Karen Halvorsen Schreck
The silent painting speaks on the walls and does much good.
—St. Gregory of Nyssa
Therein lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it—that it is his epitome; the knot in the rosary at which his life recites a prayer.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
THE year is 1423; the place, Russia. A boy lies outside a battered hut, his body so wasted that it seems sunlight could pass through his skin. He looks up at soldiers, who have asked for his father, the bellmaker. The soldiers are desperate: the Duke has decided that his kingdom needs a bell, and they have orders to find the person who can cast it. They cannot return empty-handed. Wearily, the boy tells them that his father, mother and sister are dead, killed by the plague.
When the soldiers turn away, the boy leaps to his feet, suddenly invigorated, transformed. “I know the secret,” he cries. “Father told me the secret on his deathbed. Take me.”
Reluctantly, the soldiers agree—how old is this boy? Thirteen? Listen to how his voice breaks when he gets excited. They warn him that failure means a cruel death.
The boy gets to work. For months he tests earth, searching for the proper place to cast the bell. He is trudging through a downpour when he slips, falls, and comes up gripping handfuls of the clay he needs. Still more time passes while he casts the mold, haggles for silver, and fires it.
Finally, on the day the bell is to be tested, people fill the village square. They watch as men hoist its great weight into the tower. The boy is brought before the Duke. Another man begins to swing the bellrope—slowly at first, back and forth, gathering momentum. Heavy wooden supports creak. The boy collapses to the ground.
Then a low gong reverberates through the still air. It expands, holding the sound of many bells in its resonance, holding the whole kingdom. The Duke is pleased. The people, momentarily, are lifted from their poverty and fear, from the death that surrounds them.
Later, the boy is alone, still prostrate in the same place. He is weeping like the child he is, when he feels himself lifted up, cradled. Opening his eyes, he sees the face of the monk who, throughout the laborious process, has watched him, silently. “Why do you cry?” he asks the boy, rocking him gently. “What a treat for the people. You’ve brought them such joy and you cry.”
The boy can barely speak. “My father never told me,” he sobs. “He took the secret to his grave.”
Tim Lowly has said that he wants his painting to be more the stuff of parable than the stuff of sermon, more poem than narrative. He remembers, in particular, this parable of the bellmaker, which forms the final sequence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Andrei Roublev, a fictionalized account of the fifteenth century monk and icon painter. One night, after seeing the movie, Lowly dreamed that a good friend was speaking to him. In waking life, this man had cancer. In the dream, he tells Lowly: “We must be about the business of making bells.”
In the center of the painting, the bells sits, squat and heavy, on four wooden slats [see Plate 5]. Mute as the art of painting itself, the bell’s voice, the tone by which it can be known, is withheld.
What can be intimated about the Korean woman in the red skirt, pictured in the act of walking away, bearing a bag of cement on her head? Her identity is her own; yet perhaps we can sympathize with her labor, perhaps we can enter into her anonymity and imagine what waits for her—for us—at the end of the road. Is that a temple or shrine she will pass by? Are all sacred places ultimately as mysterious? Should we always enter the presence of God with so few assumptions?
As in daily life, we perceive these simple, concrete images with clarity. Yet their meaning is ambiguous, as a foreign country can be to a visitor. The golden leaves, the barren tree limbs show that it is autumn; as the title of Tim Lowly’s painting indicates, it is a “Season of Silence.” But who is silent? The woman? The people who worship at this temple? Lowly himself? The viewer?
A small image at nine-by-twelve inches, Season of Silence asks for close inspection. Yet because of this very size, and the quiet, careful composition, the painting, at a first glance, might be passed over. Perhaps it will be taken in on the second look, and then more fully, with meditation.
This, in fact, is Lowly’s hope: that our initial connection to his painting—based on our assumptions about what appears to be “realism”—will be subverted. Lowly explains that his approach is realistic only in the sense that he represents life the way we think we see it. Although he sometimes bases his paintings on photographs, he is not trying to mime the apparent “truth” of photography; he doesn’t want to construct documentaries. Instead, his work seems to rise from a premise similar to that of George Tooker, a contemporary American artist (admired by Lowly), who has stated: “I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream, but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy.” Lowly has said that every figure in painting—as in dream—can be seen as an aspect of either the painter or the viewer. In this way, both painter and viewer participate in the reverie of art-making.
For Lowly, strange, dream-like images are the most fascinating because they evoke the subjective level of response; they are like God, described by Lowly as a “mysterious being about whom we don’t have much of an inkling.” The ambiguity of meaning that comes with a lack of narrative allows the viewer to bring his or her own translation or interpretation to the work. In this sense, the viewer “completes” it. Perception, as an act, is part of painting. Finally, meaning is as complicated and layered as those who perceive it, who bring to it their own silences and seasons.
Another of Lowly’s smaller paintings—one that also alludes to Korea—reveals the multiplicity of possible resonances. Like Season of Silence, Carry the Body appears accessible, but a second look reveals that this seemingly realistic situation is in fact complex and mysterious. Five young Korean women kneel on a wood floor, their bodies slightly reflected in the floor’s gloss. A black book has been conspicuously placed before them. Is it a Bible? Is this a small country church? Lowly’s medium, egg tempera, lends a delicate corporeality to the skin of these women; one can read the soft texture of their clothes. Yet their expressions are immutable. Does this stoicism spring from pain or faith? On their heads they bear a board upon which lies an older Caucasian man, who wears the rubber shoes of a Korean farmer. He lies on his back, resting or dead. The ephemeral white light glowing from the ceiling evokes notions of transcendence, and yet the man is immanent—a weighted and weightless presence—supported by the seemingly effortless strength and patience of these young women.
One could translate this as a portrait of quiet reconciliation, revealing reverence for the aged, or affirming the strength of women, who carry the bodies of many institutions. Then again, the painting could be seen as indicating the political, social, and religious tensions between two cultures—Korean and American. Or it could figure the oppression of women that extends across cultures, and at the same time, is culturally specific. Alluding to the tradition of representing monuments of civilization supported on the backs of common people—e.g., the sculpted figures holding up Greek temples or Renaissance tombs—Carry the Body critiques the unquestioned assumption that this traditional image is natural. (As Walter Benjamin has said, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”) At the same time, Lowly refuses to point fingers and reduce the complexity and resonance of the painting.
Tim Lowly grew up in Korea, where his parents, Alma and Merrill Grubbs, worked as missionaries for the Presbyterian Church. He has said that this experience instilled in him a sense of always being the foreigner, complicating traditional American assumptions about who is alien and why.
He returned to Korea for a year in 1983, a stay which coincided with his decision to reevaluate his vision of his painting—its style as well as content—and perhaps his vision of Korea. Carry the Body, Season of Silence, and some of his other works are based on impressions from this visit and earlier memories. A series of Lowly’s recent drawings, many of these as blurred and hazy as the process of memory, respond to photographs that he took during the sixth grade. (Although Lowly would be the first to laugh at the idea of himself as a youthful prodigy, he remembers that his interest in making pictures began at about that time.)
During his undergraduate years at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he graduated with a B.F.A. in 1978, Lowly began to make what he describes now as “childlike, quirky late-modernist work.” Influenced by such artists as Georges Rouault and Marc Chagall, he was more concerned with the application of paint to the surface of a canvas than with picturing figures or scenes realistically. He frequently worked in mixed media, trying to achieve—as he still does—a synthesis of drawing and painting. Gradually, Lowly became concerned that he was struggling to rectify bad compositions with beautiful surfaces. He wondered if his work was more concerned with style than content and if it sometimes put up stylistic barriers for the viewer.
At the end of his year’s visit to Korea, Lowly met one of that nation’s foremost artists, Lim Ock Sang, a painter concerned with the “minjung”—a Korean word that refers to common people, who may not be powerful by society’s definitions, but who are connected to the earth and everyday existence. Coming from a background that stressed the aesthetic dimension of art, Lowly was struck by the compassion he saw in Lim’s work. Here were paintings that communicated—simply, directly—Lim’s desire to better human existence, emphasizing social responsibility at the same time that they avoided the didactic proselytizing or polemical agendas so predominant in contemporary American political art—the kind of ironic, impersonal work that Lowly has said “makes me feel guilty, but doesn’t move me to love people.” Rather than indicting the oppressor, Lim, in his painting, identified with the oppressed.
The transformation that began during Lowly’s encounter with Lim Ock Sang was furthered during a trip to Europe, where Lowly saw, in the work of Italian and Flemish painters of the early Renaissance, a directness reminiscent of Lim’s. These painters seemed to speak on a common human level. In addition, their images resonated with what Lowly describes as “a strong sense of physical presence”; the figures in the paintings seemed almost sculptural, corporeal, immanent. At the same time, these painters approached their art with a diligence and care that seemed to reflect great spiritual faith. Witnessing these great works, Lowly felt drawn to the disciplined grace of their technique.
The tempera medium, utilized by such artists as Giotto and Fra Angelico, seemed appropriate to his own concerns and acknowledged his spiritual and aesthetic inheritance. While a Zen brush painter captures the essence of hours of contemplation in the mastery of a single stroke, for Lowly, the process of contemplation was more easily wedded to the methods of egg tempera. This labor-intensive craft involved learning the characteristics of the powder pigments—their consistencies, for example, and how they naturally took to the egg-oil emulsion. Then, small stroke upon stroke, layer upon layer, he worked to convey the tactile quality, solidity, tangibility, and intensity of hue that he so admired in Renaissance painters.
Lowly also appreciated what he saw as a balance between the intuitive and the rational in these artists. While his earlier work had emphasized the intuitive part of his nature, after his return to the United States he began to acknowledge what he describes as his rational side. In retrospect, he realized that this was not just due to his perception of Renaissance art. In going “home” to Korea, Lowly was also given the opportunity, for the first time in years, to live near his parents. In particular, this gave him the chance to more fully know and be known by his father, who, during that year, seemed to understand more about his son’s vocation, ultimately affirming Lowly’s commitment to painting. Because of this, Lowly explains that he was able to more fully embrace the rational part of his nature that is more like that of his father. He could, in this way, say yes to that which had said yes to him.
Looking at Lowly’s work now, one might wonder whether the traditional binary oppositions of rational and intuitive shouldn’t be challenged. In a recent work, Plague [see Plate 6], he alludes to a painting, Et in Arcadia Ego (And I Too Am in Paradise), by seventeenth century French artist Nicolas Poussin, who typifies the painter of idealized nature. Lowly qualifies this reference to arcadian beauty by recontextualizing Poussin’s vision of death-in-paradise into a contemporary setting. Rationally we can say that Arcadia still seems to be with us, in the painting’s verdant background, even in the innocence and bliss we might associate with the school playground. Each lush leaf shimmers on its branch; the colors of the merry-go-round gleam vividly, pulsing with life. Yet strewn beneath this familiar object are children, awkward and vulnerable, either dead or playing dead. Studying the painting more closely, we see how the light falls: the strip of shadow under the trees parallels the gloom cast upon the bodies. But what is rational about this realism—about this Eden—where things dissolve into darkness?
Although this visceral image doesn’t have a single meaning, it seems to imply that even the most carnivalesque pleasure can have its horrible ramifications, which can’t be explained, justified, or, perhaps, reconciled. It is possible to see in it the impact of our many social crises, not the least of these, as the title suggests, being AIDS. But Lowly has said that if one does translate this painting as an anti-AIDS statement, one should not reduce it to an anti-gay statement. The pain here is figured as the suffering of children, and such pain is not to be ignored or indicted, but identified with and eased. In Lowly’s work an almost scientific technique mediates a dream-like depiction of reality—here the mundane and the cosmic meet, as one critic put it. Lowly goes beyond a mere balancing of elements; at his best he achieves a fusion, a wholeness of vision. Like Lim Ock Sang, Lowly now wants to make art for other people, seeing it as a form of real communication, and hoping not so much to “afflict the comfortable,” but to “comfort the afflicted.” Like the Renaissance painters, he strives to ensure that his painting engages viewers. In his paintings, we are drawn into the solid presence of the figures in his images, where we are invited to share a space, a place with them. “I want to make art that one can live with,” Lowly says. “Art that one can come back to repeatedly.” He wrote in a 1986 journal entry:
I hope to communicate on a variety of levels to a variety of persons. No art is entirely accessible to all people, yet the idea of most contemporary artists, that the public must climb their aesthetic ladder, is unrealistic, elitist, and self-handicapping. Supposedly one must cross-over to the media or other more commercial art forms in order to touch the “masses.” However, I suspect that this is a self-perpetuating notion which in the long run will further isolate artists and their little society from the rest of the world. One does not make a building without doors...and when one makes art which is inaccessible to the public, it becomes its own tomb.
The figure of a child appears in many of Lowly’s paintings. Sometimes, she is haloed by gold leaf, and hands elevate her like a consecrated host. Sometimes her face is a luminous shard of beauty, as fragmented as understanding, memory, or history. Look closely, with care, and you can count the strands of her hair, the facets of gray and blue in her eyes. As Rainer Maria Rilke has written of Cezanne, it is as if Lowly, through his attention to detail, is intent on “discovering the inexhaustible nature within by seriously and conscientiously studying her manifold presence outside.” Again—the child’s eyes. Are they troubling? Do they comfort? How still they are...but why should this surprise? This, after all, is a painting.
But how much is our relationship to a painting separate from our experience of relationships in life? For here is the paradox: in Lowly’s most “known” subject rests the unknown. Even in these most intimate and personal portraits of his daughter, there is an element of quiet, careful distance. But this is not the distance of irony, irreverence, or guile. Instead, it is akin to what one sometimes feels in the most sacred of spaces, where rituals and realities, loss and recovery, entombment and transfiguration, are all mysteriously contained. This distance or otherness of the holy moves between us and a very human child, who embodies the very thing we sometimes remember in children and consistently forget about in ourselves: that absolute power and absolute vulnerability are the common partners of our human condition.
The little girl in Lowly’s paintings is his only child, Temma, who is multiply impaired. These impairments include a seizure disorder and cortical blindness. Lowly communicates this information to clarify the specific impact Temma’s condition has had on the content of his images. He describes her as his single most important influence, and points to the fact that her birth coincided with, and greatly motivated, the shift in style and content in his work. Because she cannot see or understand his paintings, Lowly says, “Temma calls into question the whole purpose of art-making.” Although one might wonder whether or not a question like this will ever be completely reconciled, Lowly has realized that one lesson he continually learns from his daughter is “the value of being, apart from the capability of doing something.” He sees this lesson as relating to his desire to make paintings that are less didactic, more muted in their messages. Like Temma, many of his images cannot explicate themselves, or be explicated.
In Autumn of Ashes [see plate 7], the first painting Lowly did of Temma after her birth in 1985, she appears as a baby who seems, at the same time, as aged as the infant Christ can seem in traditional icons. She lies alone on a barren plain, as if she, like the shattered Greek vase beside her, has fallen from the brooding sky above, a gray sky that is echoed by the color of her impenetrable eyes. Rather, she is almost alone: a Korean woman mourns in the distance. Nearer to the child, a stack of rice husks smolders like a pyre. In a kind of geometric logic, the two panels that comprise this painting join in a thin horizon line of obliteration, an infinity of emptiness between sky and earth. On one of the broken fragments of pottery, Nike the Greek goddess of victory walks. Perhaps the allusion connotes lost illusions, a shattered history of absolute ideals—of beauty, of success, of expectations for ourselves and for our children—what Lowly has called “the daily dying of dreams and ideals.” Yet, the living, immanent baby, like the goddess, is clothed in a golden garment, which falls in shell-like folds over her body, revealing what Lowly has said he looks for in simple, complicated things: “infinite layers of meaning.” Qualifying grave reality, the child in her luminous dress seems to emanate not just meaning, but light. Like a pearl lit from within, beauty is realized only through time’s gritty sands.
Beacon (Kite) [see back cover], shows an older child, again lying on the ground, again strangely alone, as isolated as the dim, distant figure on the beach—a person who, perhaps, mirrors the stance of the viewer. The child’s isolation is striking in this painting because she has a visible companion: Lowly looks out through the circle cut into a traditional Korean kite. The entire image is itself a circle, composed in the round tondo format found in Renaissance painting, and this roundness is echoed once more in the tiny shoreline beacon of bright light that punctuates a sky only slightly less foreboding than that in Autumn of Ashes. Here, too, the girl’s eyes reflect the gray between the clouds.
In many ways, this piece seems to explore the phenomenon of looking. Lowly has said that the round composition recalls for him a porthole, and we are certainly faced with a large body of water, if not the sea. Multiple perspectives—Lowly’s, the child’s, the viewer’s—are established through circular forms. Sometimes these perspectives intersect: does Lowly catch the viewer’s eye, and how does that change the way the viewer looks at the girl on the grass? Sometimes, too, these perspectives don’t meet at all—and therein lies part of the pain—the viewer, like Lowly, can’t catch the child’s gaze. Where, in fact, is she looking? At what horror; at what beauty?
Perhaps for someone else, this circular frame evokes not a porthole, but a mirror. In this sense, the viewer might see himself seeing, and reflect on his own perspective. In the act of looking does the viewer seize a certain power? Does he interpret, does he judge? How might his perception be used to distance or diminish those who seem different from himself? How would he look at a child like Temma? How would she want to be looked at?
“I want to promote a childlike perception/creation,” Lowly has written in his journal. “Rooted in trust, calling for trust.” Can anyone call more explicitly for trust than those without powerful voices, like the “minjung,” or the handicapped child who so implicitly trusts us? There is, in Beacon (Kite), a thin string that trails from the base of the kite, over the beach, the grass, the girl’s body, and out into the picture’s frame, almost off its edge, dangling there, waiting to be grasped. It is, ultimately, as clear as the passages Lowly has marked in a copy of Andrei Tarkovsky’s aesthetic and philosophical statement, Sculpting in Time:
Everything can be reduced to the one simple element which is all a person can count upon in his existence: the capacity to love.... My function is to make whoever sees...aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him.
A thin string, dangling there like a cord from a bell, waits to be grasped.
Mid-morning, dead center of a Chicago winter. Thin, gritty sunlight filters through a sky the color of ashes, illumines the courtyard of a large brick building, and makes its way at different angles into apartments that from the outside all look the same.
Inside one of these, northern light refracts through the windows of Lowly’s studio. Although the window glass has aged so that the outside world seems to waver as if under water, the light does not tremble. It falls even and cool across the room, touching things one might expect to see in such a place—an easel, a drawing pad, brushes standing in jars, dried paints on a pallet, a few paintings in various stages of completion (in some of which gold leaf glints)—and things one might not expect. A basket of neatly folded laundry sits near a small television set. There is a couch, several chairs, a single bed, a few toys, a wheelchair. It is impossible to tell where the work ends and the living begins. Studio, living room, child’s bedroom—the boundaries blur; all are one and the same.
Of course, Lowly is here too, moving quickly about the room, pouring a cup of tea for a friend, putting on a tape that he thinks she might like (Sam Phillips now, later Thomas Tallis). He shows her a reproduction of Bellini’s St. Francis in Ecstasy. The painting depicts a thin bearded saint who, though he is undergoing a mystical experience, is depicted with a hard edge of realism. If this St. Francis had a full head of hair instead of a shorn, cropped halo, and wore slippers, jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt instead of a cowl...he could be Lowly’s twin.
Temma will be brought home from school soon, and Lowly must use this time well. His friend has agreed to sit for a drawing, and Lowly has been at work before she arrived. He has hung a piece of thick string from the ceiling, a plumb line, weighted at the end with a little clay angel, whose skirt forms a bell. This string is crossed by another, stretched horizontally, from wall to wall. A Renaissance technique: together the strings make an axis, a point of reference, against which he has positioned a kitchen table. In front of his friend, a massive history of Italian Renaissance art lies on the white metal tabletop, open to the work of Antonella da Messina, a painter of the fifteenth century. A reproduced painting of a woman looks up from the book, her right hand lifted gently in some kind of recognition, her left hand drawing her veil close to her breast. A Virgin Annunciate.
It hardly matters that the friend he is drawing doesn’t resemble the Virgin Mary in the art history book, as Lowly once clarified in a magazine interview:
"I’m not interested in doing a portrait, just a representation of somebody. The only way I can think about it is as an incarnational mythology. God becomes human, this larger-than-life story enters into someone’s life, and their life becomes another story."
Conversing with his friend, he smiles and rings the angel-shaped bell, which makes a muted, earthy tone. The artist’s pet canary, Pete Gabriel, sings a response from the dining room. Lowly spends some time adjusting the horizontal string to his friend’s height. Then he pulls out an instrument that looks something like a crossbow, explaining that he made it after seeing a movie about Antonio Lopez Garcia, a painter he admires, who, when working from life, uses this kind of proportional device. Lowly holds it up, points it at the model’s head and shoulders. While he continues to get his bearings, she looks out the window, across the courtyard to another apartment, where cartoons flash across a television screen.
Lowly begins drawing, a study that he hopes will lead toward a painting. They talk while he sketches, erases, and shades. From the model’s perspective, the image seems oddly distorted, as if she’s looking at herself in a funhouse mirror. When she does stand up after four hours or so, and comes around to the front of the easel, the face he’s drawn shifts and falls into place. It is her and it is not her at the same time.
Facing this painting, she realizes that Lowly’s paintings are not so much mirrors of the people pictured—the paintings don’t tell so much about them. Rather, they cause her to reflect elsewhere, on herself reflecting, a viewpoint that changes as she changes. A viewer’s perception is always specific to his or her specific vision—just as, in Lowly’s drawing, the Annunciate Virgin in the open art history book is fractured, transformed by being seen through the eye glasses held in the sitter’s hand.
What kind of annunciation is this? Not so much an original story—not the Annunciation, but an annunciation; a devotional image, more than an event, timeless and abstracted from the text. Painting as annunciation. Perhaps the angel is actually the viewer who brings the message to the painting. With each viewer, a new portrait is seen within the portrait.
The word “icon” has its etymological roots in the Greek word meaning “image.” It is the word used in the Greek Bible in the first chapter of Genesis, which describes man and woman as made in the image of God. In the Epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul chooses this same word to speak of Jesus as the image of the invisible God.
In contrast to the rational, intellectual emphasis in much of Western Christianity, where the inerrant Word is all, the icon is a strongly intuitive form (although this intuitive element is achieved through carefully administered techniques involving perspective, color, and light). An icon serves as a vehicle for the viewer’s imagination, revealing that God can enter souls as much through the eye as through the ear. In his journal, Lowly writes of his efforts to infuse his work with this tradition:
'The images I strive for are those which speak “icon”—towards kingdom, towards God—and simultaneously are non-didactic. They have a life/presence of their own, yet have/are nothing apart from God...What does this mean for those who have not chosen Christianity? I don’t know. Am I trying to convert them? No. But I feel that I must put into my art what I believe is fundamental. I want to point to what I believe is life. Their choice is not mine to make.'
Centuries ago, St. Stephen the Younger wrote that “the icon is a door” to the inner world of the viewer’s spirit. Perhaps stepping through this door is what Lowly believes to be fundamental in life. His paintings, like icons, might be said to function as metaphors do in poetry; as visual metaphors, they encourage those who are receptive to meditate and make connections. As Lowly explains, an iconic painting acts as “a conduit or catalyst, directing the viewer beyond itself. At this point the viewer becomes a participant, in a sense completing the icon.” A kind of communion takes place.
In an altarpiece made for an Evanston church located near his apartment, Lowly intentionally conflates the iconic tradition with those of the Northern European Romantics and contemporary Realists, a synthesis of approaches which, on one level, places Lowly within the current tendencies of post-modernism. Yet artists immersed in this movement frequently express themselves in a kind of pastiche, making flattened surface allusions to the past, reflecting what cultural theorist Frederic Jameson has described as “an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place.” In contrast to this frequently ironic, cynical, distanced vision, Lowly’s vision appropriates and transforms the blessings and burdens of the past with reverence. As writer Susan Bergman has put it: “He borrows as a means of learning...replacing distance from the past with an earned proximity to it.” Lowly notes that while “deconstructionists seem pre-occupied with bringing to light (‘naming names’) those invisible powers which operate behind the scenes, demystifying things, I wonder if it isn’t possible to name names in the process of identifying and hallowing mysteries.”
Lowly’s altarpiece realizes this possibility. Like many icons, it is a two-sided image. One painting—to be viewed during Ordinary Time in the church calendar—shows a woman standing on the church’s flat rooftop, looking out over a grim but perhaps not hopeless city [see Plate 8]. Like the laborer in Season of Silence, this woman stands with her back to the viewer, her anonymous figure allowing us to look on with her. Lowly based this figure on Caspar David Friedrich’s painting from the nineteenth century, Woman in Morning Light. Friedrich’s piece, which shows a woman standing before a meadow at sunrise, is a Romantic effort to resurrect a sense of the sacred and its rites within the locus of the natural world. The woman in Friedrich’s painting is the isolated Emersonian heroine and mystic, who, alienated from traditional Christian ritual, finds access to spirituality through landscape.
Unlike Friedrich’s secular woman, the figure in Lowly’s altarpiece does not stand alone; her hands, in supplication or benediction, seem tangled with the barren trees. These hands lift up the seemingly desolate urban community that spreads before her, as well as the church community that will worship in her presence. She is truly the body of the church—doing its work in the city—the body of Christ embodied; she mediates between the individual and the outside community. At the same time, Lowly portrays her as terribly human, frail and alone in the face of a complex and confusing world. He refuses to idealize her as a devotional figure, just as he doesn’t idealize the neighborhood that is both her sanctuary and the thing from which she must take refuge. Reinterpreting Friedrich’s reinterpretation of traditional Christian iconography, Lowly not only returns this iconography to its original religious domain—altarpiece—but he augments that domain with contemporary reality.
If, on one side of the altarpiece, the figure embraces the urban world, on the other side—Lenten Time—the vanity of this world is emptied out [see Plate 9]. Here, a little boy looks into the eyes of the viewer, and holds out his hand. From it falls grains of dust or ashes, invoking an awareness, true to the season, of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Like God, the boy holds mortality in the palm of his hand. Yet he is smiling, he is radiant against the dark background. With a child’s faith and hope, he is perhaps encouraging the communicant to say, with Abraham, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes.”
Lowly has said that he hopes to paint a picture that functions, metaphorically, like a bell or a pearl, an image that resonates—a single note or luminous glow that reveals itself, over time and with meditation, as many-layered. At another moment, he connects his vision of art-making with the work of a sluice. How, he asks, can he remove barriers to the experience of meaning? How can he prompt a moment of connection, an opening up in people, an opening up in himself as an artist and initial viewer? It is not so much that he wants his painting to provide this meaning, but that he wants it to encourage a “bringing in of meaning.” When this happens, Lowly says, “art functions as a catalyst for making people think.”
Adapting this metaphor to his faith, Lowly relates it to the movement of the Holy Spirit, who brings meaning to those who, like Tarkovsky’s young bellmaker, are open to discovering the many-layered secrets of self and art and God. Perhaps then, the business of making bells is—for both the painter and for us—the business of faith.