whom we share it, become invisible to us.

As if everything that is good is either behind or ahead of us.

But in the place that we are, inside the boundaries that are formed by our geography and economics and language and chronology, there is a deep well of story and imagination and possibility.

Story: we are all characters in the narratives of others, not just our own.

Imagination: the passion to create and change our world is only limited by our willingness to dream and risk and laugh and find that what we have is enough… to begin.

We are moving into an old house in a small Missouri city on the banks of North America’s greatest river. Life is good.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Just the art, please

Maybe it is only an over-reaction to a presumably redundant discussion on a subject in which many artists are not at all interested, but upon reading a post on a blog that has some very interesting things to say about art and creativity, I found myself formulating some responses to several points.

The blog started: “Good Christian art is not an oxymoron, although anecdotal evidence and a survey of the statistics might make it seem that way. The fact is that there are good Christian artists making good art, but they are the exception rather than the rule, and the leaders in the fields of art seem to be non-Christians. Why? There is no single explanation, but rather many forces that have contributed to the present situation.”

What follows are some thoughts on the explanations listed in the blog.

If we start with the possibility of christian as an adjective applied to art, it is difficult to imagine being able to converse with the arts community. It may be more helpful to acknowledge that much of what is created as art is actually bad in a qualitative sense. It is not only Christians who make bad art. The discussion might be better framed in response to the question of why there are so few Christians who excel as innovators and leaders in the world of art, media and entertainment.

The church has cultivated a culture that largely does not value art as a part of who we are, and thus the subject of redemption. Not in the sense that we need to “redeem Hollywood” (read: get rid of all those people) or “restore the arts” (read: make it all nice and insist that it have a clear message with familiar symbols and images), but in the sense that redeemed humanity is one that is dancing and singing and writing and painting and making films…. An unleashing of creativity coming from those being transformed by God in Christ.

In addition to a continuing renewal of the arts in the life of the church, the need for an articulate Christian voice in secondary art education is critical. It is also important both that theological education include courses in the arts and that arts education include interaction with Biblical studies and theology.

As the founder of an arts group in Paris, my experience and reflection lead me to believe that it is always to the “masters” that students should go to learn and develop their craft. Our goal is to spiritually nurture those emerging creatives who will become the masters of tomorrow. To disciple those artists, to give Biblical and intellectual training so that they will have sure foundations is a great task with potential as endless as the pool of creative visions.

Perhaps there are those who think that being a Christian diminishes a person’s creativity, but in this discussion the more important falsehood is the idea that the Christian taps into a creative source that allows them to bypass the hard work, discipline, vulnerability, failure, commitment and patience that are necessarily a part of the artistic process. Our relationship with God, and our maturity in Christ, should impact our generosity and ability to share mercy, to recognize the grace of God at work in the lives of people around us, including those artists who do not recognize that grace or name the Name.

Inspiration can suffer under the executing hand of the artist. It is the human dilemma.

That a person who is listening to the wind of the spirit of God would be inspired is no surprise. But they still have to put the paint on the canvas or write the choreography.

Art that is motivated by some idea of “what the people need to see” or hear is more propaganda than art, and no less than “commercial art” (we all want to make a living) is often identifiable by its lack of dimension and depth. The greatest works seem to instead have been motivated by something deeply inside the artist, something that had to be painted or written or built. These are the voices that we long to hear.

The voice of the Old Testament prophet was directed towards the people who imagined themselves, and in fact were, the people of God. To use the image of the artist as prophet without welcoming the hard “truths” into our faith communities is to misinterpret the role of the prophet and the artist, as if they were commissioned to confront the world as evangelists.

Perhaps the artist has been gifted in order to “glorify God and enjoy Him”, and help us, too, enjoy God and all that He has made, and have greater compassion by allowing us to “see” what they see, sometimes with dancing, sometimes with mourning, in the world as it is, and what they imagine about how things could be.

And that could be great art.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tonight there are two brothers on my mind. We were friends in our inner city St. Louis high school. I remember going to their house, one of dozens of brick duplexes stretching down the block. The porches all had sofas and chairs, and I could imagine sitting there watching the city walk and drive by.

This was in the mid 1970s, and I didn’t feel strange, although it may have been, for a white boy to walk up the concrete stairs from that street. I do not remember going in the house. I was driving a 1972 AMC Hornet. Oxidized light-blue paint. Cracked vinyl seats. No radio. No air conditioning. The heat blew like a convection oven.

We went to a movie that night, at the Stadium Cinema. One screen, or two, maybe, it was across from Busch Stadium, right in the heart of the city, not far from the riverfront. Arriving late after the film started, the only seats available were on the front row. It was only after sitting down and glancing back at the full room that I noticed that I was the only white person in the room. No worries, though. I was with Vernon.

We played football together one year, but it was the music that made our friendship. It started in the concert choir, and continued in the barbershop and madrigal groups. But then we broke out of that and started singing some R & B and soft rock. I played guitar, but most often Vernon, Virgil, and I sang a cappella. They raised my soul from its sleep. It was inspiring, and my first performance experiences.

Once during college I called and went to see Vernon again. The sofas were gone from the porch.

Watching the inauguration of Barak Obama, Vernon and Virgil were on my mind. My path has led me into many cultures on four continents, but also far away from the American inner city, and absolutely removed from the life that they lived or live now. I was proud to be an American today. I am full of hope for what can happen, what should happen in these next years. But I was sad that as I return to the US after nearly nine years in Europe, I can only guess what Vernon feels today. I wish I knew.
The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.

from "The Lemon Trees"
by Eugenio Montale
(Translated by Lee Gerlach)