Thursday, February 14, 2019

Bleed No More, 24x36, Oil on Canvas

"Bleed No More" 24x36, Oil on Canvas

After my father’s death in August of 2018 I had the opportunity to return to Gettysburg National Military Park to finish off my residency. It turned out that I would be there in late October and early November. Usually around this time in Pennsylvania the leaves have already turned and fallen but because of a very mild autumn the trees were still leafed out and changing their colors when I got there.

I am a lover of trees. I like to watch them in different light and see how they change all year long. I like everything from the textured bark to the sound they make when wind passes through their limbs and leaves. It’s always fascinated me that the Bible begins with a tree and ends with a tree and in the middle is this Tree of Calvary. I have always felt that God loves trees too.

One of my favorite spots in the entire Park was the Soldier’s National Cemetery. That may sound gloomy to you but the trees in this part of the Park are old, big and beautiful. The morning of my Dad’s stroke I was in the Cemetery looking at the first light as it hit some of those trees not knowing that many miles away in Dallas my Dad was about to pass through the door into the most beautiful place anyone of us could ever imagine. Suffice to say that this spot was very special to me as it held grief and beauty as it seemed to hold me.

On my 2nd trip I thought about how this space, this landscape, held such death. Over 50,000 casualties happened at Gettysburg. The largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. A war raged against each other became our most brutal. And yet, here in this cemetery, I found myself weeping as I was comforted by the colors and sounds of life. I think as Christians we struggle sometimes to just go through the valley. We want to walk around it, over it, skip it all together don’t we? But David says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for You are with me.” (Psalm 23).

I painted “Bleed No More” as a tribute to those Union soldiers that died to preserve our United States (as one nation, free for all people). I thought about how horrific it must have been to fight in those battles: the sights and sounds of so many young men dying and dead. I chose to paint the light when it bends in the evening. It casts a golden glow over everything as if it was made new for just a few moments. It’s a glimpse of the “not yet,” the glory that will be revealed to us when we pass through the valley. It is what my Dad is seeing fully now in the presence of Jesus.

It’s been 6 months since his passing. We still miss him. But I live in hopeful tears as I still live in a world with pain, suffering, and fear. I live in the truth that time doesn’t heal all wounds, God does. He will make all things new again. My grief will be changed into a song of gladness. Not a gladness of, “It’s ok. Never mind all that…” But a gladness that is tinged by the pain, that knows how bright the light can be because we have been in darkness. Our song will be heart healing. May we all give each other the encouragement to push through the valley. I may not see the trees but I hear the wind in their leaves.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Triptych, "Douglass," "Grant," and "Lee" 12x9, Oil on Gessobord

"Douglass" 12x9, Oil on Gessobord

I chose to depict Frederick Douglass as a tree overlooking the Chesapeake. In his book, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" he describes a very moving image (that many reader never forgets):

"...I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer's Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul's complaint...'You are loosed from your moorings and are free; I am fast in my chains and am a slave!...I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free!...'"

I thought about how the Atlantic brought the slave ships over its waters to the American shores. I wanted to depict the great tree against those waves and currents that were always moving (unknown). Douglass did so much in his life. In a more modern time he should have been our President. He was not only a brilliant man but spoke so eloquently that crowds were moved to tears. He stood in that long line of men and women who broke hearts for Justice.

 "Grant" 12x9, Oil on Gessobord

I would highly recommend that you read, "Grant" by Ron Chernow to get a complete history of this extraordinary man. He comes from a very humble background (with abolitionist parents). He rises to become one of the greatest men in American history. He symbolizes the Union more than any other man (even Lincoln). 

Chernow writes: 

“Walt Whitman, who ardently followed the Overland Campaign: “When did [Grant] ever turn back? He was not that sort; he could no more turn back than time! . . . Grant was one of the inevitable's; he always arrived; he was invincible as a law: he never bragged—often seemed about to be defeated when he was in fact on the eve of a tremendous victory.” 

His dogged determination would inspire his men even in the heaviest of casualties. He would be called a "butcher" even as he knew the price of victory with an enemy who would not surrender. He dealt with alcoholism most of his life (until after the war). He did more during his presidency to see that African Americans were treated fairly and that the Klan was put down in the South. He was easily trusting and was cheated later in life out of his life savings. He took it upon himself to write his own memoirs of the war. It is still considered one of the greatest narratives every written on the war (Mark Twain published it). He was writing up until his death (he had very painful throat cancer) and managed to finish it completely.

I chose to depict him as a strong tree with this beautiful sunrise as he saw the Union paid by the blood of over 360,000 Northern soldiers. Their sacrifice in red.

"Lee" 12x9, Oil on Gessobord

It is hard to talk about the Civil War and not talk about Robert E. Lee. He stands as perhaps the most controversial figure of the war. He graduated 2nd in his class of West Point in 1829. He had no demerits during his four years and was seen as a model by other students. His brilliance would lay in tactics, aggression and engineering. When he came out from behind the desk during the Civil War (Joseph Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines) he was called, "Granny Lee" because of his gray hair and the "King of Spades" because of his excessive building of trenches. What would be discovered was a man of exceeding brilliance when it came to military maneuvers. It was said that he could get into the mind of any opposing General and could know what they would do.

He would become, over time, the depiction of the ideal Southern Gentleman and "model Christian." He represents, for some Southerners, the Confederacy at its best. When you really look into his life you see more of a man with faults than you do the "marble man" that is mostly heralded by the South. He comes from a childhood that is haunted by an absent father ("Lighthorse" Harry Lee) who gambles the Lee fortune away and dies when Lee is 11. Robert grows up learning that he must overcome his Father's reputation. We see from any battle with Lee that it is these particular battles that have the heaviest casualties. Although Grant is depicted as the "butcher" Lee is the brilliant Commander. They both lose more men than any other commanding General in the war (including Sherman).

Lee's greatest tragedy is his choosing of the Confederacy over the Union. He has sworn an oath of allegiance to America (as a military officer) yet he says he cannot take up arms against his native Virginia. He comes from Virginia aristocracy (and a British way of thinking of names and land). He does not believe that the African Americans are equals (although he does free his Father in law's slaves during the war). He remains controversial because of his stance and his personal integrity. It would be easy to dismiss Robert E. Lee if he was a man of loose morals or deeply cruel. What we are left with is not a "marble man" as most statues of Lee would have us believe. But instead, a man that no one could completely pin down.

I chose to paint Lee like a vapor or cloud. He comes like a gray storm, blinded by loyalty to his family and state. Tragic, heavy with duty and moving in the wrong direction.  

"Coming War" 40x40, Oil on Canvas

"Coming War" 40x40, Oil on Canvas

I've been working on some larger 40x40's since I've gotten back from Gettysburg. This is the first of that set. 

I wanted to depict the war as a storm. Master Artists used this same metaphor right before the Civil War. You can go HERE to listen to Eleanor J. Harvey (Senior Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum) and see some of the examples of their incredible works. 

I chose to share the storm without the land. I believe it gives more of a personal feeling, "Where will it fall?" The landscape is us, the viewer. It falls upon every American.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Final Days in Gettysburg

The works I finished during the residency (summer and fall)
Not all are shown here
Tomorrow is my final presentation of the paintings I did while at the Park. I am looking forward to sharing them with the people coming to visit GNMP and with the Rangers and Volunteers there.
I have felt God every step of the way in my weaknesses and my praise. I sense His nearness even when I felt lonely at times. I have felt a deeper mourning here (perhaps because it was the place I heard about his stroke). But it has surprised me how painful it has been at times. I am grateful for the beauty that this place gives and the space to walk and think.
One night, around dusk, I stood near the Peach Orchard, this contested bit of ground with savage fighting. It reminded me of our own contested politics going on right now. I say a little prayer for "us" to keep believing in this thing called America. As I turned to go back to the Klingel Farm I walked under this large tree nearby. I stood underneath its branches and a little wind picked up the leaves and it shuddered, making a sound like rain and (I know this is getting old!) I couldn't help but cry. I cried with that tree. Maybe for America or these boys that did something so sacrificial, and maybe (mostly) for my dad. Maybe every American should feel what it means to grieve. Maybe we could find common ground if we actually mourned together. Mourning in the Bible always leads to healing.
View to the Peach orchard under the tree

Gettysburg allows us in. It draws us into her pain through the beauty - like a doorway to memory as well as the present. These old fields and farms remind us that people did live here and those problems still sit with us today.
I have walked and walked and walked and could still walk more. The light, the trees, the dips and hills - they help me find the topography or texture of my own emotion and faith. I can see why the Veterans loved this place so much. Whey they thought this was the place to mark their camaraderie and great courage. I feel like an outsider looking into a secret sometimes. I asked Chris Gwinn (Chief of Interpretations at GNMP), "Why should we care what happened here?" and he said, "Well, everyone has an answer. some will give you the battle (maneuvers), some the particular people. I suppose the best way for me to say it is: What they did mattered to every American and it's for US (you and I) to answer why." That Great American, Abraham Lincoln, would say it is because a new nation was being forged and a new identity. It matters where we came from and who were our foremothers and forefathers even in all the mistakes and humanity. It matters who we become now as our identity changes again as freedom asks new questions of us.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Back in Gettysburg

Fields of Gettysburg National Military Park
I'm here to finish up my residency from August. As many of you know my father had a stroke during my August trip and I flew home to be with him before he died the next day. In some ways August feels like ages ago. Dad's death has led me into my own journey of grieving.
Poems I used to read from Walt Whitman (His Civil War poetry) hit me much deeper than they used to. I cry more now when I read about death.  Especially from a writer who clearly experienced loss and death so sensitively.
You can go HERE to read Come Up from the Fields Father, a beautiful poem about grief.
I see a little more clearly this place of loss and mourning. I feel a little more connected to my ancestors even as they experienced loss at such a huge magnitude. The numbers of Civil War losses can become so overwhelming. It doesn't catch hold of your heart. It must be personal to do that. It comes down to the very few. Husband, Father, Son, Brother, Friend...these are the losses that change who you are. Their death is like a monument. It marks the landscape of our family story.
The town of Gettysburg has a seminary, a college and a historical district. Abraham Lincoln stayed in Gettysburg Township the night before the Gettysburg Address etc. It has been kept well and kudos to the Park Service for the work they are doing to preserve some of these historical spaces. One thing I believe takes away from the town is all the "ghost tours" of Gettysburg. They are everywhere! And of course, I am here over Halloween so its reaching its pinnacle in a few days. For a fee you can tour the Battlefield or Town where many macabre deaths occurred and where many Confederates still haunt (apparently there are more ghost Johnny's than Billy's) the fields and farms of the battleground and Township. I dislike it not because I hate Halloween (I don't. My kids trick or treat). But because it trivializes the reality of this place. As if you had to make up more grisly stories to enhance the experience of Gettysburg. Weren't the horrors of this battle enough? And why do we need to talk about ghosts when there is so much to talk about in this war?

This town is marked, forever changed by death. Even though the city thrives it is holding this space for us, as Americans, to peek into the beauty, peace, fear and pain that comes with war. The ghost tours help us look away from that reality but also take away from remembering the human dead.

"The Angle"
While I was here last time I got to talk to Dr. Guelzo (Chair of Civil War studies at Gettysburg College). He said that he finds resolution at the Angle (The High Water Mark of the Confederacy). Where the Pickett/Pettigrew charge reached the Union lines but were repulsed on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. It is forever etched in the memory of America as Pickett's Charge. Dr. Guelzo said the word, "resolve." I wonder if we could do this as Americans. Resolve to stop our prejudice and divisiveness - be at peace with our brother, our sister, especially the ones overlooked by us, "our kind." Perhaps we need to feel what resolve cost.

"Suffering (loss) teaches us the difference between valid fears and exaggerated fears."  - Monica Hellwig (taken from Philip Yancey's book, Where is God When It Hurts?) There are no ghosts to be afraid of. There are living people with hatred, pain and sin. The Civil War confronts us with a level of brutality no horror movie could equal. We mourn what we can do to one another. Yet mourning also releases us to change (or it can do that if we let it). At its most healing point I believe mourning should be in a community of love with God and with His people. Perhaps what Lincoln meant in his 2nd Inaugural address when he said:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

"Mourning Moon" 8x10. Oil on Panel

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

"Emancipation" Revisted

"Emancipation" 55x55, Oil on Canvas

As a visual artist I struggle with how much to "say" about a painting and how much to leave to the viewer to interpret. When I first finished this painting I had some strong things to say in color and form but didn't feel it was necessary to write them out.

After I came back from Gettysburg I had a pivotal conversation with a Professor and Director of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College, Dr. Allen Guelzo. He has won the Lincoln Prize twice in his life and the Abraham Lincoln Institute Prize. He is also author of numerous books. The one I talked to him about was his bestselling narrative called, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. You can read more about him HERE.

He did not know me at all but graciously agreed to give me over an hour of his time one afternoon in July in his cozy office. We spoke briefly about his past as a Military brat and his interest in Jonathan Edwards (of which he had a picture of Edwards on his wall I asked him about). The main meat of our conversation having to do with Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. In his words: today we see what it didn't do whereas during it's day it WAS the greatest written document that Lincoln ever penned (and that includes the Gettysburg Address). Please watch Dr. Guelzo's talk HERE for deeper engagement. 

I had two questions for Dr. Guelzo. One I won't share at this time. But the second one had to do with an obscure note that President Lincoln had written and stuffed into his desk. Apparently, he liked to work out problems in his mind by writing them down.

"The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present Civil War it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party. And yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do are of the best adaption to effect his purpose." 

I started to quote it and Dr. Guelzo said, "I know that passage very well. I have been wrestling with it for a long time." I started to get very teary as I felt the Lord's presence very heavily in the room with us. Dr. Guelzo shared (as he was getting out Kleenex for me) that he believed Lincoln penned the note in 1862 when the South was winning battle after battle. Things were looking very bleak for the Union. Lincoln had made a promise "to his Maker" (even as he struggled with his faith and in fact, was not a professing Christian) that he would put forth the Emancipation Proclamation if Lee would move back south from Maryland after his invasion (what we know as the Battle of Antietam). The Battle was fought and although it is considered a "draw" by Civil War scholars Lee did move back south after the bloody battle. It was at this point that Lincoln met with his cabinet (and it was a cabinet made up of opposing views and politics. See the book Team of Rivals).  They ALL opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was political suicide for the Union. They needed the border states to win the war (no slaves were freed in the border states in the Emancipation Proclamation yet it would make them such a small anomaly that it would be difficult to keep slavery in America) this would only make the abolitionists happy. Lincoln pressed his belief that now was the time. Basically saying, "We are doing this!"

When I asked Dr. Guelzo what was the spiritual purpose of the war (the only scholar I could actually ask that to) he said, "Freedom." And I saw tears in his own eyes as I was crying. Not because we didn't know that God wanted to free African Americans but because he wanted it done during precarious conditions when the odds were staked against it. To see how God threaded the needle of freedom was beautiful. I felt like I was seeing the beauty that God was making out of all the blood and death.

As I have sat with this painting I realize it's more than just the Emancipation Proclamation. It's not just one point in history that we can look at, debate and talk about with different American views. In a sense it became something more to me as I thought about the freeing of the slaves as the tree is broken, without leaves. This great tree that represents (to me) all that weariness of still trying to bring life out of something stripped. If you will notice the left side of the tree one of the limbs curls like a noose. I meant this to represent the Reconstruction and Jim Crow era that was to come after the War. According to the Tuskegee Institute there were 4,743 lynchings during the time 1882-1968. I believe all Americans should visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (just opened this year). I still have yet to see it with my own eyes but I believe I must. The names (by county) hang above the viewer's head as they were hung in trees for us to finally recognize. The tree I painted not only depicts the weariness of trying to keep going, keep hoping, keep reaching towards that illusive thing called freedom. It also speaks into the pain and death that was and is the legacy of America.

In another, more personal note. I found this image on my father's phone (as his screen saver) after he died in August of this year. He had struggled for many (over 20) years with cluster headaches that debilitated him and left him fighting depression and PTSD. He saw this tree as himself. A reflection of his continual struggle to keep going, even though broken. I share this to add that sometimes images go into places that you don't even dream about.

For these reasons I renamed the painting, "Emancipation" because it's more than one point in history. It is a prayer. A struggled prayer. One that doesn't see clearly but hopes that the light will bring sight to see what needs to be seen. In our time we still struggle with blood on our land. It is for us, the living, to not let that blood be spilled in vain. If God can thread this tiny needle that set to a pattern that hasn't been fully realized yet then let our time, our bit, make more of the quilt. This rich tapestry that shares His love.

Monday, September 24, 2018

"Your Brother's Blood" 20x20, Oil on Canvas

"Your Brother's Blood" 20x20, Oil on Canvas
(Formerly titled, "Cain" but I did several new glazes and liked the new title better)

This was taken from the passage of scripture about Cain and Abel.  You may go HERE to read more about what initially set me towards this painting. I struggled with it for many years as I never liked the "mood" it set. I finally decided that I should just push the colors and value a bit with some glazes to see how it felt. I did around 4 more layers and like it better.

I share it with you now in it's "final" form. 

This painting will be in my upcoming show based on the Civil War. Mary Tomas Gallery April 2019.