Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Getting Each Step Right

Top Left: Archangel Gabriel (Annunciation); Bottom Left:St.Jean d'Arc; Center: Elousa Mother of God; Top Right: Mary, Mother of God; Bottom Left: St. Mary of Egypt

I've begun work on a tryptich which will eventually end up in the prayer corner of my studio. I did the cartoon back in October 2016, then put it aside as my Dad went into his final illness.  Almost a year later, I'm ready to begin the next stage of the work.  So this past weekend I cut the panels for the center and the wings.  And although the panels are cut, I'm a long way from being ready to begin painting.

Which is alright.

One of the life lessons I've learned from icon painting is the importance of every step of the process.  Historically and to the present day, icons are painted either as wall murals in buon fresco, secco (egg tempera on plaster) or mosaic or as portable panels in egg tempera, acrylic, encaustic, mosaic, cast metal or carved in wood or ivory in bas relief.  In every case, regardless of media, a lot of preparation and preliminary work is required just to get to the start line.

I've learned the hard way, that any rush to get to the "good parts" (the aspect of the work that is gratifyingly self-expressive) in icon painting is a mistake.  Although I try to work efficiently , there are no shortcuts.  Even those stages of the work that are tedious or boring (which I am tempted at times to regard as taking up time that could be given over to more creative activity) , are not a diversion but essential.

Essential not only in a practical, material sense -- a smooth polished gessoed surface on a panel is essential for gilding and painting -- but essential in a spiritual sense as well.  If. as has been my experience, every icon is a prayer made visible, every stage of the work is an offering of one's self and one's work to God.  The loving attention to detail, concentration and hard work to get each aspect of the work as close to perfect as one can manage, if done with the right intention, gives glory to God.

Which true, not only in the studio, but in the mundane but essential tasks of marriage, parenthood, work and prayer.    


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Our Authentic Heritage

This past weekend, white supremacists, homegrown admirers of Hitler, waving Nazi and Confederate flags, chanting the Nazi slogan, "blood and soil" and anti-Semitic slogans, rallied in Charlottesville ,Virginia to protest, in then name of defending their "heritage" the removal of a statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee.
It's somehow fitting that this past weekend's shocking, disgraceful and ultimately murderous "Unite the Right" protest by the so-called alt-right (aka white supremacists), Klansmen and neo-Nazis occurred during the same week that as Catholics we remember and honor the memory of two heroic saints who died at the hands of the Nazis.

On August 14th, 1941 Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was put to death after volunteering to take the place of another Polish prisoner sentenced to death.

On August 9th, 1942 Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) was gassed at the Auschwitz death camp with hundreds of other Jews deported from the Netherlands.

The Nazis, through-going racists and anti-Semites, rationalized their genocidal campaign to eradicate completely the Jewish people as an act of "self-defense" against a Jewish world conspiracy that existed only in the depraved imagination of Hitler and those who lent their support to his murderous racist ideology.

They regarded Poles and Russians as racially inferior people,"useless eaters" destined to starve to death or work as slaves as their German overlords saw fit.

St. Teresa Benedicta and St. Maximilian Kolbe were among the millions of  Jews and peoples such as Roma/Sinti, Poles, Russians and others that the Nazis considered to be sub-human and not deserving to live, by Germans and others who cynically regarded themselves as the master race.

The message of the gospel, which they embodied, is simple: Jesus teaches us that every person and all peoples are loved, cherished and redeemed by God; that all men and women are brothers and sisters; that love is more powerful than hatred.

Despite our own faults, failings and sins, as disciples of Jesus, as Catholics, this is our authentic heritage.

Let us resist with all of our strength the pathetically ignorant but pernicious pathologies of white supremacy, racism and anti-Semitism.    

Let us pray for the conversion of those who have given themselves over to the service of such vile, hateful and sinful ideas.

Let us work together for a better, more just and more equitable society that we can take pride in again.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Ave Crux, Spes Unica

Today is the feast day of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), who on this day seventy-five years ago, perished, alongside her sister Rosa and the other Dutch Jewish deportees on her transport, in the gas chambers of  the Auschwitz death camp.  Raised in a devout Jewish home in the German city of  Breslau, she lost her faith in God during her adolescence .  As a young woman she studied philosophy and was part of the circle of the Phenomenologist Edmund Husserl.  She was a prolific writer on philosophical topics and education, especially the education of girls and women. Her most personal book, 'Life in a Jewish Family' was an autobiography that was unfinished at the time of her martyrdom.
 Edith Stein sought baptism as a Catholic after reading the works of St.Teresa of Avila.  Eventually she entered the Carmelite Order.  With the intensification of the Nazi persecution of the Jews in November 1938, she took refuge in the Carmel of Echt, in the Netherlands.  It was from the Echt Carmel that she and her sister Rosa were arrested and deported to their deaths at Auschwitz.

On this, her feast day, we recall her death and the murder of millions of Jews in the Shoah, commemorate the terrible anniversary of the atomic attack on the city of Nagasaki, and pray that "the fire and fury" threatened by our President on the people of North Korea may never come to pass.

From a talk she gave to her fellow Carmelite sisters, read today in the Office of Readings, these words particularly stood out for me:
"The world is in flames: do you wish to put them out?  Contemplate the Cross: from his open heart the blood of the Redeemer pours, blood which can put out even the flames of hell."

She concluded her talk with these words:
"The eyes of the Crucified gaze upon you.  They question you and appeal to you.  Do you wish seriously to renew your alliance with him?  What will your response be?
"Lord, where shall I go?  You have the words of life."
Ave Crux, spes unica!  (We greet you, Holy Cross, our only hope)

St. Teresa Benedicta, pray for us.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The International Hotel: Forty Years Later

Silkscreen Poster by the Kearny Street Workshop

It will have been forty years ago tomorrow (August 4th, 1977) that City of San Francisco evicted the tenants of the International Hotel on Kearny Street on the edge of the financial district.  The single-room occupancy hotel was the last remaining section of the neighborhood that was known as 'Manilatown' and the tenants were mostly elderly Filipino agricultural workers and seamen who had deep bonds of community and self-help in that neighborhood going back to 1920's.

Of course they had to go, for, in the unguarded words of a city official at some point in the ten-year struggle to keep the tenants in their homes, 'the land was too valuable to allow poor people to continue to live there."

Hundreds of tenant supporters from the Asian-American and wider community showed up to non-violently interpose themselves between the sheriff's deputies and the tenants inside the building facing eviction.   I was there too with the other tenant supporters awaiting the arrival of the police.*  

When the sheriffs, mounted units and the riot squad came in force just after midnight I was fortunate I wasn't knocked down by a police horse  or clubbed on the head (which I witnessed happening to others once they started to break up the crowd.   To no on'es  surprise, it didn't take the police and sheriffs long to shove us aside and  just as the sun was coming up, the last, now homeless elderly tenant was escorted out onto the sidewalk and the eviction was over.

Photo by Chris Huie
  For me as a Christian, being there that night then (and now) made sense in terms of the Church's preferential option for the poor.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches at 2448:
...those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensible always and everywhere."

*I'm pretty sure that I'm in this photo by photographer Chris Huie from that night.  If you look carefully in the bottom right hand corner you will find the grainy image frozen in time of a much younger incarnation of this writer.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

To Read Only Children's Books

To read only children's books
To cherish only children's thoughts.
All grownup things to disperse far away
And to rise from a deep sorrow.
Osip Mandelstam 
trans. Dmitri Smirnov

This past week I began re-reading the Odyssey, in Robert Fagles magnificent translation.  As I've been reading, I've been reminded that my initial introduction to Homer was not so much textual as visual.  

As a child I was fortunate indeed to have come across the Golden Book Illiad and the Odyssey that immediately captured my imagination.  Even as a child, (or perhaps, particularly as a child) I must admit, many children's books seemed to me to be, well, childish.  Either clumsily drawn and painted, cloyingly sentimental or both.  More what the illustrator thought a child should want to look at rather at than what a child would actually want to see. 

But this book was different.  

Superbly illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen (not that at the time I paid any attention to who the artists were),  I was immediately drawn-in. I was enthralled by the wonderfully vibrant and dynamic line work and bold, expressive painting. 

By the flawless page composition . 

The large folio format of the book. 

And as a nine-year old, I loved the charioteers and heavily armored warriors with swords and spears fighting each other.
Inevitably, I suppose, beginning with the death of my sister, I learned more about deep sorrow than I'd ever thought possible.  I had to quickly put away children's thoughts.   

But that child's book which I was reminded of again this week, I continue to cherish.  

Monday, July 17, 2017

Ora et Labora

The past four days my son and his fiance have been smoking and canning fish to give away as presents to their wedding guests.  They asked if they could use our house to do this, which we agreed to after getting firm assurances that they wouldn't inadvertently burn the house down in the process.

 Every room in our house has been given over to processing, smoking and canning sockeye and king salmon.  Including the studio, which was transformed into a place to air-dry salted salmon strips in preparation for smoking.

Which coincided with the urgent task of completing an icon of St.Therese as a gift from my daughter and her novio to the parents of a young woman who lost their daughter and her friend in a tragic accident a year ago tomorrow.

In the end (as in, this morning!), I managed to finish St. Therese's icon and get it on the plane to Fairbanks (I'm assured by the good people at AlaskaAirCargo that it will arrive tomorrow morning at the latest.)

All of the labora didn't interfere too much with the ora : I managed to work my way around the racks of drying salmon when I needed to pray or work in there.  Fortunately, I don't find the smell of salmon and wood smoke offensive, which is a good thing, because I suspect that my studio (and oratory) will smell that way for a long time to come.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Liu Xiaobo, Rest in Peace

Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died today of liver cancer . Chinese authorities denied him permission to seek treatment for his advanced cancer in Germany and the United States.  Instead, he was confined to a hospital room in the city of Shenyang and kept incommunicado and under constant guard.  

He is the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die in custody since 1938, when the German anti-Nazi and pacifist writer and journalist  Karl von Ossietsky died of tuberculosis while in police custody in Berlin. 

In 2010 I published this post (on an earlier blog) about him.

Liu Xiaobo is serving his fourth prison sentence for the non-violent expression of his conscientiously held beliefs in free expression, democracy and government accountability.  He is the author of Charter O8, which calls on the Chinese government to move towards democratic freedoms and to end the repression of citizens with dissenting viewpoints.

 On December 10th, 2010 in Oslo, Norway, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia. 

Below is the preamble to Charter O8.

This year is the 100th year of China's Constitution, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Democracy Wall, and the 10th year since China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. After experiencing a prolonged period of human rights disasters and a tortuous struggle and resistance, the awakening Chinese citizens are increasingly and more clearly recognizing that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance. 

A "modernization" bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity. Where will China head in the 21st century? Continue a "modernization" under this kind of authoritarian rule? Or recognize universal values, assimilate into the mainstream civilization, and build a democratic political system? This is a major decision that cannot be avoided.