Vincent, Theo, Visual Arts, and the Church

Vincent Van Gogh, "Self-Portrait With A Grey Felt Hat III"

“Self-Portrait With A Grey Felt Hat III”
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Today I simply wanted to share with you two posts from CIVA, Christians In The Visual Arts, and my mental meanderings in regards to them. They came across my radar a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve spent much time pondering them; our pastor’s brief comments this past Sunday that the church needs to support high-quality films and other artists striving to produce work of excellence brought them back to mind once again.

That many of you are not Christians is of course known to me, but I sincerely hope that perhaps you will gain something from this as well, or perhaps even have encouraging suggestions for churches. As a Christian and a photographer, I spend a great deal of time pondering this and related topics, and really don’t have anyone to discuss them with. Thus you are my unfortunate guinea pigs. *wink*

To be brutally and perhaps cruelly honest, I ever don’t expect my church to ask me to exhibit my work (“It’s so UGLY! All of those abandoned places and rusty cars! That can’t possibly be of God!”—unpleasant to hear on several levels); they’re not really “that kind” of church. My parents’ church in Michigan is probably more likely to do so, though to be honest, my photography is probably not abstract or outlandish enough for them, either.* (Documentary photographer: Stuck between a rock and a hard place! I’m a glutton for rejection!)

Ohio Valley Church. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved. Pinning to this page is okay.

This does not really bother me too much, so long as it’s sans the unintentionally unkind comments; even then, I have learned to deeply discount such remarks. Really, it is probably the church’s lip service about supporting artists that bothers me more than cutting words from those who do not like works based on specifics or who do not see a place for art and artists at all in the church. As a member of the body of Christ, is there no support for visual artists seeking and laboring to serve and worship God through their artwork?

All of that brings me to pair of thoughtful pieces at CIVA’s blog by painter and sculptor Ann Williams. They were inspired by her considering the life of Vincent Van Gogh—surely one of the most marvellous artists whose works we are blessed enough to enjoy today—particularly the letters between Vincent and his brother, Theo.

Despite his brother’s troubled nature, Theo supported Vincent—even allowing the artist to stay in his Paris home for two years despite the recommendations of others. Why was this?

And as Theo wrestles with what to do, he lands on the side of grace and continues on in the same manner always believing something great was in his brother.  He stood beside him, and on page 65 of Roskill’s book, Van Gogh’s sister-in-law’s memoir recounts this as Theo’s opinion of his brother:

“Vincent is one of those who has gone through all the experiences of life and retired from the world, now we must wait and see if he has genius.  I think he has … if he succeeds in his work he will be a great man.”  

Ann Williams, “Every Vincent Needs A Theo”

 Portrait of Theo van Gogh, 1887 Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Long thought to be a self-portrait, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam now believes it is a portrait of Vincent’s beloved brother Theo.

Williams notes that Theo saw something latent, yet powerful, in his brother, something gleaming beneath the “mess” and “failure” others could not see beyond. After reading the blog post, I of course did some nosing about myself—Theo loved his older brother, admired him, and was concerned about Vincent’s depression; thus the numerous letters he sent to his brother, the support lent. I shall have to buy the volume of their correspondence myself!

 More from Ms. Williams (note: all emphasis added)

…I believe God put Theo into his brother’s life to be his beacon of grace.  Whether Vincent was aware or not, I don’t know, but what I find fascinating is the relationship.

Every Vincent needs a Theo.  Every artist needs someone who will stand beside them, walk with them through the journey of the work and life, support them on a number of levels, and ultimately show him or her grace.

…Every Vincent needs a Theo.  My thought is that “Theo” is the church. The body of Christ as a whole.  The church is referred to as a body because it needs each person’s gifts to function at is optimum level.  That includes artists.  We understand the role of the artist in the universal church as important but if each local church is to in some way mimic the universal church isn’t it safe to say it also needs the artist?

She closes by noting that just as ever Vincent needs a Theo, so must Vincent learn to lean upon Theo, accept his emotional support, if not financial support. For independent perfectionist types like artists, this can be extraordinarily difficult—but a vital spiritual lesson as well, for we can do nothing, least of all be acceptable to God, without relying entirely upon Christ. Perhaps this is one way in which God wishes to shape us into something better than we are right now.

Personally speaking, it often seems the church as a whole—the Protestant and Evangelical tradition, anyhow; Catholics famously love art—has rejected visual art and artists, most especially those who do not fit into their conception of “artist” due to the artist’s personality/nature, what they produce, or their surface subject matter. The range of “acceptable” and “good” is quite narrow.

Ornate bronzelike church door in Ohio. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved. Pinning to this page is okay, though.

I will tell you this—my “pretty” church photographs, such as the black and white at the start of this post, are instantly approved of. It’s ridiculous and happens even if I’m not fond of the shot. Others, such as “Abandoned Hope” at the very bottom of this post, are summarily rejected as “ungodly”, “not edifying”, and other dismaying adjectives, and no one asks why I took that photograph, or if I truly see the hope usually signified by churches as abandoned. The same goes for “Battered“, which is in fact one of my favourite self-taken church photographs—but churchy people loathe it (which I’ll confess hurts; it’s a very old photograph, one I took when falling in love with the art again, but despite its lack of technical excellence, I love it anyhow).

Really, I can’t help wondering if my experiences affect the way I photograph churches…

All of that said, individuals within the church are often simply waiting to provide that support, to be a Theo. It is simply a matter of finding those dear friends, which means stepping out to find them!

Of course, in the church, we are expected to serve as well as receive, just as Christ did. Williams’ second post, We All Need To Be Theo, reminds us of this, especially as it pertains to other artists in the church. Williams’ father, an artist himself, was her Theo, encouraging her, providing all manner of support, rooting for her success, teaching her a valuable lesson.

I do believe the non-artist of the church should encourage the artists as well, but my desire is to see working artists encouraging other artists through genuine community.  How can we expect churches to understand, support, and encourage excellence in the arts if the “expert” artists refuse to engage in the church?  And how can an artist grow spiritually if they aren’t supported and challenged by other Christians?  And who will support the artists who desire to grow their gifts and give their best to God?  I think the best people are artists themselves.

…We all need encouragement and we all need to be shown grace.  We all need a Theo – yes, but we all need to return the gift and be a Theo to another.

Wow. To those of you who are not Christian, it may seem self-destructive or at least harmful to help other artists in the church, but believers are to do this because Christ tells us to—that we are to follow Him, not our own desires; that whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and that whoever loses his life for His sake will keep it; that we are to die to self, lay down our lives for others, even surrender our gifts, pouring them out for others, in His name and service. Not simple, but it is what we are called to do.

Westover Church, Virginia. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved. Pinning to this page is okay.

Historic Westover Church, Virginia. Built 1731.

While doing this and helping other artists may indeed make them more competitive on the earthly plane, I am certain it pleases God—and, counterintuitive as it might sound at first, makes us better artists as well; iron sharpens iron, after all. Moreover, He is working in the life of every believer, purifying us of our sin—it might be easier for us to get through such purging with those who understand what it is like, and to aid one going through something we’ve already suffered is a blessing indeed.

“Theo” needn’t be another artist, of course, as Williams seems to suggest in a later post. Artisans, especially those who find themselves and their efforts rejected by the church, need to continue reaching out to their fellow congregants—where we may indeed find our Theo and, God willing, encourage others just as they encourage us.

I shall close with something from Ms. Williams’ most recent post:

These amateur artists desire to get better at their skill.  But I wonder how?  How can they grow in skill if there is no one to teach them?  I suppose they could go to the community college or a local art center for lessons, but what about growing from someone who excels in his/her medium and desires to see God glorified through it? ….What if a working artist could offer to teach some novice artists through the local church?  What if those lessons were less about making money and more about building the Kingdom of God?  How would the quality of art in that place change?

To support novice and experienced Christian artists alike is to support their serving God as well as they possibly can on this earth—and that in and of itself seems like a high calling to me.

Thank you for reading my ramblings. 🙂

Church in downtown Detroit, Michigan. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved. Pinning to this page is okay.

Detroit, Michigan
(Drive-by photo…it was cold, icy, and I was improperly attired)

Here are Ms. Williams’ posts:

* What makes the church’s response to visual arts more jarring are, understandably, my own experiences. Before becoming ill, I was a worship leader; let me assure you that musicians of all styles and  stripes are, dangerously, adored almost to the point of idolization in many Protestant and Evangelical churches, as if God can be worshipped only through music.

Moreover, unlike my faith’s tradition, Catholics seem to eagerly support their artists in a variety of ways, the most obvious being the outlet provided in the architecture and adornment of their often-gorgeous churches. My grandparents are all Catholic, I was baptized as a Catholic, and have many Catholic friends; having thus spent a great deal of time in visually rich Catholic churches, I really can’t help but compare them to my sort. Modern-day Protestant and Evangelical churches tend to resemble big-box stores or gigantic doctors’ offices, with plain, dull walls that do nothing to remind us of the beauty God has so generously blessed us with, and art, if any…well. Pop into your local Christian bookstore and unfortunately, much of what you will see is…well.

Finally, I am not really certain that what I do is “art”—that is a high term indeed, one we should apply with thought—and I have no formal art education, only what I teach myself and what I can glean through learning from others. Thus I consider and call myself a documentary photographer, no matter how artfully I aim to complete my work and regardless of what it is am attempting to communicate.

Abandoned Hope, Pittsburgh PA abandoned church. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved. Pinning to this page is okay.

“Abandoned Hope”, PIttsburgh PA
I took this one waaaaaay back in 2006, when I was just beginning to take an interest in photography after a long hiatus.


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