Church of the Bleeding Heart

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You enter a small room lit by candles and a single bulb on a string. They all look as if they’re about to burn out. As your eyes adjust you become keenly aware of your breathing and your heart thumps loudly in you chest. thump. thump. thump. You aren’t nervous, but something feels off. Is the floor crooked?

Once your eyes adjust you see a kneeler- it is very similar to the one you remember from Easter Sunday at your grandmothers church. The discomfort of youth floods back to you. The uncomfortable new clothes. The bread and wine. How do we do this? How do I take the wafer from the priest? Do I really have to drink from the same cup as that old man?

You approach the kneeler and notice the details are different. The cross-stitched cushion is more macabre than you think your gran would appreciate. The rails are damaged, look like they’ve been in a fight. As you kneel down in the now familiar pose of prayer you breathe deep and look up into the altar.

Your heart wrenches and a sadness overwhelms you. The altar looks strangely familiar. A dream you once had. Or a nightmare. It draws the empty spaces in your soul to the surface, but refuses to fill them. You feel the lack. It overcomes you and the tears start to well up.

You close your eyes and listen. thump. thump. thump. Breathing slowly you try listen to what your heart has to say but it just keeps beating.

You release.

You feel feel something die.

You let go.

How much time has passed? Your eyes open slowly and you half expect to see a black robed priest with a wafer and a cup in front of you.

But there is no one.

Only an altar, a book, a memory.

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Written in Blood

(Or The Sacred Art of the Mandala Part 2)

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“Color me, breathe your blood into my mouth.”

Handwriting has always been a creative outlet for me- in both an authorship sense and as a visual art. I have been recruited to handwrite notes and labels, hired to write chalkboard and window messages, and asked to participate in various performances and worship spaces with my handwriting. Using the written word in a visual way is part of my regular canon.

IMG_2872Several weeks ago I sewed up a few dozen prayer flags to add a physical dimension to my prayer life. I have them going around my bedroom and would like to eventually install them in an exhibition in a giant never-ending spiral on a ceiling.

Last year I tried to take up calligraphy with the idea that I would like to write in blood and use it in my exhibition artwork. I love the way both old Spenserian handwriting and perfect calligraphy look and what they communicate: thought, care, time, and the real artful crafting of words both conceptually and visually. After many hours spent fighting with calligraphy nubs I gave up.  Though I would like to convey care and beauty in my words, I also do not want to spend 10 years perfecting such a craft (as I’ve been advised that is how long it take to actually master the art).

Whilst out shopping for art supplies I saw a felt-tip calligraphy pen that could possibly be the key to my success. If I can master that, then maybe I could fill a felt tip with blood and write with that! I purchased the pen and looked forward to practicing with it. I threw it in my art bag early Thursday morning before rushing out the door to my Sacred Art of the Mandala class.

Which brings me to The Revolution.

That week in class we were charged with bringing a sacred text and sharing it with the class. I brought Rublev, a poem by Rowan Williams (copied at the bottom of this post). I found reading and sharing valuable words with the class to be a wonderful experience. There is a level of mutual respect there that I have never experienced before. I am learning so much about the experience of other traditions, which have long been opaque to me. Listening attentively to my classmates had me more open and receptive the words I love so much by Rowan Williams.

I could not wait to get my new pen out and start working the words over and over. I dug through my bag- no pen. Emptied my handbag- no pen. Dumped my art bag completely out- no pen! My exciting new pen was nowhere to be found. Discouraged I wandered to the art supply table- maybe there would be something similar there.

And that is when I saw them: bamboo pens. Aha! I would get the red ink and write in bamboo pen. When I could not find a satisfactory red I settled for the Chinese black ink and went back to my table. I expected the pens to be difficult to use and the ink very messy. I was pleasantly surprised to find the learning curve only so very slight and my enjoyment immense. Here it is! Here my handwriting looks just how I like it and I can write in blood!

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“Color me, breathe your blood into my mouth.”

I stopped at an art store and market (turns out blood is cheap and very easy to come by) on my way home. Lo and behold: it worked!! I’ve been writing in blood ever since. I am not completely sure how or where I will integrate this practice into my bigger works, but in the meantime I am perfecting the handling of the blood and have an idea for a ‘blood book’ project that I would like to create: a smallish art book with every page filled with the same phrase written over and over in blood. The covers of the book will be gilded and ornate like a precious object. It will stretch a tether between sacred text and the scratching of a person gone mad.

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Lord’s Prayer

I do not know how to express how excited this makes me- I find writing in blood to be beautiful, and feels sacred. Writing something in blood feels to me similar to getting a tattoo- it is written in the most indelible and personal of ways. Conceptually I like the idea of writing in my own blood as it becomes so much more personal, but I need to overcome the hurdle (both conceptually and actually) for procurement. I do not want to harm myself- though pain is an important theme in my work, the world is painful enough without intentional harm.

The physical shape of the mandala has not appeared in my work with text in the last few weeks, except in circles on my prayer flags. The complete circle or ever unfinished spiral are more inherent in the meaning and sentiment of the texts and prayers and do not demand to be formed physically into said shapes. To do so would be redundant. Though repetition feels important in sacred acts, redundancy feels strangely profane.

(I never found my pen.)

 

Rublev

One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,

slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,

said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.

 

I said, Here is the blood of all our people,

these are their bruises, blue and purple,

gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.

 

These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh,

I said, I trust I shall make you blush,

O I shall stain you with the scars of birth

 

For ever, I shall root you in the wood,

under the sun shall bake you bread

of beechmast, never let you forth

 

To the white desert, to the starving sand.

But we shall sit and speak around

one table, share one food, one earth.

Rowan Williams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Baptised by Blood (Part 1)

I did what I set out to do, and I did it really well. So why do I feel so lost?

Finishing a project of this magnitude feels like a break up. It’s exciting and consuming, and then all of a sudden it’s over. All of a sudden there is nothing. There is nothing left to occupy my thoughts and my heart. After a breakup, one is left piecing a broken heart back together, rubbing fingers along the sharp edges to feel the intensity of the pain which seems to lend value of the now broken relationship.

With art the pain is similar, but there is completion. Something whole and real has been extracted from my soul for all to see. In my minds eye it looks like a giant, sharp piece of obsidian that’s been painfully pulled from my center leaving me empty and breathless. I look at the photos and reread my thesis in the same way one traces the raw edges of a broken heart. I want to feel the weight of it in my chest again, the emptiness hasn’t brought the relief I expected.

I was asked to write a reflection on Baptised by Blood, but I just can’t do it. Not yet. It’s too close. I am still too stunned.

What I can say is that I set out on an academic pursuit to find a space between art and religious practice. I think I found it. I set out to make work that is intelligent but accessible. I did that. I set out to raise the money to make a huge installation happen. We did that. I set out to make work that is personal and honest and painful and sacrificial. I gave it everything.

My hope now is that it was worth it. That it brought joy and honor to the Father. That it started conversation and interest and thought. And that somehow, someway that project will pave the way for future projects.

(Photos from the installation will be live on CaseyMacKenzie.co.uk this week.)

The Vision 2.0

Back in March while I was in the 24-7 Prayer room I wrote my own version of The Vision.

Today I am feeling exceptionally low. I am tired and I have nothing left to give- and a lot left to do. I’m in a place where I’m not convinced dream chasing is all it’s cracked up to be. Swan diving into the unknown is easy (for me). Landing and climbing the next mountain is so hard. And it’s even harder when you live 5000 miles from your mom.

Anyway, I reread my vision tonight. I suppose I still stand by it, but I am becoming seriously concerned about the cost. Can’t I be both extraordinary and ordinary? Can I be an expert and an innovator in my field, can I have a big airy studio in a cottage with a mortgage and a partner and a family? If I can’t have it all I’m not convinced I want any of it.

I understand now why not so many people chase their dreams. Dream chasing is really freaking hard. It’s exhausting and it’s lonely, and it’s scary.


What is the Vision?

The Vision is Spirit. It’s art.

The Vision is art that moves. Art that brings glory to His name. Art that breaks down barriers. Breaks down the walls between art & God & fashion & culture. Art that inspires and defines. Art that is intelligent.

(The spirit in me. Moving me. Making me. Driving my ideas.)

The vision is a spacious white studio with lots of windows & a big table & large format Epson printer. The Vision is not held back by earthly things. By bureaucracy or by lack of funding & resources.

The Vision is multimedia art installations driven by photography & washed in the Spirit. The Vision is exhibitions that give life & change life.

The Vision does not follow the rules. It is loved & reviled across media & spheres of culture. Hated by churches, loved by critics. Loved by Christians, hated by bloggers. Moving between spheres of influence as easily & seamlessly as changing clothes.

The Vision is success & visibility but in love & humility. The Vision can handle attention & bad press. The Vision gives all the work & the glory & the pain to God.

The Vision works hard. Loves hard. Gives everything.

The Vision is fulfilling.

The Vision is not alone.

(The Vision is probably really messy.)

Image“[T.S.] Eliot began to wonder if there was any room for art in a world gone mad. How could a responsible Christian devote time to poetry or fiction?” Philip Yancy (I Was Just Wondering, 130)

I grew up wondering why secular music was so much cooler than the Christian stuff. I couldn’t figure out why the Red Hot Chili Peppers were so good and Deleriou5 was just ok. (Don’t judge, it was the 90’s.) I thought, if we’re so connected to The Creator, why don’t we make better music?

As I got older I saw this in other mediums, too. Classical religious art notwithstanding, Christian art always seems to fall short. As Christians, shouldn’t we be more plugged into The Creator? Shouldn’t my faith make me a better artist?

According to Philip Yancy, T.S. Eliot was driven to conversion over anxiety over the future. Many complained that his conversion ruined his writing, that it “lacked the depth and genius of [his] early works”. (Yancy,130) He accepted writing assignments from the church, wrote captions for war photos, and for awhile turned totally away from writing to work in economics.

“He had apparently lost faith in the power of art.” (Yancy, 131)

What Christian believes in the power of art? Not many. We believe in being useful, in helping, in spreading the Gospel, feeding the hungry, being contributing members of society. (Whether we do it is another story.) But what worthwhile Christian holes up in a studio writing poetry, sculpting, painting, or composing photos?

When I got home from Haiti I was all rip-roarin’ to go save the world, and I am so glad God stopped me in my tracks. In that time I forgot the power of art, and in my recovery from the issues that spawned from my time in that devastated land I learned the healing power of art.

So I am going to say it: I am an artist. It is a gift from God and I should not hide it under a bushel, as they say. The more immersed in art I get in school, the happier and more myself I feel. And you know, we’re one body with many parts. We’ve all grown up hearing that, but suddenly it makes so much more sense to me. I can’t be everything, and I shouldn’t be.

So here’s to being as good as, if not better than, the Red Hot Chili Peppers.