catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 5 :: 2008.03.07 — 2008.03.21


On becoming an “artist,” pied beauty and art in community

Editor’s Note:
The following is the text of a talk that was given on
February 23, 20008 at the opening reception for “Neil Das: Pied Beauty:
An Exhibition of Nature Photography” at the Francis Schaeffer Institute
of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.  You can
view a slide show of the images that were included in the exhibit, as
well as a slide show of the space in which the exhibit was displayed.


Just last week I had the strange experience of seeing my name connected
to the word “artist” for the first time in print, in my church’s
bulletin. “New City artist, Neil Das, opens a photography exhibit…” it
read. It has only been in the last year that I have become comfortable
answering the question “Are you a photographer?” with a simple “Yes,”
though I usually go on to quickly qualify by adding, “Not a
professional one, though. It is really more of a hobby.” And receiving
the moniker “artist,” now, only adds to that ambivalence and unease. I
think this is partially so because this appellation seems not to have
been as hard won as I think it should have been. I have had little
training, and I have a relatively simple artistic process. And in this
increasingly digital world we live in, there is not even the need to
inhabit the darkroom any more, to participate in the metallurgy of
using silver halide to create silver skies or to wear the stink of the
chemicals of the color process.

I do not shy away from the label “artist” only because of the relative
ease of the creation of my pictures, though. While I deeply admire the
skill it takes to create photos and other art in analog media, the
the-empty-the-stop-bath-and-clean-the-paintbrushes-world, I am thankful
for many aspects of digital processes, which allow, for better and for
worse, for a great democratizing of art. Amazingly, in our day, with
little investment and physical exertion, one can create images of great
beauty and complexity. And this ease can create entry points to art
which people can then follow to whatever level their inclinations and
talents may take them. However, another reason the term “artist” sits
funny within in my mind when applied to me is because of my enrollment
in the institution I am in, Covenant Theological Seminary, in the
program I am in, the Master’s of Divinity program.

Now I am not saying that one cannot be theologically minded and a
good artist or artistically skilled and a good theologian, and, yet, I
wonder whether one can truly excel in both spheres at the same time.
Can someone be a really good systematic theologian, and then in the
next moment rewire her mind to be a really good artist? Can a really
good artist, conform his mind to the strictures of systematics? Now, I
realize as I ask these questions that a host of
does-he-really-know-what-he’s-talking-about meters have likely flipped
their needles all the way to no-I-really-don’t-really-think-so, and
perhaps they are accurate. Nested in my statement are a host of
assumptions of what it means to be an artist and what it means to be a
theologian, which are very likely not shared by everyone, and
admittedly there are a host of different types of both theologians and

However, though the best theologians understand that knowing God is
knowing a person, whose depths cannot be plumbed and who is very likely
displeased with being stereotyped, even if it is with a capital “S,”
still, Christian theologians, of whatever stripe, do necessarily tend
to take the data of the Bible and the world and categorize and
organize, generally for the very worthy goal of heightening
understanding. Yet, one of the goals of art, it seems to me, is the
opposite of the theological process. It is to create connections
between categories, by either punching through walls of adjoining
categories or even by creating worm holes between widely separated
lines of thought, to allegorize in ways that try to apprehend truth in
a different modality. Artists see connections that others do not, or
perhaps a better way to say it is they are bold enough to experiment,
to attempt to fit things together that seem to have no connection. And
in as much as I believe in truth, with a capital “T,” I think that
these attempts can be successes and failures in telling the truth,
though the wonderful thing with art is that even failures in truth
telling can be spectacularly creative and even “good” in a sense.

I do not think that theology and art need be at cross-purposes. Indeed,
I think that they can and should together serve the purposes of
displaying beauty and truth and glorifying God. Still, it has been my
experience that the pursuits of these two endeavors do not fully
coexist in the same individual. Some of my friends who are Christians,
who are really great artists, are thoughtful in modes that seem to be
very different from those of my friends who are Christians, who are
really great theologians. For example, with my favorite author, C. S.
Lewis, it is his least didactic work, Till We Have Faces, that is seen
by many to be his greatest artistic achievement, though it is entirely
possible that that book is theological and didactic on levels deeper
than I have accessed. Regardless of whether my thesis will bear
scrutiny and weight, however, this is at least how I conceive the fault
line I find running through myself, as I continue on the course of
being both an artist and a theologian and look to see what sort of
level each endeavor will find within me in the future. Well, I have
spent much too much time rambling on in an area in which I have little
expertise, and yet I think these questions are interesting ones to
reflect upon.

I have long been interested in the poem that is the title of this exhibit, “Pied Beauty,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—  
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;  
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;  
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;  
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim. 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;  
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)  
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;  
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                  Praise him.

The poem is sonnet-like in structure and Psalm-like in theme. It
catalogs the glories of creation and both begins and ends with an
injunction to praise God who has created all things. Though it is
Psalm-like, however, it is incredibly contemporary in many ways. In
fact, even though Hopkins wrote at the end of the Victorian era, he is
considered by many to be the first of the Modernist poets in English,
because of his innovative creation of sprung rhythm and his piling up
of vivid images one on top of the other, as the Imagists would do after
him. It is the images themselves, however, that are especially
interesting and appealing, I think particularly so to our own time, in
that they are images of diversity and variegation, of simple things
which display the glory of their creator. Moreover, I believe the
images reinforce another theme that is woven throughout Scripture, that
God is interested in the weak and the lowly things of this world, the
small things. His eye is on the sparrow. He will not crush a bruised
reed. He will not snuff out a smoldering wick. Now, even as I say these
things, my theological side wonders whether I have warrant to say them
from the context of the passages, to apply them as I do, and yet I
think the broad contours of the proposition will stand.

Regardless, I named this exhibit “Pied Beauty” because it seems that
much of my photography reflects Hopkins’s aesthetic in this poem. I
hope you find that the images in the exhibit capture some of the sense
of the poem’s cataloguing of beauty and complexity found in strange and
lowly places, of beauty even amidst ugliness and pain, which glorifies
God. If even a little of that sense is captured, then I will be a happy
man, and feel I am a successful artist in this endeavor.

Upon reflection, I think I have long possessed traces of this
aesthetic and desire to display the beauty of the ordinary and odd, but
there have been times in my life when I have not let it flourish as I
do now, indeed when I have actively suppressed it. These times were
characterized not by retreats into theologizing, as you might suspect,
but were tinged by bad theologizing. There was a time when I used
Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is
noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely,
whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think
about such things,” as a sort of an iron mask through which to view the
world. It is not that I do not believe this verse now. I strongly
believe that our thought lives will affect our practices, and vice
versa. But I was using it simplistically as a lens through which to
view entertainment and art. Now, there may be some merit in this, but
not in the way in which I was doing it, which was basically excluding
anything from my view that was rather complex, to exclude any piece of
art which asked me to dwell on things not so noble and praiseworthy,
even if they were saying something true about the world.

My relationship with my friend, Julie, was one of the things that
helped provide a corrective to this restrictive way of thinking. Among
a catalog of interests in things unconventional, she had a quirky
interest in aspects of nature, which, frankly, at first I found rather
bizarre. One summer she brought a dead sea gull carcass home from
InterVaristy camp, all the way from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to
Southern Illinois, in a Ziploc bag. On another occasion she gave me the
box that is pictured here with its fascinating contents.




Now, I did not think contents were fascinating at the time I received
the gift, mind you. Instead, I was absorbed with wondering why someone
would give me a beautiful box with the shells of cicadas in it. It was
jarring and seemed a little bit subversive.

Perhaps it was bit subversive, but, I now believe, in a good sort of
way. Upon closer examination over the years, and as those years changed
the contour of our friendship, at some point, I saw the beauty in the
shells, in the intricate details molded into the chitin which still
endures after many years. I noticed the way in which the warm amber of
the shells worked with the rich red of the box. I noticed the contrast
between the curves of the shells and geometry of the box. Now, much of
the description of the effects this box mediated upon me, I am sure, is
retrospectively augmented. And the box is surely not the only thing
that lead to the reawakening of this aesthetic in me. And, yet, it
works as a symbol for me of that reawakening. It is also a symbol of
the importance of relationships and community in the creation of art,
to which I turn to next.

Art, like everything else, is never done in a vacuum, even if one of
the images of the artist in our day is of the quirky, iconoclastic
individual, alone against the world. Even such an artist, though, has
to deal with the world, if only in order to be alone against it. No,
happily, I think we are recapturing the benefits of community in a host
of spheres of endeavor and living. Instead of trying to jump to
generalizing principles, however, let me simply end by telling you the
extent to which community and context play a role in the art that I

First there is the nature of my nature, or whatever it is that gets
uncoiled from the DNA our parents pass along to us, which gets either
nurtured or squashed in the environments in which we grow up. My father
is a photographer, and his award-winning photographs which graced our
house, and his grace to let his children use some pretty expensive
photo equipment, even after my brother Virgil sank a camera in a
irrigation tank in our back yard, I am sure contributed to my desire
and ability to use a camera today. In high school, Mr. Murray’s efforts
to give a little missionary school in the mountains of Pakistan a very
decent darkroom and to run a photo club were also encouraging.

More recently, though, in a great rush of activity, as if the shutter
is trying to make up for lost time, I have been even more greatly
encouraged by community. And here, again, our digital advances have
been a blessing. My willingness to put my work on a blog and my
friends’ interest and praise and even constructive criticism in their
comments all fed my desire to do it more, to do it better. Not only has
my blog been a conduit for sharing photos, but also writing, amateur
cultural criticism, and, in one instance, a community haiku contest.
And, most specifically with regards to the benefits of community, this
show would not be in the form it is today if not for the good eyes and
encouraging hearts of two friends named Heidi, who met with me and made
thoughtful recommendations. I would not have been able to gather all
the frames if not for the help of friends, Heidi and Tanya, as they
drove me to thrift stores when I was car-less. And then, getting it all
up on the walls in a tasteful effective sort of way and publicizing the
whole endeavor, does not happen without the work of curators like Mike
Ramsey. And, finally, in speaking about my recent artistic output as a
whole, I would be very remiss to fail to mention that in the literary,
poetic and photographic spheres, my connection with catapult magazine
and my interactions with its thoughtful editor, Kirstin Vander
Giessen-Reitsma, have allowed me to become a contributing member of a
community the size of which I could not have imagined two short years

Community is a bit of a buzzword just now, and perhaps we might be
in danger of developing a bit of “community fatigue,” at least in
talking about it. And, yet, it is something we need to continue to talk
about to counteract our culture’s deeply ingrained individualistic
bent.  Also, it is vital to foster the arts in community with one
another. I would not have not attempted half of the things I have in
the artistic and literary realm if not for the encouragement of
teachers and friends. I think this makes it incumbent upon us to share
our gifts with one another, gifts of the art itself, yes, but also the
gift of encouraging someone else in fledgling attempts, a youngster in
particular, gifts of sharing equipment and resources and time, and
finally the gift of words, of constructive criticism and true

I feel almost compelled to not finish without leaving you with some bon
mots on how to go about taking pictures, but I know on this score that
there are certainly more competent sources with which to consult. Let
me simply boil it down to this: first, open your eyes and see; second,
see what you like and think about why you like it; third, stop and take
the shot whenever humanly possible; and, finally, take your camera with
you, take your camera with you, take your camera with you. Whenever,
you can, that is, when it is not on loan enriching someone else in your
community. And speaking of enriching your community, share your gift.
Playing off of the metaphor of being a member of Christ’s body, as a
photographer, one is functioning to some extent as an eye for that
body. Whatever your gift and role is, though, be thankful for it and
humbly use it for the good of others in the body. If you are a
photographer, take people’s pictures and e-mail the images to them.
Volunteer your time to take pictures for events. Join up in groups to
talk about art.

Finally, I hope that sometime in the future, if this show runs its
course well, that I might have the opportunity to do another one day.
And though it is hard to see which roads one might take artistically, I
think I may well stick with Hopkins. In another poem that is a true
sonnet, Hopkins turns to consider the mark humanity has made upon the
world, and, in ways with which we can certainly resonate today, the
picture is not encouraging; humanity‘s mark is a stain. And, still, for
all the depth of that stain, Hopkins has faith that nature, and more
importantly, nature’s God, is not spent, but ensconces it all in His
glorious wings:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.  
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;  
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil  
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?  
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;  
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil  
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. 

And for all this, nature is never spent;  
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went  
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—  
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent  
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

If you are interested in purchasing prints of any photographs in this exhibit, you may e-mail Neil.

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