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.
Objects Worth Keeping
WEDNESDAY MORNING at ten am, I am alone in my studio, seated at a large metal work table. Alice, my Abyssinian studio cat, is perched on the collage I am working on, watching while I glue tiny bits of paper and string. My table looks east, out to our garden and home through a ten-foot arched window that my architect husband rescued from the First Baptist Church in Nacogdoches when they replaced the original windows with stained glass. Ours is a small house, but since my husband also does interiors, it’s orderly and artfully finished, with good fabrics and fresh flowers. Visitors usually laugh when they see the contrast in my cluttered studio, crammed with a lifetime’s accumulation of art supplies, books, and souvenirs, objects I keep because they carry resonance or memory.
Greg Wolfe has told me that collage is an inherently incarnational way of understanding of creation, and maybe that’s why my studio looks the way it does. The work of a collage artist is to assemble small, humble, even comic, items into a larger whole—perhaps a metaphor for the way God unites us into his body. If Greg is right, I hope that by telling you about where I work, I can show you the body that supports me.
Considerable space is taken up by my collage supplies, of course, a miscellany occupying 158 translucent plastic boxes arranged on two sets of chrome shelves: paper, sticks, reed, string, and cord, all painted in various colors and organized by hue. I have separate boxes for birds, insects, reptiles, domestic animals, wild animals, fish, food, flowers, found paper, seed beads, bugle beads, Mardi Gras beads, book spines, silver and aluminum, thorns, watches and clock parts, buttons, pencils, Christmas items, and body parts.
Book are stacked double on the two eight-foot cases on either side of the church window, and on chairs, tables, and the desk. Each volume is evidence of a previous interest, a current passion, a thing I meant to learn about. Several shelves hold gifts from friends, oddities that might one day find themselves in collages: a Cuban cigarette tin; various plastic birds, including one made of aluminum foil by a young friend; a handmade, bejeweled scepter from a local beauty pageant; early twentieth-century mug shots; a painting by Bruce Herman; an old pulp paperback titled Let’s Make Mary: A Gentlemen’s Guide to Scientific Seduction in Eight Easy Lessons; a leather Guerrero tigre mask; and a wooden contraption used by my German great-great-grandfather to soften leather for the saddles he made when he first came to America before the Civil War.
Back issues of Image, from Number 2 on, have claimed almost an entire shelf. The journal has been part of this hodge-podge for twenty-five years.
My Image adventure started in 1989 when I glanced at the announcements in the Saturday religion section of the Dallas Morning News. A two-line notice, probably from a press release, told me that two men, Gregory Wolfe and Harold Fickett, had started a journal to do with the arts and faith. Who were these guys, I wondered, and how could I get hold of them?
The next afternoon after church, I went to the library at the university where I taught, determined to contact them and subscribe. (These were the days before you could Google someone’s name and find out everything about them, from the value of their home to their political contributions.) I methodically went through every reference book for the two names, and finally found an address in California for a Harold Fickett. Though I had no idea whether he was the right man, I wrote him, asking about the publication. Waiting for a reply felt like waiting for a college acceptance letter—or a letter from an old love interest. Months, then years went by, and I never heard a thing.
To understand my disappointment, you have to understand how different things were back then. I was a brand new thirty-four-year-old Christian, enthusiastic about my faith and hungry for direction on the place of art in my born-again life. In 1985, the most recent books about Christianity and the arts in our university library were from the 1950s and focused on Rouault and Matisse.
But I soon began to find signposts. I discovered Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible and some cassette tapes of lectures he had given at Dallas Seminary. Gene Veith’s The Gift of Art: The Place of the Arts in Scripture (1983) dealt helpfully with the Bible passages concerning art.
But I still wondered if there were other living artists and art writers who happened to be Christians and were respected by the secular world—a search that, at the time, felt a little like looking for life on other planets. Life was out there. It took me some time to find them, but the books and art catalogues on my shelves attest that believing artists were there all along, doing their work: Bruce Herman, Tim Lowly, Tim High, Ed Knippers, Sandra Bowden, and so many more. Through word of mouth, I learned of Christians in the Visual Arts, and I managed to subscribe to Image.
Below the copies of Image are several books by Harold Fickett. What I didn’t realize in 1989 was that I had mailed my letter to his father, Harold Fickett Sr., a pastor who spent half the year in California and half here in Nacogdoches. In God’s providence, the junior Ficketts moved to Nacogdoches in 2000, and Harold and his family became friends of ours. Later, he would write about my work for a catalogue, copies of which are in boxes in my studio corner.
The other bookcase holds still more souvenirs: a conch shell from my great-great-aunt’s Texas ranch house, my monogramed wooden crayon box from childhood, a picture of my son, a covered-wagon lamp from the fifties, and a tin Edwardian box for Sutton’s Seeds, holding an estate-sale collection of soaps from 1950s motels, each labeled with the date of the visit. These objects all have to do with the passage of time, and they remind me of the poems of T.S. Eliot, which are wedged somewhere behind these treasures.
Gregory Wolfe (after I eventually managed to meet him) reintroduced me to Eliot at an arts conference in 1998. I had previously found Eliot intimidating, but after Greg opened up his poetry, I fell madly in love. How I identified with this middle-aged Anglican, who has been the foundation for my interest in poetry ever since. And I can’t overstate Greg’s own influence on my work. His books are on the shelf behind a collection of snow globes.
Once you get past the art books, the patron saints of Image dominate my library. Throughout the day as I glance up at the shelves and see books by writers like Mark Jarman, Melissa Pritchard, Jeanne Murray Walker, Heather Choate Davis, Erin McGraw, and many, many others, I am reminded of treasured conversations at Image’s Glen Workshop, and the blessing of the people I’ve met there.
The north wall is empty except for a crucifix, a gift from a friend. The rest of the wall is blank, a place to tack my collages while I work.
A journal, like a collage artist, assembles many bits and pieces into a larger whole. The whole may grow into a community—a body—over time. I hope that what I’ve written here gives you an idea of how many of the items in my studio are there because of Image and the people around it; that is, of the role that community plays in my working life. As I work, I’m often enveloped by the music of Kate Campbell, J.A.C. Redford, and Mike Capps. My sketchbooks are full of notes taken at Image events. The books and art catalogues of Image friends overflow my bookcases and continue to teach me and make my life richer. Daily I am surrounded by fellow pilgrims, ambassadors of the Kingdom, and apprentices to the carpenter who made things and told stories.
Though none of us have shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of flames, or been sawed in two, you are among my great cloud of witnesses, and partners in what God is doing in the world. Twenty-eight years after becoming a Christian, I still need those connections, and I am grateful to Image for making this possible.
Mary McCleary was named Texas Artist of the Year for 2011. She is Regent’s Professor Emeritus at Stephen F. Austin State University, where she taught art from 1975 to 2005. www.marymccleary.com