So when Brett Mabury, the Worship Arts Pastor at Journey Church here in Franklin, Tn, approached me about painting something live for an Advent service coming up, I immediately was intrigued, but frightened. It's that feeling when you see a large spider: fascination with a healthy dose of horror! (Or at least, when I see a large spider). Eventually, my intrigue spoke the loudest and I accepted his invitation along with three other artists who would each take a Sunday in Advent and create a piece around the theme for that week. I took the fourth week and my theme was LOVE.
O my goodness, you say! How does one tackle the theme of LOVE during advent?? Or any time of year for that matter? I'm still not sure how to answer that question, but as I began to think about it and prepare, I knew the way that love had always touched me deeply WAS the Advent story. "Word becoming flesh" was the ultimate act of love in ways that I was just beginning to understand. I started by building my panel. I have a woodshop in my garage and I like to paint on wood rather than canvas. So, I build all my panels. Once construction was completed, I began to think about content. I primarily paint the human figure, so I had some idea that this painting would be no different.
As I began to think about LOVE and how that has shaped my identity, it became clear that this would be a layered piece. I wanted to include my broken parts in this piece somehow, since LOVE accepts all truth about me, even the darker parts. Jesus was inviting me to include everything.... that has become such a huge part of love in my experience.
After doing some research, I came to find out that the Boswellia Sacra tree had some rich symbolism behind it. It is a somewhat rare tree that grows in obscure parts of the world under extremely harsh conditions. It can thrive in rocky, nutrient poor soil. It can endure turbulent winds, heavy downpours and arid climates. This tree is best known for its aromatic extracts. The sap that is tapped from it is what makes our beloved Frankincense. The tree has to be "wounded" to be tapped and it has to be tapped 8-9 times before it produces sap that can be used for the highly sought after incense. These trees are currently endangered. So, you can see why its symbolic meaning is faithfulness. This is how I wanted to begin my painting. I applied a collage layer that incorporated images of the Boswellia Sacra tree branches. Some images had whole branches while others were broken. My inability to be faithful is swallowed up by the ability of the incarnate Christ to be faithful completely.
Next, I applied layers of oil paints, letting it drip where it may. Then, I began to write all over it. The phrase, Word Becoming Flesh made its way on the surface. That phrase has been so significant for me as the dichotomy of the sacred and secular starts to break down. When heaven kissed earth in the form of Jesus, everything changed. When Christ declared that He would live at home in our fleshly bodies, the way we relate to our physical world changed. As we walk around, clothed in flesh, we carry the aroma of Christ in every place we inhabit, whether we know it or not. We carry LOVE in our bodies. It hides under our fingernails and behind our kneecaps. It fires with our brain synapses and lives in the marrow of our bones. I wrote the lyrics to a song by Florence and the Machine that captures where love lives and what it feels like in our flesh. She writes,
"There is love in your body but you can't hold it in
It pours from your eyes and spills from your skin
Tenderest touch leaves the darkest of marks
And the kindest of kisses break the hardest of hearts
There is love in your body but you can't get it out
It gets stuck in your head, won't come out of your mouth
Sticks to your tongue and shows on your face
That the sweetest of words have the bitterest taste"
I then sketched the figures onto the panel. When we have conversations, this is what I see when I talk to Jesus in my imagination. This face. These eyes. Sometimes, they are more gold, like that of the Revelation Jesus with his eyes of fire. (If you look closely at the finished painting, you'll see some gold in His eyes). The other figure is my daughter Ellie. At first, I thought this was going to be a self-portrait, and in many ways, it is. I decided to use Ellie in it because I see so much of Jesus in her and around her. I hope this painting will help her to see it in herself. This is the painting as it was when I brought it with me to church for that fourth Sunday in Advent. I painted the duration of the two services, with a break in between the two services.
This is the painting as it was at the end of the second service. When I paint, I am used to painting in layers. Many, many layers. And letting each layer dry before I lay another. This was a very different process for me, since I didn't have the luxury of waiting for the paint to dry. I honestly didn't know how well it was going to work. It helped that I didn't have the pressure of needing to complete the painting by the end of the day. I took it home with me completed it later.
This is the finished piece, "Word Became Flesh." You'll notice that the figures are disproportionate. Figures that recede to the back round usually become smaller and the figures in the foreground are larger. I wanted to skew this. Underneath these figures lies the truth of broken, darker places. Those are still present, but Christ is THE defining truth about His beloved. He, His Presence, His aroma become our defining characteristics. So, though we carry light and dark, His LOVE takes more space around us, thus the redemptive disproportion. He never asks us to lose ourselves as we come to Him. It's actually quite the opposite. It is the Incarnate Jesus in which we find ourselves and our true identity. We learn ways in which we've been estranged from ourselves and each other and we come more in touch with who we were wired to be.
I finished with a thought that is written just above the left figure. It says, "Courage: The ability to receive what is true about God and myself." I believe all these descriptions that I have given you to be true, but I don't always have the courage to allow it to play out. I shrink back. I'm afraid that it somehow can't be true or that I've sabotaged this beautiful truth in some way. My desire is to walk into the kind of courage that knows with some secret knowledge in the depths where Jesus converges with my deep soul place that this is ultimately the best truth I have about God, myself and the universe. And it is abundant in its gifts.
This experience turned out to be such a beautiful one for me. After feeling some trepidation on the front end (my history as a female artist in the church has been a turbulent one and I had never done something like this before), I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed the process and felt a sense of safety and acceptance as an artist within the church walls. (That was a big deal for me). Anticipating my preoccupation about how I might be received, I expected to be distracted, but as the music swelled, I was drawn upward, toward worship and all of my anxieties really did dissipate and it was a truly magical experience of worship. I'm grateful for the opportunity. I would like to make prints of this painting available and offer a percentage of the proceeds to go toward the Journey Church building fund. If you would like a print, please message me for details.