|"Art, Spirituality and the Human Family"|
Reflections on my journey..
David Kreider - Oasis Gallery Featured Artist
November 26, 2004 Opening Presentation
(Personal thanks.. )
Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychologist, has summed up his life's work with what I believe is a profound assertion, that "the primary motivational force in humankind is the pursuit of meaning." I have certainly found that to be true for me, and seeing that force at work in the multi-faceted, often contentious religious and political context where I grew up has led me to two opposing realizations in that regard. The one is that our pursuit of meaning, if done in a spirit of arrogant self-righteousness lies at the heart of a host of evil: a primary irritant for conflict and alienation.. The second realization is the other side of the coin, that our inherent need for meaning lies also at the very essence of our humanity and of our common spiritual bond and interdependence as a human family. As such it can be a driving force for unity, and as such I believe it is also fundamental to our well-being as a human race.
I believe also that the arts are a universal language of the spirit and the soul, and through my very circuitous journey, I have found myself drawn to the arts in large part because of their inherent relationship to the human spirit, as avenues of expression which transcend the boundaries of language.. I am drawn as well by their capacities to communicate both intuitively and nonthreateningly in matters of meaning and value, and as such I believe they are a particularly useful form of expression for our times.
Let me begin by putting some things in context and describe a bit of my background to outline my journey to art. I grew up the oldest of three children of Christian parents in Israel.. Now, I will need to leave gaping holes in this story because this is not really an occasion for my life story, it is about my journey to art. I later married my wife, Mary Ann, who grew up on a somewhat "parallel track", the third of four children of Christian parents on "the other side" of the political divide, in the Gaza Strip. For those of you who may not know - Gaza is a small strip of land now occupied territory of Israel and home to some 1.3 million Palestinians, 50% of whom are children under the age of 14, an area about twice the size of Washington DC, one of the most densely populated places on earth, and currently a virtual military prison and war zone. Now while I can't even begin to describe for you the formative impact of all of that for both of us, I must say that despite the darker sides, I know we would both agree we would not exchange our experiences growing up there for the world.
I want to identify one predominant impression for our purposes here, that relates to my work, and I will come to some further thoughts as I talk a bit more about some pieces of my art a bit later. Being Christians in predominantly Jewish and Muslim contexts where each of our faiths have been at odds with each other for generations, made a profound impression on me..
The historical region of Palestine has been the locus of contention for dominance by empires and religious principalities and faiths it seems as far back as recorded history. One of the most painful set of exchanges followed the rise and spread of Islam which in turn led to the conquests of the Crusaders to retake this "Holy Land". The association of Christianity (and Islam) with violence and conquest has been a huge blot on Christian-Muslim relations, and the antagonism is being conjured up again in places like Iraq, and the broader Middle East.. It is difficult to live with associations of blame for despicable deeds, particularly when they run against the grain of everything one believes in (for me as a pacifist). And yet there is, and will be, blame, and the need for apologies, and the need for the humility to acknowledge our complicity if only by virtue of our failures to speak out against the wrongs that have been done.
There is another huge blot on the Christian conscience to reckon with in Israel-Palestine. Israel came into being because of and lives with the terrible legacy of the holocaust.. an outgrowth of an insidious subcurrent of ethnic prejudice called anti-Semitism, a misplaced and undeserved collective blame and/or resentment, for the most part by Christians for Jews. The desperate search by Jews and Jewish communities for a sanctuary, for a homeland in the aftermath of the holocaust, has in turn led to the displacement of Palestinians from their homes and lands over the years since 1948, and created the further resentments that have festered in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This conflict is also at the heart of the larger Arab World resentment toward the United States for its largely unilateral support of Israel, and the disempowerment and demonization of Palestinians that has arisen from their struggle for justice.
The awareness, both of the bitter religious alienation on the one hand between Christians and Jews, and of our common faith heritage on the other, led my parents, deeply interested in religious studies and interfaith dialogue, to Israel in 1953 to explore possibilities for healing and understanding, and to study Jewish Rabbinic thought. I have gleaned from their experiences a very deep appreciation for their spirit, as well as an appreciation for the enriching experience and sense of kinship that comes from meaningful and respectful dialogue in the mutual pursuit of truth and understanding in matters of faith.
I left Israel after graduating from high school, thinking to become a medical doctor. I had been impressed by the impact of several medical outreaches on the communities they served, one in Nazareth, and the other in Gaza, where Mary Ann's family was involved. I thought their healing and conciliatory work across the lines of these religious and political conflicts was a beautiful testament to the compassion embodied in their faith. I began and subsequently completed a premed program in biology with a minor in sociology. I won't go into the details, but my next year was a particularly difficult one as circumstances combined to close my doors to medical school and I resigned myself to give up my thoughts to become a medical doctor, and began instead a two-year Master of Arts in Religion program.
The shift was to have a significant impact on my spiritual journey. Those two years were a wonderful time of research and reflection on some of the most fundamental intellectual questions I had about what I believed. I immersed myself in philosophy, world religions, ethics, theology, sociology of religion, and reconsidered what I'd learned my previous four years in the sciences. I asked myself what basis I had to believe in a supreme being, and what after all is this "need" we have for religion?.. If I believe in a God, which one?.. What, after all, is so unique about Christianity, about Jesus Christ, whose teachings I had grown up with?.. How could a good God allow such evil in the world? What of this idea of a Creator God given all I'd learned from the natural sciences about current theories of evolution? What about the notion of "life after death"? And, is there indeed any "credible" evidence of a "self-disclosure" somewhere of God, if indeed a God exists and cares about how we think and act?
Now I can't tell you what I came up with, you will just have to wait till I publish my thoughts some day.. but I do want to identify one stream in there that has played a part in giving meaning to my art. I have become convinced, contrary to prevailing scientific opinion, that our natural world is a created order, "designed" somehow against its inherent tendencies to the contrary, and sustained somehow, in its present highly differentiated living, breathing, and yes, to an extent, evolving form, against the grain of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.. which would lead us to expect the universe to fizzle into a buzz of subatomic particles on their way to oblivion in some black hole. Now I wish I had time to elaborate for the sake of those of you who will wonder at my sanity or audacity, but I must resign myself to the upshot.. For me, the design and inner workings of our natural world, for want of adequate words, are just incredible! The intricacies in the building blocks, in the physics and the chemistry, in the organic and bio-chemistries that define our complex substructures and their interactions in the cells and the organelles that comprise them, and that combine and differentiate to form our plant and animal anatomies and the array of species as we know them, are just awesome if you take the time to study it all. And when I stop to think beyond that, of the capacities we have as humankind for thought and reason, for introspection and emotion, for relationship, for compassion, and the comprehension and analysis of good and evil, for moral choices, for governance according to principles of justice, for a vast array of self-expression both culturally and artistically, linguistically, socially and politically, for reflection on the meaning of life itself.., all qualities that are absent in the particles of matter and energy that comprise us, ..no ordering principle, no creative abilities or capacities for design, no conception of beauty or function, let alone intelligence, personality, or moral choice, I am made to wonder all the more at the implication.
As artists we intuitively know the relationship between design and the designer who structures and orders the work for its intended purpose.. As such I have come to an intuitive awareness of the presence within my sense of self of our Creator. It has been particularly meaningful to me to work with wood because I have a more immediate sense of my own creative collaboration with the Great Artist, the sense that the work of the Master Designer is intertwined with my own, that my very impulses and creative abilities are the work of another flowing through me, and that the creative act I do carries with it a sense of awe and wonder. I find it intriguing to discover the parallel imagery in the grain of wood that mimics the patterns in nature, in the atmospheric qualities of the sky, in the ripples of water, in the strata of rocks. And it makes me appreciate in new ways the inherent beauty and the fascinating detail woven into the fabric of our world. Again it brings me to ask, "why should it be so ..why so much beauty?" There's no inherent functional "need" in the material world for beauty. It's superfluous, even with the supposition of a Creator, as the poet Robinson Jeffers points out, and we are made to wonder..
Is it not by his high superfluousness we know our God?
For to equal a need is natural, animal, mineral:
but to fling rainbows over the rain..
and beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
on the domes of deep sea shells,
not even the weeds to multiply without blossom
nor the birds without music..
Look how beautiful are all things that He does.
His signature is the beauty of things. Robinson Jeffers
The impact on my work
Let me reflect a bit more on a couple
pieces of my work as they relate to what I've been saying. I hope you have already seen some of the associations. I particularly want to reflect on these two by way of contrast.. "Family of Women" and "The Loss of Innocence"
This piece, "Family of Women" portrays a vision for our human family, of its beauty and dignity across the lines of political conflicts, racial and religious lines. Juxtaposed are Jewish and Arab women, African American and Caucasion, Pakistani and Indian, Vietnamese, Russian, Native American, Hispanic, and biracial children. This is the dream, the beauty and our bond as a richly diverse human family.
Contrasted to that we have "The Loss of Innocence", a piece made possible by virtue of a trip that several of us here were a part of to Israel/Palestine about two and a half years ago. More specifically it was made possible because of a very generous contribution and an accompanying commission by Alden and Louise Hostetter for a piece of my work that I might find the inspiration to do from the experience. I want to thank you again, Alden and Louise, for the gift that this was to me, and on behalf of others that have been touched by this trip in some way because of your gift. And others of you contributed as well, and I want to thank you too. We went at a particularly troubled time in the wake of several suicide bombings that led to the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem which you may remember hearing about. We went hoping to offer a measure of support to the Palestinian Christian community affiliated with the Christmas Lutheran Church and International Center in Bethlehem which had sustained substantial damage when Israeli forces came through on an extensive manhunt, ..which they did it seemed by also shooting at the windows and walls and artwork and furniture, ripping out computer hard drives, punching holes in expensive copy machines and spray-painting slogans on the walls of an as yet uncompleted beautiful $2+ million multimedia arts center, on the hunt for persons they suspected were involved in the terrorist attacks inside Israel. It was a very difficult 10 days for us emotionally, particularly for me having grown up in Israel. I had identified deeply with Israelis as victims of prejudice and the horrible woundedness they carry in their spirits, the insecurity they felt surrounded by enemies who hated and resented their presence, and I felt I knew them as friends growing up. And it was a particularly disillusioning shock to see this senseless violence, the wildly retributive anger, directed everywhere and nowhere it seemed, except to hurt, humiliate, or suppress, if not obliterate and destroy people and property "on the other side", innocent or not, just to even the score, now only a generation later..
It may surprise you as you look at this picture to know that this is Bethlehem, a Palestinian refugee camp there, and a collection of the faces I photographed through the town. Not, to my way of thinking, a pretty picture.. It took me two years to complete this piece because I have to say, as I reflect on it now, it has undoubtedly been the most difficult piece of art I've ever done. I wanted so much to create a memento of beauty in return for this kindness, something uplifting and inspirational, something that captured the spirit of compassion and the soul of the people or the place in some way, a reflection of their own gift of inspiration and hope to me, but the images I had hoped to capture just weren't there. This is an image for me of the dark side of our inhumanity, of the ugliness, of the burnt colorless landscape of misery and loss, of the grey shadows of death and the instruments of destruction (a D-9 caterpillar used by the Israelis for house demolitions where an occupant is suspected of involvement in terrorist activity) that are the reality of life there. I say "our" inhumanity deliberately because I believe the lines of nations and states are artificial and arbitrary distinctions in the context of the human family. We as Americans are as complicit as anyone by our direct actions, as well as by our failures to act as we should, ..and blaming others has only fueled the fires of frustration and resentment. This could be a picture also of Falluja and Kirkuk, of Mosul or Baghdad, as well as any number of Kurdish towns in the north of Iraq under Saddam Hussein. It could be Gaza or Jenin. Changing the faces and the architecture a little bit, it could be Darfur in Sudan, or Tel Aviv, or Ground Zero. My point is that in the cycles of violence we have all lost our innocence, and we must find our way back. We must learn to make peace and discover the power of grace and forgiveness to rise above our own inhumanity, above the animal instincts and impulses to lash out which we condemn in those we call terrorists. I believe we must acknowledge that our military "solutions" are as much an act of violence as is terrorism, and that neither are a constructive response to our differences or grievances, nor an asset to any cause or campaign for justice..
For all I've said about the dark side here, there is also beauty and hope in this picture, in the faces of these women and a baby who will grow up to embody something of the legacy they will leave him or her. They are holding each other, bound to each other in both life and in death. In the differences in their garb are the symbols of the differences of their faiths, Muslim and Christian; and as for the "departed spirit" of the little girl in front, she could be Jewish as easily as she could be Palestinian, or anyone of our own daughters who can identify with these women's grief or despair, for after all, in that day, I believe we will all recognise that we are one family. The only color in this picture is a very pale dusty rose, symbol of the hope we cling to in this life, albeit very dim at times. For me as a Christian it is symbolic also of the hope that came in the form of another baby born in that town some 2000 years ago, around whose birth there were reports of angels singing in the heavens, saying, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will towards humankind". That baby grew up to teach us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us and abuse us, to forgive those who do wrong by us, to absorb the violence, and to go the second mile after being humiliated for one. In that kind of spirit, I can take heart and take hope, and it is in that embodiment, by the way that I see also the evidence of a transcendent Creator God reaching into our dimension of time and space with a word or two about the meaning of life, for those of us who may be interested to know..
(some further words about my techniques and the combination of media involved in my work, which you may read about by clicking here)
November 29, 2004