by Scott Foster
I recall sitting in high school art class agonizing over a watercolor. It is like being eaten by a shark: there’s only one way to go, and it’s darker. To my painting, “Why won’t you be beautiful?!” Considering my frustration, another student wondered why I was even in the class. The question proceeded from the assumption that art making—being at best a marginally useful endeavor—should at least provide entertainment value.
Nothing worth doing is free of frustrations. What I’ve come to know is the process of creation, as experienced by artists, is often drudgery. In the struggle to give form to something that exists only as a concept, a wide gamut of emotions ebb and flow through the artist. We see the contrast between what is and what might be. The greatest pain is in the knowledge that there is no straight road between the two. What roads exist obey no Cartesian logic. On this path, digging a hole is no less likely to land me on top of that mountain than is a trek up the nearest trail. Often the best artwork coalesces around the heap of which I had despaired.
Artist Ted Seth Jacobs once said that the greatest teacher is the white page. Every mark is right or wrong based on its relationship to the previous and subsequent marks. It is hardly a straightforward way of artmaking to weigh each jot and gesture, to modify and adjust, yet real creation happens in concert and in collaboration, in response and in relationship. An artist works by embracing uncertainty and indeterminacy and by giving up some control. An artist who paints by rote and by number will end up with an effigy, not artwork. Free will and random chance are necessary components of human creativity for this reason.
That is the great truth of all art making, beauty from chaos, life from death. It is a truth we also see played out in Scripture, and a truth that encompasses God’s providential interaction with creation: God bringing forth creation and redeeming it with his love. In his recent book, Dr. Thomas J. Oord lays out a case for an uncontrolling model of divine providence, predicated on kenotic love. This love is essentially self-giving and other empowering (p. 94-95). It is a model that allows for the free will of created beings, as well as the apparent randomness resultant from the interaction of so many free wills. It is a responsive model in which both God and creation respond to, and influence, each other. Responsivity is also a hallmark of creativity, and I believe that the human impulse toward creativity offers insight into the uncontrolling love of God.
What does it mean to be creative? It is more than the conventional image of the artist, working at 2 am and slinging paint around at random. Regardless of their individual methods, what artists have in common is a process of thinking based on finding connections between disparate subjects; developing a rhythm between diligent work and free exploration; and identifying strengths and weaknesses to be preserved or adjusted. The creative process consists of observation, execution, and reflection. It is an open-ended and responsive process. By open-ended, I mean that creativity is cyclical. The critique of an artists’ work leads to new insight; those insights lead to new work, or might prompt a revision of one’s initial observations.
Working responsively means the active scrutiny of one’s activity and openness to alternatives. By attending to one’s subject, materials, and creation, new insights are gained. I can buy five or six different kinds of black watercolor paint. Lamp black is light and powdery. In a wash it recedes, creating the illusion of depth. Mars black has metaphorical and literal gravity. The weight of iron oxide literally pulls the pigment out of suspension. This creates a texture that commands focus in the foreground of a painting. These two blacks are of exactly the same hue—in fact, if I’m not careful, I easily confuse the two—but I would never consciously substitute one for the other. No one taught me this in school; it was something I learned from the paint itself.
While I value my paint, our relationship does not perfectly analogize God’s relationship with creation, but this responsive aspect of the creative process is something that we see reflected in God’s actions. If one could sum up the entire Bible in a phrase, it might be that it is a story of God’s relationship with humanity. A responsive God is attentive to Moses’ plea for the Israelites following their infidelity in the desert (Exodus 32). Similarly, although Jesus is disinclined to heal the daughter of the Syrophenician woman (Mathew 15:21-28), he is won over by her insistence. In these situations, and in others, people call out to God from their suffering, and God is there. There is no straight path along which this history unfolds. Rather, with many turns and doublings, a story unfolds as people respond to God’s call to love, or fail to do so. As with all creative endeavors, the artist struggles to resolve the work. Out of the paint, forms are both materialized and obscured by each stroke. It is rare that hand and brush move in perfect concert and fluidity.
Indeed, the beauty of the world is marred by much anguish and distress. Dr. Oord addresses the problem of evil not by saying God has a pedagogical goal, or that good will come out of it. Rather, Oord sees evil as the product of random chance and free will. This does not mean that God is flying blind, or that God is impotent. God’s relational identity, God’s very self-giving love itself, precludes coercive action. While in communion with people, animals, and even microbes, God is providentially active in the world. It is when we respond to God’s call to love that God’s will is done (p.178). Amid the apparent random chaos of life—the suicide bombings, broken relationships, fires and floods—God is marshalling all creation to action. It is my prayer that we all respond to that call. Genuine evil may be the product of free will and random chance, but so too is authentic life.
Scott Nelson Foster received his first instruction in drawing and painting from his uncle, Roland Giampaoli, and from his grandfather, Will Nelson, while growing up in Boise, Idaho. Mr. Foster has worked in a variety of two dimensional media, including wax, glue and egg temperas, watercolor, oil, and serigraphy. His interest in esoteric and unusual artistic practices has allowed him opportunities to work with iconographers, fresco painters, performance artists, and alchemists. Scott’s paintings have been featured in solo and juried exhibitions on the east and west coasts, including the upcoming Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region exhibition at the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY. He has completed portraits commissioned by the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish and the Musician of Ma’alwyck. He is represented by the Carrie Haddad Gallery of Hudson, NY.
Mr. Foster received a B.A. in Fine Art from Northwest Nazarene University, and an M.F.A. in Painting and Drawing from Utah State University. Scott is an Associate Professor of Creative Arts at Siena College. He and his wife Katria currently live in upstate New York.
Photo credit for both the author photo and the banner photo goes to Katria Foster.