Little Paint Speck

Around Thanksgiving I had to had surgery and I was wildly anxious.

I had known for about a month that surgery was probably going to be my only treatment option, but when I went in for my surgical consult on a Wednesday and they told me to come back for surgery on Monday, I panicked.

I’m a worrier.

I try to keep a handle on my anxiety but it seems to get the best of me every time. I pray. I remind myself to put my trust in God. I have tricks I use to shift my thinking, calming breathing exercises, strategies for combatting stress-related insomnia. I’ve been battling my anxiety for a long time, I have the tools and I use them. They often help. Sometimes, though, nothing seems to make a difference.

As I prepped for my appointment, there was only one thing that brought me any comfort.

I was given instructions to clean everything the day before surgery: my room, my bedding, any clothes I would wear before and after the procedure. I was told to shower right before bed the night before and had been given anti-bacterial wipes to disinfect my entire body. As I scrubbed myself clean that night, I had to work pretty hard to get all the paint off of my hands, arms, and from under my nails. Try as I might, when I was done there was still a little speck of turquoise paint that wouldn’t budge from the corner of one of my nails.

In the hours leading up to the surgery I was very on-edge.

My surgery was scheduled for early afternoon, but my doctor’s morning operation ran late. I was forced to wait around for hours in pre-op and my anxiety just continued to build. At one point, though, I looked down at my hands and I had to smile. I saw that stubborn little spot of paint on my nail and was instantly comforted. It gave me something to hold on to, something I could take with me into the operating room, something I could look for when I woke up from the anesthesia. It reminded me of who I was, that I was uniquely created with purpose- loved by my God.

Love the Mess

The first creative act in history was a perfect one.

Everything was done with order, purpose. It was intentional, loving. Great care was taken for every little detail, every little life. God created the world. And with each new piece of his creation he called it good. Good. Until he created humanity. God created humanity and do you know what he called it? Very good. God created us in his image and it was very good. But then sin entered the world.

God’s very good creation made a mess of what he had perfectly created.

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from my cousin. Her daughter loves to create art but hates the mess that often comes with creative projects, and she asked if I would send along pictures of my creative mess so that this little one could see that “real artists” are, indeed, messy.

I did not disappoint.

Many artists have pre-work rituals they go through which help them transition into the proper frame of mind to work, and mine consists mainly of organizing my work area and materials. It’s a nervous, methodical process during which I clear my space, organize my brushes and order them by size from biggest to smallest, prepare my palette with paint ordered according to the color wheel, and organize my paint tubes to correspond. I then arrange, and sometimes rearrange, my remaining tools and materials until I am satisfied all is in optimal order to begin work. I’ve said in previous posts I like things “just so”, and I really do, but the moment I get into my working frame of mind or “the zone” as some call it, all of that painstaking organization goes out the window.

Chaos breaks loose.

The thing is, when I get into “the zone” everything else falls away. I lose track of time, I forget to eat, I don’t notice if the room becomes too hot or too cold, sometimes I don’t even hear outside noises or the voices of others. It seems like nothing exists but me and my work (and I get a lot of work done like this) but all of my organizational skills also seem to fall away. Along with everything else I seem to forget to consider, I forget to pay attention to where I set my brushes, if I accidentally drop a paint tube, or if I’ve sat in paint. It’s a mess! But this is my process and I have come to love my process- mess and all. I don’t mind that I go through the motions to lay out a perfect work space just to lose myself in creativity and destroy it.

I don’t mind getting my hands dirty for the sake of art.

In fact, sometimes I really enjoy it. I love being up to my elbows in oil and terpenoid. I love walking away from a project and realizing that I was so passionate about my work that I didn’t notice or care about the paint that dried in my hair and on my face. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a clean and tidy artist. There are some creative geniuses out there who work only under pristine conditions and, who knows, maybe my cousin’s daughter will be one of them.

Thing is, our God wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when it came to his creation.

When we made a mess of everything he created, he didn’t hesitate. God put on flesh to save us. God took on our sin, lived in our reality, bore our curse.

He became our mess so that we might have a perfect life in him.

Imposter Syndrome

“What is it worth?” Her eyes were big as she gestured to the piece hanging on the gallery wall. “I mean, all it is… it’s just wood and canvas and paint. So how much is it really worth? How much can I actually charge for this?” I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation. The woman standing in front of me was wildly successful. She owned her own gallery, enjoyed the business of high-profile clients, sold pieces for thousands and thousands of dollars. Yet here she was- questioning the worth of her work.

Imposter Syndrome is defined as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, and incompetence, despite evidence of skill and success.” It commonly affects high achievers, academics, and can be particularly brutal for women and minorities. It is also incredibly common in creatives. I recognized it immediately in the artist standing before me in the gallery because it is something that I, too, struggle with on a daily basis.

This particular flavor of self-doubt can be paralyzing for artists especially when it comes time to value our own work. How do you come up with a fair price when you constantly question your own worth? How do you quote potential clients if you don’t feel you deserve fair compensation? The truth is that most of us come up with a system of pricing and just stick to it. I separate my artist mentality and business mentality and sometimes have to pretend like I am two different people doing two different jobs. It gets confusing. The short version is that we grit our teeth and just power through the doubt and anxiety- and eventually, hopefully, the more you do it the easier it gets.

Sometimes, though, that isn’t enough. It can be difficult when the lack of belief in your own value is so deeply ingrained, especially when it is consistently questioned by the outside world as well. We quote prices and are laughed at. People ask for discounts and bargains before they even know our asking prices. We are mocked for being “starving artists” and told “its cute you take your hobby so seriously.” Honestly, it’s a wonder any of us ever make it at all.

I always thought I’d eventually “grow out” of my imposterism, that one day I’d make a big sale or land a dream client or show in a big gallery. I thought I’d reach some kind of validating milestone and finally feel like a Successful Professional Artist. As I stood in that gallery, though, facing a woman who definitely is a Successful Professional Artist, I realized two things. First, I realized that sometimes it doesn’t matter how successful we are, some of us will continue to question our worth. Second, I realized that perhaps this tendency to be so very hard on ourselves is what motivates some of us to continue to work even when it seems pointless- that maybe the desire to prove ourselves ends up being more motivating than any other outside factor could ever be.

What struck me the most, though, was the thought that we Christians often suffer from a different sort of imposter syndrome- one that can be far more dangerous. Think about it. “You aren’t good enough.” “You are a horrible sinner.” “You don’t deserve salvation.” These are the kinds of things that Satan whispers in our ears all the time. Despite overwhelming evidence that Christ has won the battle for us already, the Accuser constantly tells us that we are unworthy. And so, some of us go around feeling like frauds- as if we somehow snuck into God’s grace and will one day be found out.

The big difference between this type of imposterism and the first type, though, is that Satan’s accusations here aren’t actually wrong. Am I good enough to uphold the Law and gain entry into heaven by my own power? No. Am I a sinner? Yep. Do I, wretched sinner that I am, deserve salvation by my own merit? Heck no. Does any of that change the fact that my salvation is secure in Jesus Christ? Absolutely not! (It takes the teeth right out of Satan’s attack, doesn’t it?)

Thankfully our Christian Imposter Syndrome has a better answer than “grit your teeth and power through.” Our hope is so much more secure than that.

Back in the gallery, as we discussed all the factors that go into pricing a painting- our educations, our experience, our expertise, the time we put into our work- my companion paused, looked at me, and said, “You know, it really comes down to what someone is willing to pay, doesn’t it? If I sell this piece to one person for a million dollars- that is what it is worth. That’s all it takes: one person willing to pay that price and that is the value of that piece.”

So there you have it. We don’t ever have to wonder about our value again. We never have to doubt ourselves or our standing. We don’t have to ask about our worth because our worth has already been decided. Christ defined our value for us once and for all when He was willing to pay for us with His own life on the cross. That is what we are worth. We were made precious, more precious than a priceless piece of art, because we were bought, for a very precious price.

Labeled: Child of God

My family is a musical family. My grandfather played an instrument in school. My uncle was in the marching band and so was my stepdad. My mom plays piano and was a member of the jazz band. My cousins play piano, sing, and write music. Even my best friend is an opera singer.

I sang in church choirs since I was very little and I was in band all throughout school. When my grandpa took me to buy my very own flute it was like some unspoken family rite of passage. It was a big deal. I could tell it was a big deal, and I could tell my family was proud to be raising another musician. I thought: this is who I am. I am a musician from a family of musicians. I was proud, too.

When it came down to it, though, I didn’t enjoy the music very much. I wasn’t very good, and had to practice a lot to keep up with my classmates. I didn’t want to practice a lot, though. I didn’t like practicing. I made the same mistakes over and over again. I felt like I couldn’t control my fingers, couldn’t control my breath, couldn’t control the metronome in my head. I was frustrated constantly with what felt like an uphill battle to succeed at something that seemed to come naturally to everyone else around me. This is who I was, though. I was a musician from a family of musicians and I was proud to be one.

So, when I started taking art classes I think it confused me. It came naturally to me. I was good at it. I liked practicing and loved seeing the results of my practice. I was passionate about my work and could get lost in it for hours. The thought of being a liturgical artist never really occurred to me, though, until I was commissioned by my home church to do a piece for our sanctuary.

What’s wild is that there had been signs all along; my path was constantly being redirected in the liturgical direction but I was rebellious. I wanted to create hard hitting social commentary paintings. I wanted to poke at norms, challenge society, make people uncomfortable. I wanted to do performance art and protest pieces. I wanted to make a name for myself in the art world, find my work on the walls of galleries and museums. I thought, this is who I am: I am an artist!

I didn’t see myself as a liturgical artist, as someone who would (or could) spread the comfort of the Gospel. I wasn’t as interested in seeing my work up on the walls of churches. Maybe deep down I was afraid. Maybe I felt unworthy and so tried to turn away again and again. Even when I did come around, I thought I could do both: keep one foot in the secular art world and one foot in the liturgical world. I couldn’t, though.

The funny thing is when I finally came to the realization that this was the direction my work was going to go, I tried to force the world to label me “Liturgical Artist.” I had little success pursuing my career, so I applied to a fellowship and was rejected. I applied to grad school and was rejected. I was devastated, and one day I turned up in my pastor’s office and asked, “If this is what I’m supposed to do with my life, why is the answer always no?” I hope I never forget what he said to me after that. “Why are you waiting for the world to give you permission?” he asked. “Why don’t you just get out there and be the liturgical artist you want to be?” I thought the world could tell me who I was supposed to be. I thought a certificate or degree would make me worthy of the work I was doing. I forgot that I was called to that work by an almighty God and that I didn’t need validation beyond that. What’s more is I had forgotten who I was, that I had already been named: given the only label that truly matters. This is who I am. I am a child of God.

An Anxious Artist

I think I may have mentioned this before, but traveling with my artwork is nerve-racking.

I’m a bit of a type “A” personality, something I’m often told is odd for an artist. I have high anxiety. I like things to be just so. I don’t want to be on time, I want to be five minutes early and perfectly presented. People sometimes comment that I am a skilled artist. I often answer that I am a perfectionist who happens to make art.

All this to say: travelling with my work is exciting but it really stresses me out.

I live in Southern California. The farthest I’ve traveled for a conference was Phoenix, Arizona, about a 6-and-a-half-hour drive. The drive itself isn’t bad, pleasant even, as long as I have a good audio book lined up. There is just something that feels so off about packing up all of my paintings, prints, and equipment, stacking them up in the back of my car, and taking off. I have taken such care with my work my whole life, that treating it like this seems callous, disconnected. I do pack carefully and take care that nothing will be damaged or ruined in transit…at least I do my best. I haven’t had any incidents so far, but my nerves get the best of me every time. It often worries me that if I am so much as rear ended, hundreds of dollars of investment (sometimes more) and countless hours of work could be damaged or destroyed.

It’s a lot of pressure.

I often have to take a step back and remember what my work is, what it is about, why I do what I do, and why I am packing it all up to begin with. I have to remember to trust my God, to have faith. I have to remember to pray, and I really need to remember to ask for prayer! I’m not very good at these things.

I’m a worrier by nature and I find it difficult to ask for help.

In just a week I will be doing something I’ve never done before. I will be flying my work (and myself) to Saint Louis for the annual Theological Symposium at Concordia Seminary and I am already losing sleep. I’m not exactly sure the best way to get all of my materials safely there but I have to figure it out, and fast. What’s more, I’m participating in an art show that they are hosting and quite a large painting of mine, which is being loaned to them by my home church, is already on its way to Saint Louis in a crate.

I thought traveling with my work was stressful, but traveling while separated from my work is a whole other story.

This is a wonderful opportunity. When I started exhibiting at conferences a year ago, one of my long-term goals was to make it to this very symposium, and here I am preparing for it! I should be grateful, excited. I should thank my God for all I have been given and for the chance to do what I love to do for work. Instead, I am fretting! I am flawed, so blatantly and fatally flawed. I am a sinner: anxious and proud and weak. Unworthy to do the work that I do.

Were it not for Christ I would be so lost.

I suppose there is comfort in this: that in my worst shortcomings, I am reminded of my best hope. When I am confronted by my sin and lack of faith, my only choice is run right back to the cross and cling to it for dear life.

So here I cling, anxious creature that I am, to the only comfort I have.

Everything I’ll Never Know

I love libraries and bookstores.

I love the smell of books, the texture of their paper and the elegance with which each book stands in its place. I love the organized chaos of full bookshelves. There is something humbling, and yet exhilarating, about being surrounded by so many books, so much knowledge and art. I step into a library and immediately think about how many words are housed under that one roof. I walk into a bookstore and am struck by the millions of stories just waiting to be discovered. There is so much out there, so much information that even if I were to dedicate the rest of my life to reading I would never be able to read it all, not even a fraction.

It’s exactly the same feeling I get when traveling.

Every new place I go, every person I meet, I am struck by the knowledge that there are countless interesting and vibrant people and places in the world, so many that I will never see or meet them all.  Its humbling to recognize just how small I am compared to this great wide world we live in, to admit that the knowledge I will accumulate in this lifetime is a mere spec in an infinite universe of information. Knowing how small my experience is makes the things I learn, and the places I visit that much more precious.

Even more than that I find it both comforting and inspiring to be reminded of something so much larger than myself.

I recently experienced this in a big way on a trip to Portland, Oregon. If you’ve been, you know that no trip to Portland is complete without a visit to Powell’s City of Books. Its an apt name for a (new and used) bookstore that takes up an entire city block and stretches over multiple stories. The sheer magnitude of what this bookstore is overcame me immediately. I didn’t know where to look first, didn’t know where to go. They try to make it as easy as possible to navigate with thorough signage (and maps!). Each level has at least one information desk and a more than adequate number of workers on the floor to help with whatever you may need.

Still, though, it was wildly overwhelming.

After a cup of coffee and a slow browse around the first floor, my group split up to hunt down our favorite sections. The Art Section is on the top floor so up a few flights of stairs I went. Not only do they have a massive section dedicated to art, but they have an entire subsection on Religious art. I quickly found myself sitting on the ground, weighed down by more books than I knew would fit in my luggage. There was so much information I wanted to have, so much I wanted to learn and memorize, so many pages to pour over, but there was no way I’d make it home with everything I wanted to take with me. So, I took pictures of the covers on those I chose to leave behind and still ended up buying more books than I should have. The feeling of awe only increased when we discovered Powell’s rare book section. A separate room built into the top floor, this section’s foot traffic is limited and controlled through passes obtained at the floor’s information desk. It was fascinating and, again, humbling. We found books older than Luther, lithographs signed by Pablo Picasso and Matisse, books from the personal collections of famous writers whose notes could be found scribbled in the margins.

Again, I was reminded of how much there is to see and know in the world, and how little of it I would personally experience.

I also often feel this way when I am working: awed and inspired while humbled by a God so much bigger than I. Through my art I make connections between little snippets of scripture, like taking little sips from a bottomless well. What I will see, learn, and discover throughout my lifetime doesn’t even amount to a fraction of who and what our Lord is. Rather than being discouraged I feel invigorated by the idea; there are endless possibilities and each little piece I am given is such a gift. I think that’s one of the many reasons I love doing what I do: within each piece I paint lies some new little discovery, some new lesson learned. Sometimes I recognize it right away, sometimes it doesn’t hit me until much, much later, but it is always there and I am reminded that we are so small, that our God is so big, and that His love for us is never ending; living water that springs from a bottomless well.

There is no need to be greedy or hasty with such love.

There is enough, more than enough, for each and every soul that has ever or ever will come into existence. Each little sip we get can be savored for the gift that it is, shared in love and abundance.

Perhaps that’s the real reason I love being surrounded by so many books.

By reminding me of how small my knowledge and experience is compared to what’s out there, it also reminds me of who I am: just a little human, miraculously loved and saved by a great, big, infinite God, whose wisdom and mercies I will never fully know or understand while I walk this Earth.

 

The Answer is Always Jesus

As a teenager, my friends in youth group had a running joke that the answer to every bible study question was an enthusiastic “Jesus!”

How do you know you are saved? Jesus! Where do you turn in times of trouble? Jesus! What is your favorite color? Jesus! Whatever the question was, someone would always shout “Jesus!”

Not much has changed for me in some ways.

Each time I set out to illustrate a piece of scripture I find myself wanting to illustrate it with a cross. New testament reading? Its pointing to our salvation so the answer is: a cross! Old testament lesson? Clearly, it’s a picture of the Messiah: cross!

Everything constantly points to Christ and so I constantly turn to the cross in my work.

Because of this, I’ve done many different versions of cross illustrations and explored a lot of great symbolism centered around Christ’s death and resurrection. Even so, I am quite hard on myself and often think I should be finding more creative, imaginative solutions. Which I sometimes do.

But the cross is always my first thought.

Perhaps I shouldn’t beat myself up about it so much. After all, how bad can it be to turn to Christ first in anything? Wasn’t the cross the ultimate answer to the worlds biggest question?

Was Jesus not the only solution?

I’m a liturgical artist. It makes sense that I would draw and paint the cross over and over again, just as we turn to Christ over and over again in our faith.

Jesus is still the best answer I know.

Identity in the Depths

Lately I have been reflecting on the unique challenges one faces when maintaining a creative career.

It’s a little odd, building a business by manufacturing products based on one’s private thoughts and feelings. My thoughts are inspired by many things, by experiences, certainly by scripture. Those thoughts coalesce into a vision, and that vision eventually becomes a piece of artwork, which I will likely sell. Sometimes it feels as though I am selling my heart, my mind, my soul. It’s why as a young artist I found it difficult to let go of my work or sell it. Its why many artists struggle to price their paintings.

How do you put a price on a piece of your identity?

How do you let someone else walk away with it? It becomes easier over time, you get used to sharing pieces of yourself, and eventually you see that allowing others to have them makes them more valuable. Each new viewer sees something different, which adds meaning to the painting. Over time, the work collects countless untold stories of those who have beheld it. The process is quite beautiful, I think.

But with this gift of sharing creativity comes great challenges as well.

Like many creatives, I have often struggled with varying degrees of depression and anxiety. Most days these are a low hum in the back of my mind, always there but usually not very disruptive. It often fuels my work, giving it depth, allowing me to explore difficult ideas and see beauty in otherwise dark places.

But what happens when depression takes over?

When tragedy strikes or the unthinkable happens? What happens when your work is so tied to your spirit but your spirit feels like a crushing weight? What happens to the heart of your creativity when your heart seems empty? How do you press on and continue to work?

How do you bare your soul to the world when your soul feels like its been chewed up and spat out?

I don’t know if I have answers to any of those questions. I try to cling to the promises of the Gospel. I trust that as much as my spirit is depleted, it is filled to overflowing again and again (even if I can’t always see it).

I live in the hope that my incomplete and unworthy heart has been made whole by Christ.

Perhaps I am very blessed that my work forces me back to the gospel over and over again. That when I feel miserable and in despair, if I am to work at all I must work with scripture. That even if the only thing I can do that day is pick up a paintbrush and stare at my painting, it is almost always a painting that brings comfort to my weary mind. My work brings me back to God, reminds me of who I am and what I have been given. I hope, with everything that I am, that it does the same for someone else, even just once.

Inked in the Faith

At the end of next month, I will be exhibiting at my church’s district convention in Irvine, CA.

This means that for the next few weeks I will be gearing up: getting my booth materials ready and organized, counting inventory, sending files out for print, and matting prints. I don’t enjoy this part, particularly, but traveling with my work is always a little nerve wracking and I insist on everything being done the right way before I go. As much as I get anxious about everything being just so, I love going to these conferences.

 I love connecting with people, talking about the role of art in the church, sharing my work with them.

I don’t get to do this very often as I’m alone in my studio a lot and its nice to get out and socialize. My last conference found me shivering in Arizona. It was my first outdoor conference and I was very unprepared for the weather. I was absolutely miserable, drinking coffee way after I had reached my max capacity point in a futile attempt to keep warm.

Something funny started happening the first day of that conference, though.

I was standing there, minding my own business when someone wordlessly walked up to my table, rolled up his sleeve, and showed me his tattoos. I was a little shocked, but smiled, looked at his Luther Rose tattoo, and nodded. Off he went, never speaking a word. Then it happened again, and again the next day, and the next. Men who were complete strangers to me, hurried up to my booth, rolled up their sleeves and proudly presented their tattoos, and each time they were absolutely thrilled. The more it happened, the more bemused I became. What was going on? Was this an organized thing, did these guys know each other?

Had my pastor put all of them up to some weird practical joke?

Some of them did it in passing, pausing slightly before hurrying off to their next talk. But some of them stayed to chat for a moment, and I slowly realized what it was. Luther’s Rose meant something to these guys. Clearly, it is significant for them- they had it permanently etched on their skin, literally wearing their theology on their sleeves. They walked by my table, saw my rendition of the Rose, and realized it meant something to me, too. It was exciting to see something they always carried with them, in someone else’s artwork.

They had branded themselves as lovers of Luther’s theology, and saw that same brand proudly displayed at my table.

They wanted to connect in some way, to express what the image meant to them. But what do you say in passing to someone in that situation? “Go Luther!”? Seems silly. It also doesn’t convey what they were trying to say. They had communicated their love for something in a visual way, as had I, and so without words to express the connection they felt to it and to my work, they simply showed me. Now, looking back, I cherish the fact that they felt so compelled to stop by a stranger’s table and let me into something so important to them. After all, isn’t that what I try to accomplish with each piece I paint?

I pray my work moves people.

I hope it expresses theology and speaks the gospel. I desperately wish for people to feel connection to what I try to express. Most days I feel entirely inadequate to be doing what I do. But in those moments, confronted by bare and tattooed arms, I had connected to those guys through my work.

So, if you happen to be at the same convention in Irvine next month, stop by my table and say “hi”. And, yeah, go ahead… roll up your sleeves and show me your ink.

Loving Work

Whoever said “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” was full of baloney.

I love what I do and I still do all kinds of things that feel like work! I love painting, and I love serving people and churches with my art. But I work all the time. I maintain websites, professional profiles and subscriptions. I’m self-employed so I maintain the business side of everything I do. I draw up and negotiate contracts, I make drives out miles away for conferences and meetings about commissions. I edit my work digitally and send files out for print. I network, exchange business cards, and shake hands. I research and read and brainstorm and work up sketches for projects that are never picked up. I post on social media and market myself and my work. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining, and I really do enjoy doing some of these things. But when I first thought “I’m going to be an artist!” (and, again, when I started down the road of liturgical art) all of that extra work was not what I saw in my naïve mind.

I just wanted to paint.

Well… paint, and hopefully be able to support myself by doing so. Ah, but there’s the rub: that “support” word. In order to support myself with my work I absolutely must do all the things I mentioned above. These days I spend more time doing all that other stuff than I do actually creating art if I’m honest. Someday that might change.

For right now, though, there’s a lot of leg work to do.

It’s something that many creatives have to come to terms with. As much as I might want to spend my days in solitude, locked up in a studio with my paint… I can’t really afford to do that. That’s not what I’m called to do either.

We are not promised a happy life, or a job we love.

We are not promised comfort or days filled with work that doesn’t feel like work. We are often called to do many things we don’t want to do. I have been very blessed, and entirely privileged, by the chances I have been given to develop my skills and build a future around the work that I want to do. And we are blessed to be a blessing to others, which means I’ve got to do those parts of my job that I don’t like doing- the ones that feel like work. The chance to do exactly what I want to do for a living is an enormous gift, and I can’t refuse to serve others with it.

So, I love what I do. I also work a lot. I’d be willing to bet that you do, too.