Knitting Picture: Western Mountains Poncho

You may recall that a while back, I accidentally discovered that if you make zigzag stripes on a poncho in a gradient of colors, it looks like mountains receding into the distance. I’ve been wanting to make one for myself, for some time.

I discovered this nice, affordable yarn that is something like 90% acrylic, 10% alpaca. I could have done the poncho in shades of grey, and that would have looked awesome, but I already own a grey poncho and I “needed” one that was more in the orange family. So, these mountains are going to have a cloudy sky in the background, alpenglow on the upper peaks, dun lower peaks.

When I have two long rectangles, I’ll sew them together to make a poncho.

Winter Mist in Idaho

This is right outside my front door.

It’s scenes like this that make me feel I live in a sci-fi story. I read sci-fi to get taken to a place that is vast, inhospitable and severe. Where utilitarian objects, placed against the background of the sky, take on their own heartless beauty. As is the case with this quonset hut.

But let’s zoom in on that band of mist lying just across the road.

Portraying Jesus in Visual Art

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

Many years ago, when I was studying graduate linguistics/anthropology/missiology, I was approached by a friend who had grown up with Greek Orthodox roots. She was doing an anthropological research project, and she wanted me to take a look at a few pictures of icons and give her my initial reaction. (Me, the research subject, an evangelical who was unfamiliar with Greek Orthodox iconography.)

I took a look, and I was repelled. The first one, of Christ on a background of gold leaf, was so stylized that it hardly looked human to me. The eyes were huge and round, the nose very elongated and very narrow. The second, a Nativity scene, wasn’t any better. The figures seemed stiff, and all the faces were like the one on the first icon, except that the infant and Mary didn’t have beards. Their skin was a shade of yellow that looked jaundiced to me.

Since I knew this was a research project, I was very honest with my friend about how negative my reaction was to these icons. This was a mistake; I could see that her feelings were hurt. She explained to me that the faces had been “idealized as an aid to meditation.” Which just goes to show you.

About Image Making

A strong argument could be made that any visual portrayal of Jesus constitutes a violation of the Second Commandment, which forbids making images in order to worship them. This includes making images of humans or animals which purport to portray the one true God. Hence, when the Israelites made the golden calf and worshipped it, identifying it as the God that had brought them out of Egypt (!), they got dinged for disobeying the second commandment. “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

When God gave the Israelites the temple system, there was a lot of rich visual imagery, but none of it was of the kind that could be confused with an object of worship. It was all decorative. The priests had rich, purple and white clothing, and the decorations on pillars and curtains extended only to pomegranates, palm trees, and flowers, and the occasional cherub (a heavenly creature that was a throne guardian). There were no images of animals or people that might be mistaken for portrayals of God Himself. (Exodus chapters 25 – 30 and I Kings chapter 6)

In the innermost room in the temple, where a normal Ancient Near Eastern temple would have a large statue of the god, there was … nothing. Just the ark, with no statue behind it. God would not allow Himself to be portrayed “in the likeness of a man,” though a few of the prophets did see something like this in their visions. (Genesis chapter 18, Daniel 7:13 – 14, and many others)

Jesus, according to the New Testament, is God incarnate, a man. This means that, when we read the stories of the things He did, every reader is going to get some kind of mental image. But in the providence of God, Jesus did not come to earth at a time when photography had become ubiquitous, and He was not important enough socially to have realistic statues in the Greco-Roman style (or any statues at all) made of Him. We are not given a physical description of what He looked like, except that we are assured He was ordinary-looking. For example, Isaiah 53:2 says, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,/nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” In John chapter 18, when the Roman guards and the priests’ thugs come to arrest Jesus, they have no idea which of the twelve men in the dark Garden is their perp. Jesus has to tell them, “I’m the one you’re looking for.” This tells us that he looked like any other first-century Jew, including in the way he dressed.

The emphasis, in the Gospels, is always on His words and actions … and these tend to be so compelling that His personal appearance, to put it mildly, is secondary.

So, is it even permissible to portray Jesus when we are illustrating the events of the Gospels? I have seen this admirably handled by the Arch books, a series of Bible stories for children which hires many different artists. In the Arch books (at least when I was growing up), Jesus is most often shown “off camera.” If portrayed, we might see Him from a distance (as being led away to be killed in the background of a picture), from behind, or we might see an arm and a slice of the side of the face. Rarely do we see His face full-on. I think this is a good method. In some of these books (not all), Jesus is recognizable by the iconic white or off-white robe with a shoulder sash, and the shoulder-length hair. I now know that this style of dress and hairstyle were drawn from the personal appearance of the peripatetic philosophers.

About Incarnation

So, given that Jesus wasn’t actually a peripatetic philosopher (at least not in the Greek tradition) and probably did not have the over-the-shoulder sash and the shoulder-length hair, are artistic conventions like this permissible? If someone wants to portray Jesus (even from behind), are they morally bound to make Him look as much like “He probably looked” as possible?

With all the caveats above about it being better not to portray Him at all, I say no. Here’s why.

Jesus’ whole job was to come live with human beings, as a human being. This is what we mean by His being “incarnate.” His incarnation was very complete. He wasn’t just pretending to be a local guy; He actually was a local guy. He was dedicated in the Temple, grew up in the rough town of Nazareth, learned a trade, and spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, probably some Greek, possibly some Latin too.

But the really amazing thing about Jesus’ incarnation is that He can cross any culture. When His words are translated into a new local language, He actually becomes one of those people. He comes to them, as one of them, but as God. When a people receive the Gospel, they receive Him as their Jesus, with His message and his call and His substitutionary death and His enlivening Spirit meant for them.

Usually, they then start making visual art about Him and about the other events in the Bible. And naturally, they often portray it as though these events happened just a few years ago, in their local region. This is completely appropriate. They are applying the incarnation.

Why do all the figures in religious paintings from medieval and Renaissance Europe look like German peasants, or like Italian aristocrats? To ask the question is to answer it. When you are going to paint a portrait or a figure, you go to the people around you for models. For example, Rembrandt would often go into the slums of Amsterdam to find models for his biblical paintings. Not surprisingly, the people in his paintings came out looking Dutch.

This does not happen only in Europe. I was once able to see an artistic representation of one of the events of the Gospels done by an Australian aborigine. There were no human figures in this work of art. All of the action was shown with footprints in the sand. When the characters walked somewhere, there would be a trail of footprints. When they sat down for a meal or teaching, there would be a circle of u-shaped butt prints. I couldn’t understand this drawing without someone explaining it to me, but it made sense to the artist and presumably to his audience. And that’s kind of important in art, isn’t it? You don’t want to portray something that is so alien that your viewers have no idea what they’re looking at, however historically accurate it may be.

Showing Him in Specifics

So, given that we are portraying Jesus at all (which as I said above is a question open for debate), I am completely in favor of White Jesus. There. I said it. I am also in favor of: Javanese Jesus, Sundanese Jesus, Aboriginal Jesus, Ethiopian Jesus, Nigerian Jesus, Navajo Jesus, Latino Jesus, and Greek Orthodox Jesus, provided that these arise naturally in communities that have received Jesus’ word for themselves and become His followers, and now rightly think of Him as their big brother.

I am not in favor of them as theological statements that Jesus looked this way or that, or that His appearance was of any importance (except, of course, near the end of the Bible where He appears looking like white-hot metal with a sword coming out of His mouth).

I am also not in favor of an industry that produces lots of commercialized, sentimental religious art. That is definitely breaking the Second Commandment, whether or not Rembrandt was.

But leaving aside that odious industry, when most Christians make devotional art they are not arguing that Jesus’ personal appearance was of paramount importance. Anyone who thinks they are making such a statement does not understand Christian doctrine very well. All of the emphasis in the Bible is on Jesus’ words and actions. The Apostle’s Creed, and the Nicene Creed, emphasize that He was made human, but that’s it. All of us know that whatever our mental image of Jesus, it is certainly not accurate in its particulars. That doesn’t matter, because it’s not a mental image we are worshipping. It’s the reality.

An Abstract Farmland Painting

Gosh, I’m so proud of this one.

I made it quickly, in just two days, on a small square canvas, intending to sell it at a local summer festival. But as of drafting this post, we haven’t had the festival yet, so I don’t know whether it’s going to sell.

It’s basically just the scene from my dining room window, done in a blocky, hurried style. I figure it’s the kind of thing that you would hang in your farm-house-themed kitchen, mostly choosing it for the colors and theme. Its lack of detail means that it wouldn’t overwhelm a decorating scheme. I hope.

Here it is in my studio.

As far as I’m concerned, the scene above is pretty close to paradise … natural light, painting supplies, plants, books, and a cup of coffee.

I’m Painting a Fence

Like, painting a picture of a fence.

Get it?

Here’s the fence that was the inspiration for the painting. See how its flaws show up so picturesquely against the light-colored wheat field in the background? I thought I could do a painting of this fence and I could probably manage to sell it, since it’s the type of decorative farm-themed art that you see for sale in stores. My son, who has been selling his paintings of Galaxy Rabbit at town festivals, has inspired me to become more enterprising.

This is, by the way, actually a terrific photo showing how beautiful our farm country can be. You’ve got the irrigation wheel line in the wheat field behind the fence, the windbreak trees, the mountains in the distance, and look! There’s even a pickup on the road!

I started by covering a long, skinny canvas in yellow-green paint (which is the color the wheat field was when I first got the idea, although by the time I took the photo above, it had ripened some more).

Then I started doing the shapes of the boards. I ran out of brown-grey paint and had to mix another batch, which resulted in the boards on the right being a darker color, but that’s OK because the contrast with the dark boards and bright background was actually what I was going for. I added some smears of the darker color on the lighter boards to suggest shadows.

Next I mixed some dark grey and used a stiff, dry brush to simulate wood grain.

Finally, I added the crosspiece, put wood grain on it, and used light grey paint diluted with water to make the whole thing look a bit sun-bleached. The painting looks good in my dining room — especially with the model just a few feet away out the window — but I sure hope it sells!

Character Art

Earlier this summer, I held a book signing event. I wanted to have something to offer attendees besides just my books and a smile, so I made some character art. It was not as popular as anticipated, but here it is for you to enjoy. You can buy hard copies of any of these sketches from me directly, or I will mail you one for free if you review one of my books on Goodreads or Amazon.

You can also see this art, along with some landscape art, on my recently added Art page.

Nimri, antihero of The Long Guest
This is Klee, the main character of my third book, The Great Snake
Klee’s father, Endu, who was mauled by a bear in The Strange Land
This is Klee’s brother, Ikash. The picture is called “Don’t Eat My Family.” This exact scene never occurs in the books, but this is his basic attitude throughout The Great Snake.
A younger Ikash and his mother, Sari, having a cup of herbal tea
Jabed, older brother to Ikash and Klee, with his wife Magya. I didn’t add their passel of kids, as that would have taken many more hours of sketching.

Metroplex Monsters: A Book Review

This one was pure fun.

What, I ask you, could be more of a romp than a book about cryptids, urban legends and paranormal experiences, set in a metro area in which you once lived and even taking place in parks you have walked in?

Almost nothing, expect maybe gifting same on Father’s Day to your husband, who lived in said metro area longer than you did and who knows it even better.

Or, enjoying the fact that the book is illustrated in a retro, pulp-fiction style by the author, who is also a graphic artist.

All of these minor delights are now mine.

The D/FW metro area is not the first place one would think of when hearing the word “Bigfoot,” or the word “spooky.” Even as a city, it is not very attractive. The area is sprawling, and tends to be unwalkable, with wide streets, vast parking lots, hot temperatures, and glaring daylight. It gets lot of Wild West points for its cowtown/railroad/cotton growing local history (all documented in the book), but it gets almost no gothic points.

However, despite being a vast metro area, D/FW is seamed through with green spaces around the Trinity River and its tributaries. As the book points out, the brushy edge of this greenspace is so dense that it could really be called a “green wall.” As is alleged to have happened, surprisingly recently, you could drive by this “green wall” and be unaware that Bigfoot was quietly standing 40 feet from the highway.

The area also has a quite a few large lakes, such as Joe Pool Lake (I’ve been there!) and White Rock Lake (I’ve been there too!). These are man-made, created by damming various tributaries of the Trinity River. They are popular recreational areas, but also big enough and old enough to have spooky urban legends associated with them and to allow people to have hard-to-believe encounters.

Finally, because of the river system and the associated lakes, the D/FW area has a lot of large birds, such as egrets and blue herons. I can confirm that it is very common to see these feathered creatures while simply driving from place to place in the metro area. One really fascinating contention in this book is that some of these “herons” are actually, on a closer look, featherless and are in fact a kind of small pterosaur. A few people have gotten a good enough look to realize that the “heron” looked more like a lizard, but they have understandably kept quiet.

About the Author

Jason McLean, the author of Metroplex Monsters, is the founder of the SIRU papers podcast on YouTube. I found out about him, and his book, when the two of us were on yet another podcast discussing the weirder elements of the Old Testament. So, this book, while I have described it as a romp, is actually in deadly earnest. McLean traces the origins of various Dallas urban legends somewhat in the style of Snopes, though more along the lines of let’s-find-out-the-actual-history rather than whatever-it-is-we-will-debunk-it. Though you can’t tell from Metroplex Monsters alone, he has a worldview that allows for quite a few paranormal phenomena to make sense within a biblical, and entirely rational, framework. If you are interested in that sort of thing, I encourage you to check out SIRU papers (and of course, The Unseen Realm by Michael Heiser, Giants: Sons of the gods by Douglas Van Dorn, and The Scattering Trilogy by a distinguished novelist. But SIRU papers is even more hair-raising). If you are not interested in how a Christian could possibly countenance the paranormal, but just want to laugh and shake your head over how even a seemingly banal metro area like D/FW can have cryptids, feel free to read, and enjoy, Metroplex Monsters at face value.