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Humanity Redeemed: The Theological Vision of Georges Rouault

I was recently asked to be one of the featured local artists to present at Gordon Conewell Seminary's Theology and Arts Symposium. The purpose of the symposium, as detailed by the seminary website is as follows:

Georges Rouault (1871–1958) was unique among French modernist artists due to his Christian commitment and its influence on his work. The theological vision unveiled through his art is honest and complex, one that reflects the changing climate and tumultuous events of the early twentieth century. In doing so, Rouault showed the possibility of salvation and hope within the inexplicable suffering and mundane realities of human life. His close friend Jacques Maritain identified this as “the art of humanity redeemed.”

This symposium will gather teachers, pastors, artists, ministry leaders, and others to reflect on the theological vision of Georges Rouault and his ongoing impact. Prominent scholars and practitioners with expertise in theology, art history, philosophy, therapy, and community leadership will be offering papers and leading the discussion. Two of the speakers, Philippe and Caroline Rouault, great-grandchildren of George Rouault, will provide a personal introduction to his life, work, and family. In addition, several artists will present new work inspired by Rouault, which will both enrich our experience together and show the ongoing generativity of Rouault’s vision and style.

If you are interested in seeing the video from my presentation, you're welcome to head over to the seminary stream here.

My piece, "Beloved" is currently on display at the seminary.

The following is the presentation I gave on the topic of "'Beloved' in concert with Rouault"

I feel like my art making and creating is my contemplative practice. I am often trying to figure out how I weave together what I believe with how I behave. The weaving and threading together starts to take shape in 2D format, on canvas with metal, ceramic, thread, paper, and paint and also in daily life, where I am rooted in place in West Charlotte and practice intentional community, living in solidarity with people who are in poverty. I’m trying to think about how we mesh the gospel of hope and a living Christ with the living material make-up of the community; the ways in which we embody Christ in our living, material, daily life.

I moved to West Charlotte in 2005. My neighborhood, Enderly Park, has been generationally poor and divested from municipal funds and governmental support for a long time. We are dealing with a lot of the backlash of these issues in the neighborhood. I moved here because I truly believed that the poor will inherit the kingdom of God and so if I want to be connected to God, then I need to be deeply connected to the poor.

Over the course of time in the neighborhood, we developed a thriving youth group. During the time of a lot of police brutality reports, and especially when Trevon Martin was killed, our youth group members were expressing concern about “This could be me! This boy carrying skittles, wearing a hood could have been me and I could have been harmed.” There was so much rhetoric in the media using the language of “thugs,” blaming Black children for the brutality that was happening. I wanted to tell the truth about the real story of our youth. And so, I created a series of Saint Icons using photographs of youth members and mixed media techniques. The art gallery where these saints are located is my house, a place where the youth gather and enter freely. This was my first practice of mixed media, trying to translate how I was thinking, what I was reflecting on, and telling the truth to these children and youth who I love.

I saved one person, “Beloved,” until last because our relationship with one another is very tender to me. As time moved on, neighbors were experiencing housing instability in a way that was different than before. The experience of frequent housing transition had been commonplace for decades, but now people weren’t able to come back to the neighborhood after transitioning from a home because prices had gone up and homeownership had changed. Due to real estate speculation combined with rental housing changing hands to high cost investment properties, longtime residents have been displaced from and cannot return to the neighborhood.

I was concerned about “Beloved.” Was he going to be displaced from the neighborhood? During the creation of this piece, I was thinking about how I weave together and build Beloved a house. In the piece, you can see I used whatever resources I had on hand. There is raw material, ceramic, dark mortar, wire, paper, paint, and symbols that represent Beloved. When you get up close, you can see layers of paint and paper, the texture, lines, rigidness, and grit are in concert with Roauault’s work.

This portrait has been sitting in our home for quite a while because the tender-to-me art pieces are harder to give away. I have shown this piece in a few places, though. When I have, I have asked the curators to label “For sale in exchange for a house for Beloved.” The reason why I think that this painting is in concert with Rouault is because of the similarities in darkness I saw in Rouault’s work as well as his use of imagery of clowns. Rouault’s use of clowns is both a metaphor and his real lived experience. Similarly, through the making of “Beloved”, I was thinking about how I might take a subject that not everyone would see as honored or sacred and name him as such. I was asking, “How do I honor the ordinary? How do I sanctify, tell the truth, tell the sacredness of this human being who some might call a “thug?” This is one way that I see “Beloved” in harmony with Rouault’s work.

There continue to be threads of integration and coherence that are weaving their way through. After creating “Beloved,” I started to create Reliquaries- sacred objects inside of which are objects of saints. I created reliquaries for the evicted, a series of sacred containers made from evicted belongings, in honor of people who have been evicted. Right now, I am reflecting on what is at the root of these issues and how do I tell the truth of that story. The pieces I am currently making are taking the shape of trees, using thread, ceramic, textile, paint, and other objects to reflect upon the seeds we plant and what is at the root.

Sometimes I want to press every bit of meaning out of my work. This practice leaves me feeling very heavy. And so, there are times when I just want to play. That movement between play, telling the truth, playing some more, making marks and letting marks remain even when you don’t want to be there, and allowing that to be. This is something I have seen in concert with the artwork of Rouault.

During the symposium, a participant asked:

“The thing that jumps out to me immediately is its relatively low contrast. The background a is similar color to his face. Any intentionality and the choice of color there?”

My response was:

“Yes. “Beloved” is the most darkly complected person in our youth group and there were a lot of times that that is made fun of. There's quite a bit of colorism happening within our youth group, but I find beloved skin tone to be beautiful and also very difficult to depict. I started with the dark background because I wanted to figure out how to bring the light out and honor the darkness of his skin tone. I hope that by doing so I'm nudging at the youth that are always making fun of him that that his skin tone is really quite beautiful.”

Another participant asked:

“How did Beloved respond when he first saw this?”

I responded:

“So he likes to pretend like he doesn't have any responses. And so he kind of looked at it and didn't respond. He's never said anything ugly about it, which lets me know that he really finds it to be something special and tender. He wants to look macho at all times, so he's not going to let on about something that's vulnerable to him.”

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