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INSPIRING WORK THAT CARES FOR CULTURE
Culture Care Newsletter
July 2016
 
A Note from the Editor
I'm writing this introduction on a train; right now we're riding through Brattleboro, Vermont. I'm on the way home from a few days at OQ Farm, where I've been talking about creativity, filmmaking, criticism, and art with a number of interesting people (including our own Mako Fujimura!). We listened to good music, ate and drank under a big tent on top of a hill, watched the alpacas on the hill below chill all day, and talked and dreamed about the future.
 
Being at OQ—which is nestled into the greenest of valleys—reminded me of something remarkable: that dislocating yourself from your usual environment can prompt all kinds of creative thought. My usual environment is hardly devoid of green: I spend all summer working on my patio surrounded by pots of vegetables and greenery that I grow out there, and most days I run through idyllic Prospect Park as well. 
 
But rolling hills covered in trees are something a bit different, and in the process I feel my brain dislodged from its normal patterns and set on slightly different tracks. I have new ideas and see old problems differently.
 
The good news is that you don't have to take a seven-hour train ride to Vermont (past dairy farms, by the way—I must have just passed a herd of fifty Jerseys) to experience that creative disruption. Sometimes just a walk around the block suffices, or a ramble over to a part of town you haven't been in lately. It's remarkable that our brains work this way. It's what summer is made for.

-Alissa Wilkinson
“Increased artisanship has contributed to identity politics being used as a shorthand for a film’s quality. This is why critics feel comfortable dismissing “Free State of Jones” for its failure to acknowledge its own “white privilege” and for treating “races as equal victims of the class war” and for its “white savior narrative” and for being the “tale of a white man co-opting a primarily black struggle.” Is “The Shallows” a bad movie because it is just about “another white lady in jeopardy”? Or is it a good movie because “she’s given agency to fight back” and is therefore less misogynistic than “The Birds”?

These are the questions that relentless artisanship forces us to ask. They’re questions of ideology rather than aesthetics, questions of how the world should be portrayed rather than the skill with which it is portrayed. They’re questions that endorse a sort of mindless need to take sides and presage the death of art as an experience to savor and sift through.”


-- Sonny Bunch in “Partisanship and tribalism are ruining our conversations about art,” The Washington Post, 30 June 2016
 
A Note from Mako Fujimura
The recent exhibit and the book release of Silence and Beauty at the exquisite Waterfall Mansion was one of the most uplifting experience of my career. I told many folks that it felt magical to walk into a major venue of visual art in which the values and operations of the gallery reflected fully the values of Culture Care. The owner Kate Shin and their director of communications David Chang, along with their staff, gather to pray every Wednesday morning to dedicate their efforts to God. And both the beauty of the space (I am so glad I executed the 7’ x 22’ painting of Silence and Beauty in Pasadena!) and their networking abilities in the New York art world impressed us. The exhibit was covered by the Wall Street Journal and garnered many collector's interests.
 
Waterfall Mansion is a culmination of years of prayers for cultural production at the highest levels possible and for injecting a sense of hope and shalom in the heart of the art world. We have prayed for such an integrated place to come along; Waterfall Mansion is that answer to our prayers.
 
Not only is Waterfall a exquisite venue in which to exhibit, but it is also a gathering place. There's a two-hour prayer meeting in the space every Wednesday morning beginning at 8:00am. It is a great venue for the Brehm Center to hold classes, or for concerts to be held. This is a "church" operating without the institutional walls. It is a place where celebrities and young artists feel safe. In fact, a weekend before my exhibit opened, Katy Perry held her photo shoot in the space. Many celebrities, UN officials (the Ambassador to Japan came to my opening), and other powerful influencers flock to the space. And yet, what is most remarkable about Waterfall is that all who enter feel connected to something greater, to ponder a new possibility. Yes, it is most “generative” space.
 
Even though my exhibit will be over by the time you read this, please do stop in to see the next exhibit if you're in New York City. They are open every Saturday to the public. And you will discover, as I did, a magical space full of art and ministry.
 
Check out our interview with Waterfall Mansion in last month's Culture Care Newsletter.
 
I also recently presented at the Newbigin House of Studies in San Francisco, where my former pastor of The Village Church, Scot Sherman, is now the director. He interviewed me on Silence and Beauty, and it was the best interview I’ve given on the subject. You can listen to it here.
 
A new season is drawing in our journey of faith and the arts. Thank you for your journey with us toward "the still point" integration!
“I only began watching The X-Files this year, over twenty years late, and at first, it was out of curiosity. But now, as I enter the fourth season, I watch because I’m more interested in the parallels between faith and conspiracy. Perhaps faith is its own kind of conspiracy, not unlike the near-religious fervor with which Mulder approaches unexplained mysteries and conspiracies — a conspiracy that urges believers to look beyond the truth of the everyday and open themselves up to the broader possibilities of an eternal struggle between good and evil.”

-- Sarah Galo in “Conspiracies of Faith: On Truth, Religion, and The X-Files,The Toast, 28 June 2016
 
Culture Care Spotlight
Each month, we highlight a person or organization who is working toward culture care in their own context. This month, we're highlighting Tribute to the Emanuel Nine: A Portrait Project, and we asked painter Catherine Prescott to explain the project and offer thoughts on how art can help us mourn and heal.
Catherine Prescott
The Honorable Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney
Oil on canvas
20"x16", 2016
Tell us about the project’s goals.
 
The project is called Tribute to the Emanuel Nine: A Portrait Project and was conceived by New Jersey painter Lauren Tilden in response to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shootings. On June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old white supremacist, Dylann Roof, walked into the church carrying a concealed firearm and asked for the pastor, Clementa Pinckney, who was in the Fellowship Hall leading a Bible study. The twelve participants, ranging in age from ll to 87, invited Roof to join them, and after an hour of making increasingly argumentative and offensive racist remarks, Roof shot and killed nine of them, including Reverend Pinckney. Roof said that he wanted to start a race war. Several relatives of the victims went to Roof’s arraignment and spoke words of forgiveness to him days after it happened.
 
Lauren said that she had long felt frustrated that her work never reached or helped the general public and after hearing about what happened in Charleston she wanted to give a gift of a portrait, knowing that Christ calls us to “mourn with those who mourn.” She contacted fellow painters Terry Strickland and Judy Takacs and asked Principle Gallery Charleston if they would participate. All were enthusiastic. Together they chose six more painters—Ricky Mujica, Mario Andres Robinson, Paul McCormack, Gregory Mortenson, Stephanie Deshpande and myself—and began the project by contacting the bereaved through the church. Many wonderful stories have come from those contacts, and Lauren has said, “While I was trying to give a gift, I felt like I was receiving a gift, which is usually how those things go.”

How do you envision this work being part of culture care?
 
In her statement for the catalog, Lauren wrote, “Through this gift we hope to bring a small measure of comfort to our brothers and sisters who have lost so much. As Frederick Douglass famously wrote, ‘Truth is of no color, God is Father of us all, and we are all brethren.’” In his book Lament for a Son, Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote about ways people offered comfort after his son was killed in a climbing accident. Many reached out to him and his family, but after such a loss some of it was helpful and some not. He said that often what he most wanted was simply for people to come sit on his mourning bench with him. I think it is so hard to know how to do something for people, especially if we don’t even know them. Lauren’s way of going about it, her humility and her steady way of keeping the goal of the project out in front, her care for all of us, the artists, as well as for the members and leaders at this grief-stricken church in chaos, was consistent.
 
Psalm 56, which David wrote when the Philistines seized him in Gath, is a desperate expression of fear, but simultaneously of firm trust in God. He writes in verse 8 that “God has kept count of my tossings,” and, in a wonderful translation by Dutch art historian Calvin Seerveld that “God keeps my tears in a bottle.” The idea that these manifestations of our troubles are being counted and kept, is enough to tell us how we are loved—not how much we are loved, but the kind of love it is. God cares about our suffering. In the same way, I think our knowing that people have tossings and tears—just that—must be related to our own culture care, even if we can’t do something about it. Even God doesn’t just automatically fix things or give us what we want. He is Emmanuel, God with us: God on our mourning bench with us. That is where Lauren started and ended the project.
 
One of Emanuel's ministerial staff looking at Prescott's work
What role can art play in healing trauma and tragedy?
 
I think the most awful feeling is that of being alone, and only Scripture can teach us fully and convincingly that we truly are not alone. But art can be expressive and personal and full of feelings; it can point us to new ways to understand our own longings, and offer us something outside of ourselves. Insofar as it does this well it may be able to help people, the viewers of the work, to know they are not alone. If art is to do this it needs to be the opposite of what social media teaches us. Social media suggests to us that we are left behind, that the world is passing us by, that everyone else is having fun and being brilliant and on the cutting edge, with pictures to prove it, and we have to drum up something new to boost our selfness. We become inventive about things that don’t need to be invented if we are actually known. We scheme about how to be liked. It’s pretty much about being alone.
 
I can’t speak about all the other kinds of art but I can say what I saw in this project: I think commemorative portraits can offer the sense that someone was known. They require a lot of skill and devotion in getting a very good likeness and a convincing presence of the person on an emotional level. The emotional content comes from the way it is painted: the background and all the colors, the way the skin is painted, the expression on the face, the brushwork, the clothes chosen, the details that were noted from the photographs, and those that were left out, all have to indicate that the artist was looking for something, seeking a connection to the person no longer here: not to suggest they are still alive, but that they mattered and have a place in the world, still, and always will.
 
In the context of Principle Gallery Charleston’s beautiful hanging of the nine works, the church members and the families seemed to receive that idea, that their loved ones were being not just remembered or even honored but that they were specific, loved individuals and that we were all connected to each other. People said to me that they could see in the painting that I understood who Clementa Pinckney was to them, how special he was, and it’s because he became special to me. In the act of painting I had come to know him.
 
So making is knowing, which sounds like Genesis 1. And all of the artists had a similar experience. Insofar as a painting can convince us that the subject is known and therefore loved, then perhaps we can see that we are not alone. That’s how art can become culture care.
The packed-out gallery, with director Frank Russen introducing the artists and TV film crew lights on Lauren Tilden
What’s your advice for other artists who want to care for culture as well?
 
There have been many other gifts and tributes for the Emanuel Nine; there were even other groups of artists that gave art: a quilt about the victims’ lives was made by a large group of people; there were at least two other groups of portraits; large contributions of money came in; and there were special events, special visitors, and concerts.
 
Dr. Maxine Smith, a consultant in public relations and communications who came to work at Emanuel last June to help with all the chaos that first year, told me that the church had been much more receptive to our project than to any other. What made the difference, she said, was that Lauren started with the families. She asked them what they wanted, what they would be able to do to make this happen, how they felt about it. And she put each artist in touch with the families. Because of the relationships that were formed, the reception had the feel of a reunion. The families and the artists were equal partners. There weren’t any haves or have-nots.
 
As a consequence, the gallery reception was packed out and unlike most openings, the people spent time looking at the portraits, reading the wall texts, talking with the artists. And they kept coming for hours.
 
The artists had talked together quite a bit during the time we were working on the paintings. We worked together as a team and were united in our purpose. For nearly a year Lauren kept group emails going at least weekly to keep us informed and in touch with each other, with her, and with the gallery and was tireless in connecting the artists with the families. We knew that we had comrades in how emotional it was to work on the portraits. Some started over on their paintings because they weren’t satisfied. One artist didn’t come because he knew he would be too tearful. I watched videos of Clementa Pinckney, over and over, to learn how he thought and how he looked when he was speaking. He was a state senator as well as a pastor, and a brilliant speaker.
 
Of course this isn’t advice to feel really badly and cry a lot. Nobody should try to manufacture such a connection. But getting to know the families, and learning as much as we could about the victims and how much they were loved and respected, made all the difference. There was not an ounce of commercial benefit for any of us including the gallery. It was an honor to paint these portraits; we all started with that sense. If I were to pick one noun to sum up the effect it had on us it would be humiliation. We were humbled. However temporary it is to be emptied of arrogance and self-righteousness and the motivations of guilt and responsibility, it is extremely precious to be humbled.

Check out the Tribute to the Emanuel Nine project online. 
You can read more about the project in this interview with Kate Austin.
 
Links
Poking at Politics, Without a Stick, on Big and Small Screens” by A.O. Scott, The New York Times, 30 June 2016
Scott—co-chief film critic at the NYT--writes about the difficult of finding actual political critique or exploration in a landscape flooded with ostensibly political art. Art is not merely a tool for exploring or explaining art, but it's certainly a way to think about our lives together—including our politics.
 
Bill Cunningham Saw Us All” by Hilton Als, The New Yorker, 26 June 2016
Bill Cunningham—long running street and high fashion photographer at the NYT and a beloved figure of both couture-hounds and regular citizens alike—recently passed away and was remembered fondly in many venues. Here, Als remembers his legacy of seeing everyone, not just those that are usually noticed. If you're interested in Cunningham, be sure to check out the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York.
Header image courtesy of a pizza box
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