painting with brooms
in my friend’s heated garage, I realized we had an Advent teaching
metaphor in the making. So, generously, Natalie Lombard hauled all the
painting apparatus—brooms and turkey-basters (our “brushes”), acrylic
paint jars, four 8’×4’ foot rolls of paper, trays for mixing paint,
tarps and calligraphy brushes—all so we could make a few points about
the theme of this year’s Advent Retreat, Prepare Ye!
had begun this fall as an experiment in technique—Natalie had been
taken with the painting style of Hans Hartung, whose work she
encountered as we toured the Macht Foundation Modern Art Museum on our Hungry Souls
France trip in October of 2008—had become for me a kind of play, which
I would not have undertaken on my own had I not had a companion ready
to “play” along with me (and to gather all the equipment).
we brushed paint with brooms in the garage, we began to talk about the
principles that exist in every project requiring humans to “get ready”
or to “be prepared,” whether it is cooking a recipe, designing a work
project, leaving for a vacation, writing a book, cleaning a car,
planting a garden, going to church, or implementing a big (or little)
So, at the Bishop Lane Retreat Center in Rockford,
before entering into 24 hours of Grand Silence, Natalie and I
demonstrated “painting with brooms.” This was slightly complicated
because it takes almost 24 hours for a layer of paint to dry before the
next layer can be applied. Consequently, we adapted our technique by
applying the first field of color—black, which dried to a charcoal
grey—in the garage. There, we used push brooms to sweep the color
across the eight-foot expanse of paper. This technique allows the
colors to puddle between the feathery-sweeps left by the broom. Onto
these puddles we pressed kitchen plastic-wrap and removed it when the
field was no longer wet to the touch. This left spontaneous blotches of
texture that gave intriguing surface effects. At the retreat, we then
swept royal-blue acrylic on the upper half of the surface using the
feathering strokes of a straw-bristle kitchen broom—we had learned that
plastic bristles do not absorb the paint.
Without allowing the blue acrylic to dry, Natalie
then filled a turkey-baster with a magenta-toned paint that she spread
in big looping designs across the lower half of the paper; sort of a
loose-handed combination of squeezing and pouring! Without allowing
this color to dry, she then hit a wallpaper brush filled with yellow so
that it splattered bright random sprays across the whole scroll.
when the attendees had gone and as the retreat progressed, Natalie
blotted the standing pools of paint, we turned on floor fans to hasten
the drying process, and she spent the next morning calligraphing “Prepare Ye!” all
over the 8’ papers (four in all, two of them for each retreat).
The universal principles about getting ready we shared from this
teaching metaphor are:
project begins with an unformed idea.
An idea, no
matter how mundane—I need
to get the house really cleaned this week—is
the genesis of any getting-ready project. A seed concept lies at the
beginning of grand schemes or ordinary functions. The question is this:
What are we going to do with that idea?
For Natalie, the
idea of using ordinary objects for some artistic adventuring began at
the Macht Foundation above the little town of Saint-Paul de Vence,
nestled in the hills above the French coastal city of Nice. The museum,
which had mounted a major exhibit of the works of the abstract,
modernist painter Hans Hartung, also displayed cases of his tools—a
fascinating introduction to technique. Natalie came home determined to
this approach to painting herself—hence, our painting with brooms.
interesting thing about “the idea” is that everyone has ideas, but not
everyone executes the idea (nor should every idea be executed). And
many of us just do not pay attention to what is going on in the inner
stew of our desires and longings and conceptualizations. Ideas do pop
into our hearts and minds: I
would love to… we think.
point, the inner saboteur begins to tell us all the reason why we
cannot do what it is we would love to do. You
couldn’t possibly do that; you’re not gifted enough. You don’t have
enough money. You never finish what you start. On and on it sneers,
injecting its innuendoes and accusations, shutting down the embryonic
ideas that want life.
We are never potentially more god-like than when we decide whether or
not to give ourselves to the idea. The
Mind of the Maker,
written by Dorothy Sayers, is a theological treatise on creativity and
the creative mind. In it she writes, “It is the artist who, more than
other men, is able to create something out of nothing. A whole artistic
work is immeasurably more than the sum of its parts. … The components
of the material world are fixed; those of the world of the imagination
increase by a continuous and irreversible process, without any
destruction or rearrangement of what went before. This represents the
nearest approach we experience to ‘creating out of nothing.’ … The
experience of the creative imagination in the common man or woman and
in the artist is the only thing we have to go upon in entertaining and
formulating the concept of Creation.”
So be tender toward your ideas. Remember: Every project begins with an
next principle of getting ready is that we begin to gather
what we need to execute the idea.
learned that if I want to bake pumpkin bread for the holidays, or make
some of the endless variations of pumpkin-soup recipes I’ve collected,
or finally get to that pumpkin soufflé dessert I’ve been wanting an
excuse to use, I need to buy pumpkins before Thanksgiving. No pumpkins
are to be found anywhere the week before Thanksgiving (Charlie Brown’s
Great Pumpkin gathers them all into the Garden Patch in the sky, I
guess). So, I take one morning in October before the nearby Farmers’
Market closes for the season and splurge on a wild assortment of cucurabitaceae
(pumpkins, gourds or squashes). They line the walk to my house and sit
on my cement porch beside the front door.
sign in the canned-goods aisle of my grocer’s this morning apologized
that they had run out of cans of pumpkins due to an unexpected shortage
in the growing zones caused by inclement weather. Good thing that I had
gathered my equipment earlier in the fall. I pried the frozen pumpkins
out of the snow-covered displays, defrosted them slowly in the oven,
baked them, scraped the seeds out and the skins off, and made my own
In order to paint with brooms, Natalie had to gather
the equipment, learn what worked and what didn’t work, figure the costs
(hence acrylic paint, which is cheaper than the rest and tolerates
being watered down) and construct some sort of informal timeline. We
had four practice sessions, one discussion session, one conversation
about what-were-we-doing, never completed a finished work but decided
that as far as a teaching metaphor goes, we knew enough to mount a
getting-ready process includes a gathering period.
along the way, when we are getting ready, we do some type of research.
we do. Think about the fact-checking that goes into writing a
journalistic article. Think about the morning spent looking into
recipes for that company dinner. Think about how many books I’ve read
on the microenterprise economy so I could be informed before starting
about what it takes to purchase an airline ticket to fly somewhere for
vacation. Think of the Bible study that goes into a sermon.
realize that I have three shelves of books illuminating the art-making
process. I have been doing unconscious research because the creation of
art intrigues me. I’ve roamed through more museums across the world
than I can count. Think about what it takes for those of us from
non-liturgical church backgrounds to understand (and get ready for)
Advent! (Are the candles in an Advent wreath all one color, or are they
pink, blue and purple? What is the Christ-candle for? When are they
Every getting-ready process has some kind of research that goes into it.
we need to trust the precedents that we have already observed.
most getting-ready events, we have been gathering information, mulling
over the idea, looking at how other people do it and researching the
concept formally or informally. A whole contemplative consideration has
been going on in our lives culminating in the desire not just to know
how to climb mountains but to actually participate in the event, to
scale those walls, to go mountaineering.
So, when we
on a project, we need to trust the fact that we have been observing and
absorbing lore, information, example, some kind of experience regarding
our venture more than we even know. All the books about art I’ve read,
the artists that I’ve studied and written about have filled my inner
self with advice and how-to. I know more about what I know than I know.
When getting ready, I need to trust that learning.
I need to
look around and see what is at hand. You have probably been collecting
the tools to do what it is in your heart to do. What about that file on
traveling to Italy? What about that garage shelf filled with leftover
paint in cans that you’ve been thinking about throwing on canvas? What
about all those volumes (Karen?) about earning a living from writing?
Frequently, everything you need to get started is at hand. You have
been attracted to people who do what you want to do. One of them will
be delighted to help you get started. You want to quilt? You’ve been
gathering material scraps for years. You want to learn computer design?
Why do you always circle those classes in the local community-college
catalogue when it comes?
precedents. They will
prepare you. They will inform you. They will enable you. Believe me,
they are part of God’s work in your life to show you the way it is you
getting-ready process begins with chaos.
just the name of the game. I
don’t know how to get where I am going. That attic hasn’t really been
ordered the whole time we’ve lived in that house. We just keep shoving
things upstairs to store and rooting around up there when we need to
find things. It’s a mess! I don’t know where to start.
be afraid of the chaos (whether it is little or monumental). The very
process of getting ready is a process of bringing order through
planning, through gathering, through some sort of pre-thought, through
researching and learning into what at first seems an insurmountable
God is a
Master at creating form out of the void, or
reordering chaos into meaning. He will whisper the way into your heart.
Don’t be afraid or avoid getting ready just because you can’t see your
way through the void. You can do it.
getting-ready process needs an assessment period.
this as good as it can be?” We need to learn that we can learn more
from what we have already done. So evaluation questions must be asked.
“Can I be more efficient in the kitchen?” “Do I need to and
can I hire
help in some of the getting-ready events?” (Getting the garden ready
for spring, for instance.) “Would this getting ready be better if I
shared the labor of it with others (my husband, a willing friend, a
child in the family who is curious and capable, or colleagues at work,
I love the
fact that “In the
as Genesis tells us, God leaned back and evaluated the work. “It is
we are told He concluded. “It is
toward that blessing, from God upon you, and from you upon what you are
trying to accomplish. Be satisfied in having begun a good thing.
our Advent retreats went well this year. The teaching metaphor was a
success. Natalie’s calligraphy lifted the art experiment to another
level. Her Prepare Ye!
all over the 8’ scrolls. She cut the four 8-foot sheets into three
panels each and we sold them for $20, earning $240 in all, enough to
defray our material expenses. Sixty-six people, including the retreat
team, attended. We entered into silence, met God in the silence,
watched the light come into the world at our annual morning gathering,
had time to attend the Prepare
stations, sat before the Cross in the Chapel and repented whatever
needed to be brought before God, then swept away our errors in a
symbolic act using brooms in another way. We made appointments for
prayer. We journaled or napped, we ate meals in silence. We listened to
David Mains talk from his three-year study of Revelation, about
preparing ourselves for the Second Coming of Christ, and we went home
ready, for the most part, to enter deeply into this holy season of
watching and waiting, Advent.
some of us had an idea, a new thing pushing up out of the quiet
interior, something thrusting about, something asking for life, for
birth, for becoming, for being. Unto us a child is born.
Whatever nativity is in your heart to give birth to, may
this year be the one in which it finds conception. Blessings.
Wannabe (Better) Writers
Teleconference Training Course
For more details about this teleconference course,
beginning in February, visit http://www.hungrysouls.org/events.php.
registration cutoff date is January 15, so if you're interested, sign
up soon. Contact Karen Mains at
. Space is
3-Day Retreat of Silence
Hungry Souls plans to hold
three 3-Day Retreats of
Silence in 2010, with the first one being April 18-21, at St. Mary's
Monastery in Rock Island. More information will be made available
shortly, in the next Soulish Food.
The Soulish Food e-mails are
posted biweekly on the Hungry Souls Web
site. Newcomers can look that over and decide if they want to
register on the Web site to receive the biweekly newsletter. You might
want to recommend this to friends also. They can go to www.HungrySouls.org.
"Every getting-ready process begins
be afraid of the chaos (whether it is little or monumental). God is a
Master at creating form out of the void, or reordering chaos into
meaning. He will whisper the way into your heart. Don’t be afraid or
avoid getting ready just because you can’t see your way through the
void. You can do it."
The Mind of the Maker By Dorothy L. Sayers
Introduction by Madeleine L'Engle
Amazon.com Editorial Review
known for her Lord
Peter Wimsey mysteries, Dorothy Sayers was also a playwright, essayist,
and a translator of Dante. C.S. Lewis said that he liked her "for the
extraordinary zest and edge of her conversation—as I like a high wind."
The reader gets a fair taste of that wind in this book, her study of
the human (and divine) creative process. Beginning with some stingingly
humorous words for the education process (which has produced, she says,
"a generation of mental slatterns") she then explores the Trinitarian
nature of creativity. Here she identifies the Christian concept of the
Holy Trinity—God, Son, Holy Spirit—with three elements of creation.
First, the Idea: "passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work
complete at once, the end in the beginning"; then the Creative Energy:
"begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to end,"
manifesting the Idea in matter; and finally the Creative Power: "the
meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul"—in essence,
what she calls "the indwelling Spirit."
In a plain,
matter-of-fact style that readers will recognize from her mysteries,
she reflects on the question of free will and miracle, evil, and,
ultimately, "the worth of the work." It is especially here, I think, in
this final chapter that the book remains both timeless and profoundly
timely. The artist stands for the true worker, she writes, who, while
requiring payment for his work, as an artist "retains so much of the
image of God that he is in love with his creation for its own sake." So
too, ultimately, should it be for all human work: "That the eyes of all
workers should behold the integrity of the work is the sole means to
make that work good in itself and so good for mankind. This is only
another way of saying that the work must be measured by the standard of