IN LATE FEBRUARY OF 2015, my husband and I left behind the snow and ice of central Indiana to drive ten hours south to the shrubby tree-lined plains just outside Wichita, Kansas—to see a puppet show. Another couple we’d met only the night before accompanied us, a sword maker who operates Cedarlore Forge in New Castle, Indiana, and his wife, fellow pilgrims who also wanted to witness the first performance of the School of the Transfer of Energy Puppet Theater in about five years.
It was difficult to describe the impetus for this trip, especially to people like my parents, who agreed to watch our six children for the weekend. About a dozen families converged for the performance, approximately fifty people, children included, from various corners of the United States, all loosely connected to the small community inhabited by Jack Baumgartner—the author, craftsman, and chief performer behind the theater. It was to be a celebration, not just of the theater, but of community and fellowship, a sharing of God’s provision with this group of people, many of whom were craftsmen themselves, after a long season of spiritual hunger—hunger defined as longing to participate in God’s work of creation.
Perhaps it is his ability to talk about these spiritual longings openly, to use this particular language without irony, that draws people to Baumgartner and his work. I began to interview him by email a year prior to the performance. In person, he’s unpretentious, quick with a joke, easy to laugh, and a bit salty. In writing, his answers to my questions revealed mystical and poetic flights of
thought. These depths would surface periodically throughout the weekend, not only in his performance, but in his attention to each person there and his willingness to express why their presence was important to him.
Why does everyone love Jack Baumgartner? I knew why I did, not only for his competence in a broad range of artistic mediums—puppetry, painting, drawing, woodworking, music, and songwriting—but I’d managed to believe that his art spoke only to me. My reaction to it was so personal that it seemed no one else on earth could have experienced quite the same thing, but I was not alone.
“He was a hipster before hipsters even existed,” says Julia Anderson, possibly in reference to Baumgartner’s long, full beard and holistic lifestyle. No doubt beards have become a trademark accessory of stylish back-to-the-land craftsmen all over the insta-feeds, but Baumgartner’s oldest friends vouch that his has been there from the beginning—or at least since his first whiskering, probably sometime in the mid-nineties by my estimate. He is a slouched and rangy figure, with eyes lined from smiling or squinting and large, notched, and knobby hands, all of which give him the sage appearance of someone much older than thirty-nine. But his laugh is youthful and generous, and unlike most hipsters he maintains a fierce Christianity that supplies the driving force for his work and life, a wide-eyed approach to the things of God and a clear-eyed, unscandalized approach to the things of the world. All that is to say, his beard serves more of a priestly function than a fashionable one. It is a veil, and perhaps also a mark of voluntary poverty.
“He’s just sort of quietly winning at life,” says Julia’s husband, Matthew Anderson, which is indeed the impression you get from visiting the Baumgartner family home. “It’s quite the funny farm,” he added affectionately.
Baumgartner lives with his wife and three children in a funky tri-level house with a tin roof and two-story tree trunks supporting its front portico. The garage has been insulated, heated with a wood stove, outfitted with rough timber doors and window frames, and sided in cedar to become a light-filled artist’s studio. Baumgartner and his wife, Amy, a Presbyterian minister, homeschool their three children, who have free run of the place and are often spotted carrying around chickens or baby goats when they are not creating their own assemblages or apprenticing in the shop. Amy makes goats’ milk soap and Jack turns wooden bowls and vessels, both of which are available for sale on the couple’s Etsy store along with a limited selection of Baumgartner’s prints.
Over their kitchen table, and under a faint layer of comforting family dust, hangs a painting, Jacob Wrestling the Angel [see PLATE 1].
This is the image that first introduced me to Baumgartner’s work.
I was attempting to write an essay on the spirituality of wrestling—wrestling for sport (my sons are wrestlers), wrestling through marital challenges, and wrestling with God’s plan for one’s life—when I encountered a photograph of the painting online. I never finished the essay. The painting said everything that I had hoped to say, but more succinctly, and with greater space for ongoing interpretation.
In so many renderings of the contest, the angel of God appears either overly muscular and aggressive, or else fey and defensive. The struggle is either too soft and dance-like to represent my struggles, or too hard, a couple of he-men duking it out to death rather than to a mutual blessing. In Baumgartner’s vision, Jacob wrestles a God who is both intimate and mysterious. At first it’s hard to tell who’s who. Jacob is unclothed, helmetless, and his energy supplies the force of the struggle. He moves with headstrong velocity into the guts of his unknown grappling partner, his toes stretched out behind him like the tail of a comet.
The angel, appearing almost winded, lurches forward into the embrace. In the same motion he reaches out to grab Jacob’s foot, forcing Jacob’s toes to flex as he lifts his knee in a way that protects it from a rock below. The biblical account tells us that Jacob’s hip is wrenched; here, the injury could result from an act of protection. Baumgartner’s angel accepts man’s challenge while simultaneously providing blessing, though Jacob is, as yet, unaware of how he is being saved.
In the painting, their collision causes a shattering of small particles that fly outward from the struggle like ripples from a stone thrown in water. It could be sweat or dust, or folds in the curtain that surrounds them and frames the action. The struggle between God and man, while intimate and personal, is never truly private. It has consequences that radiate out into the landscape in which it takes place.
At the edges of the scene, hands pull back a curtain. One releases a banner on which there are no words; the other points to the conflict. The hands suggest the wisdom of those who have gone before. “The struggle is like this,” they say. “God is not indifferent to you. He will fight with and for you at once, so that you may be blessed.”
A hand-colored linocut version of the painting now hangs in my kitchen under our own family dust. It almost always braces me when I pass it, and for that reason, sometimes I love it and sometimes my feelings are less kind. The figures are sinewy, the colors rich and primary. This is no comforting bathroom art made to soothe or fade into the decor. The image draws me into prayer, which is its own wrestling match of sorts. It proposes questions and suggests answers that I am required to acknowledge, so that I, a woman and mother—decidedly not an Old Testament patriarch—have to place myself in this ancient scene and try to figure out how it went, and how I personally fit into it, again and again. What would it take for me to bless my conflict? With whom or what am I struggling? My life would be less rich without these questions, and every day the answers are different.
For the past decade or so, Baumgartner has been quietly honing a wide range of skills, from engraving to farming, woodworking to music. He’s shared bits of that work on a blog he started several years ago, but he has scarcely promoted himself. The people who gathered to view the puppet performance came because of friendships and, as they explained, the movement of the Holy Spirit. Some were part of a web of friendships founded when Amy Baumgartner and Jack’s best friend, Cody Rolph, were in seminary together. Some, like the sword maker and me, were admirers of Baumgartner’s work and had struck up conversations and eventually friendships online.
A few friends were there from his days at the Kansas City Art Institute, by all accounts a pivotal time in his artistic and spiritual development. Influenced by writers like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, he converted his studio into a kind of monastic cave, with only a small portal for entry. He took a vow of silence for a short time, which backfired when people realized what a good listener someone who doesn’t talk can be. He was well loved by his peers, and his studio became a hub for people seeking a kind ear or some sign that they weren’t alone in their spiritual questing.
Meanwhile, his own internal struggle escalated. Valedictorian of his graduating class, he often felt that he was getting unearned affirmation from instructors and classmates, which undermined the humility he strove for. To convince himself he wasn’t a fraud, he increased the quantity and intensity of his practice, often staying up all night to paint, which exacerbated an ongoing struggle with depression. “Growing up in church, they tell you to practice continual prayer, prayer without ceasing,” he told me. “I was haunted by a desire to walk that way, and felt profound self-hatred in being unable to comply.”
After graduation, Baumgartner moved out to his parents’ four hundred wooded acres near Wichita to attempt a more focused relationship with God without social distractions. The experiment in the woods was a success by some measures. He found relief from his depression, and also a wife.
During his hermit period, Baumgartner’s friendship with Cody Rolph, an old acquaintance from church youth groups (he was raised Presbyterian), gathered steam. Rolph is gregarious, opinionated, a barrel-chested former wrestler, nearly Baumgartner’s opposite, and is an unwavering support in Baumgartner’s life, especially of his artistic gifts. When he caught wind of what Baumgartner was trying to do in the woods, he made a point of bringing him McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches and offering advice, since he too had attempted a hermit’s life. The constant human interaction heightened rather than alleviated the loneliness Baumgartner felt.
Baumgartner laughs about it now. “Cody kept coming out and screwing up my hermit thing…. He kept talking, and I was like, ‘Shut the fuck up.’” Occasionally, Cody brought a classmate from seminary, Amy, out to visit the hermit in the woods. She and Jack were engaged within four months of their introduction. Over a decade later, they are expecting their fourth child.
The drama and intense spiritual feeling of young adulthood often provide a sharp counterpoint to the relative quiet and stability of making a home and a family. Perhaps it’s this contrast that leads people to believe they are experiencing spiritual fruitlessness when in fact they are planting some of the most important seeds of their lives: not just the new life of a burgeoning family, but also the early dues any craftsman pays as he develops his skill. The pairing of Amy’s ministry with Jack’s art has proved fruitful on a variety of fronts. “I’m a teacher,” Amy said. “I love the Bible and stories. I like to tell a story and invite people to see where they are in God’s story.”
It’s a process very similar to what Baumgartner does in his art, developing his own “Way of the Pilgrim” that is about ongoing conversion and reconciliation. “I long to be changed,” Baumgartner wrote to me. “I long to be converted to worship—for worship. I hunger to be made into a son. I yearn for the distance to be less. I can testify to the nearness and the vast gulf at once and it is mystifying to me. I don’t understand it.”
His “Way of the Pilgrim” is perhaps best exemplified by a series of deceptively simple, lightly shaded pencil line drawings that chronicle the discoveries of the Walking Man, a skinny bearded guy who wears coveralls and boots and keeps a pennywhistle in his back pocket. He observes comets, finds relics in the dirt, catches flying fish in horned bowls, and observes flowers and birds that sometimes rest in his beard. He tunnels through the earth, encountering fossilized fish and roots embossed with the Roman numeral V. Baumgartner adopted the symbol of the V from Saint Francis, who, after receiving the stigmata, called Christ’s five wounds “doors or windows by which Grace has entered the world.”
“Just as my sin is the very pathway that leads me to Christ, so is suffering the door I leap through to find his grace,” Baumgartner writes. Fittingly, the symbol of the five wounds of Christ is all over his work: in words, hovering just overhead, or buried underground.
Likewise, Walking Man encounters suffering and grace in objects both simple and strange. In The Commissioning of Walking Man into a Mystery and a Problem, he sprouts from the center of a lotus flower floating on a small body of water [see previous page]. From his floral raft, he observes a cracked vessel that is both earthen and ethereal, suspended in the air and dripping with water. He turns the vessel in his hands, finding it pregnant with light, on the verge of cracking open.
It is a mark of Baumgartner’s best pieces that they, too, commission their viewers into a mystery and a problem. My first glimpses of the Walking Man drawings confused me. He was either very right or very wrong. He was holy, but with horns; he was old, but childlike. In Walking Man in a Tree his face is wizened, his beard long and full, but his bare feet grasp the branch on which he stands in an infantile fashion [see Plate 7].
In Walking Man and the Burden, our hero is hunched over a cane with a small cathedral strapped to his back [see opposite page]. Here, the burden of belief is grand in design, but also sized approximately for a man to carry, if a tad heavy. A blackbird swoops behind him, and written in the margin are the words, “Everyday ends in shadow. Even the good days end with the doubt.” Is he carrying the institutional church on his back and finding it crippling? Or is he gladly helping to shoulder the church’s journey? It’s hard to say. Depending on one’s perspective from day to day, it could be both, or neither, just as the horns sprouting on Walking Man’s head could read as a nod to our lower nature that persists in spite of holy longing, or a mark of wisdom and age.
“Is he one who has seen God, or encountered some powerful expression of God’s goodness?” Baumgartner asks. “What does it mean to be there in some crevice when God passes by and to somehow manage to not be utterly destroyed by it? Walking Man wrestles and engages continually with these questions.”
Though the Walking Man pieces are individually meaningful, it helps to view them as a collection in chronological order. As the series progresses, Walking Man becomes more and more a part of his landscape. In Walking Man and the Miracle of the Flying Fish, he reaches out to catch God’s provision—fish with wings and unicorn horns—but his hand has become a leaf [see page 35]. Feathers float out of the leg of his pants, and two plates and a twig emerge from his back, as if he were a stegosaurus that is slowly turning into a tree. There are wings on his glasses, though his eyes are not visible through the lenses. What is Walking Man? Bird? Ancient reptile? Horned Beast? Tree? Is he a man?
Walking Man may be a soul struggling to see and receive God’s blessing in everything that happens to him. Baumgartner has returned to the flying fish image in other pieces: a copperplate engraving of the fish with the word “Provision” just below [see front cover] and a similar linocut titled Go On Thor Heyerdahl. The title refers to Heyerdahl’s account in Kon-Tiki of crossing the Pacific Ocean on a primitive balsa raft. Attracted by a paraffin lamp, flying fish would leap onto the raft at night, sometimes slapping the sleeping men in the face. When God’s blessings are forcing you awake in pain, it can be difficult to see them as such, and they can be slippery to hold onto.
In addition to his visual art, Baumgartner also writes and records his own music, a sacred-folk music hybrid on which he plays all the tracks—guitar, vocals, banjo, pennywhistle. In “O Habakuk!”—a thirteen-minute pain-in-the-ass of a song, which he candidly admits is everyone’s least favorite—this lyric appears: “He was strong and old. He was very young…. The humble ones were fierce and strange. The quiet ones were fierce and strange…” That’s Walking Man. He gives shape to the wanderings of the soul, a human face to the soul’s eye and its encounter with God’s eye.
If the message of these images feels ambiguous, it’s likely because a man’s soul can be difficult to pin down. It can be errant, faithful, childlike, and profound all in the same breath. He can perform the same actions day after day, one day in doubt, the next in hope, in sin or in grace. The soul is a mystery. Once the mystery has its own face, a name and legs, then we can start imagining a world within a world, where dramas of the soul are made incarnate and where the Holy Spirit animates all of the creatures and places the soul encounters.
The world-within-worlds concept also informs the School of the Transfer of Energy Puppet Theater. The puppet theater is a multimedia Russian doll of worlds and storytellers, a work of craftsmanship and imagination, which on a purely sculptural basis provides many meditative tableaux. Even static images of the theater are mesmerizing, but the script surrounds and enlivens them in a poetic tale of spiritual longing and questing.
The performance I saw tells part one of The Two Deaths of John Beartrist Laceroot [see Plates 3 through 6]. (Part two is still in formulation.) At the most basic level, the story is this: the hero receives a charge, studies with a master, fights an enemy, and graduates to a new stage of spiritual growth. Told with tenderness and humor, the action takes place on three levels. A marionette named Jonas acts as narrator. He is a stand-in for the artist, who never addressed the audience directly but remains in the shadows. Jonas introduces the play and acquaints viewers with the hero, another skinny, bearded man.
John Beartrist Laceroot, or the Walking Man, is a carved wooden character who looks very much like Baumgartner. Animated by mechanical gears and metal rods hidden below the stage, he mostly performs the mundane actions of a man’s life: rocking in a chair in front of his hearth, walking in the woods. During his more intense adventures, he becomes a shadow puppet, lit from behind the screen. The shadow puppets are two-dimensional paper cuttings with moving parts. If Laceroot is an avatar of the artist, the shadow puppets are the dramatization of the soul’s encounter with things unseen, with prophesy, with the Holy Spirit.
Sitting by his hearth, Laceroot hears the howl of a wolf, which signals the arrival of a mysterious visitor. As he struggles to understand the blank scroll he receives from the wolf, Laceroot says:
The whisper begs to be heard,
and I long to hear it.
But I am met with silence.
The message is here.
I have no doubt.
Yet to me it is invisible.
I have thought of myself as a listener
but that is my folly,
for surely I have not learned how.
Resolving not to depend on his own understanding, but believing the scroll is for his benefit, Laceroot eats the message, literally swallowing it on the shadow screen. The visitor then returns, gifting Laceroot with a vow of silence and charging him to go on a pilgrimage. Laceroot embarks.
He first encounters a talkative tree-dwelling hermit who is torn between his desire to be alone with Christ and his desire to share what he has received with others.
Leave yourself and turn back to the cross.
Can any other give you what you need?
But you are also a giver.
See how these small birds are sustained
by the seed that you bring.
Seed that in your turn
you received from the earth,
which she in many turns has received from God.
Laceroot approaches the hermit in the midst of this monologue, whereupon the hermit gives Laceroot another prophetic banner, this time bearing a charge to walk west to a grove of cedar: “eat of the sun and of the soil. You will drink of the rain and breathe the waste of your lungs. By a mystery you will be transformed…. You must trust as you become a tree.”
The hermit also gives Laceroot a sword, which he uses to fight off the chiming voice of a bird that tempts him with knowledge, praise, and rest. When Laceroot raises the sword to the bird, it becomes angry: “You held my gifts: diamonds that would tear through the bindings of knowledge, and you threw them aside…. The gifts were free, but my price for ingratitude is more than you can bear!” We hear in the bird’s voice an echo of Satan tempting Eve in the garden of Eden, as well as Christ in the desert. Laceroot fights the bird valiantly on the shadow screen.
The story ends (for now) with Laceroot arriving at last at the cedar grove, his cruciform figure lit from below, leaves growing over his arms like wings, a crown of leaves resting tenderly on his head, a tableau which is one of the most touching reflections of Calvary I’ve seen. There is something rather pathetic about the simultaneously sprouting and wilting frame of John Beartrist Laceroot, looking as if he could throw himself from a precipice. He listened to prophets, he avoided the siren of adulation, but now, he’s not so much ready to take flight as to put down roots.
To be planted, to have deep roots, to stay, is a crown of glory, a magnificent honor, and it is also our way of becoming who God wants us to be. The journey of John Beartrist Laceroot suggests that the pathway into the heart of God cannot be found by good works, or even good intentions, but only through humble, persistent listening to, receiving from, and emulation of Jesus on the cross.
At the performance I attended, Baumgartner employed his seven-year-old son as assistant, a rather demanding assignment, considering the energetic schedule of scene changes and switchboard lighting and mechanics behind the main stage.
A vocal peanut gallery of children in the front row highlighted the humorous elements of the show, attesting to the complexity of Baumgartner’s performance. The theater, while demonstrating serious artistry, does not take itself too seriously. Its characters display a wide palette of emotions: longing, fear, bravery, confusion, wonder, boredom, and humor. It speaks to any stage of human experience, from childhood to old age.
After the show, everyone felt they had witnessed something profound, but couldn’t quite name what it was. “In all the time we’ve been married, this is only the second time I’ve seen it, and I still don’t really understand it,” Amy laughed. “And he’s dragging our children into it!” But it’s clear to all that for a child, being admitted into the richer corners of your father’s creative heart is a rare blessing.
The theater makes use of all the most important story elements of Baumgartner’s young adulthood, his competence in a broad variety of crafts and mediums, as well as his physical presence, though he’s never on stage. He’s there in the shadows at the margin, revealing the marrow of his faith. The theater exhibits exquisite attention to detail. In one scene, Jonas tells us that Laceroot grasped his sword. To emphasize the word grasp, Baumgartner designed the puppet so that it could make a clenching motion with its hand. Having gone to such trouble, I would have worked the gesture into the story at least ten more times, but Baumgartner makes all that effort for a single gesture. Small things that others pass over as insignificant, Baumgartner treats with tremendous dignity and care, which is the mark of a generous and benevolent creator of things. His viewers, seeing his care, learn to notice and honor the small things, too.
The blog where Baumgartner shares his work and life is also called The School of the Transfer of Energy. The landing page often features photos of the garden, livestock, his workshop, his children holding the various flora and fauna, and close-range pictures of sawdust flying from the lathe as he turns a wooden bowl. The title remains a bit of a mystery. “I have spent the better part of fourteen years…trying to understand the School,” Baumgartner told me. “Facets of understanding will come into focus as I change and grow, but it is always driven by hunger to see and participate with more of God in every particle of everything.”
This life philosophy, where farming and woodworking are cross training for the arts, provides the strongest explanation of Baumgartner’s wide magnetism. Nothing goes to waste. Each season brings a different concentration. Winter allows for more indoor activity like painting, while the growing season provides artistic fallow time.
“Honestly there has been a struggle and tension between the disciplines, though it is slowly becoming reconciled, as I grow older…. Learning to understand seasons and timing and rest have helped me not to get overwhelmed by them as I once did…. Before, and still sometimes now, it was with fear that I approached the day…. I am learning slowly to approach each day from a place of provision for my family, my community and for myself: a place where I see my Father’s heart resting.”
His approach to his work requires continual purification. If, as he believes, the work of creation and conversion both belong to God and not to us, when an artist submits himself to the Holy Spirit, an intimate dialogue takes place, one that allows the creature to play some small part in the co-creative act. The process depends on a carefully maintained union with the Holy Spirit, so that as the artist’s own ideas and intentions for the work diminish, the work of God is magnified. Perhaps it is like Jacob wrestling the angel, positioning oneself to see everything that happens, every difficulty as God’s provision.
“All things I have given to him. He speaks to me in all things,” Baumgartner wrote in an email. “Whether or not I feel [my union with the Spirit] or am even aware of it is irrelevant to its existence, though it certainly may have a bearing on my mood…. It is a leap of faith on both counts—to trust God, and to trust the heart that he gave to me.”
Baumgartner’s work and the world in which he lives feel less made than received—like an epistle of love from Father to son. The angst I associate with an artist struggling for greatness does not manifest in him.
He readily acknowledges that this kind of egolessness hasn’t always come naturally. “My friend [Cody] said once that there is a difference between perfection and excellence. I used to see my journey as relentless striving towards an unattainable perfection. I see it quite differently now.”
The discipline of this mode of art-making must be taken up anew each day. To remind himself, Baumgartner often writes this refrain in the margins and titles of his work: “Go on” [see Plate 2].
The phrase takes on different meanings for Baumgartner at different times:
Sometimes it is laboring until a time of rest…. Sometimes it is being made to rest when I want to work. Sometimes it is like the disciples telling Jesus, when he asks if they will leave him as well: “Where else would we go? Only you have the words of eternal life.” In all of these things I must “go on” in faith, without confirmation or affirmation…. It is not a secure place to be, especially when we are raised to establish definable security by all means. Am I willing to believe God is who he says he is? To put my life and even my wife and children’s lives where my mouth is? Like Abraham who led his only son to death with absolutely no conception that God would provide a way out. Isaac’s death was the way. How do you willingly kill the very heart of your life and purpose? I have a hard time doubting that Abraham would be in prison, or a mental ward and reviled in our society today. But God celebrates who Abraham is. Go on.
A blog can illustrate this daily process in a way no other medium can. Looking through Baumgartner’s archives, I could see that Jacob Wrestling the Angel had been through a number of stages before the print arrived on my doorstep, beginning as a sepia cartoon, becoming a painting, then a linocut. Small things had been changed or removed along the way, as certain elements mutated in significance. Clearly it was the work not just of an interpreter but of a believer, someone for whom the story of Jacob and the angel had intimate significance.
The same is true for most of Baumgartner’s art, from his painting to his puppet theater. Works are almost always in a state of revision and transfiguration. He’s painted the story of Jonah many times and from many perspectives, first with the great whale looming in the background, later with Jonah swimming through waves straight towards the whale’s mouth. At each stage, he says, something different was received.
“There is certainly an element of improving or refining or sanctifying that goes on in the process. It is like knowledge, or wisdom, that, if I held on to it, would become a wall between my further movement, whether in skill or stewardship towards God.”
Unsurprisingly, his paintings take a very long time to emerge. He takes Abraham as a model of patience. “Abraham, after receiving a word and direction from God, for many years, decades at a time, lived it out in faith and discipline, responding to the original word by going forward with his family and livestock. So I embrace the toil and apparent mediocrity of thousands of small brushstrokes, building an image that I hope is significant to God’s heart. He will judge whether it was so or not.”
If everything is a prayer, an offering of excellence rather than perfection, then the artist is unlocked, free to make praise to the God who makes holy. This is true whether the artist is conventionally trained or not. Baumgartner’s home-recorded music vibrates with a roughhewn vitality. Cicadas chirp in the background. We hear the occasional hum of a child. His voice sounds a bit like burlap, strong, earthy, and slightly fraying at the edges. Under the name i am erth, he released an album titled Cry the Blood on iTunes last winter. On it he plays banjo, guitar, spoons, accordion, trumpet, pennywhistle, mandolin, piano, and any other instrument he decides to take up, layering tracks one over another on a garage band app.
The music is both confident and vulnerable, like a conversation with a loved one. There are moments of quivering tempo, where everything sounds like it could fall apart, only to be brought back to harmony that feels all the more assured for having nearly been lost. The brittle, slightly frail quality of the music expresses something of a soul’s relationship with the creator. The child in the protective arms of the father fears nothing—not being misunderstood, nor failure, nor imperfection—but works with all his inherited gifts in order to please that loving father. Baumgartner’s music is excellent in the way that every sincere prayer is excellent.
Though mostly in minor keys, the songs are rarely sad or brooding. “When You Spoke” describes giving all his life to God; the mood is one of sober joy, without sentimentalism or cliché. He dwells instead on the concrete: the daily work of a life in harmony with the goodness of God. His lyrics don’t follow a typical verse-chorus-bridge pattern; they’re more like poetry set to repeated musical themes. The narrators are wandering, seeking, hungering, imploring God to be near, and it’s never clear from which era they make their appeals.
David DelaGardelle, the sword maker who traveled with us to Kansas, described Baumgartner’s painting style as “American medieval.” The same is true of his music. It has a primordial feel. While there are notes of Celtic, English, and American folk, the sound is hard to pin down, and I suspect that’s because Baumgartner hasn’t pinned it down himself. “I am closer to the sound than I’ve been…. I expect until God sees fit to release it to my ears, it will always be a shadow of some more real truth…. But hearing a farmer play ‘Angeline the Baker’ in Galax, Virginia, while an old man danced with a little girl on a flour-dusted sheet of plywood came quite close.”
In an era of sterile, synthetically smooth pop, Baumgartner’s music is something I have longed for without realizing it. It is worship music without the predictable upbeat promises and solutions of the corporate Christian music industry. His music expresses hunger rather than fulfillment, a constant longing for reconciliation and life in God.
It is this element of longing—in his music, his art, and in the way he lives—that makes Baumgartner such a compelling witness to his faith. The best teachers are perpetual students, always revising, always emerging. Baumgartner doesn’t claim to be an authority in any of his areas of practice. He dwells in the mystery at the heart of faith, and the outcome is illuminating.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.