D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: Upside-Down Art

Upside-Down Art: A Carcass in the World

  Matthew Shedden is a friend and editor of mine (he is the praxis editor for The Other Journal, a lovely and smart enterprise). He has excellent taste in books and now we get to reap the benefits of his excellent taste in art. So many parts of this essay (and the artist) spoke to me, but my favorite line is in regards to self-satisfied middle-class Christians: "they spoke of the assurances of life while staring at me anxiously”. The haunting nature of these paintings will not leave me for quite some time. Which is good. I need them to tell me about life in the thin, black-and-white spaces. 



Upside-Down Art: A Carcass in the World


by Matthew Shedden






“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”

― Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Toward the end of last year, I took the long hard dive into reading Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch. As I read through this novel, I was drawn into her language around paintings and art. It gave me a desire to connect to paintings despite the fact that I have no real knowledge of the art world. But on a trip to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon I pressed myself to find the art section and explore it in hopes of finding at least one book. As I wandered lost among the shelves of books of fine art I remembered an artist that I wrote a crummy paper on in seminary. I wasn’t sure where I had come across his art before but when I had seen some of his simple images, they ripped open a whole new place inside of me. They are, as one friend put it, haunting. Knowing his last name began with a ‘Rou’, I gave up exploring the whole art section and settled on finding his book.

The artist’s name is Georges Rouault. He was born in France in 1871 and passed away in 1958. One of the things that drew me to Rouault as an artist is the intertwining of life with his art. He once wrote, “My life and my art make a single whole”. Rouault was raised in a poor family, but more than that he was someone who saw the horrors of both World Wars as well as the Franco-Prussian war. His family was poor and destitute in many ways and it was the prompting of his grandfather that encouraged him to become an artist. I haven’t researched much of Rouault’s early life, but as he grew up he at times referred to his body as a “carcass”.

This notion of being a carcass in the world brings out what many consider the central theme of Rouault’s work, which is suffering. Many people, after seeing his paintings, remark about the raw nature of his art, the anguish in his subjects. This shouldn’t be a surprise because his subjects are often clowns, prostitutes, the sick, elderly, and the suffering Christ. For him, saints were those who suffered, and so he took time to paint them all in relation to the suffering one.  His portrayals of the middle class bourgeois are more startling. He especially disliked the Christian middle class for the way they spoke to him when he was young and starving for they “spoke of the assurances of life while staring at me anxiously”.

The book I picked up that day in Powell’s is one that captures one his greatest exhibits, Miserere et Guerre. Literally translated “Misery and War”. However, it is clear that the word Miserere comes from the first line for Psalms 51 in the Latin. These paintings, entirely in black and white, hit you with an overwhelming weight of suffering, but also provides a glimpse into the human condition. One clown painting is titled, Who does not put on make-up? But when you look at the picture it looks back at you asking about your make-up. Rouault accepted that we all wear masks that proclaim our role in society, but the poor wear the thinnest mask, that is, if they have one on at all.


Another painting that challenges the notion of what is right side up and what is upside down is plate 55, Sometimes, the blind man consoles the seeing. In this image you see one person clearly in lament looking toward the sky, and another reaching out to him. It appears the seeing man is the blind man and the blind man is the seeing, but the one with the hand out and hand down is the one offering consolation. In the gospels it is often the blind who receive sight, but Rouault captures for us the consoling touch of another that opens us up to another kind of healing.


One that has become my favorite as I’ve spent time with this collection is “Tomorrow will be beautiful, said the shipwrecked man.” The title comes from a poem Rouault wrote to accompany the exhibit, and I think it clearly draws out how we can look through his paintings and see hope. Suffering is a part of this life, one in Rouault’s mind, which we should not try as hard to avoid. In suffering he see us as people who become more than the masks, the make-up, and disguises we wear. But through it we, like the shipwrecked man, can proclaim tomorrow will be beautiful with the hope that comes through the resurrection.

Rouault viewed this series of paintings as devotional art. Because of this the curators of the exhibit, chronicled in the book, placed biblical quotations alongside his images. They remind us that although “rendered with thick black outlines and diffused gray tonalities  that evoke smoke and darkness of a world destroyed, the Miserere prints simultaneously have the luminescence of stained glass, hinting of light breaking through the darkness. While somber, they nonetheless allude to the promise of redemption, for as Rouault knew well, behind every shadow is a source of light.”








imageMatthew Shedden is Praxis editor at The Other Journal and an associate Pastor in rural Oregon. He writes more at mshedden.com and on Twitter @sheddenm











For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.






Upside-Down Art: Good Friday Edition

The art I want to talk about is hardly under the radar--Time magazine named it the "song of the century" in 1999. But still, it has the currents of the upside-down kingdom in it, specifically in speaking prophetically about injustice. Take a moment to listen/watch the video of Billie Holiday perform "Strange Fruit". For more information on the man who wrote the original poem, click here. For the image that inspired the poem, click here  



  [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs] Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop



Quite a few years ago, my husband and I attended a small, progressive church. For the Good Friday service, there were stations set-up all around the small basement room we met in. I don't remember all the stations, but one is stuck in my memory for eternity. It was in a dark corner stage, curtains pulled so that the fluorescent lights didn't show through. My husband and I sat on a faded velvet couch and listened to Billie Holiday wail her song at us. On the screen, an image of a tree with bare limbs flickered. In my memory, there were birds on the branches, but my memory is not reliable.

As an installation piece, it was rather tame. A dark setting, a song, an image projected. But I had never heard the song before, and I had never had to face the picture of history being presented to me. On Good Friday, as I sat and let the words of sorrow wash over me, I was overcome. I stared at the image of the tree, and I imagined the strange fruit, the bodies waving from the branches. And instead of being horrified, of feigning shock, a deep sense of sadness filled me. At that moment, in that church basement, on that old velvet couch, I knew: I had killed those people. I was the one who had hung the nooses around their neck.

On that Good Friday, time and space and all that simply didn't matter. I was painted a portrait of what sin is, and how it affects us all. I was not allowed to look away, to gain distance or perspective. I knew I was the same as those people who lynched the boys, so full of anger and self-righteousness and a sense of satisfaction. I am no different from them, and I never was. All my life I had been told how my heart was black before Jesus came. But it's one thing to color in sin, neat and tidy in the boundaries of your heart. It's another to realize what makes someone kill another is the same that is within yourself.

I don't mean to sound hyperbolic, or overwrought, I am just trying to explain what I felt that day. What I feel when I listen to songs about John Wayne Gacy Jr., or the genocide in Syria, or the killing of Trayvon Martin. You can spend your whole life running, trying to make it appear white as snow. But in the end, we are all the same, and we don't get to claim otherwise.

The true bitterness of this crop is that we are all growing it.




The other station I remember from that day is the one where we took the Eucharist together. Coming from a realization of my own brokenness, into the harsh light of the basement room, I was finally ready for it. The simple bread and wine ceremony, the realization that this is why He came. He came to pour out his blood, to break his bones over death. He came for those boys, the ones who swayed in the trees. And he came for us lynchers, the red-cheeked, the nonchalant, the ones who are fine with how very wrong the systems of this world are--the ones who profit from it. I ate that bread so slowly, sipped the wine like it was the first time I understood what it was.

It was my first sense that forgiveness often feels like death, and I haven't been able to shake it since.










Upside-Down Art: Opera Outside the Mainstream

Some of the people who are most deeply connected to the joys and the sufferings of the world seem to lose their minds for the opera. I am not there yet, but I want to be. I absolutely adore this guest post by Newell, because he is writing about himself being the outsider--the one writing the operas for funsies. The history of the form and music also surprised me, in the best way possible. I encourage you to check out Newell and his other writings. This little post is like a teaser for his great, mysterious, music-filled life.   




Upside-Down Art: Opera Outside the Mainstream

by Newell Hendricks


I am in the process of publishing a collection of stories from my life.  One section of the book is five stories about major musical compositions I have written.  The last story in this section is about my opera, ASCONA.  The excerpt below is near the ending of that story.  


Writing operas was a wonderful way to spend my days.  I loved it – getting lost in my imagination – feeling the most extreme emotions and trying to capture them in sound and form – living a fantasy life to the max that actually had a tangible notation and had the possibility of being reconstructed by performers and experienced by audiences.  It was a constant high – living in ecstasy as long as I could maintain the energy and distance myself from obvious reality.

That reality is that the socio-economics of our day does not lend itself to the production of operas.  The larger musical forms of western culture evolved under a very different socio-economic system, one in which there was a highly talented, highly skilled, completely exploitable class that could perform the music.  In the Renaissance and earlier, the choir schools of the major cathedrals were where musicians were trained.  The church was also the institution that took in orphans.  This was the pool from which musicians came.  Some of the great composers of the Renaissance were Josquin de Pres:  “Joe from the field,” and Pierre de la Rue: “Pete from the street.”  Well into the Baroque period, many musicians came from orphanages.  All of the Vivaldi violin concertos were written for girls at the orphanage where he worked.  In the Classical period, the cathedral schools were still the center of musical education.  The Kapellmeister would go out into the rural countryside looking for talented peasants, take them back to the school as scholarship students, and train them and use them for their music program.  Hayden was such a student.  Even at the height of his fame, Hayden, the most renowned composer of Europe, had to dress up in his servant’s uniform and report to his patron for duty every day.

And well into the twentieth century, musicians were low down on the economic scale.  They were tradespeople.

It is true that in the nineteenth century a few musicians did achieve star status and became extremely wealthy.  Accompanying the phenomenon of the superstars was the cult of art as religion with these stars having their devoted worshipers.  Opera composers and singers were certainly in the center of this cult and Richard Wagner reigned supreme as the high priest.  His opera Tristan und Isolde was commissioned by a wealthy count who not only paid him a handsome sum to write the opera, but set him up in his summer villa to compose it.  Wagner responded by seducing the count’s wife, making that the story of the opera, selling the finished opera to someone else, and saying that it was a story about “ideal Christian love.”

What was I thinking, wanting to be an opera composer?

I loved writing opera.  It fit with the day dreaming, but I balked at the social role expected of one in this profession.  Denise Levertov, who had written the libretto for my oratorio, El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation, told Karen, librettist for my last 2 operas, that she had never known anyone as bad as me at promoting his art.

The year I lived under a tree I had a job conducting a church choir in Isla Vista, the student housing community for the University of California at Santa Barbara.  The popular service for the students was at 11:00 and was a joyous celebration with balloons ending with people dancing around the communion table singing Lord of the Dance.  I played string bass in the band as a volunteer.  But the church was funded by older people who, for themselves, wanted a more traditional service.  This was the service for which I was paid $8 per week to provide a choral anthem.  I had three women in the choir.  I sang tenor and the organist sang bass and we rehearsed at 8 a.m. before the church service on Sunday.  There was a time when I would go into the church on Thursday night, after the bulletin had been printed, and look at what the minister had written as “The Collect” words that were read by all at the beginning of the service.

For three weeks in a row, I took this text and on Friday and Saturday wrote a simple anthem using these words.  The bulletin simply said “anthem.”  No one ever asked or wondered how I had found the piece which used the same words as the Collect, but it felt good to me.  I was contributing in a special way to the worship experience of this community.


I think I would take that feeling over the adulation that Wagner received.




unnamed-8Newell Hendricks, as an opera composer, received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a grant from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts to write an oratorio: El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation, with poet Denise Levertov.   In honor of his 50th birthday, Richard Dyer, reviewer for the Boston Globe, wrote a feature article on him with the headline “An interesting and productive career outside the mainstream.”   This headline would equally apply to his later work leading popular-education-style workshops, his homesteading activities, or his political activism.  Newell lives in Cambridge, MA, with his violinist wife, Barbara Englesberg.   They have two adult daughters, and two granddaughters. Website: newellhendricks.wordpress.com Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/newell.hendricks
For all posts in the Upside-Down Art series, please click here.

Upside Down Art: Anita's Appalachian Art

This simple post is about one of the oldest forms of material story-telling: quilt making. I love thinking about the history of quilts, and how Yvette brings to mind that there is still a desperate need to help keep people warm in many parts of the country. Quilts are practical, and a form of expression--which is pretty great if you think about it. In many ways, quilting reminds me of hardcore DIY culture--and I am starting to think I might like to start myself . . .  



Upside-Down Art: Anita’s Appalachian Art

by Yvette Autin Warren


So much of what we call “art” is simply the ways in which others tell their stories. Artworks are often celebrations of the lives of everyday individuals. These celebrations can be created in many differing forms. In Appalachia, a common way to memorialize special moments, beliefs, and memories is with quilting. It was not uncommon, in years gone by, to see quilt frames fastened to the ceilings of family living rooms with pulleys for lifting them out of the way when the room was needed for other purposes.


Women would sit around the frame, telling stories as they stitched stories from fabrics not large enough to be used for anything other than quilt pieces. Most of these masterpieces were actually used to keep kids and other family members from freezing. In many areas of Appalachia, quilting has evolved into an elaborate art form.  At the home of Anita, in Coker Creek, Tennessee, this evolution is amazingly advanced.

Anita seems to quilt like other people breathe, both as gifts for her family and for many whom she will never meet. She is involved in an effort to soothe children who are experiencing trauma with the gift of the handiwork of many women who quietly care. In the tiny artists’ hamlet of Coker Creek, Tennessee, hundreds of quilts are made by dozens of women working separately and together on artistic Quilts For Kids, which happens to be the name of their organization that spearheads the group’s efforts. For more information on the group, you can click here.


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©2014 Yvette Autin Warren


Yvette Autin Warren is the author of 3 books, available here. Her other writings can be found on Patheos here or TnMtnHome.blogspot.comOneFamilyManyFaiths.blogspot.com, and http://worldpulse.com/user/13827/journal.






For more information on the Upside-Down Art series (or to submit your own essay!) click here





Upside-Down Art: Prison, Beauty and Common Grace

I'm so excited for this first guest post in this Upside-Down Art series. RO contacted me about an area she is passionate in--prisons and their inhabitants, whom she views with such grace and love. I had heard of writing/oral history classes with prisoners, but never art projects. This post eloquently explains the horror of incarcerating people and withhold from them the beauty of the world--while still showing that God is still there. A challenging, thoughtful post for us on the outside.   




Prison, Beauty, and Common Grace by R.O.


There have been times in my life where depression and anxiety have walked every step with me. Their weighty bodies cemented to my shoulders like gargoyles, mouths permanently open-wide, hissing into each ear: “You are not good enough. You don’t work hard enough. You will mess up everything good in your life.”

But even in the midst of these lies, God finds ways to remind me of his truth. So often he does this through the beauty of the world around me. I see pink light from the setting sun angled on a grey building, hear something as simple and amazing as an echo, feel cold air sting my cheeks. And I think, “even if I fail at everything, no one can take this away from me.” This everyday beauty of the world, available to me in some form no matter my circumstances, is God’s common grace to all people. It is our Father reminding us that his love for us does not depend on our good performance.


It seems sort of simple when compared with all the atrocities of prison— the state’s misguided idea that trading violence for violence will end violence— but the profound indignity of denying a person God’s common grace of this world’s everyday beauty is striking to me. Prisons are designed for exactly this. They replace the beauty of creation that God would give to every person with cinderblock walls, artificial lighting, a stainless steel bowl acting as toilet a foot from your bed, access to an “outside” patch of concrete surrounded by walls for maybe thirty minutes a day—day in and day out, all the same.

And still there is beauty.

Prisoners become artists, creating the beauty that prison denies them, and I consider myself blessed to have heard some of their stories. There is the fourteen-year old boy who wrote poems in his cell, the man who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole who paints scenes of the world he hasn’t experienced in over thirty years, the girls at the youth prison who wrote and performed in their own musical, even the tough-looking young men who draw intricate and delicate designs on the backs of their letters.

These are people who are often excluded from that popular new category “creatives,” but they still are made (and are making) in the image of our Creator God. They create because there is no beauty unless they make it themselves. They create for the same reasons we all do: to comfort, to entertain, and to tell their stories. There are still more imprisoned people who are without the support of prisoner-arts programs, some without even pencil and paper, some in solitary confinement; let’s not forget that they are creatives, too. This is God’s common grace, which no one can take from us, that he has made us in his image; he has made us all creatives.

“For his participatory project, Some Other Places We’ve Missed artist and photographer Mark Strandquist held workshops in various jails and prisons, and asked prisoners, ‘If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?’ Along with the written descriptions, individuals provided a detailed memory from the chosen location, and described how they wanted the photograph composed. Strandquist then photographed and [an] image is handed or mailed back to the incarcerated participants.” from Prison Photography:







R.O. is a Midwestern law student who will soon be a Southern public defender. She loves to talk (and learn) about justice and mercy, living in the upside down kingdom, and criminal justice reform. Her Enneagram type is 5 and she is an INFJ, if that means anything to you.


For more information on the Upside-Down Art series, click here. And submit your own essay!




The Consoled, the Insiders

I've been reading my old blog, for some inspiration and also to jolt my memory a bit. I am losing myself a bit here, in this space, in this season of life. There are mountains, mountains of snow and ice every where I go, the wind whipping my cheeks raw and red. I am turning 30 in a few short weeks. I have good intentions to read beautiful books and watch heartbreaking documentaries, but instead I laugh my way through Brooklyn 99 and find myself sobbing to 13 Going On 30. I am smack dab in the formative years, the rings of growth spreading outwards, painful, necessary, exhausting. I am bouncing between worlds, between people who argue on the internets and people who don't have access to computers, between the haves and the have-nots, between all of us trying to love God as best as we can, most of us on the verge of burn-out.  

Christus Consolator 1851. From https://collections.artsmia.org/?page=detail&id=104894


I saw this picture in the middle of the art museum. I had run away from my life for a moment, was wandering the cavernous galleries with a journal in hand. This picture of Jesus, tucked into a corner, caught my eye. I read about the painting, and I was crying before I realized, the guard looking at me with alarm and compassion.

Based on one of my favorite passages of Scripture in luke 4, Ary Scheffer, a dutch painter, was inspired by the declarations of Jesus: Luke 4:18: "I have come to heal those who are brokenhearted and to announce to the prisoners their deliverance; to liberate those who are crushed by their chains."

He painted Christ, in the center, and around him he filled in the broken-hearted.  A woman kneeling with her dead baby clutched in her hands. A refugee with a walking stick. A man lost at sea, a man who killed himself with his own dagger. A poet imprisoned as a madman, three generations of women, all abused. The oppressed throughout the ages--a Polish independence fighter, a Greek warrior, a Roman slave, an African slave. A dying man, with Jesus taking off his shackles. Mary Magdalene, the famously forgiven, kneeling at his feet. Everyone is pleading, stretching, shackled, in agony--and everyone leaning into the Christ.

And he consoles them.

It's what he came to do. like he always has done, throughout the centuries. He comforts the imprisoned, the sick, the sad, the dying, the lonely. The burnt-out, the lost at sea, those floating out ever farther from the land they staked their lives on, adrift and unmoored by the suffering and pain of the world.

And we who are lost are brought back by one person alone, and that person is the Christ. The one who suffered like us, with us, for us. Who promises to break all the chains, to bring his new kingdom here in this earth. Who hangs out with the outsiders, the ones the world forget. Who sees us for who we are, as the bringers of his kingdom.

We, the ones who most need the consolation: we are the insiders here. I scribble this down in my journal, and I walk back to my life. Every day a chance for my own shackles to be taken off, the ones I put there of my own accord. Every day a chance to tell someone else: there is a place where you are the insider, too.




Thanks to those who have already submitted ideas/essays about "Upside-Down Art"--keep them coming! I look forward to the conversations we will be having in regards to art and how it widens up our world. E-mail me your ideas/submissions at dlmmcsweeneys @ gmail . com. 











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