Painting

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."

In Which I Get What I Don't Deserve, India Part 2

It is a humbling experience to be fed by those with little food, or given a gift by those who have nothing to spare. It is tempting to refuse the kindness offered so generously, but it is precisely that staggering generosity that overrides all refusals. The only way to receive such a gift is to surrender to it, to accept it knowing there is no possibility of repayment. It is practical grace. All grace.

The second day we were in India I met Sunaa. At first I thought I was there to care for her, but instead she carried me. I tried to paint the gift of her. The first attempt was a very abstract painting, but there was too much pain in it. I painted over it, and the second attempt was too structured. There is a lot of structure in India, but much of the healing I witnessed happens outside of it. I made a third, and then a fourth attempt. By then the layers were building up and I liked the complexity of the textures. Then I realized that Sunaa's gift impacted me and shaped the rest of the trip for me because of it's simplicity. The painting below looks nothing like what I had envisioned. It is not about pain or need. It is about the deep capacity every single human has to bless another.

Sunaa is from Kerala, in the south of India. Kerala, where bananas grow, where they speak the beautiful Malayalam language and wrap sweet spirits in warm chocolate skin.

"Why did you move so far from home to come here?" I ask her.

She answers slowly, and clearly, "I wanted to help people. I didn't know how I could help, but I thought . . . perhaps I could give kindness."

"Who did you want to help?"

She is quiet for some time, searching for the words. Then she smiles. Sunaa looks me in the eyes in a most un-Indian way until we both know that I am listening with my heart.

"You."

And I receive the gift.

Overwhelming kindness.

Grace.

All grace.

   What If All We Had to Offer Was Kindness,    Michelle Winter     ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

What If All We Had to Offer Was Kindness, Michelle Winter ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

Invisible Stories, India Part 1

One of the first decisions a storyteller makes is where to begin the story. Do I begin at the beginning and trace the events chronologically? That might make the story easier to follow. Do I begin in the middle, drawing you quickly into the action? Do I dance around the edges unfolding the back story and the forward action in concert? I want to take you with me. I want to immerse you in this India Story.

But I can't.

The story is too big to tell, too deep and wide to hold.
And so, He hid the pieces inside the people.
The people.
That we would reach for one another and become
The poem.
~Michelle Winter, 2016

I entered into a long parade of stories invisible to me. I couldn't see the beginning. All I could do was reach out my hand and try to catch some shimmering confetti, pieces of Truth, as they flew by.

I missed much, but there were pieces of blue and green: women with gentle hands who offer kindness and healing; a girl who sets aside her need for rest to support her broken friends; women who have given up their lives to create a home and a family for the hurting.

There were pieces of red: men and women with fire in their eyes and hearts who have left their homes (some from other cities, some from other countries) to fight for justice and to rescue those who cannot fight.

There were pieces of orange: a feisty woman determined to pour herself out for the least of these; a quiet man hoping to change the world one person at a time.

And yellows, and golds: children who hold on to life and to one another, a middle aged woman reaching around the world to connect people who can be more effective together.

But, all that would come later. On the day we landed in India, we had been traveling for 36 hours and still had a drive ahead of us to the hotel. The streets were noisy, but the sounds organized themselves into music as we drove. There was heat, and breeze, colorful curbs and buses, the fog and stain of diesel, crowds, curry, lost luggage and a red alert for terrorist activity in the area. 

This is my first day, the landing day:

   After A Hard Day, Rest    Michelle Winter ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

After A Hard Day, Rest Michelle Winter ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

And so, perhaps there is a beginning after all. This is the only story I can tell. It is my story of how I danced in the parade of love and compassion in India...if only for a few steps along the way. 

Standing on the Threshold

The November Women's Ministries Event was about identifying the things that hold us back from growing in our relationship with God, leaving those things behind and moving forward. During Pastor Gaby Viesca's sermon, women wrote down their obstacles, then stuck them onto the back sides of the doors (which were painted black), opened the doors and walked through them towards the beautiful. It was an exercise in Truth and Hope.

 Here  are the five doors. These are the beautiful sides, the other sides were painted solid black. Many thanks to my amazing crew: Veronica Lake, Constance Lee Adams, Kathy Berry, Sue Epps, Gaby Viesca,  and Quynh Nguyen . There is something quite wonderful about painting with friends.

Here are the five doors. These are the beautiful sides, the other sides were painted solid black. Many thanks to my amazing crew: Veronica Lake, Constance Lee Adams, Kathy Berry, Sue Epps, Gaby Viesca, and Quynh Nguyen. There is something quite wonderful about painting with friends.

This is the benediction I gave as the event transitioned from the planned portion to the vital mingling-in-the lobby portion:

It's not hard to think of reasons not to come. There are many reasons to go it alone, but we are the Body of Christ and you have spent the entire week being an elbow--alone, being an ear--alone. You know in your bones, even if you don't know it in your head, you know it in your bones, that we must come together to be a BODY.
You were home behind your door, you reached out your hand and turned the knob, crossed the threshold and walked out into the rain, you crossed the parking lot, entered through the outside doors into the building where everyone looks like they have it all together, you crossed the lobby and entered these sanctuary doors where you found we are all broken together.
What happens when we set aside reasons, and cross into community? It's a mystery--a surprise, a delight. We have painted bright colors, different paintings on the backs of our doors. You have crossed so many thresholds tonight, will you cross one more? Go through the doors and enter into community, offer and receive love. Please linger. Good night.

Take Me Deeper: Transform Purposefully

This was a tough one. I admit that this one took me significantly longer than one week. Most of that time was spent wrestling. Here are the verses for the week:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. ~Phi 2:12-13

I wanted to show that transformation is a partnership, God has a part and I have a part. But, it is a grossly unequal partnership. I considered many, many possibilities, but struggled to find something that highlighted the inequality while also highlighting the connection. Until I remembered this photo I took of my daughter when she was a toddler, dancing on her papa's feet:

I love this photo. I used have used it in various ways in my work, and I used it in this blog post. Olivia was a delighted and willing partner, but she wasn't really walking yet. Todd had to hold her from above and below for the dancing partnership to work. The verses for this week reminded me of  this: I have a part in working out my salvation, but God carries me from above and below.

Then, I got stuck. I couldn't move forward, couldn't decide on colors, size, anything. Finally, I realized that this photo reminded me a lot of my relationship with my dad. We had a complicated and often difficult relationship. For a long time, I thought he was the villain in my story. Then I chose love and our relationship began to heal. Last year, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. I packed up the kids and our school books and spent a few months with him. He blew my world apart. I prayed Life for him, and instead he gave Life to me. He healed every hurt. It turns out that I knew nothing of the man he was, that I had made judgments that only a self-righteous teenager can make. The whole time I thought I was building a bridge to him, he had been the one building bridges to me. He was doing the heavy lifting, I was just doing the walking. And just when I was getting to know him, he died.

This father-thing, this carrying, this is what God does for me. This is what my husband does for my son. This is what my dad did for me. I wanted to honor this effort in some way. I decided I wanted to write into the quilt the text of some of the letters my father and I had exchanged. I sat down and read through those letters. For the first time, I saw. I saw him loving me. I saw his humor, his values, his bridge-building. It was a hard week. A good week.

 The quilt before adding text.

The quilt before adding text.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I wanted to write his words on my quilt. I tried photocopying, but his script was so spidery it didn't come through. I tried making it into a font. I tried out various fabric markers and dye/paint applicators. I ended up writing my father's words in my hand. I mixed white acrylic paint with fabric medium and used a squeeze bottle to apply it.

I pieced this quilt in oranges. I had intended to do it in blues and I'm not sure what happened. The last quilt I posted here was also in oranges and yellows. Maybe I'm in an orange period. In the color symbolism I use, orange is a symbol for mercy. Perhaps that best describes this unequal partnership. It's all mercy.

Learning to Listen

One of the reasons I value art for worship is because it helps me to clear a wordless space to listen for His voice. Wordlessness is difficult for me. Henri Nouwen says that sometimes attempting to pray in silence, his mind becomes filled with a banana tree of hungry monkeys! That metaphor always makes me smile because I can relate. Using art has been a productive way to begin to train and discipline my mind so that prayer can be a conversation rather than a monologue, or an exercise in list-making (all things I have been prone to do).

My friend, Jo Reimer,  a brilliant collage artist, has a series that I want to share with you. She has given me permission to use her work in this way. Today we are going to practice using art to worship. The series is titled Sermon Notes, a collection of 51 pieces, that can be found here.

When I use art for worship I tend to go through these stages: I notice that I am drawn to a particular piece; I prayerfully consider the elements that drew me in; I listen for what the Holy Spirit has for me; I spend time in silence with Him.  Here is an example from my prayer notebook of how I used Jo’s  piece entitled “Truthful.”

 
 "Truthful" from Jo Reimer's Sermon Notes series.

"Truthful" from Jo Reimer's Sermon Notes series.

 

 I am drawn—The colors in this are provocative. Blue and orange, peace and boldness, are side-by-side. I am attracted by the word—TRUTHFUL. How perfect! Truth is provocative. There is an element of peace and an element of boldness to it.

 I come—When I think about “truth” I am filled with feelings of safety and peace. Lord, I thank you that I can trust You. That You speak the Truth—that you are Truth. In You there is no guile, no deceit. No room for lies. I can rest safely in You, and I praise You for that. I DO trust You. I want to worship You in spirit and in Truth. Lord, what am I withholding from You? Am I being truthful before You? Am I coming to You pretending to be something I am not? Truth isn’t all safety and peace, is it? It is provocative and confrontational. Here I am—examine me.

 I listen—At this point I put down the pen and listened. At first there was only silence, but soon the Lord brought to my mind several fears that I needed to release to Him. I attempted to obey and entrust my fears to Him. I then remained quietly present in the moment. Heart speaking to heart.


If you would like to use Jo's 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). Click here to go to Jo Reimer's flicker page. Scroll through her various pieces 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.

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

Listen/Commune. 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 the beginning of "praying without ceasing."