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Essay

The Road Behind Us
Image’s Founding Generation

When Image was founded in 1989, the cultural landscape looked different than it does today. Religious writers and artists felt cold-shouldered in the public square and often ill at ease within the church. The need for a journal that demonstrated the continuing vitality of contemporary art informed by faith—art that upheld high standards, grappled directly with historic faith traditions, and avoided false uplift—seemed more or less obvious. We asked several members of Image’s founding generation, writers across a number of disciplines, what they see as having changed over those years, whether there’s still a need for a venue like Image, and what our new calling might be.

 

Lauren F. Winner
Means of Participation

IN MY DINING ROOM hang two paintings. The one that has been with me longest is by Joel Sheesley. He painted it in 1990, and I purchased it about a decade ago. It depicts a woman clad in a Land’s End jacket, holding a soccer ball wonderingly before her. In the background, a kids’ soccer game goes on. The painting is called Eve in Suburbia, and only one friend of mine has ever looked at it and detected any spiritual theme before knowing the title; everyone else, if they notice the painting at all, wonders why I have a large picture of a soccer mom over my fireplace. Currently the painting hangs on a dark blue wall, and I am considering painting the title in white letters underneath.

The second painting is Patrica Watwood’s Creation. The Sheesley is intensely horizontal, and the Watwood vertical, thirty-six by twenty-eight inches, in a thick gold frame. It is a self-portrait, showing Watwood, pregnant with her second child, at the easel. In the background sits her painting of Ganymede. I didn’t see Creation in person until it arrived at my house, and for years as I stalked it online I incorrectly imagined that the painting I saw in the background was of Adam and Eve. When I first realized it was Ganymede instead, I was disappointed, and then I was relieved; a third layer of creation would have felt like a bit much, a bit sentimental. Ganymede—the beautiful young boy abducted by Zeus to be his cup-bearer—has a different edge. Still, it seems I have arranged two paintings that play with early Genesis themes in the same room. This was a coincidence, or at least subconscious.

I am not a wealthy person. I saved for five years to purchase the Watwood. Every day, I look at it with attentiveness, and something like joy.

I find it awkward to talk about purchasing art—to talk about spending on a painting the equivalent of a semester’s tuition at an in-state university, or more. Talking about this violates a cardinal rule of southern politeness: never discuss money. Whether you have money or don’t, do not talk about it. (You might notice that I am not saying exactly how much I paid for these paintings. That coy evasion is my discomfort.)

And yet, for those who care about art, and for Christians, it is crucial to talk about money. We spend on the things we value (a word I use advisedly). Simply put, I want Joel Sheesley and Patricia Watwood to earn a living. I want their art to be in the world. Buying the work of living artists is the concrete spiritual practice I have adopted in response to what I have learned from Greg Wolfe about the importance of art made in the present day.

Christians who are invested (ahem) in the arts are skittish about discussing the economy of the arts for reasons that go beyond etiquette. There is the sense that we should not pay for paintings when there are starving people to be fed, or unsaved people to be evangelized. (I suspect a lurking anti-Catholicism in this charge: Don’t spend money on all those cathedrals, on all that stained glass, on all that masonry and carving and those statues of Mary! Instead, put your resources toward feeding the poor or converting the lost.) There is the sense that we should be practicing simplicity.

I will never forget a conversation I had at a small college shortly after my first book, Girl Meets God, was published. In the book I described buying a nine-hundred-dollar paper cutting by the artist Diane Palley. The paper cutting is an interpretation of Ruth 1:21: “I went out full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.” Purchasing it helped me hold together a set of complex feelings about my conversion from Judaism to Christianity, and I feel grateful to Palley each time I look at the piece. At the college, after my lecture, a woman came up to say that she had read and liked the book, but was upset that I had paid so much for a piece of art; or perhaps she was upset that I had mentioned it in a seemingly casual way, a way that suggested I didn’t understand the luxury, the privilege, of having nine hundred dollars to throw around on art.

It is good, in the church, for money to exchange hands, and it is good to talk about money. To avoid such speech is to abet money’s mystique. To talk about the money we spend, and the money we need to live on and make art, is a kind of truth telling that in fact lessens money’s power.

§

Two years ago, I wrote three checks for twenty-five hundred dollars and gave them to three different anti−death penalty groups. For me, this was a staggering amount of money, and it came out of deep, long-term savings. Some might say I wrote the checks on impulse, but I would say it was the Holy Spirit. On the day that I wrote them, a superior court judge in North Carolina overturned the death penalty sentence of a man named Marcus Robinson. Robinson’s was the first death sentence to be set aside under the state’s short-lived Racial Justice Act, which allowed judges to reconsider sentences if it was shown that “racial bias” had prevented the “fair and reliable imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina.” (More specifically, the Act allowed defendants to use statistical patterns of racial disparity—rather than requiring direct evidence of racist motive in any individual case—in demonstrating racial bias.) I wrote the checks as an act of thanksgiving.

The groups I gave the money to are small to medium sized. Only one of them has any national reach. I am fairly confident that this check put me in the top ten or twenty-five individual donors that year for the smallest organization. Two of the organizations acknowledged the checks with a personal email or call. The smallest one did not acknowledge it at all, until tax time rolled around ten months later and I got a generic receipt for the IRS. To my surprise, I was utterly undone by this lack of response; at first I thought it was fury I felt, but after I sat with it for a few months (that is how undone I was; the feelings lasted months), I realized I felt not angry but hurt. I felt slighted. I felt rejected.

I do not do much direct anti−death penalty work. I vote. I preach the occasional sermon, reminding my flock that at the center of our faith sits a man who was arrested, convicted in a show trial, and then put to death by the state. I very occasionally go to protests, and when North Carolina, which has recently undone a six-year moratorium on the death penalty, cranks up the machine again, I will probably volunteer to get arrested. All of these are small gestures, and they are not at all what I wish I did. I wish this were my work. I wish I ran a nonprofit devoted to ending the death penalty. I wish I were a chaplain on death row.

It is not my work. But I did once, when the Spirit blew, write checks representing more than two months of my take-home pay and send them to the organizations that do the work I wish I did.

I felt hurt by the small organization’s lack of response because that check was my way of participating in something I care about. It was my way of saying “I don’t do this work myself, but I share the dream.” It was my way of trying to be part of the community of people who are going to realize the dream. The kind responses of the other two organizations made me feel like I was part of the community; their responses were a hospitality for which I am grateful. I had to give myself a lot of pep talks to have any sense that the third check also involved me in the community realizing the dream.

§

I do not paint, either. Buying those two paintings, saving for half a decade to buy Patricia Watwood’s self-portrait, represents my most direct participation in the visual arts: supporting, in my own small way, living painters. (The painters, by the way, never fail to acknowledge what the purchase means. When I bought Creation, Patricia Watwood emailed me this: “My way of making a living bears regular periods of uncertainty and requires a certain faith and optimism…. It is a little miracle, every single time.”)

This is not unrelated to why I buy volumes of poetry, and it is not unrelated to why I will not buy used volumes of poetry by living poets.

It is also not unrelated to why I subscribe and donate money to Image. Image is one of the key channels through which I participate in whole worlds of art, the kind of art I do not know how to make myself. And this is one reason we need Image for the next twenty-five years: it gives people like me—people who love contemporary realist painting but cannot draw a stick figure; people who want to feast on contemporary poetry but do not aim to write it—a way to be part of the community of people who live through art.

 

Lauren F. Winner teaches, preaches, reads, and writes in Durham, North Carolina.  Her books of nonfiction include Girl Meets God and Still.

 


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