God commanded Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you”. I can remember when in 2001 my wife Becky and I packed up and moved from Toronto, Ontario to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where we continue to live with our family. I had been invited by Providence University College to teach and direct an itinerant physical theatre ministry team and Becky was going back to school at the University of Manitoba to earn her Bachelor of Education. It was not easy for me to leave Central Ontario – where I had been born and raised. My family still lived there. There have been other occasions when I have followed God’s calling as an artist – moments which I have never regretted. Saying ‘yes’ to God asking ‘Will you do what I ask you to do?’ is always the best response.
Artists, and all creators, take a risk when they share their creation – expressions of themselves. Is my creation good? Will it be liked? If it is not received well – does this reflect poorly on me? As artists we are often hardest on ourselves in the moments following our sharing of our art – self-critiquing and potentially regretting. In Genesis we read that due to humanity’s wickedness and people’s inclination to evil, God decided to destroy the human race that he created, saying, “I regret that I have made them.” However, Noah – a righteous and blameless man – found favour in God’s eyes. Despite God’s regret, he was able to find the good and positive in his creation – in Noah and his family – and choosing to spare Noah and his family, and at least 2 of every kind of living creature (male and female). God told Noah to build an ark. While he provided certain specifications for the ark (type of wood, how to waterproof it, and dimensions), he left the creative details of the ark’s design up to Noah. Following the flood in which all but Noah’s family and the creatures on the Ark perished, and God established a covenant with Noah, God continued to share his love for artistic beauty – creating the rainbow that would be a sign of the covenant between God and the earth. The rainbow – a creative risk by God – that so very often evokes a ‘WOW!’ from the beholder – an exclamation mark to his reboot of creation.
“In the beginning God created…” In the Genesis creation narrative, we can make significant observations about creativity and, in turn, art. The heavens and the earth were the blank canvas on which God created – the earth was “formless and empty” and dark. Everything began with God and was his idea. The Spirit of God was present from the beginning of the creation process. In the words, “God saw that […] was good” we see that he paused, ‘stepped back’, evaluated his creation, and was able to give a positive self-review. The 7th time this phrase appears in this passage the significant adverb ‘very’ is added – “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good”. As artists generally do nowadays, God also names his parts of creationworks – “God called the light ‘day’”, before he gives names to other parts of his creation in following verses. Regarding sources of inspiration in art, God made humanity in his image. The variety of God’s creation is indicated in the words, “The heavens and earth were completed in all their vast array”. After God formed (Days 1-3) and filled (Days 4-6) (Barr, 2011), God set an example for artists when he rested on the 7th day. He blessed the 7th day and made it holy “because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done”. Creation was also aesthetically strong – “Trees that were pleasing to the eye” and, later, mention that Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was “pleasing to the eye”. Finally, as Adam Barr writes, “God [is] the supreme storyteller. Unlike a human author who relies on words and print to convey a story, God is enacting a grand narrative in flesh and blood, neutrons and nebulae.” God’s creation as described in Genesis is the beginning of humanity’s witness to his creativity – creativity that he has imparted to people in varying degrees.
I can remember many years ago as a teen in our church youth group we read through a book entitled The Life of Christ in Stereo. It took the Gospels and combined them into an easy-to-read, chronological narrative. A significant part of the strength and power of the ministry of From The Top over the past 25 years, by God’s enabling, has been our highlighting of stories and themes from the Bible in an artistic way – through sight and sound. To complement my ministry and leadership with From The Top I have read the Bible chronologically. Now, from September 2017 until June 2018 I’m going to be working through the recent book The Story by Max Lucado and Randy Frazee (link: http://www.thestory.com/what-is-the-story/). The Story is the story of the Bible, God’s great love affair with humanity condensed into 31 chapters bringing together the stories, poems and teaching of the Bible. I’m embracing this opportunity for study, reflection, growth and service, and artistic expression. As the President and Artistic Director of From The Top Arts, I want to invite any of you who are interested to join me on this creative journey. I’ll be posting my responses as an artist to this book as I read through it, and Scripture. I invite you to write with your responses – in text or via whichever artistic medium you create. Please let me know if you would like your responses shared here on my blog The Restless Artist. More details to come in the next few weeks.” (‘The Story’ can be purchased off Amazon for under $18 [Kindle for $15]).
I recently read the following words by Janice Elsheimer in her book ‘The Creative Call’: “Our gifts are not from God to us, but from God through us to the world. When we fail to use these gifts, we suffer the same way a person accustomed to regular physical activity may feel pent up, out of sorts, and off-balance after going for several days without exercise. When we try to live without exercising our artistic gifts we may feel RESTLESS [emphasis mine] and empty. Life lacks fullness. Something buried deep within longs to emerge.” I’m looking forward to the increased opportunities I’m going to have in the next 12 months (more to follow in my next post or so) to express myself as an artist. May each of us as artists exercise our talents, gifts and strengths, ensure that we have avenues for expression.
How far into the Bible does an artist, or anybody, need to read before he or she finds something relating to the arts? Not far at all. A mere 5 words. “In the beginning God created…” Reading Genesis 1:1-2:2 reveals an interesting process of creation and at least 7 interesting observations. 1) The heavens and the earth were the canvas that God created and the earth was “formless and empty” and dark (New International Versions [NIV]) – a blank canvas (1:1). 2) The Spirit of God was present from the beginning of the creation process (1:1). 3) In the words, “God saw that […] was good” we see that he paused, ‘stepped back’, evaluated his creation, and was able to give a positive self-review. The 7th time this phrase appears in this passage the significant adverb ‘very’ is added – “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (1:31). (4) As artists generally do nowadays, God was the 1st artist to name his works of art – “God called the light ‘day’” (1:4), before he gives names to other parts of his creation in following verses. 5) Regarding sources of inspiration, and degrees of realism in art, God made humanity in his image (1:26). 6) The variety of God’s creation is indicated in the words, “The heavens and earth were completed in all their vast array” (2:1). 7) God set an example for artists when he rested on the 7th day. Further, he blessed the 7th day and made it holy “because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (2:3). Following my Creator’s example, having shared these 7 observations in this blog post, I will now rest.
I once apologized to a pastor of mine for being a “restless artist.” This was in reference to myself as an artist seeking to find my place of worshipping and serving in the local church, and also advocating for more artistic elements in worship services. As I’ve reflected over this moment in time and my pairing of these words – “restless artist” – I have realized there was no need for myself as an artist to apologize. Each artist should indeed be restless – eager to express through their art. I also think of my artistic ministry with the charity From The Top with which I serve and how I’ve been realizing that not only is my work with From The Top not done but that there is still a great need to facilitate church leaders (some of whom are artists themselves) and artists to collectively learn about the biblical and theological place of the arts in local churches and our surrounding communities. I look forward to continuing on this journey of study, research, writing, teaching, and artistic ministry. (As part of this journey, I have registered the domain TheRestlessArtist.net – which is pointed to this site also [FromTheTop.ca]).
I can remember Marcel Marceau periodically saying to us as students, “Measure your possibilities.” Like most of his ‘quotables’, this phrase is packed with meaning and wisdom. First, Monsieur Marceau was encouraging us to be realistic in what we expect of ourselves. This includes not being too hard on ourselves relative to our artistic gifting and aptitude. Just as there will always be people who are more talented than ourselves, each of us are perceived by some to be more talented than others. Having taken stock of our capacity, we need to be at peace with artistic reality. In this light, it’s important that we be humble regardless of our relative place in our part of the artistic community. Second, embedded in the words of Marceau is a non-judgmental attitude. It’s essential that we don’t look down or think less of performance or visual artists who are not as trained, experienced or proficient as ourselves or others. Third and finally, for now, being able to measure our possibilities includes being increasingly self-aware and evaluating our art on an ongoing basis. Our individual and collective artistic possibilities must be critiqued by both ourselves and others.
When I was first introduced to a not-for-profit organization I heard the CEO comment, “We’re leaders in the field.” I can remember thinking at the time how commendable that was. However, as I got to know the agency and the respective field better I respectfully differed with the executive’s assessment. This is why I now primarily ask, “What do respected and reputable sources say?” As the saying goes – ‘Consider the source.’ Winning a talent competition at a local fair, as good as that may be, is not on par with winning a Grammy, Oscar or Pulitzer. Promotion will often include external third party endorsements in the form of quotes, a listing of awards rewards, and so forth. I try to not self-assess but rather let commendations, endorsements, recommendations, referrals, and so forth come from sources other than myself. A former colleague with whom I have not worked in 15 years recently said to one of my siblings, upon realizing they are related to me, “He’s an advocate for the people that he supports.” These words have stayed with me as I serve because they were unsolicited and came from a person who I respect very much. Finally, it is important to promote with integrity. The best way to explain what I mean by this is to ask, ‘What would people think of you or your organization if they investigated the claim?’ For example, a person’s assertion that he or she has worked in theatre for 30 years may be questioned if the reality is that the theatrical involvement consisted of volunteering as a stage hand for one weekend each year. Overall, self-assessment is a healthy exercise if it is for evaluative and not promotional reasons.
Just as it’s important to not expect perfection of ourselves or other people, it’s also essential that we own our shortcomings. In the past several years I have been baffled by how a significant number of leaders whom I have observed have not acknowledged missteps. To take responsibility for malfunction is a sign of strength and not weakness. Discussion of deficiency with followers or subordinates is the setting of a good example by a leader. In the same way, addressing of incidents of breakdown shouldn’t include over-apologizing. It can include such statements as “I didn’t explain that as best as I could have”, “It wasn’t fair of me to expect that of you”, “I forgot”, “I dropped the ball” and so forth. It is healthy for leaders and followers alike to own shortcomings.