Several years ago, I hung an exhibit of art by John August Swanson in the Leep Gallery at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During the exhibit, I talked to Rev. Karl Van Harn, the director of pastoral services at Pine Rest, about how he was using Swanson’s art as part of his pastoral ministry. He said with surprise that the most helpful thing about using art in pastoral therapy is that it is never right or wrong. It meets us, the viewers, right where we are.
This may be one of art’s most obvious yet unique qualities. It is created by the artist and then set free into the world where we, the viewers, encounter it. It becomes a springboard for our emotions, a mirror for our joys and our sorrows. This is where art can exert its therapeutic power to illuminate, educate, and transform.
A Broken Beauty Made Whole by God
It is within this encounter that art helps us see ourselves in new ways. This is where art can lead us to a new kind of beauty—a broken form of beauty that can enable us to make sense of our human condition and help us understand the hopes and struggles in our lives. Art can shine a light on the beauty of Christ’s life-changing sacrifice and can illuminate how God transforms the shattered pieces of our lives, making us whole again through his forgiving grace and unconditional love.
The artist Bruce Herman (www.BruceHerman.com), a painter and professor from Gordon College, inspired an exhibit and book called A Broken Beauty (Theodore L. Prescott, ed., Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2005). In the book’s introduction Herman writes how artists seek “to bear witness to the surprising beauty found in moments of suffering or loss or brokenness” (page X). A Broken Beauty explores how art becomes an empathetic witness to the commingling of beauty and brokenness in human life. It shows how art can help us reach to “the light of God’s glory.”
Making Art, Making Meaning
Herman believes that in the act of making art the artist echoes the divine Maker. In his essay “Seeking Real Presence in Painting,” Herman writes, “In the first chapters of Genesis we learn that God is a creator, a maker of things. . . . Being made in God’s image we are restless until we ourselves make things. . . . My own strong desire to make art derives from my observations of the beauty and mystery of the world around me. . . . My heart beats faster. Imagination begins to tremble, and the hunger for making meaning begins yet again.”
It is this “hunger for making meaning” that drives the artist. Andy Crouch, in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008), writes, “We make sense of the world by making something of the world. . . . Meaning and making go together—culture, you could say, is, the activity of making meaning” (24). Made in God’s image, the artist is called to engage in what Dorothy Sayers calls “acts of co-creation,” joining God in creative kingdom building.
Making Art, Looking for Hope
In his seminal essay “The Body Broken,” Bruce Herman says, “Making art is like looking for hope. Like a man living on a desert island sending a message in a bottle out to see if anyone is looking or listening for him.” We are invited by the artist to search for the meaning and beauty found in art. The artist’s creations rise out of the earthly quagmire of our lives to reflect our hopes, our fears, and our faith. In the process, art becomes part of the incarnational presence of God in our lives.
“The moment of our brokenness becomes the main meeting place not only of human touch but of divine touch as well,” writes Herman in “The Body, Beauty and Brokenness.” “The very thing attempted by the builders of Babel happens by grace instead of by human effort—a bridge between heaven and earth is established via the very thing we sought to avoid: our need, our weakness, and our dependence.” Herman humbly states, “This is how I want to be known, as a broken man whose work reveals hope and grace—grace from a loving God who himself has been broken.”
Kintsugi: The Broken Made Whole
The Japanese have an ancient art called kintsugi that repairs broken pottery with seams of gold (see above). The word kintsugi means “to repair with gold,” and the repair work is done using a lacquer sprinkled with gold. Within the vision of the Japanese aesthetic, the pottery is then seen as being more beautiful for having been broken and then made whole again.
The theology of A Broken Beauty is similar. Our lives are splintered by sin. Through the gold of God’s grace our broken lives are put back together and made whole. This is made possible through Christ, who was broken on the cross, resurrected, and sitting at God’s right hand becomes the ultimate symbol of beauty. Our lives become more beautiful for having first been broken and then made whole through the saving power of Jesus’ love.
A Broken Beauty and Its Artists
The art historian Gordon Fuglie, in his essay “A Broken Beauty and Its Artists” in the book A Broken Beauty, invites viewers to consider “the body’s capacity for beauty despite its brokenness, in the midst of its brokenness, and ironically, because of its brokenness” (79). The result can be an “upending of our conventional idealizations of beauty,” replacing them with a new sense of real beauty grounded in the struggles of life, helping us to find healing and hope, fashioned as we are in God’s image, saved as we are by God’s grace.
Fuglie insightfully observes there has been “a blossoming of figurative, narrative, and religious-themed art that is derived from the Bible, examines the broad Judeo-Christian legacy, and utilizes narrative from contemporary life that relates to Scripture” (78). Bruce Herman’s painting Annunciation (p. 32), part of his Body Broken series, is a wonderful example of this. See more inspiring examples at www.BruceHerman.com.
The painter Wayne Forte (www.WayneForte.com) uses the human figure as he explores the stories of the Old and New Testaments. One of his favorite themes is a single figure painted with a set of wings made out of the wounded hands of Christ (p. 33). The image is accompanied by words that have become Forte’s motto: “His Wounds, My Wings.” The wounded hands of a broken Christ are transformed into the wings of hope that lift us up to be made whole by God’s grace.
The human figure is also the central theme in the art of Sergio Gomez p. 34, (www.SergioGomezOnline.com). However, Gomez’s figures exist in condensed fields of color and texture that often resemble natural forms and are depicted as a shadow, an aura, or an energy light. In his artist statement Gomez states, “I am interested in the human and spiritual experience throughout the cycles of life.” His artwork is about the presence of the spirit that fills and transforms our lives, and his figures become a universal representation of us all within the cycles of our own lives.
Communion: Celebrating a Broken Body
The act of communion becomes a celebration of both our broken bodies and the broken body of Christ, each made whole by God. In his painting Communion—Remember Me, Forte juxtaposes the broken body of Christ with the crown of thorns and the nails from his crucifixion. He overlaps this with the bread and wine of the eucharist. Together they become a visual testament to the broken Christ made whole—an artistic commemoration of our living encounter with God.
In the Gomez painting The Last Supper (p. 34), we are presented with the figures of Jesus and his disciples as pure energy. Jesus is the light, the central source of all power. This unconventional depiction of the Last Supper vividly illustrates how an energized, artistic expression can lift us up to celebrate a transformative encounter with the real and living God. In his art, Gomez mediates a vision of hope and beauty that points us to the love of the One who makes us whole.
James Quentin Young embodies the aesthetic of A Broken Beauty in the collaged crosses he builds from the fragmented parts and pieces of life (see above). He creatively transforms them into beautiful symbols of Christ’s sacrifice. The broken is made both whole and beautiful. Young’s collaged crosses become earthly signs pointing the way, showing how our brokenness becomes the ladder that lifts us “to the light of God’s glory.”
When art is created through eyes of faith it can give us wings of hope to rise beyond the past and present toward a future—a future where our salvation lies in embracing our weakness, where our brokenness is made whole by Christ, and where we are lifted by God’s promise to make everything new again. It is then we can begin to imagine and work toward God’s vision for our lives and join God in helping “co-create” God’s kingdom here on earth.