Where to Hang Your Grief

Ross Laycock MemoryMy daughters Lydia and Becca, ages 12 and 10, are thoroughly delighted by the contemporary art collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum. They hurry to the Warhol soup cans and Lichtenstein comics they recognize from art class, a large sculpture made entirely of clear plastic buttons, and plenty of outrageously “simple” pieces they insist they can paint themselves and henceforth make millions of dollars.

During our last visit this December, however, we encountered a work we’d never seen. On the floor sat a large stack of sheets approximately two by three feet in size. Terrified that my kids would touch the art, I half-dove in front of them as a bodyguard of sorts. Then a ponytailed security woman stepped over.

“You may take one if you like,” she said.

I stared at her for a moment. “Like, to keep?”

“Yes. That’s what this art is for.”

Still only partly believing her, my girls and I each lifted a sheet printed with gray scale light seeping through clouds and a small silhouette of a flying bird. [Read more...]

A Metaphorical God, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Thomas-Aquinas-Black-largeIn some ways, “mystery” is perhaps the boldest term we chose as a subtitle for Image, the one most out of touch with our times. It is true that secular artists and writers regularly speak of navigating uncertainties and ambiguities. But in their embrace of post-Enlightenment thought, they tacitly accept various determinisms that attempt to explain reality with reference to biology, psychology, sociology, or any of the modernist replacements for ultimate reality. Most secular writers and artists simply live with the contradiction. Though there occasionally arise writers like David Foster Wallace who are more open and anguished about these conflicts, evasion and complacency remain the norm.

At the same time, it is no exaggeration to say that much of the contemporary hostility toward mystery comes from those who enthusiastically embrace religion. The relentless literalism and pragmatism of the fundamentalist stem from a fear of mystery, of the ambiguity of Holy Saturday. In the decades since Image was founded, many believers have awakened to the limitations of politics and polemics and embraced the need to make culture, not war. But there is still a long way to go.

In the preface to Intruding Upon the Timeless, my first collection of Image essays, I focused largely on one aspect of the journal’s mission: the ambition to prove that the encounter between art and faith was far from over, that it continued in our own time and all over the globe. That desire to find a place at the table in the larger cultural conversation was, indeed, central to the founding of the journal. The goal was not to engage secularism and fundamentalism in a new culture war, but to demonstrate that an ancient and still vital alternative tradition remains worthy of engagement. [Read more...]

A Metaphorical God, Part 1

St-thomas-aquinasThe following is adapted from the preface to The Operation of Grace: Further Essays on Art, Faith, and Mystery.

My God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all that thou sayest? but thou art also…a figurative, a metaphorical God too; a God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings, such curtains of allegories, such third heavens of hyperboles, so harmonious elocutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding persuasions, so persuading commandments, such sinews even in thy milk, and such things in thy words, as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou art the Dove that flies.—John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

The essays gathered in The Operation of Grace: Further Essays on Art, Faith, and Mystery were originally published as editorial statements, each beginning an issue of Image. They seek to explore the trinity of terms we’ve set forth in the journal’s subtitle, “art, faith, mystery.” Whether these words strike you as intriguing or pretentious may depend on your personal tastes, but anyone proposing them for consideration ought to have an explanation or two handy for the curious. [Read more...]

The Rothko Chapel: The Dark Before the Dawn

By Rebecca A. Spears

Rothko_Chapel_ExteriorThe few years I lived in Houston’s Menil neighborhood, right behind the University of St. Thomas, I felt like I’d been invited to live in a sacred garden, a nearly prelapsarian environment.

It is a beautiful space, near the art museum known as the Menil Collection and its park, and bordered by several streets of Craftsman-style houses.

Yet while I lived in my “Menil house,” I was forced to learn more about darkness and my faith and how it might endure. Both my daughters, in their early twenties, were in trouble. They’d become entangled in bad relationships with jealous, controlling men. They’d begun abusing drugs.

During that time, I saw my daughters less and less; they seemed to be disappearing right before my eyes. I’d invite them to the house every couple of weeks or try to meet with one or both of them for coffee. Often they’d say yes, only to cancel at the last minute or forget to show up. Or when they did show up, they’d arrive with their drugged, unpredictable partners.

On a positive note, my friends loved my new space and were happy to stop by or spend the whole day with me there. In the fall, we could walk to the Greek or Italian festivals. Or we’d visit the Menil Collection or just sit on my front porch, enjoying the view—the park, the massive live oaks, and directly across the street, the Rothko Chapel. [Read more...]

While My Pen Gently Weeps

6742625959_af858306f8_mMy daughter Gracie was helping me prepare dinner one evening. We were doing the bœuf bourguignon from Virginia Willis’s amazing cookbook Bon Appetit, Y’all, which puts a southern spin on every recipe—this one, by adding bacon.

As Gracie stood on her cooking stool and crisped the bacon at the stovetop, the aroma filled the kitchen and mixed with the onions I was cutting at the counter. She talked over the bacon’s hiss and sizzle about being a chef someday, quitting cross country, girls at school she liked and didn’t like, boys.

I drifted as she chattered, but snapped back to attention when she said, “And if you’re going to be a writer—”

“I am a writer,” I cut in. I wasn’t sure how we’d come to this. [Read more...]


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