Jonathan’s initial reflections on his subject appeared in a guest post on this blog in September. To read the first post, click here.
As a photographer, painter, and poet who happens to be an Orthodox Christian, I find that my overt attempts at expressing something about my faith tend to be more wooden than if I simply try to let my artwork be a faithful reflection of the beauty I experience in the world. To some extent, I suppose, this is a reflection of my amateur status. I have not yet practiced the technologies of my camera, or brushes, or language well enough for my intent to be expertly woven into my work. It is when I am doing my best to be transparent that I get out of the way enough to let God speak through me.
I have been writing poetry the longest, since I was in middle school. As I have grown older, I am writing less. Not only do I have less time to write, I find that I am not as often inclined to write. I think this might have something to do with having a more-or-less stable and happy life; much of my younger poetry was angst-inspired. I have begun writing again more recently, though it is hard to say if this is because I am feeling more angsty (which might be true) or if I’m finding more depth in feelings as I get older and need an appropriate outlet. I have written a handful of poems since converting to the Orthodox Christian faith eight years ago, but only two of them, Become As A Little Child and Exile, deal at all with issues of faith.
Melinda Johnson, in inviting me to write this post, wondered about Wordsworth’s concept of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and whether or not that “tranquility helps or hinders the poet’s…chance at transcendence.” Given my experience of being a more prolific writer during turbulent periods of my life, I have some doubt that tranquility would elicit the same emotion. I concede, however, that the added perspective one might gain by recollecting strong emotion after having achieved some peace might allow the writer to produce a more nuanced and evocative product. And, after all, I’m no Wordsworth.
Much of my photography has been since my conversion. While I do not make particular attempts to photograph Orthodox subjects (except when recording a particular parish event), I do find that the faith-inspired awe I have of nature and the Christian imperative of seeing Christ–and therefore the beauty–in every person permeates my approach to subjects. I am particularly fond of taking portraits and still-life compositions.
My good friend, J. Vincent Scarpace, with whom I was privileged to lead a group of university students in contemplating the idea of transcendence in art, explained to me once why he got started painting fish. He had worked closely with Koi fish and when he went to school was told that he needed to have a subject matter he knew well. I used this insight when I began painting with J. Vincent; though I am not a candle expert, I often find myself staring at the candles lit in prayer during worship.
As I have practiced more painting candles, I try to think about the reasons we Orthodox Christians light candles in prayer and set them in front of icons. I also try to think about what my life looks like, and this swirling darkness, the confusion, disorder and distraction I feel serves as the chaotic background to the candles I paint. My hope is that a person viewing my paintings finds a measure of comfort in the juxtaposition of the candles and the chaos, even if they do not apprehend my particular intent in locating that peace in Christian tradition.
I have had the privilege of sharing my love of art by engaging students in the process of creating art. While J. Vincent did the technical instruction, I took the lead in discussing the idea of art as a means of transcendence with our students. As an Orthodox Christian, transcendence has a very particular meaning for me. I did not foreground my own perspective, but I did get to share a bit about the theology of icons and juxtapose that to other ideas of transcendence. In particular, I was happy that on a field trip to Houston, I got to take my students first to the Houston Byzantine Fresco Chapel and then to the Rothko Chapel. Our conversation about the experience, while somewhat superficial, did suggest that the students came away with an appreciation of the difference between the particular transcendence in the former and the diffuse transcendence of the latter.
I think, finally, that the success of a piece of art, whether poetry, photograph, or painting, depends on an interaction of the art, artist and audience: the rhetorical triangle. The particular genius of Orthodoxy in emphasizing the personal nature of our interaction with God gives a new flavor to art that reveals grace in our experience. Like the reverse perspective in Byzantine iconography, the art is not complete until the audience is participating, until there is someone to receive that grace.
Jonathan Kotinek is a convert to Orthodoxy, father of two, and constantly in awe of his veterinarian wife. An educator, amateur artist, and writer who likes to ponder the intersection of faith, social issues, and education, Jonathan blogs occasionally at http://jkotinek.blogspot.com.