The Work of Holy Artistry

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In this essay for our series Art Matters, Barb Knuckles reminds us that our God-crafted identity, flowing through our skills, and yoked to God's grace and truth, becomes a kind of holy artistry, whether we're making art, planting a garden, or stocking shelves.

I am part of my father’s legacy as his daughter and as an artist. A thread of artistic creativity weaves through at least four generations in our family. He is a landscape painter. I am a printmaker and mixed media artist. My daughter is a painter and graphic novelist. Other family members sprout visual creativity in various ways.

I first noticed my dad’s oncoming Alzheimer’s disease in a loss of subtlety and variation in color in his paintings. Eventually his behavior changed and memories increasingly thinned to gossamer threads and drifted away, and I knew something was wrong. It was already too late to archive large chunks of his own story, yet he could still paint and teach.

He’d offered me an open invitation to come paint for a day when he taught workshops in southern Indiana. I drove down from Indy to spend time with my parents and soak up what knowledge I could. Drawing that once came easily now took a great deal of his energy.

When he finally stopped painting, the oils slowly dried on his palettes in his studio. He was the one who taught me to throw away brushes that had become stubby, to always use ones that could muster a sharp edge, yet his working brushes were worn down while new ones remained untouched.

Only a small percentage of his work sells, as is true for most artists, so my parents’ house is overrun with racks filled with hundreds of exquisite unsold paintings, organized by a system my family can’t decode. We began to document and catalogue his work, and I was filled with a sense of crushing futility, wondering what we will do with it all: it’s precious, irreplaceable, and overwhelming. So much of him is in his paintings: so much work, so much time, so much of everything.

An Artist’s Identity

As I shared my grief with friends, I found myself saying that my dad was an artist, in the same way I said he was a bricklayer at Inland Steel after he retired to paint full time. I used the past tense because, of course, he no longer made art. The Holy Spirit gently challenged me, reassuring me that being an artist is an irrevocable part of my dad’s created identity, part of his true name. It doesn't matter that he is no longer painting. He may not make more art until heaven, but he is still an artist just as he is still my dad.

Art is work. Frustrating, joyful, and occasionally effortless. So much of one’s being is poured in, with so few conventional rewards. Parenting, teaching, and caregiving are cut of the same cloth: hard work, poor remuneration, low status, by turns frustrating and personally rewarding, relegated to the margins of what society considers important. Art is considered a hobby, or self-indulgent luxury, unless you can make a living at it. And yet, artists keep making art.

Fifteen years ago, I relinquished the name “artist,” and chose to identify myself as a person who made art. I was trying to escape my paralyzing need for validation and fear of contempt, fed by an inner cacophony of voices archived from art school, critical essays, colleagues, and friends. I poured my self into my art but could not stop getting my identity from my art. Both adulation and contempt deformed my true identity. But this radical solution to my identity struggle didn’t work.

Genuine Artistry

Two years ago, I repented of my desperate vow. Being an artist is not a role. It is part of my God-formed createdness. I cannot forfeit it. Like my father, I am an artist, whether I am making art or not, whether my work is celebrated or disdained, whether I make a living or whether my work is forgotten in flat files and racks. Visual creativity is part of my inscape. I can quench it, just as I can quench the Holy Spirit in me, but at great loss of life and joy. In fact, the Holy Spirit enlivens the artist in me, and when I unrighteously suffocate my creativity, I am also suffocating the work of the Holy Spirit.

I cry out with Paul, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Rom. 7:15). How do I escape the laws of this world, where I name myself by what I do and fail to do? Both the law of God and the unwritten laws of this world condemn and cannot save. As an artist, how do I live by the Spirit and not by law? I know that my best artwork happens when I pour my true identity into my work, for genuine artistry yokes identity and particularity with skill. It’s not the same as getting my identity from my work, which is idolatry and inherently dehumanizing.

Artistry transcends art-making. I express God’s artistry invested in me when I bring my being to whatever I do. My God-crafted identity flowing through my skills, yoked to His grace and truth, becomes a kind of holy artistry, whether I am making art, raising children, planting a garden, or stocking shelves. Artistry suffused with grace and truth is a righteous offering … to the world and to God.

Why bring artistry to my work, investing heart, mind, skill, and time in, well, anything? What does it mean to bring an offering of my work to the world and to God? When I look at the racks of paintings in my dad’s studio, the futility of all of our labors haunts me. How do I as an artist look through this clouded lens into my future and continue to work?

The Holy Artistry of All Our Work

Working is always an act of faith of some kind. Sometimes the faith is a desperate hope that our labors will sustain us, earning profit or glory or love. The benefits follow close on the heels of the labor. Other times the fruit is unseen, and faith wars with whispers and shouts of futility. We work because making and doing are an inescapable part of our humanness. The mandate to be fruitful, to tame, to order, and to steward is inscribed in our hearts.

Do I dare pour artistry into this callous, finite world? Do I dare embrace the risk of joy? All I know is that God continues to pour his artistry into me and into this world. His work is disdained, corrupted, scattered, and broken. I have casually discarded his legacy and traded his artistry in me for poor substitutes of my own making.

It is an act of faith to continue to work, to continue to hope, to pour my artistry into work that is often adrift in this world. I long for a better home, a home where I and my work belong. And perhaps, by continuing to work, artists are inadvertently testifying that such a home must exist. Our artistry is a marker and sign, an expression of God’s artistry in us. It is not futile. Nothing done with holy artistry is. It infuses the kingdom of God with glory: with brightness and mourning and laughter and joy that illuminate the King.