Why I Create: An Argument from Beauty

Wherein I outline how beholding and articulating Beauty is the essence of my purpose for expression.

“An encounter with generosity can remind us that life always overflows our attempts to reduce it to a commodity or a transaction — because it is a gift. Life and beauty are gratuitous in the best senses of the word.”
— Makoto Fujimura

“He has made everything beautiful in its time...”
— Ecclesiastes 3:11

It is difficult for me to articulate the precise twists and turns of my personal journey as an artist and follower of Christ. It has been filled with so many voices, from John Piper to C.S. Lewis, from Lilias Trotter to Amy Carmichael. In more recent years, my perceptions have been shaped by minister and cinephile James Harleman and artist and writer Makoto Fujimura, both of whom had awakened my spirit to the power of cinema and how art influences and shapes our culture. Yet my education has equally been shaped by hardworking teachers from my hometown college of Mesa Community College and by the tenets of The Gordan School Art, a correspondence course which gave me the formal training I needed in my more formative years. Ultimately, my education has been one of observation, both literally and figuratively, as my inner world has been constructed from dozens of these “voices”. I have studied the works of Michelangelo and Rembrandt and admired the immaculate medieval manuscripts of ancient Christianity and the metaphorical complexity of Hieronymus Bosch. I have loved the pulsating emotions that inform Van Gogh’s colors and brushstrokes and have been mesmerized by the mind-bending realities of M.C. Escher. I have been given my life-long purpose of developing a visual language through the work and writings of Wassily Kandinsky, and only believed truly in the world of enchantment and its power to change the ordinary into the extraordinary because of the magic of Walt Disney. I have contemplated the beauty of ideas themselves through the writings of Isaac Asimov and learned about the power of story through the burning ache of J.R.R. Tolkien. I have been enthralled by the immaculately crafted worlds of Christopher Nolan and made to transcend by the sublime vision of Andrei Tarkvosky. I have had the guidance of good parents, a loving family, my two “warrior poet” sisters who are companions on this same journey with me, and my wonderful friends both near and far. The road has sometimes branched off into strange directions, down dead ends and uncomfortable confrontations and occurrences that have defied definition, and yet all of it has been critical in how I view my walk with Christ and most especially the talent He has given me in my art and how that relates to my relationship with Him.

It began at age 5 when I free hand copied memory game icons and my parents recognized my talent. Seeing as Disney’s The Little Mermaid and then, later, Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were my childhood obsessions, I inevitably became determined to become a Disney animator. Fast forward a couple decades later and I would define myself more as a pilgrim freelance artist, a rogue creative who has developed an abstract and surrealist style and visual voice. Yet for all the roads I have journeyed down and for all the voices that have guided me along the way, there has always been one prevailing theme that has been absolutely clear to me – the importance of Beauty as my noblest pursuit.

“One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.”

— Psalm 27:4

It was the teachings of John Piper that first awakened me to this concept of ‘Beauty’, which, quite suitably, began with my walk with Christ as well. I was struck one afternoon when I overheard my mother listening to one of John Piper’s sermons wherein he used a visual aid by recalling the moment in The Lord of the Rings The Two Towers. After a long night siege at Helm’s Deep, our heroes see the glorious sight of Gandalf, Eomer, and the rest of the Rohirrim up on the hill. They had been unjustly sent away, but return now to aid their king and country in their hour of greatest need. That feeling we get when we see them all ride down the hill in that epic charge, as Gandalf’s Shadowfax does that beautiful slow-motion jump, with the lens flare of the morning breaking onto the darkness of the orc and uruk-hai armies – that precise feeling was something John Piper was trying to communicate. Many may know the famous slogan of his ministry: “God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him.” Here he was trying to illustrate how that feeling we get when watching that moment of Story (of Art) in The Two Towers is merely an echo of the feeling we are meant to have when we gaze upon the face of our Lord - explaining what it means to be “most satisfied in Him”. In that moment I was struck with this radical idea that my Christianity wasn’t something that was merely head knowledge, a ritualistic and religious act, but something that was living, breathing, and heart palpitating. I was a nerd, a fantasy fanatic, and Lord of the Rings obsessed fangirl, and so I understood that language of Art and Story. I began to realize that maybe the experiences I was having with all of my books and movies that I loved and consumed everyday were only just the tip of the iceberg – that they were merely windows that overlooked a far greater and greener country beyond.

My mind was, quite literally, blown.

From that point on, my journey was set on trying to discover and manifest this living theology that Piper awakened in my heart. I already knew and had Christ; it wasn’t a conversion experience, but I saw that my relationship with Him was only at the beginning. He was inviting me on a journey to repeatedly find Him, but to find Him in secret places, and to manifest those places that I found Him through my artistic talent which He had given me. These “treasures” I would discover are what I would unquestionably call “bits of Beauty”. The way I am defining ‘Beauty’ in this sense is an all-encompassing term. It isn’t just an ornamental and aesthetic idea – although it does include these forms of beauty. Beauty can be found in a child’s smile, in the kindness of a friend, in late night talks with sisters, in the sun as it shines through the fractals within the leaves, in the obscure nature of our physical reality being made up of excitations of fields and wave-like particles and particle-like waves. It is in the impossible vastness of space and in the first high resolution photographs of Pluto from the New Horizons probe. Beauty is a state of mind, a concept, a seeking out, a feeling that goes deeper than words. It is in compassion and empathy for others, in the nitty gritty reality that feels so banal and mundane at times. It is a sight that goes deeper than sight. It is in walking through this life and seeing the Face of the Divine in the nooks and crannies all around. To me ‘Beauty’ is something that is living and active, where the hands of Heaven are reaching through the physical reality and grabbing hold of our lapels and shaking us to our core. You cannot stay indifferent to true Beauty when you see it. You must respond to it, and it demands our response. And for me that response is: create.

Mimosa 2009. A very early work during my formative years, and one of my first illustrations where I was trying to convey this call to Beauty. This illustration tells the story of a real life Hindu woman known by Amy Carmichael who heard the call to Christ and trusted in Him through much adversity, although she had no Bible or Christian family to guide her. She was lead solely by the Spirit and endured. I would highly recommend reading Carmichael’s book, Mimosa: A True Story, as this woman’s story was truly a testament to the resilience of Beauty.

Of course, as it is true of any story, the journey to our goals in life are never easy, and it wasn’t very long before I began to run into every artist’s greatest bane of their existence – the practicalities of life, i.e. making money. I can confidently say that all my endeavors to make myself and my art monetarily successful have crashed and burned. I have been met with closed door after closed door and there is literally nothing practically fruitful about what I am pursuing in my art whatsoever. Thank the Lord for His provision in my parent’s love, otherwise I would be the stereotypical “starving artist” quite literally. It was not easy facing that reality, and it made me angry at the world. I hated it, how it would (and often still does) distill all the Beauty down to what is monetarily valuable and practically beneficial – which, to me, is arbitrarily decided upon - where it is either “adapt or die”. I refused to adapt because it would go against all that was in my heart. My journey with Beauty would become corrupted and twisted if I allowed the world to change me and my ideas. Yet it was clear I wasn’t going to “die.” God wasn’t going to allow that, so that just left me in some ambiguous land of some unknown third option – some strange in-between space that was neither the world within which so many walked nor was it completely untethered from that shared reality.

Yet while the Lord has had to deal with my anger at the world (you cannot create earnestly if you have anger in your heart), it was undeniably clear to me that my pursuit of Beauty was worthy in and of itself as a pursuit, and that it didn’t need to provide any extra reward. Beauty is a gratuitous thing, something that is extra and not something that fulfills a utilitarian need. I believe Fujimura said it best in his book Culture Care (a book that has been so influential in my journey, I would highly recommend it), as he says:

“A Christian understanding of beauty begins with the recognition that God does not need us, or the creation. Beauty is a gratuitous gift of the creator God; it finds its source and its purpose in God’s character. God, out of his gratuitous love, created a world he did not need because he is an artist. […] This is why our soul hungers for beauty.” (page 52)

Fujimura continues:

“Because it is gratuitous, beauty points beyond itself, beyond survival to satisfaction. We think of it in opposition to narrowness, scarcity, drudgery, and constraint. We think instead of what is expansive, generous, abundant, connected, and expressive. Beauty also connects us with the why of life. It points to discoveries waiting to be made about the creation. It points toward questions of right relationships, of ultimate meaning, and even of eternity. It points backward and outward and forward to our ultimate Source and Sustainer.”

Here within these words so articulately expressed by Makoto is how I wanted to live my life and create through my art, operating from this generosity, to hold things with an open hand and give of myself freely because ‘Beauty’ is abundance. I would never have to cling, strive, or act out of a scarcity mindset, but I was free to dream, create, and be as the Lord made me because I wasn’t the source from which I drew life - He was my Source. I would be drawing all my strength from Him, the Waters of Life, living water that would never fail.

There is another aspect to ‘Beauty’ that I would be remiss to not mention, as it is a critical part of the framework from which I am always creating – and that is to remember Beauty is a concept that is intimately familiar with suffering. In case you were thinking I was living in a wonderland fairytale of my own making up until this point, I understand that the world is dark, ugly, and broken – and the older I get I realize this more completely. That is why Beauty isn’t a sublime ideal that is out of touch with a broken world, but actively speaks into and through brokenness. This understanding of Beauty within Art is something I have specifically learned through the study of Japanese art and aesthetic, as the Japanese perspective is the most perceptive of the connection between Beauty and suffering. The Chinese ideogram for the Japanese word ‘Beauty’ (美) is the combination of two ideograms, 羊 (sheep) on the top and 大 (great) on the bottom. It is this idea of the “greater sheep” connotating “a greater sacrifice” that “may require sacrifice of one’s own life to save the lives of others.” (Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering) It is so strange that a Chinese ideogram would use the symbol of a “sheep” within the word for ‘Beauty’, as where does this idea of the greatest act of suffering and sacrifice find its home?

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
— Revelations 5:12

“Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
— Philippians 2:6-8

The heavenly work of the Cross is an act of Beauty - the most wonderful act of Beauty of a Creator God who came to us in the flesh through His Beloved Son Jesus Christ, who died for us that we may live unto Him. And here this concept seems to lie hidden within the Japanese aesthetic. I would highly recommend reading the complete book of Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura to gain the full understanding of the heart of the Japanese, but what struck me in the book was Makoto’s contemplation of Tohaku Hasegawa’s famous byobu screens Ryu-kyou-suisha-zu (The Watermill at Willow Tree Bridge). In this exquisite work of art there is a waning gibbous moon that is painted silver. Silver, Makoto reminds us, is something that tarnishes over time so the way we only see it now as a black moon. He wonders, was this moon painted silver deliberately knowing that it would tarnish over time? He describes silver as a “hidden color” that was used during the 17th Century by artists and artisans “to express deep sentiments of lament, mono-no-aware (pathos of things), and trauma by creating beauty of pathos.” To Makoto this “black, foreboding moon symbolizes the hidden light of Japanese beauty.” (Silence and Beauty) - a Beauty that speaks to the suppressed and traumatic history of the Japanese people. And their Art is full of these hidden beauties, a silent testament that resounds within their Art even hundreds of years later.

So we see that the Japanese aesthetic is intrinsically connected to the reality of trauma and pain, through sacrifice, lament, and anguish, but by connecting these realities to Beauty itself through their Art, they are looking beyond their present reality to a reality that lies deeper, one that could be described as imperishable and eternal. In this way, I would describe Japanese Art as the art of endurance. In Hebrews 12:1-2 we are reminded:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Why did Christ endure death, even death on the Cross? For joy. What is this joy?

“You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

— Psalm 16:11

Why, do you not see? It is Beauty.

“One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.”

— Psalm 27:4

This is why I create, and why I believe I have been given artistic talents. For this reason, I have chosen the Ecclesiastes verse 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time...” as my branding tagline as a reminder and testament of my life’s purpose. To me, this proclamation is both a statement of fact and a promise. A statement so I am able to rest in my present reality knowing that the fallen nature of this world has already been redeemed, but a promise too that even if I cannot see and experience that redemption in real time, there will come a day when that Beauty will be self-evident, where we will no longer need pictures and images to show us Beauty through metaphorical windows, doorways, or mirrors, but we will be come to see that Beauty face to face. On that glorious day, our joy will never be taken from us again. Amen.

“Artists, whether they are professed believers or not, tap into this grace and glory. There is a “terrible beauty” operating throughout creation. There is not one inch of earth that Christ does not call “Mine!”
— Makoto Fujimura