Artist interview

Where Are You?

In October, I invited artists in the area to an Art and Soul Challenge:

The first question God asks of man in the Bible is found in Genesis. He asks, "Where are you?" For this Art and Soul Challenge, I invite you to consider how you would answer this question right now, and how you could depict your answer visually. Use any medium you like, as long as your piece arrives to me ready to hang.

I was reading Trevor Hudson's Questions God Asks Us and it felt like an invitation to walk with God. I thought that a group show would be more effective than a solo show because a variety of answers, methods and viewpoints might make it more likely that a viewer would feel drawn into the conversation. I wanted people to go home thinking about how they might answer God's question themselves.  

The show was up October 20th to December 1st. It was such an interesting mix of new and practiced artists.

I want to share two emails (of many) I received from participating artists because they illustrate what I consider to be the goal of art in the church. I reprint them here with permission. The first email is from DN, a practiced artist, who I am just getting to know and love:

I had fun and it did open some things for me. I "got" the picture in my head.  Hiding in the Garden of Eden....The cross....No longer needing to hide.  But my plan was to put little bandaids or black strips across my figure in several places to symbolize that there are things that I take back, things that I still try to hide from God.  Sins.  But when I put them on the figure, they marred it. The truth was that in my eyes I am marred but in God's eyes he sees me whole and beautiful, His bride.  I made the figure out of paper I marbled.  When I looked at the finished figure, I saw a person full of this gorgeous and flowing creativity and, for the first time, I felt like I saw myself as God saw me and as how He designed/created me.  I saw myself dancing, worshipping.  When God asks, "Where are you?" I heard myself answer.  "I am here Lord.  Speak -- for your servant is listening." This ended up being a profound experience for me.

This second email is from a new artist, MS, who wrote up her experience with this process. Her honesty and vulnerability touch me:

I paint watercolors. Most people don’t know that about me. Well, technically I try to paint watercolors. I dream of painting, but it is a struggle for me. I know many people who are so talented and can lay down these beautiful strokes of a brush with fabulous hues and create these amazing paintings. I find it crazy stressful! Staring at a quarter sheet of 140lb Arches paper, better known as a thick piece of 15x22 paper, can bring such fear. The wonderful lady I have taken some classes from says to herself each time she starts, ‘Going in.’ I tend to think, ‘Oh crap, time to start.’

For me, painting brings up a mix of emotions. I love part of it and hate part of it. I love the colors and interaction of the paint when it hits the paper--how it can swirl and create these patterns that are amazing. The outcome will be different if you put it down on a dry sheet of paper or if you get the sheet wet first. But the imaginative things I see in my head die a quick and sudden death when I try to put them on paper. My brain and my hand are definitely not creatively attached. Heaven forbid I actually do paint a section I like because then I am frozen thinking at any moment I could do something that will ruin the little bit of good I have done. I don’t finish many paintings. I can’t get past the roadblocks in my head.

Life can be kind of like that though. Some of us struggle day after day, trying to do what is right and often failing. But every once in a while, we have a moment where everything comes together. What follows is the fear that our next step could undo all the positive we have done.

Recently, I was included in an email that went out asking people if they wanted to contribute to an art display we were going to have here at the church. We were to answer the question, ‘Where are you?’ in response to God asking that of Adam and Eve in the garden. Where are you right now and how would you depict your answer visually? Better yet, how on earth had I got on that email list?! It had to be a mistake. Well- turns out it wasn’t. After much tossing and turning and turmoil I decided to try. I only told one other person who also paints. That way if I chickened out, only she would know.

Fail, fail, fail. I tried going with the idea that I am still trying to find my wings. I tried a little hummingbird and a dragonfly but I just got stuck. I even tried a little koi fish thinking I could go with a fish out of water theme. Kinda fitting, right? Fail again. That little voice in my head that always says "you are not good enough" was throwing a party. As the days drew closer, I had already decided to quit about 20 times. How could I turn something in when I was so terrible at it? No one would want to see it. Trust me on that one.

A couple days before I needed to turn it in, I was chatting with a friend. We were laughing about how great it is that God isn’t finished with us. We are a work in progress.  Then it clicked. My paintings are like me. Unfinished. So I closed my eyes and turned in all three that I had struggled with.

Unfinished
By Melissa Skeels
Watercolor
'I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.’ Philippians 1:6 NRSV
I am a beautiful work of art in process by God’s grace as He continues to add to my palette with new hues of color while softening my edges, adjusting my perspective, and allowing me to take shape.

It was done, I was done, and I was never going to go through all that ‘turning in a painting’ stress again. Oh- and to make it even better, everyone else’s that were now hanging in the church were these beautiful paintings.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. Today I received an email, “Hi Melissa— your hummingbird blessed my friend today. She talked about going to an aviary in Arizona where hummingbirds fly freely. She plans to go there this week as a treat to remind her about God’s love. We talked about it in the hallway. Then when she was leaving she noticed your bird and said, “isn’t God so good— here I was just talking about hummingbirds and here is a beautiful painting of one.” Thought you would like that and I was thinking...I would love to give your painting to her. Would you be willing to sell it? I know you talked about doing more to it but I think it is lovely just as it is.”

So yeah, that made my cry. My hours of struggle were used in some little way by God. I know that shouldn’t be surprising since God uses people all the time. But I work behind the scenes so I don’t usually get to see my involvement in it. But God is working in us and through us every day. Whether we notice it or feel it or even get to hear about it, He is still there. Shaping and molding. Best of all He promises to keep doing a good work in us until Jesus returns. Thank goodness, right?!

Yes, I plan to keep struggling and painting. Maybe one day it will start getting easier. But maybe it isn’t supposed to get easier. Maybe striving is the point.

Maybe. I think for me, engagement is the point, and I think all the artists who participated gave us that gift. Their willingness to engage their strengths and weaknesses, fears and faith, with God and people through art blessed them, blessed the congregation and blessed me. And, I'm pretty sure God was smiling too.

Broken Pieces: An Interview with Collage Artist Jo Reimer

I never liked collage. There is something terribly destructive about it, and for a long time all I could see in it was brokenness. It made me uncomfortable and sad. My experience with collage as a child was to rip up beautiful magazine pictures in order to create something mediocre. I was not a fan.

One day I realized that art quilting, my first love in art forms, was basically collage. I remember being stunned. At first I argued with myself, I was not destroying things of beauty to create mediocrity, I was redeeming cast off pieces and giving them new life. Surely intent mattered, didn't it? I began to study the history, various artist styles and forms of this medium. I could see it's benefit in trauma healing and in spiritual direction. Slowly, I have grown to appreciate all forms of collage.

One of my favorite people is an intriguing collage artist. Jo Reimer agreed to be interviewed here. 

Michelle: I know you have used several different mediums for expression over your career, what is it that you like about collage?

Jo Reimer: You’re right that I’ve used different mediums for expression beginning with the threaded needle and fiber to create clothing and home goods as well as wall hangings. These items included lots of applique and the vast array of surface design techniques. I’ve explored most ways of painting and I draw a lot, now mostly urban sketching. About 20 years ago, while involved in art journaling and book arts, I began using collage on the pages. It grew beyond my pages. I took it larger, finally settling on collage as my primary medium.  Collage is simply gluing paper to a surface to build up a composition and tell a story. My work is different from that of most other collage artists in that I work with papers that I’ve painted and textured using techniques I learned way back when I was working in surface design on fabric.

Collage is simply gluing paper to a surface. . . to tell a story
— Jo Reimer

M: I love how your work has, in a sense, come full circle in terms of the texturing of fabric and now papers. Would you say you have a visual language? Colors, shapes or symbols that are unique to your work? 

JR: Yes, I do have a visual language which I realized only recently as I was skimming over the hundreds of images I’ve pinned to my collage and paintings boards on Pinterest. I use geometric shapes to build my works… mostly squares and rectangles, with thick and thin lines, and the occasional circle, spot or dot. Those right angles come naturally to me, probably related to my experiences with patchwork and pattern. Try as I might to go organic, I can’t go there.  And color! Everything is colorful although most recently I’ve been loving working with neutrals. They’re so elegant. It’s hard for color to be elegant and I like elegance, and order, and control.  It shows.

M: Are there particular topics that you tend to revisit often? Why do you think that is?

  Hometown Girl  by Jo Reimer, 12 x 12 collage of painted papers and images on cradled panel.   JR: " The woman is my mother. 255 was my phone number when I was a child. The bridge is similar to one that terrified me when I was learning to drive because of the parallel boards on which one had to keep the wheels of the car. My dad loved to fish. After work he’d get one of us kids to go with him and row the boat while he fished. And the words, 'Jim had a nice birthday' refers to my brother. This piece is all about my family of origin."

Hometown Girl by Jo Reimer, 12 x 12 collage of painted papers and images on cradled panel.  JR: "The woman is my mother. 255 was my phone number when I was a child. The bridge is similar to one that terrified me when I was learning to drive because of the parallel boards on which one had to keep the wheels of the car. My dad loved to fish. After work he’d get one of us kids to go with him and row the boat while he fished. And the words, 'Jim had a nice birthday' refers to my brother. This piece is all about my family of origin."

JR: I visit and revisit the idea of home and family. To me it’s obvious why that is… it’s what I know and where my interests and love live.  From childhood I’ve drawn floorplans. As a six year old I played among the above-ground roots of a big oak tree, naming the spaces as rooms in a home and populated those rooms with stone “people.” My first paintings in high school home economics class were of a living room and a dining room.  I had 6 years of home economics in middle and high school and majored in home economics/clothing/textiles in college.  Home is where it’s at for me.

M: Isn't it interesting how little things from childhood carry though our entire lives? I know you like order and organizing, but your work is so "loose" and expressive. Can you let us into your process a little bit?

JR: Several times during the year I devote a couple of weeks to painting and decorating paper which is then sorted into bins according to color.  I also have boxes of many kinds and colors of papers torn from books and magazines or saved from the trash. I call these boxes “compost” because beauty grows from the combining and mixing of these otherwise useless papers.

When I come to my work table I stir and sort through my "compost" and choose a few papers that interest me for some reason. Sometimes I come to the table empty minded and let ideas form from interacting with the papers. Other times I have something definite in mind… a memory or an idea or simply a geometric composition that I’ve sketched in my studio journal.  I set out my glue pot, a few palette knives, a wet cloth to clean my fingers, and a support… and I begin. I audition the papers which will make the cut and be included in the first layers. I lay the papers in place, repositioning them until the composition is pleasing, and then begin the actual gluing process.  It’s messy and fun. The work changes and evolves over hours and days. Sometimes the collage is finished in just a few hours, but usually I return to the work again and again until it’s finished, adding inked lines and paint where needed.

M: How is your work impacted by your faith, and do you find the reverse to be true? How does art impact your faith?

The work changes and evolves over hours and days.
— Jo Reimer

JR: I’m a Christian who makes art but mostly I don’t make religious art, not the kind of religious art sold in a Christian bookstore.  Over several years I’ve made numerous works of art for my church, alter frontals, banners, replica textiles for a model of the original Tabernacle as well as Aaron’s garments.  I made a series of collage paintings/ illustrations of the sermons of my pastor, 10 of which are used in the children’s department. I completed 54 of these “Sermon Notes” before the series ended and I consider these works to be the best things I’ve made. Definitely my faith was impacted and was driven by the creating of this body of work; however, I feel that everything I do is an act of worship, simply because of who I am and in whom I believe.  I was created to be who I am, to be creative, to draw and paint and glue and make things, so of course my art is impacted by my faith and vice versa.  It’s who I am.

Thanks Jo!

Isn't she interesting? I've blogged about Jo's work before, you can find that article here.
Jo has a website: joreimer.com
And art blog: joreimer.blogspot.com, The title of her blog, One-A-Day, refers to her commitment to make one piece of art every day. The searchable blog contains lots of information on how she makes art.
Photos of her art can be viewed on Flickr.com at https://www.flickr.com/photos/ahmadojo/albums
For information about purchasing a painting contact her at joreimer@comcast.net.

Air and Water: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Alli Rogers

I have this friend.

She is fascinated by the ordinary. She inhabits the earth, the wind, the Real Things that we miss. She notices breath and notices clouds. She feels the tremors beneath our words. Because she embraces what is true, she elevates the ordinary. Her noticing makes it sacred and she invites us to see through her eyes, to feel through her heart.

I wanted to share her poet-soul with you. She said yes. Alli Rogers is visiting with us today, talking about writing and inspiration:

Alli Rogers

Michelle: Are there metaphors or symbols that are particularly meaningful to you that show up often in your work?

Alli Rogers: I am constantly writing about water. As a child growing up in Iowa, we spent a lot of time in the summer at my grandparents cabin near the Mississippi river. That was probably where my fascination with water began. It was just so mysterious and powerful. Why was the water moving so fast and where was it going? Why were the sandbars constantly changing? Why was my grandmother so scared of the current? I later became acquainted with the ocean and its overwhelming beauty that still calms and terrifies me all at once. Water represents a longing often in my writing, it remains for me an image of our journey through life, and it illustrates a unique take on the biblical truth of weakness being strength.

Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
— Tao Te Ching

I also tend to come back to the moon and stars in my writing. I find it interesting that these two things are sources of peace as well as fear for me. I suppose I write about that which confounds me, in my attempt to make sense of it, as well as to remember that God is God and I am not. The fact that there is so much out of my control or understanding is in fact proof that God exists, and the beauty of it all is  proof that He is good. That is how I see it. 

M: Can you let us into your process a little bit?

AR: My process has changed with different life seasons but a couple of principals have been good guideposts for me. First, the idea of working regardless of inspiration has been something I come back to. Inspiration is wonderful and every artist and poet depends on it, but you cannot wait for it to hit before you pick up your pen. That kind of thinking also negates the value of the learning that happens through writing many bad poems and songs. Each throw away is part of the process, or at least that makes me feel better! It helps to work regularly to get your creative muscles in shape so you are ready when the inspiration does come. Madeline L’Engle says it like this: “One must write every day. Otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, you will not be able to heed it”.

The truth is that I have gone long stretches where I’ve let my creative self get lazy and I have paid for it. So this is my ideal process, one that I thrive in, but it has been hard to implement in these years of raising young kids. 

Write to pray, write to process life, write to remember, write to apologize, write to understand, write to grieve, write to celebrate, write to give thanks, write to notice.
— Alli Rogers

The second principal which I picked up from a songwriter friend is that when inspiration does hit, just write and edit later.  if you’ve experienced it you know it is like riding a wave. When you are on it you don’t think about having perfect form or balance, you just go. It is the same with writing. Editing comes later. Editing can be painful but that is another topic of discussion that I could talk about at length! 

My process is essentially: Write as often as I can, about everything I can. Write to pray, write to process life, write to remember, write to apologize, write to understand, write to grieve, write to celebrate, write to give thanks, write to notice. And then after that, edit if needed (it usually is) and decide if it’s purpose is to share or not. Sometimes songs never get shared and that can often feel like food spoiling on the counter. Little deaths. But I think there is something essential there also. Even a discarded apple core can become food for the earth and maybe it is like this with songs.

I sure hope so.

Thank you Alli!

This is one of my favorite things: to open all the blinds on a Thursday morning and fill my space with the sound of Alli's voice singing the things I didn't even know were in my heart. You can listen to her music here: 

Alli’s latest release Breathe is on iTunes click here.

Her website is AlliRogers.com

And here is a gift for you from her generous heart. A song to listen to while looking out the window:

The Visitation: An Interview with Artist James Janknegt

This Advent I have been captivated by Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary. I am drawn to her circumstances, but also very much to the wisdom and mystery of her. I know what it is to struggle with infertility and then to be surprised by Life. The other things? The patience, kindness, and strength...they elude me. I have spent this season asking God how to lean into Elizabethness, and the asking brought a delightful gift.

I discovered this painting by James Janknegt aptly titled The Visitation. Every time I look at it I make a new discovery and I find that this story is settling into my bones. The painter describes his work as "contemporary icons," scriptural truth in a modern setting. I asked him if I could interview him for this blog. I wanted to share his work with you. It is my deep pleasure to invite you into my conversation with James Janknegt:

  The Visitation  by James B. Janknegt • oil/canvas • 18”x36” • 2008

The Visitation by James B. Janknegt • oil/canvas • 18”x36” • 2008

Michelle: Why do you paint?

James Janknegt: I always wanted to be an artist. I feel like being a painter is my vocation. I originally struggled with the idea when I first became a Christian when I was 17. I didn’t know of any contemporary artists who were Christians and I wasn’t sure that being a painter was a valid pursuit. I had a mystical experience while browsing through a Salvador Dali book in a mall bookstore. I opened the book to his painting of St. John of the Cross and I felt God speak to me in that clear, inaudible voice that to be a painter was my vocation. Ever since then I have pursued that with all my heart.

M: Why paint icons?

JJ: I don’t think to be a Christian and an artist one must paint religious work. Any kind of expression of creativity is a participation in the creative work of God. But around 2000 I decided that I would only paint religious work. I think it was a bit like, “If you were going to die and could only paint one painting what would you paint?”  I admitted that my faith was the center of my life that everything else revolved around, so why wasn’t I making paintings about that? I mean, it is the “greatest story every told” and I think every generation deserves to have that story told in the vernacular of their own time. So that is what I set out to do: paint religious paintings in the spirit of the great religious painters of the medieval world but in a contemporary way.

Art is about incarnating ideas, putting flesh and bones on stories.
— James Janknegt

M: I think that was what first captured me about this painting, the story is told in the vernacular of my time. The personalities are recognizable but made even more familiar by the setting. I notice that you have several different pieces on the topic of The Visitation. What is it about this event that continues to captivate you? 

JJ: The visitation is one of the first powerful windows looking into the incarnation. As soon as Jesus is conceived, Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth who is already six months pregnant with John. Both John and Elizabeth acknowledge the presence of Jesus as the Messiah, John by jumping in the womb of Elizabeth and Elizabeth by prophesying full of the Holy Spirit, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” That the Creator of the universe consents to spend nine months in the womb of a woman is mind boggling. It reminds me of the passage in Philippians 2:

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

M: Your work is so impacted by your faith, do you find the reverse to be true? How does art impact your faith?

JJ: I love art history and love going to museums. I also love looking at art books. I used to go to the art library when I was in school and just roam up and down the aisles pulling out art books and looking at them. I particularly am drawn to religious art. Just as the visitation speaks so powerfully about the incarnation, likewise art is about incarnating ideas, putting flesh and bones on stories. When I see a work of art that takes the abstract forms: lines, colors, shapes and values and weaves them into a composition that visually speaks the same thing that the story is telling, I am deeply moved. One of my favorite artists is Ben Shahn who wrote a book called The Shape of Content. His point is that the formal elements of a work of art are what tells the story. The shapes, lines, color and composition are what speak on a deep level to the viewer. If the artist is just concerned with “ telling the story,” without telling the story through the visual elements what you end up with is bad Sunday School illustrations.

M: What role does contemplation, observation or paying attention play in your work?

JJ: I hope that my work is a combination of deep study of the scripture, informed by the teaching of the Church along with a deep visual understanding of the world around me. I am not trying to recreate 1st century Jerusalem in my paintings. I try, through prayerful study of the scripture, to understand it in the context of the original culture in which it was written. Then I attempt to translate that into contemporary visual American life. So, the paintings end up being a blend of the objective truth of scripture and the subjective experience of my life.

Thank you James!

James Janknegt is a prolific painter! Many of his paintings (including the one above) are available as prints. Do visit his website: www.bcartfarm.com


If you would like to use James' work as a starting point for worship, choose a time and place free of distractions. It can be helpful to some people to journal during this exercise. If you are one of these people, be ready with paper and pen (but also be willing to put your pen down when needed). Scroll through his various pieces (click here to find them) and notice which one you are drawn to. Click on it to enlarge and then prayerfully consider the piece. Use the following questions as a guide as long as they serve you:

Why am I drawn to this piece?

Consider/journal what it is about this work that draws you to it at this moment.

Ask the Holy Spirit to make connections for you, to form a prayer in you.

Listen. If you find that your mind has wandered, take a moment to offer that stray thought to the Lord, and then settle back into a listening posture.

Give yourself some time to ponder the experience. Give yourself at least 24 hours. Then consider these questions:

Was this a new experience for you?

Did you notice any resistance to the exercise? Where do you think that came from?

In what ways were you called?

Can you use this technique of noticing what draws your attention, asking the Holy Spirit what He might have for you, in another context during your day?

Once you start to practice noticing and listening, it will become a habit. It will become a way of "praying without ceasing."