“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8
In the 1990s, Mary Engelbreit’s artwork appeared on cards, calendars, and even fabrics. Her designs included cherries on a black background speckled with white polka dots that captured the hearts of many Americans. Her cards had witty sayings, leading to her illustrating a few children’s books as well. Terry read a book about her design aesthetic, which was a collected, curated look. She believed in the motto of William Morris, leader of the British Arts and Craft movement. He said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful.”
Once a week, Terry and I indulge in a few shows on the Magnolia Network. We love story-themed shows about food, home décor, and gardening. This differs from the fast-paced competition shows where a few chefs receive a box of food and are expected to create an incredible meal. It also differs from the house flipping episodes where predictably the foundation is slipping or there is something wrong with the plumbing. There is nothing wrong with these shows, and we still occasionally watch those as well. But we love the stories behind artisans and farmers who create and produce unique products.
Recently, Jean Stoffer from The Established Home talked about the importance of a well-designed room. She believed that three elements were needed: something old with patina, something alive such as a plant, and a piece of art. In this episode she highlighted the work of a local painter who captured still life in oil. Stoffer used a few small pieces of her art to decorate a large kitchen she was remodeling.
Her comment in conjunction with William Morris’s quote made me think about the importance of art and my relationship to art. I didn’t grow up appreciating fine art. Instead, my elementary art class reinforced my lack of coordination when I struggled to color within lines or draw simple objects. I never went to an art museum, believing that art didn’t speak to the masses, but was only for the wealthy who lived in big cities. And although I knew some of the main artists, I didn’t understand the different schools of art or how major artists influenced the art world and beyond.
This started to change when I was exposed to art in college by my favorite professor, Dr Hans Bader. In 1991, Dr. Bader turned off the classroom lights to show us slides of Russian art. My college experience happened in the ancient days before the caffeinated latte craze. Thus, my afternoon slump left me struggling, pinching myself every so often to stay awake. I knew that he would ask us to describe a few of these art pieces and their importance for a future test. Dr. Bader described the paintings, sculptures, and architecture in ways that made it all come alive. And as the class went on, I found myself no longer pinching, but awake and listening with wonder.
Around this time, my Aunt Brenda started painting and teaching some of my friends to paint. They created beautiful pieces and I saw how art was a form of expression for these budding artists. When I moved to the Chicago area, I remember hearing that The Art Institute of Chicago was a premier museum housing original pieces by Monet, Seurat, and Van Gogh. I took advantage of my location and visited this museum several times, including during the largest touring Monet Exhibition. And then I had children and was intentional in making art accessible to them through museum visits and learning art history. Eventually, I realized that art was not limited to a certain socio-economic status but was for everyone to enjoy. More importantly, art became important to me.
Art, like beauty, is often believed to be in the eye of the beholder. I love the fuzzy images of impressionists; it makes me feel like I have stepped into an imaginary land where anything is possible. I love how Van Gogh’s use of color expresses his evolving emotions. I have even discovered some modern artists like Makoto Fujimura who collaborates with Japanese artisans to use materials to layer and paint images of the gospel. I also love the finger painting my grandson made me, especially when he specifically told his mom he was painting this one for Mimi! I have even tried my hand at art, sketching flowers, and plants.
Russ Ramsey, author of Rembrandt Is in the Wind, Learning to Love Art through the Eyes of Faith, argues that “The pursuit of goodness, the pursuit of truth, and the pursuit of beauty are, in fact, foundational to the health of any community.” As a Christian, I started my faith journey by pursuing truth. I viewed every sermon, every reading of the Bible, and every experience with the task of exposing the truth of who God was and how I should live my life. This view narrowed my world, hyper focusing on truth and principles. And then a few years ago, my faith hit a major crisis, and I needed to rest in the goodness of God. I recognized that mercy and grace were fundamental to the Christian faith. Without them, my faith would have long since collapsed in a pile of legalistic rubbish!
Now, I am focused on the pursuit of beauty. Elaine Scarry, author of On Beauty and Being Just, says, “Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living worth living.” I have purposed to have art on my walls, believing it adds beauty to my home. But all too often, I move around my home, focused on the tasks of life. I see the shelves that need to be dusted, the floor that needs to be vacuumed, and the pile of papers that needs to be organized. These tasks are important; clean, organized spaces allow art to shine. But are my art pieces just accessories, or do they help make living worth living?
And this is where I pause to focus on the art in my home. I have two prints from a Pennsylvania artist that Terry and I discovered on a trip to the Brandywine Art Museum. These landscapes prints flank a window in my living room, adding color, beauty, and peace to my space. I can look out my window and see bunnies hopping around in my yard, or a bird resting in the grass. And then my eyes can bounce to my pictures, expanding my view of the outside world. I am also privileged to have some original artwork from my Aunt Brenda. These pieces meet me every day when I climb the stairs at bedtime. Again, I can pause and gaze on the cypress trees against the Italian sky she drew for my husband and remind myself of dreams I still hope to live.
I am currently looking to redo the décor on the walls in my kitchen. I know on one wall; we want a white board calendar to help us get a better handle on our busy schedule. Not only will it record our responsibilities, but it will be a space where we can be intentional in carving out time for beauty. On the other wall, I want a piece of art to reflect my growing awareness of the importance of beauty in my relationship with God. I haven’t found the right pieces but am on the hunt for something that draws me closer to God.
Seeking beauty is just as important to me as seeking truth and goodness. It reminds me that my hope is not in this world, especially when ordinary living feels challenging. I have been struggling with my Rheumatoid Arthritis and all the other disorders I have in conjunction with it. Most days, I struggle just to get out of bed. And most evenings, I struggle to find a position in bed that doesn’t hurt one or more of my joints. It would be easy for me to wallow in my pain. But I believe that lifting my gaze to beauty that God has created, or endowed an artist to create, helps me see past my pain. As Makato Fujimura writes in his book Culture Care, “Beauty is a gratuitous gift of the creator God, it finds its source and its purpose in God’s character.” And in looking at art, I find the peace and hope that I know is in my God.
Leave a Reply