What follows is a transcript of my presentation to the Iowa Annual Conference in June 2016.
Up to the edge
I’m preaching up to the edge today, as this is my last time to be with you in this way. I am not moving physically, still directing the Wesley Foundation at Drake University. I am still a Methodist, for now, still a Christian, for now, and an artist, still. Now. And now seems like the right time to move into a season of silence and on from this conversation. After a time, you may hear my voice and see my work coming from other places, other conversations. My search for beauty and the presence of the Sacred in our midst will continue, as will my exploration of the practice of visual homiletics.
Words of thanks
Words spoken at the end of a narrative have more weight than those from the middle.
But before we slip into the deep end of the font, I want to express my gratitude to those who have helped me and worked with me along the way. In particular, I want to thank Shari Miller, a capable assistant and spectacular photographer.
And to you, the Iowa Annual Conference, I want to thank you for making room for me here—on the agenda, and in the middle of the floor, and, more importantly, thank you for making room for me in the space behind your eyes and between your ears.
Mine is a ministry of thought.
Agreement is a thought. Disagreement is a thought.
I don’t care which you do.
But I do want to thank you for receiving my work the way you have over these past 22 years.
How I use the visual arts as the conference artist
If this is your first time as a delegate, let me explain that as Conference Artist I use the visual arts to articulate the theme and point toward the truth of beauty and the beauty of truth.
If you make a habit of coming here, you may have seen my work before. Your responses, positive and negative, have shaped me as a thinker, as an artist, and as a disciple. Blessed in every sense of the word, I have saved every note, every evaluation—expressions of gratitude and praise, expressions of anger and outrage. I’m not sure why I saved them; it seemed callous to throw them away. Maybe I’m not done learning from them. I considered putting them out for display downstairs in the gallery, but I read through them again and I don’t think some of you intended your words to be made public. So you won’t find them downstairs.
Remnants from 22 years of visual conversation
What you will find in the gallery are remnants from this visual conversation we’ve been having. Some of the work has been redacted for your comfort, but all of it was/is offered up as a labor of love. What is on display is what remains—the pieces that have not been defaced, or torn down, or taken. Remnants.
You are forgiven
You are forgiven, by the way. Whoever you are, wherever you are—you who felt compelled to silence the message you were hearing by removing it from view – I forgive you. Or maybe I should say that I did forgive you, I am forgiving you, and I will continue. 490 times. You are forgiven.
How many times am I to forgive one who has harmed me? asked the student. Seven times? Would that suffice?
Try 70 x 7, the teacher said.
490 times! I’m certain to lose track?
So don’t keep track, said the teacher. Forgive.
A matter of scale
I have encountered a few challenges over the years of doing this kind of work for you—for us. But the toughest challenge artistically is one of scale. If my work is going to be seen at all in a room this size, it has to be large, massive, colossal.
Scale and proportion are among the principles of art and design. They both have to do with size, but proportion is about how the parts relate to the whole. Scale has to do with the relationship of one whole to another whole. And this experience of scale is often felt with the body.
To stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon you can’t help but experience scale. Your body is dwarfed by the enormity of that gaping cleft. It is important to note that you don’t have to ask yourself to think about how it feels to have a visual experience of something larger than your physical body. You just feel it. You can’t help it.
Chartres Cathedral does the same thing. The transcendent experience you have in a Renaissance cathedral comes from the power of scale. If you go there now, you will find folding chairs set up on their iconic labyrinth. Putting folding chairs on top of a global treasure is probably a cardinal sin—a giant-sized sin, for sure.
There are risks that come with working on such a large scale
There are hazards that come with working on this scale. One of the earliest pieces I did was of a mourning dove, chalk on paper. Her wingspan was 54 feet. Her shadow would engulf a five-story building. The design itself was one of abstract shapes, like a stain-glass window, and one of the shapes was a pink triangle on the left wing of the dove—the right side of the body.
It would be an exaggeration to say that all hell broke loose, but it got rather noisy for a few days—lots of hate mail, lots of love letters. It was 1995, and the thought of gays and lesbians as an open, visible part of the body of Christ was more than some people would take. Preaching release to the captives makes the jailers nervous.
Chalk does not have a binder, so if you want rich color to stay, you have to rub it in. I used my fingers. And by the time I got to the center of the composition—just below the dove’s breast, where I had placed a communion chalice and sea shell—baptism and Eucharist in the cleft—by the time I finished the wings, my fingerprints were gone, rubbed off.
The color of the wine dripping from the chalice had an element of realism to it because I was leaving trails of blood from thumb and middle finger where the skin was completely gone. [Mike VanFosson knows the pain.]
There are risks that come from working on such a large scale.
There are risks that come from seeing a large-scale work
There are also risks that come from seeing a work that is large-scale. The Centering Point is a work of art that you are invited to step into. The form is called installation art. You are being offered an experience. When you step into the Centering Point, you can see a world broken in two, down the center. You can see both halves at once. You can see gold in the center. And lights, you may see 490 lights, 70x7 opportunities to bear witness to our brokenness. 490.
What is the scale of grace?
And you see a chalice. A very small chalice that seems to beg a question out of us: How much grace do you need? How much grace does the church need? How much grace does the world need? What is the scale of grace?
If your eyes are open, you may see the crossing of fragment and fracture as the crux. You may also see the Holy Spirit, with her fondness for brokenness, hovering over the cleft earth.
We are a broken people, living in a broken time, traveling on a broken planet. We revolve around an axis of brokenness.
Fractured to the core, we give light deep access.
Once hovering, now flowing.
So how much grace do you need? What is the scale? When you experience it, are you dwarfed by its size? Is it large, massive? Does it have to be colossal to get through, to make a difference? Or can it come to you in some other way?
The piece I did this year that articulates the theme, “Therefore Go,” measures a whopping 21x24. Not feet, though. Not even inches. 21mm x 24mm. It’s small enough to fit on your tongue, small enough to hold in the palm of your hand. Small enough to be hidden from view.
There are risks that come with working on a small scale
This is what I want you to see: six very small glass vials, each holding a scrap of paper. A micro painting on one side, anda message on the other, and sealed with wax. 21x24.
They were supposed to be floating in the baptismal font, but they kept getting stolen. Flint, Michigan, is not the only place where the water is not safe.
A message in a bottle
A message in a bottle might be one of the least efficient ways to reach another human being. You cannot know, first of all, if it will ever be seen again after you toss it to the tide. If it is seen, you cannot be certain that the two of you share the same language. And if it is seen and your message is understood, it is highly unlikely that you will ever know if your message had any impact.
Inefficient. Impractical. Foolish and far-fetched. A lot like the kingdom of God you hear about in the gospels.
Words at the end weigh more than words from the middle.
And these words are almost too heavy to lift. Yet they float like feathers in the font.
They float like feathers in the font.
You are loved. Therefore go love.
You are forgiven. Therefore go forgive.
You are seen. Therefore go see.
You were heard. Therefore go hear.
You were taught. Therefore go teach.
You were included. Therefore go include.
The chalice is very small, and it is whispering its question, how much grace do you need?
How much grace does the church need?
How much grace do you need to look across the cleft, across the divide and see that the person looking back at you is a child of God?
How much grace do you need to be who you are called to be?
How much grace do you need to treat people with the respect and dignity they deserve?
How much grace do you need to open all of these locked doors, the hard hearts, and especially closed the minds?
The chalice is small.
The wounded world is so very large.
How much grace do you need to see again,
to hear again,
that you are loved?
You are loved.