Into the Depths: Postures of Grief
Into the Depths: Postures of Grief is a series of six woodcut prints by Baya Clare. Click here to see larger images of the prints. They were on display at Carondelet Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota in October, 2014, and in Baden, Pennsylvania in February, 2015.
If you’re looking for the grief poems by Baya, click here.
If you are interested in booking this exhibit for your space, contact Baya via email or at 612-836-7393.
In coming to peace with some of the losses in my life, I have found it helpful to give grief some images of its own. I made this series of woodcuts about 15 years ago in the context of an independent study course in printmaking that I took at St. Kate’s while working on a master’s degree in theology. They were gouged raw from pinewood blocks, which was a difficult, but also satisfying and healing process in the way that major griefs can be.
Why postures? The notion of prayer postures came to my notice while I was taking a History of Spirituality course. Saint Dominic taught people to use certain postures for different kinds of prayer, in order that their whole self might be trained in the virtue each was designed to elicit. The nine postures he taught, and their corresponding virtues are:
- Bow = Humility
- Lying Prone = Mercy
- Kneeling = Self Discipline
- Genuflecting = Awe
- Standing with hands held before, as if reading from a book = Contemplation
- Standing with arms outstretched = Supplication
- Arms raised above head, pointing like an arrow = Acknowledging good gifts from God
- Reflective reading = Conversation with God
- Walking in Solitude = Listening
As with Dominic’s prayer postures, the historical viewer expected to contemplate an artistic image and be transformed by it. She did not expect to receive information from it or to evaluate it critically. The act of contemplating it was training in virtue. The engagement of vision, just as the engagement of the body in prayer, was experientially validated by its results in increased love and piety. I think the ancients were right in saying that behavior precedes changed ideas rather than the other way around.
Augustine’s theory of vision, which was the basic Western worldview up until about 300 years ago, drew on Platonic understandings of physics and physiology. It in, the same energy, or fire, that causes the body to be warm is especially present in the eyes. When a person looks at an object, she projects this fire in the form of a ray which goes out and touches the object viewed. The object’s image returns along the pathway linking the eye and object, and imprints itself on the viewer’s soul and in her memory. Thus, seeing was understood as a much more active thing than we tend to think of it today, and carried much more conscious potential for transformation.
I think this way of understanding can still function for us today, even though we understand the physics and so on differently. Our souls are, as Margaret Miles writes in her book, Image as Insight, (Wipf and Stock, 2006) “affected in fundamental and structural ways by their imprinting by objects of vision,” whether or not that is consciously understood. In Image as Insight, Miles focuses exclusively on single images with which one might engage over an extended period of time, since that would have been the experience of ancient and medieval Christians. Engagement with such images is never an original, individual occurrence, however, because human beings live in company with one another and therefore share more or less interpretive context. No account of the role of images in the life of communities that assumes the perspective of only one group of person within the culture can even begin to tell us about the complexity of the images and their possible interpretations.
Sustained attention to visual images was a part of devotional practice for many ordinary people in a way that it is not for us, over-saturated as we are by a barrage of constantly-changing images whose purpose is something quite other than our sanctification.
Artists cannot direct specific meanings the way writers can. Such precision is not possible by the very nature of the visual medium. A visual image enables a more diffuse process of imagining together. The same image can inspire very different reactions in different people, including those separated in time from the object’s original context. Viewing a medieval painting in a museum, for example, is to view it in a setting almost completely removed from its context in time, space, and purpose of display.
The notion of “taste” was pretty much unknown before about 300 years ago, interestingly. For them, images, or an image, had a cumulative effect on their whole self which was evident in their daily, ordinary life. But the contemplation of an image did not yield a single correct interpretation or suggestion for particular activities. The idea was not imitation of action, but of virtue. Images are very attractive, but they do not attract in order to impart information. They engage and train the will through the perceptions. The purpose of images in earlier ages was not to decorate spaces or add value to financial portfolios. Their purpose was to lead to changes in the will, and thence to changes in behavior. The community does, or should, aid in interpretation.
An authentic Christian spirituality must be at its very core imaginative. Art is a ministry, and must never be allowed to become marginalized or to degenerate into a self-indulgent pastime and/or consumer commodity. We embody this truth: God made us. Art also embodies this truth, and it is a powerful tool if viewed that way.
One must be able to take one’s own experiences and from them imagine other possibilities. In only this way can we get out of ourselves enough to recognize other as different from ourselves and at the same time good. God is always calling us to look beyond, to see and be something more than our desire for the familiar would lead us to. God calls us to flourishing, not familiarity.
We must do two things, then – look back into earlier Christian cultures to examine what was and was not life-orienting for them, and then present the questions and problems gleaned, along with the values and life-giving insights to contemporary people. For Miles, artists are among those responsible for that project, which is in part to learn to imagine ourselves as selves, to self- represent, so that the experience of art is more like making an acquaintance than like surveying an object. We must be very deliberate about conferring self all around.
Whether an interpretation enters and influences the mainstream of a culture is contingent on whether that interpretation can claim the authority of a collective voice, constructed in the public sphere. The task to which artists and theologians (and others) are called is to the creation and nurturing of intentional interpreting community.
Grief is a complex, non-linear process, and not much valued in our present culture. In part this may be due to the paucity of images that depict it and invite it to be a transformational process.
So I want to invite us to be that interpreting community. Spend a little time looking quietly at each image on the screen. Then I invite you to use the comment form below to contribute a few words or impressions that they elicit in you. How has grief transformed you? What virtues has it trained for you? How has it expanded your imagination? Click here to see what other people have contributed. I expect that these contributions will lead to the creation of further images in this series, as we imagine and transform together.