Earlier this summer, my husband and I, along with our adorable Frenchie pup Bowie, went on an epic cross-country road trip. It was a wonderful experience and one that I know we will remember forever. During the trip, I had a few meaningful experiences related to art, so I would love to share a bit about what I learned.
As an art historian, I am a bit embarrassed to say that I often do not spend enough time in front of paintings and sculptures when I visit a museum. Or if I do, I’m looking closely to examine the artist’s use of the medium. So when my husband and I were planning our trip, I made a concerted effort to find some art museums at the different stops along our journey.
One of the first stops on our itinerary was Atlanta. I’ve been there several times and I knew I wanted another visit to the High Museum. They have a great permanent collection and even though it was rainy and they were doing a bit of renovating, we still got to see a lot of great art while we were there. My art history specialty is Spanish art of the 19th century, but when I go to museums, I am often drawn toward Modernism and more contemporary art. My husband prefers modern art, so it’s a great space for us to explore together.
This painting by Mark Rothko was hung on a wall as you come around the corner into the gallery. I have visited the High a few times before and I’m certain that I had seen No. 73 before. However, this particular time, the painting struck me in a fresh and intense way. Although I won’t dismiss the possibility of tiredness as a factor in my emotional response, we had already driven hundreds of miles at this point, I think more of the reason was the combination of color, line, and composition in the painting. The choice of color palette was superb. The shades of orange blend so nicely and the bars of deep red and bright yellow seem to jump out of the canvas. I stood in front of this piece for a good while. It was so lovely to not feel rushed and really examine the painting from different perspectives. It was a moving experience, and I’m so thankful for the beauty of color.
Nearby, in the same gallery space, were a couple of works by Radcliffe Bailey.
His works are mixed media, and they offered perspective on the subject of racial inequality and the collective memory of African Americans. His work Destination Unknown, pictured above, reminds me of a painting by JMW Turner called Slave Ship, pictured below.
Although Bailey’s depiction of a similar subject matter is definitely more overt, both artists are choosing to illuminate the injustice of the slavery of Africans in the West.
I am definitely a self-identified over thinker, and one of the things I love about art is that it can often bring connections between my head and my heart. For me, it is pretty easy to slip into an intellectual relationship with God. It’s much easier for me to cultivate my knowledge about God than it is to develop and sustain both a mental and emotional connection to my Creator. So often, even if I know something to be true about God (His goodness, grace, or power, just to use a few examples), it can be difficult to connect my head’s knowledge with my heart’s belief and faith. After years of in-depth Bible study, which of course is a very good thing, feelings of anxiousness, worry, and a desire to control still permeate my daily life.
However, when I look back at these beautiful and thought-provoking works of art, both my mind and my spirit are reminded of how God truly is beautiful, merciful, and all-loving. It is refreshing to my heart to rekindle the faith I know so well in my mind.
Both kinds of art that I saw, the purist beauty of Modernism and the intense representations about the experiences and perspectives of marginalized people, encourage connectivity between the head and the heart. This connection, in a way, is what Madeleine L’Engle describes as “wholeness” in her book, Walking on Water.
“By his wounds we are healed. But they are our wounds, too, and until we have healed we do not know what wholeness is. The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort toward wholeness…
To trust, to be truly whole, is also to let go whatever we may consider our qualifications.”
Creative expression can be a part of the process of living in wholeness. Both the act of creating and sharing the product of creativity with others, are exercises in vulnerability, courage, and joy. The arts — painting, writing, singing, etc. — offer us ways to express and process our own experiences, and by sharing our work, we can often find commonality with others. The arts bring connection, clarity, and community.