STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 07/09/2013
Story Bruce Herman
Photos Tim Ferguson Sauder and Daniel Nystedt '06
My graduate school mentor, the New York painter Philip Guston, once told me a story from his life that helped galvanize my own sense of purpose as an artist. Guston had been given the prestigious Prix de Rome, a scholarship for art students, and was living in Italy, painting and touring and generally enjoying his good fortune. In Arezzo, Tuscany, he had the chance to visit Piero della Francesca's masterpiece, the mural cycle in Cappella de San Francesco, The Legend of the True Cross. He looked up at the magnificent and complex set of images surrounding the little chapel and he wept. When his friends asked him what was wrong, he replied, "We don't have a story. These Christians--they had a story."
Yet we Christians in the 21st century also find ourselves in a confused and confusing story with the instability that naturally results from a cut-and-paste culture of "preferences"--one that affords little sense of belonging (ethos) or meaning (telos). The sort of narrative fragmentation that has gotten into our bones needs examination. We need to carefully critique ourselves and our times--our kairos--and not be drawn unconsciously into the spirit of our age. What are the long-range effects of instinctive incoherence--that habit of mind that sees all knowledge as mere information, all stories as neutral scrapbook items for random assemblage?
The tangled plotlines we all contend with have their resolution and untangling in the Bible's majestic story: a rough little tribe with no particular talent or brilliance is chosen by God to be the recipient of a transcendent inheritance--to become the adopted children of a King far greater than Pharaoh. This little rag-tag bunch is not only offered a temporary homeland in Canaan, but that very "promised" land points toward another country, the one mentioned in chapter 11 of Hebrews: "If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one."
The Bible points toward a sometimes hidden but then surprisingly uncovered storyline whose ultimate end is joy and communion, communion with the Creator and communion with each other. Believing in the God of the Bible invites you to see your story as part of a larger story unfolding in human history--a story whose hero doesn't have to be yourself, and one with an alternative plotline that makes the mud puddle of your life seem bottomless--like the Loch Ness that is small in terms of surface area but very deep. Miles deep. Our little loch opens at the bottom onto the wide and mysterious sea of God's telos. That deep sea is really the only safe haven, despite its fearsome aspect: God's holiness and otherness. At the end of J. R. R. Tolkien's Return of the King, Frodo's home can no longer be the Shire, as he has seen too much. Likewise, even though we cannot return to the halcyon days of 1950s America, we may follow Frodo into the West--into an unknown but meaningful future that God has for us if we keep faith with His purposes here in (Middle) Earth.
I think all musicians, poets, painters and filmmakers are trying to get at that Story whose plotlines are mysteriously transcendent yet as near to us as our own breath. Having faith in Jesus and His invitation to be part of that Story is an incalculable advantage artistically speaking--that is, if you are willing to do all the hard work to unpack and live into that invitation.
Bruce Herman, M.F.A., professor of art, is a painter living and working in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He and his wife, Meg, have two grown children, Ben and Sarah, and two grandsons, Will (4) and Jack (2). They are longtime members of the Lanesville Congregational Church in Gloucester, where Bruce serves as an elder. More of his work can be found online at www.bruceherman.com.
1. Bruce in his studio in West Gloucester, Massachusetts.
2. A random orbital sander is one of the tools Bruce uses in creating his large-scale works.
3. Bruce adjusting color on a painting exploring the relationship between Jesus and His mother.