The German Poet Rilke referred to grace as “suddenly getting the right eyes” which is a very clear way of describing the experience of grace as a gift for a person who is in the habit of poking out their own eyes as a recreational activity.
At the beginning of 2008 sometime after February and the inarticulate fumbling of a relationship that could be filed firmly into the incredibly-poor-idea category I found myself crying on the phone to my parents again. It wasn’t that my parents had never heard me cry on the phone, it was the loaded heaviness of despair that I could feel, and they couldn’t see, and I couldn’t communicate that made the situation feel desparate. Sometimes life just gets heavier and heavier, it sits on your chest and prevents you from sleeping at night. Despair moves into your lungs with every breath and you can literally feel it in the tired movements of your arms, just standing feels exhasting. The need for victory feels more and more like a hallucinogenic pipe dream. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.
This is the place that a painting met me. When I say that the piece met me, I mean that I messed up in the very beginning of the piece in a way that I saw as damning. I had a very ordered pattern that I was going to apply to the surface of the canvas. It was a printed image of small triangles that looked a bit like graphic broken glass. When I tried to transfer the image to the canvas the first two went onto the surface fairly consistently and the third almost ripped off entirely. I performed the crazy artist dance that is cursing wildly at your painting then planting your face firmly in your hands and trying to remember what time the art store opens. The only problem was that I was incredibly poor so buying another sheet of canvas wasn’t really an option. So I sat down in utter defeat and kept going. Then something happened which had never occurred to me as a possibility. It was the torn sections, the mess ups that let the beautiful clean white of the canvas show through. It was the damage that gave the piece it’s strength. I felt God reach down and say, “I will do something with even your perceived failures Levi, you can stop pretending now. Just keep working. Get your hands dirty. Fail miserably and keep going.” Art seems to work better when the idea clearly speaks to you in a very direct and personal way.
The title of the piece is “Broken” and it set the trajectory of all of my art as well as giving me a much better vision of my faith. I don’t see Jesus shaking his fist at sinners in the gospels, but you very clearly see him livid at the religious. In fact if you want to see who Jesus really gets after in the gospels all you have to do is look for people who think of themselves as good, upstanding moral people. It’s those perceived as dirty, the outcasts, the forgotten, and those who clearly state that they are unclean and do not deserve grace that are given grace. It is when there is a personal recognized lacking that Jesus enters. The real danger comes when your moral system becomes more important than another human being. It is the perceived superiority pissing matches we get in that obscure God. Our legacy, our worship, our good behavior, our work all get in the way of seeing that our goodness is less the point than returning to the well for water because we are thirsty. It is only when your structure falls apart that you can clearly see beauty and goodness as a pure gift. It is less a victory and more of a surrender. Admitting defeat, admitting that you carry brokenness is a way of receiving the right eyes for your life. My art continues to deal with what it looks like to interrupt a structure and the ways in which interruption can make that structure beautiful and interesting.