In this series I am not trying to illustrate the text of the psalms, as such, but to reach a place in an inner landscape, a state of being. The artwork in the end is the accumulated work upon a meditation upon a specific text and I hope that the meaning of the text will be felt when viewing the art work. My desire to create visual meditations on the psalms springs from the desire to make the inner life visible. The psalms are the most personal pages of the Bible, and wrestle with our most fundamental emotions – anger, fear, loneliness, grief, calm acceptance, praise, and joy. They speak of our fundamental needs - ‘help me’ – ‘I need you’ – to be found in a desire for a relationship with the Divine. The psalm’s structure of call and response, and of repetition rather than rhyme, has a visual equivalent in patterning. The verses, which were meant to be sung to musical accompaniment, read like lyrics, poems, love letters – and sometimes like a desperately scribbled note thrown in to a bottle and dropped into the ocean. Yet by the end of each psalm, the psalmist has received assurance that his plea has been heard, and the order of the universe is upheld.
I gave myself many permissions in creating each piece. First, I did not feel compelled to stick with one translation, but freely mixed from several. These include The New International Version of the Bible, The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and the translations from Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms. As well, I rarely included the entire text of the psalms in the piece; part of this decision had to do with saving space, and part of it came from the realization that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ - that the images in the piece not only included the descriptions in words, but an interpretation of the words through the image. In short, I saw no need to repeat myself. Finally, I gave myself permission to include images that were not described or alluded to in the text of the psalms, but rather came from associations that I had made in meditating upon the psalms. In all my decisions to consolidate the text of the psalms, or to add imagery to the piece, I was guided by the desire to illuminate what I perceived to be their inner meanings. Of course, such personal decisions mean that these pieces are only my own interpretation and that others may see and feel something quite different in their own reading.
A major theme – that of inner dichotomies within the psalms - gave me a lens by which the view the entirety of the psalms. For the psalms involve struggle – inner and external struggles – which the psalmist seeks to resolve through appeal to the grace and interaction of God. Frequently, the psalmist physicalizes inner struggles of doubts and fears as external threats, such as roaring lions, drowning, being stuck in a pit, or being surrounded by taunting enemies. In summary, the dialectic struggles I found in these pieces are: Psalm 1, being grounded in God’s teaching, or becoming dissipated in own one’s willfulness; Psalm 93, that of God’s ordering the world versus chaos; Psalm 19, the sense God’s creation as movement throughout the world versus the immutability and changeless nature of God’s law, and Psalm 42, where the psalmist experiences a disconnect from his Source and the desire to reconnect to it.
Our Quaker Faith and Practice invites us to read the Bible in the light of our own experience: there are no pat answers. As well, the challenge of “What canst thou say?” issued by George Fox implies a freedom of inquiry but equally a responsibility for us to actually say and do something in answer to our concerns. As a Quaker artist, I need to take these challenges seriously, and literally. For me, I can say that it was only through the physical process of creating each psalm as a visual piece, did I come to fully experience their individual messages. For while I began many psalms with an image that came to me in meditation, it is the process of working with materials, running up against difficulties, making selections in color and word placement, etc., that the psalm did open for me, and new associations came in. That kind of process takes time, and I was given the gift of structured time, with all of my needs met, at Pendle Hill during this residency. For that I am grateful.
Several books at the Pendle Hill library gave me valuable insights to the psalms and I would like to acknowledge them here.
The New Interpreter’s Bible, A commentary in 12 Volumes; volume IV
The Quaker Bible Reader Edited by Paul Buckley/ Stephen Angell Earlham Press
The Book of Psalms translations by Robert Alter, Norton Press
Spirituality of the Psalms by Walter Bruggermann, Fortress Press
Finally, my thanks to my wife and partner Sandra Winter, who encouraged to take this opportunity at Pendle Hill - for her love and faith in me; to Doug Gwyn, for our lunch time conversations; John Margerum, for his on-point technical advice and loan of his power tools; Jesse White, for her encouragement and offering of possibilities; Jen Karsten, for her listening ear and support; and indeed everyone at Pendle Hill who made me feel so welcome.