Images of Grace Artist Talk

By Makoto Fujimura

Lecture, September 17-18, 1997

Thank you for coming to this exhibit, Images of Grace. I want to start out by thanking the people who work here and those who helped out. There are many of you in the audience who are my images of grace more than my works. The public sees the artistic accomplishment as an individual accomplishment, and yet, I know, as an artist, that without the "behind-the-scene" support, I cannot accomplish much at all. Thank you.

We had more than four hundred people come to the opening of this exhibition and I only had time to spend with maybe thirty people. Many have come up to me--total strangers, both here and in Japan--and they ask me deep questions about life, about spiritual issues. They open their lives to me and I find it very gratifying in one sense but also frustrating because I cannot deal with every question as much as I would like to. So, the impetus behind tonight is to try to address some of those points in detail.

I just received a fax from a museum curator in Japan. I had sent him a box of catalogs from this show. He asked me, "What does grace mean? Can you explain it to me so I can relay your thoughts to other curators?" I have to fax back to him and tell him that there is not really an appropriate Japanese word for it. There are words similar to grace, but nothing that conveys its full meaning. Then when I thought about the word "grace" in English, I realized that we do not fully understand the word either. Often this word seems "Hallmark" sweet. I have, in the past two years as I prepared for this show, delved deeper into the meaning of this word and found the word to be both practical and complex. Such a search allows us to ask some of the most important questions in life. An artist strives to get at the essence of things; whether they be trees, experiences, flowers or landscapes. The more one understands what this word has to offer in its depth, its reality, the more one realizes how much you do not understand or grasp. You can only get at an infinitesimal portion of this great reality. I have tasted this bittersweet reality of what grace means. This is a heavenly word; it forces us to seek the transcendent, but at the same time this word affirms earthly reality as it is, sometimes grim, sometimes glorious.

Even the materials and technique I use reflect both the transcendent and the immanent. As many of you know I spent six and a half years in Japan studying the technique of Nihonga, which is literally translated as "Japanese style painting." I use materials and techniques developed over one thousand years of Japanese paintings but using the visual vocabulary of twentieth century, contemporary art. I import the materials from Japan--the works are all done on paper--thin, hand-made paper. Some of them are stretched over canvases, some of them over panels. For pigments I use mineral pigments, actually semi-precious stone crushed, such as azurite, malachite, cinnabar pigments. These pigments, when finely ground, become a lighter shade of color. Coarsely ground, they remain dark and intense as on the left side of "Sacrificial Grace." You can see on "Grace Foretold," the blue that is flowing from the top--that is the azurite pigment.

I use them not just because they are beautiful, which they are, but because they have this wonderful lineage. I use them because of the specific symbolism attached to them. For me, mineral pigments have significance as symbols; they symbolize God's spiritual gifts to people and the glories of the saints in the Bible. In Solomon's temple these precious stones were embedded in the walls as well as in the garments of the high priest. When you look closely at these paintings you see that they have a peculiar surface--they glitter and shine. Crushed minerals, therefore, symbolize gift both from heaven and earth, and point to my deeper struggle to return the gifts given to the Creator.

Gold has always been a symbol of divinity because it does not change. I have used the image of cascading gold as a metaphor--it speaks of the City of God descending among the cities of men. Silver, on the other hand, does change and oxidize, tarnishing over time, so it is a symbol of death within. In Japan, silver has always symbolized death but also the fleeting reality of our existence; in Japanese culture death is seen as something that needs to be viewed as something beautiful. These materials and the technique itself captures the essence of an aesthetic-world view developed over centuries of Japanese art. At the same time, I believe the range of expression and surface-presence of these materials makes them appropriate contemporary medium, a visual diction that bridges the past and the present.

Grace Foretold and River Grace (Red) came about based on my experience of traveling with my family to Niagara. The splendor and majesty and power of the falls--no matter how much they commercialize it--impress and awe us still. I wanted to, afterwards, go to a place called Lewistown, which is five miles down stream from Niagara Falls. Geologists tell us that these magnificent falls began at Lewistown some thousands of years ago. I went there and it is simply a river now, flowing very deep. What an amazing thing to be standing in front of this river and to think that thousands of years ago something happened here. I do not know if it was a geological shift, a glitch in the rocks, temperature changing, or what, but something caused this river to become the falls. The following I wrote soon afterwards to try to capture what I experienced there fishing with my sons, Ty, eight, and C.J., five.

"Each year, the falls recedes a few inches as the water wear down the rocks. We walked the edge of the pier, along with few other fishermen. I put a delicate, small crayfish on C.J.'s hook and waited. In a moment, his line swam against the current. I took the rod, set the hook, and returned the rod to C.J.'s hands; but in the process realized we had quite a fish. We fought it for a while and asked a local fisherman to help us land it. He, chewing on now a dying ember of a cigarette, skillfully turned the net, swooped the 21 inch bronzeback, a smallmouth bass. C.J., upon examining the fish took a few steps back. It was as long as his legs. The fish swayed its tail in slow motion, and I felt, with my thumbs as I lifted the fish, its abrasive teeth. The red gills moved in and out; the hook had set too deeply as it swallowed the soft crayfish whole. We decided to give the fish to the fisherman. The old man took the fish without a word, grasped it's mouth with his tanned, skinny hands full of veins, locked the chain stringer in its mouth and gills and lowered the fish, along with a few other bronzebacks into the water.

In the dying light, I pondered the contour of C.J. 's back, who sat ever more attentively to the river, the line, his rod. More bass swam in this river, many many more. Those bronzebacks would swim deep, reflecting the sun handsomely in the translucent, malachite river flowing in front of us so deep and powerful. I looked over to the mist of the falls, a storm was approaching, perhaps over the falls now. Then, I saw in my mind's eye what would become a painting later.

I recognized something. The scene came from an earlier work in which the field was red. I saw the malachite river not malachite but red, a deep, cinnabar red. Then, in an instant, it was back to malachite, perhaps even clearer than it was before. What did I see? I was not sure. I do not think it was a "vision" but a recognition. I saw the scene with the artist's eye, with a visual language I had been developing. In one sense, my paintings that I had painted earlier paved the way for this experience.

I had always used red (shu) pigments as symbol of atonement and redemption. Shu pigments (vermilion) painted with Nihonga method on paper possess unusual quality of lightness and depth. Red painted with acrylic or oil does not have the warmth nor the light that Japanese vermilion does. These reds, combined with coarse, cinnabar pigments, create a unique illusion of space within the semi-opaque layers of pigments. Rothko and Newman both understood the power of red. I wanted to create work that had both the ethereal space of Rothko, but directness and power of a Newman.

I initially thought to contrast the horizon line with a gestural vertical motion by using a wing motif. But I thought of Newman's architectural paintings and came up with a unique idea. I remembered, in one of my dealings with classical paintings, that pure gold line, thinly painted, can dominate a very large space. I like gold lines, as it alludes Blake's words

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate
Built in Jerusalem's wall.

Jerusalem (plate 77, p. 716)

A vision of death accompanies a vision of life; every parent must experience the fear of losing a child. Despite the communion and closeness I felt to my son, at the same time, I felt so alone and naked, alienated from the very experience in which I found such intimacy. A moment flees you before you desire, and the struggle is trying to fight your inclination to grab hold and strangle and kill the very life before it escapes. Every experience is both eternal and fleeting at the same time, every relationship depends on trusting through change and growth. Eternity grasped means, in our finiteness, frustration of seeing that moment escape through our fingers. Like the bronzeback, the beauty of the substance never remains. We cannot grasp the moment, but we can only let go. Because this moment will be gone; and C.J. would grow, I would change, the Niagara Falls will move another few meters back to the mountains.

Art mirrors this struggle and captures the process of letting go. Every stroke pushes the painting to sacrifice itself: every creative act destroys something previously built. Imagination reveals not new vistas but revelations of reality behind reality. All art points to a transaction between reality of the seen and reality of the unseen. Art reaches out to the extra-dimensionality of God and God's Kingdom Reality. Art uses frail, earthly materials, its limited dimensionality to open ourselves to the experience of the Heavenly realm."

Grace comes to us both hidden and revealed. Like the golden line here in River Grace (Red), it remains peripheral to us, often unnoticed. It may signify the inconsequential, a small beginning of something new. We certainly do not recognize grace enough in our lives. This gift of grace is like the air we breathe or the light we see or the water we drink. Unless it's removed from us we do not appreciate it enough. But when you do see grace, just like this golden line, it dominates everything you see and it becomes a significant indispensable part of the whole.

On the other hand, grace is like this cascading gold here on Grace Foretold. Like the Niagara Falls, a costly city of God may overwhelm us, and such vision captures us both inescapably and irreversibly.

A friend of mine, when he learned that I was embarking on this series of grace he said, "You've got to see Les Miz." He treated my wife and me and we went to see the Broadway play Les Miserable. Like Jean Val Jean, some are forever changed by that one significant moment, as when the priest forgave him, for stealing his spoons. The priest tells him that he did not steal, that it was given to him, and presents him the silver candlesticks along with the spoons. When you see the musical, you see that he always carries the candlesticks with him, everywhere he goes, as a reminder of this redemptive grace. He ends up even sacrificing his own life for the freedom of being forgiven.

Ryunoske Akutagawa, a postwar Japanese writer, one of the most influential writers of postwar Japan, wrote a short story called "A Silver Thread of a Spider," a story of man like Jean Val Jean. A man "who committed many crimes, such as arson and murder--and yet on one occasion he found kindness in his heart for a spider." While taking a walk one day, he saw a spider and instead of crushing it with his foot, he decided to spare its life. Therefore, when he got to purgatory, Buddha lowered him the silver thread of a spider as his last chance for salvation. He grabbed hold of the thread and climbed up it; but halfway up he made a mistake. He looked down and saw all these people climbing up the thread after him. Millions of people. And, as soon as he thought in his heart--even before it came out of his mouth--when he yelled, "get off this thread, this is mine, my thread," the spider web broke above him.

I was thinking about that story when painted River Grace--Red. So much of my experience here on this earth points to this man's experience. Our hearts desperately try to find that thread that would take us into another level of experience. We can all fill in the blank here-- if only we had _________ . Perhaps it is things hoped for in a career, relationships, health, children--I do not know what they are but we all have them. The problem is that once we have it we are afraid to share that, afraid that the thread that we are holding onto will break.

My struggle in using these gorgeous materials--they are really gifts from God--is that the more that I thought about the beauty behind these materials, the power of them, the glory behind the beauty started to crush my heart. A schism developed inside my heart. The more I succeeded in expression, the less success I was finding in my own heart and in my relationships with my wife and with friends. It was tormenting because I thought of myself as a "righteous" man who wanted to be a good husband, who wanted to be a good person. Yet, it felt as if one had to choose between important relationships, or investing one's time as an artist in one's craft, exploring this trans-dimensional area which brings so much satisfaction and glory. The more you find glory in your works, somehow, the less you are able to see that glory in your own life. Art then was my treasure, it was my holy work, and it was my identity.

There is a man in the Bible who coined this word "grace." His name was Saul, later Paul, a first century orthodox Jew. My treasure was my art, his was his lineage. He had everything given to him, "a Hebrew of Hebrews," he would boast. He had, as orthodox Jew, an unwavering allegiance to the Torah, God's law. He was so much like this man climbing up the spider web. He tried to fulfill his life by following what he thought God was asking him to do, to be "faultless" in his zeal to obey not only God's law but human-made laws of his religion. Saul was determined to persecute the early church; people who call themselves The Way, because these people had seen the Messiah resurrected. The Messiah claimed to be the "way, truth and life," thus claiming exclusivity to the path to God. For Saul, this was a tremendous insult against his own path of obedience to the Law. He was willing to do anything to sacrifice his time and his life to destroy this fast-growing movement.

Something happened on the way to Damascus. He came face to face with this resurrected Messiah, the one that he thought did not exist or was unwilling to admit that he existed. He met him person to person and what used to be a religion turned into something else, turned into a relationship between the Maker and a creature. Later on, Paul looked back to this experience and he was trying to find a word that would best describe what had happened to him. He could not find an appropriate word in Greek to fully capture this extraordinary experience. He had to describe the indescribable, a cosmic gift to a most unlikely recipient. He, being a good communicator, invented a word. He used the word for gift (charisma) in Greek and shortened it into the word for grace(charis). Grace to him was a gift.

Later, Paul repeats his poetic language to describe his experience at Damascus. He writes in the letter to the Ephesians, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast." He goes on to say, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do." "Workmanship" in Greek is "poiema" from which we get the word "poem." Notice the curious contradiction there; Paul starts out saying that everything is by grace, grace is a gift, 100% God's gift and then he turns around and says, "For you are God's workmanship," we are God's artworks. But it is only be God's grace that we can become God's artworks.

Paul's experience must have been like the (see "Grace Foretold") cascading gold of grace. For some, the experience of grace, come very slowly, imperceptibly like the golden line of "River Grace--Red." Yet, when the line is drawn, because of the unique power of gold, the line dominates the whole. I try not to add anything to my paintings unless it changes the whole. In fact, that's how I know that I have finished the work -- when I give up because anything I do will be superfluous. I think this principle applies to our lives.. We always try to have these Band-Aids on our hearts; we always try to fix this and that, a little here a little there. What needs to happen, just as I try to do in the painting, I think we do need a stroke, a line that changes our entire being. Our entire selves will be made new, different. The prophet Ezekiel, with God speaking through him, says "I will give you a new heart, put a new spirit in you."

My wife experienced grace in this manner about ten years ago through a simple understanding of the Ephesians verse I quoted before, "By grace you have been saved." Before that she was like the man trying to climb up the silver thread, afraid that it might break. She understood for the first time that grace had nothing to do with that; it was something that God had already prepared for her. Since it is God's grace, like the golden line, it will never change. So she rested her heart on this truth that instead of trying to live up to a supposed standard that God had set for her, she would invite him to live her life through her.

I noticed a difference in her being. I noticed the way she treated the Bible differently. She began to see it not as a book of law but as a love letter. So I was surprised by this--I thought I always knew more than her. I used to always try to quiz her about what she knew of biblical history although I did not for sure consider myself a Christian. My wife had invited me to attend church with her and, being a typical artist, I did not like going a church. An artist dislikes anything institutional. I went just to please her. Once there, though I met many people there, my own age, who shared with me their struggles but also their passion and commitment to this Jesus of Nazareth. I understood commitment. I used to measure people against their commitment to their identity, perhaps because I was so proud of my commitment to my own art.

My commitment to my art was drawing me inward and I struggled with trying simply to love. But these people seemed to have a balance of inward discipline and outward love. One friend told me, "You know, Mako, you do have many criticism of the church and Christianity; some of what you say is true, but have you looked, I mean really looked, at the person of Jesus Christ?"

I sat in a small apartment in The Twin Rivers of Tamagawa on a cold February morning. I went back to my art and back to a "mentor" of mine from college years, William Blake. I was reading that day, his last epic poem "Jerusalem," William Blake's most consolidated work. In it he synthesized ideas and aesthetic ideals that he had been developing all his life. I waded through some 120 pages long, the culmination of his work and the work that he was most proud of.

At the end of this poem William Blake, through his emanation Albion, who symbolizes all searching humanity, comes to the cross of Christ. Throughout the book Albion asks many of life's deep questions--I am sure, if you read it, your questions are there. The accompanying engraving right next it is a picture of Albion with his arms outstretched, looking up. Of course, what Blake was doing was showing that in order to understand the cross we have to imitate it in some way.

Albion comes to the cross and asks, "Oh lord, what can I do, my selfhood cruel marches against thee deceitful, to meet thee in its pride." And Jesus replied, "Fear not, Albion, unless I die though canst not live, /but if I die than I shall arise again and thou with me... Wouldst thou love one who never died for thee/ or ever die for one who had not died for thee,/ and if God dieth not for man and give not himself eternity man could not exist, /for man is love as God is love,/ every kindness to another is a little death in a divine image/ nor can man exist but by brotherhood". Notice the language of transaction. What I understood that day, which changed my life and changed my art, was this--we do not understand these heavenly words like grace or love or peace or joy until they are shown to us. We learn by example. And the only way we can understand this word of love which I really did not understand fully, was that someone would go to the extent of dying for another to show us what love meant. Love costs. Calvary's cross cost God's Son his life.

This language of transaction hinges on Albion's words, "My selfhood cruel marches against thee deceitful." Just like in the story of this man and the silver thread, as I identified with that, I identified with Albion, and as my art became a treasure, something I wanted to hold onto, it enslaved me rather than freed me. What was happening was that I didn't want to let go, to lose control, even though my control was not over my life only over my works. I had to be willing to be shown that I was marching against the Creator God himself.

To love is to die--it's a simple way of defining love. I found myself completely surprised that these words of a 18th century poet and artist had exactly the same message as a 20th century Christian, those church friends of mine, were trying to share with me. This parallel, this connection, this agreement had profound significance for me--penetrated my heart. Something moved within me; in my heart, my allegiance was then transferred from Art to Christ that day.

As I reflect on this today, using this theme of grace, my life parallels this painting. I have come to understand something unique about grace. It is not silver, it is golden. It comes into your life--in my case, almost invisibly and I'm sure for some of you it comes as dramatically as in Paul's case. To me, when I understood the word grace and understood that this thread of grace was running throughout history and that Christ 2,000 years ago on that hill at Calvary, was thinking of me and he wanted to show me how I could reconcile this schism that I found in my heart, that resulted from a greater schism between my heart and God's heart.

Paul writes in the book of Colossians of the Messiah. "He is the image of the invisible God. The first born over all of creation. For by him all things were created. Things in heaven and in earth, visible and invisible. Whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities, all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross."

I realized as I prepared for this talk something about my Niagara experience I've never realized before--why the experience was so haunting for me. When I got married, I did not want more than one child for fear that I would not be able to support children as an artist. I was afraid of losing control of my life. But for us, having children meant in faith trusting God to provide, and responding to God's grace poured out in our lives. We now have three children. I have certainly lost control. You see, I would never have had the experience at Niagara with C.J. apart from our decision to trust God with our lives. This decision, like the origin of the falls, then a singular decision based on our response to God's grace, now has literally multiplied to define my life in a greater way. I would not have this exhibit apart from my grace experience. None of these paintings would be here. Each painting, the gold, silver, precious minerals testify to God's gracious provision for us in these past years. The extravagance of the materials used only contrasts the poverty of my heart. Again, if I take the glory of the substance seen to be of my own glory, I know my heart will be crushed. If I take on the glory of my children and my wife on my own strength, I will fail miserably. I am like Jean Val Jean, whose life has been touched by grace, my art are my candles. They are God's Images of Grace.

Copyright Makoto Fujimura. Used by permission.

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