Looking For God Outside and Within :Self Portraits With Symbols 1977 and 2014
In the time of selfies it's probably not necessary to explain why artists have long been commissioned to paint portraits or why they have looked into themselves to find something of the mystery of the meaning of their lives. There is a long tradition of painters placing themselves in their art, such as Beato Fra Angelico, Artemisia Gentileschi, El Greco, Michelangelo, or doing self portraits like Durer, Rembrandt, Mary Cassatt, Edvard Munch, Van Gogh and of course, Frida Kahlo and Joni Mitchell, are some of the most widely known.
I began my first Self Portrait With Symbols in 1977 strongly influenced by the Russian children's book artist Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942). I first discovered his illustrations while teaching high school art at Regis High School, and I fell in love with his drawings and paintings too. On the covers of many of his children's book he would surround the central image with little boxes of flowers, goblins or whatever enhanced the fairy tale.
This Russian tradition began with what is called "talking icons" where the Saint is surrounded by small images from his or her life. This is actually the beginning of children's books. I could go on and on about my favorite illustrators, but I guess the question is why do a self portrait as a cover for a children's story and where did it lead? At that time my dream was to be an illustrator and I really had no idea that two of my favorite artists El Greco and Ivan Bilibin had anything to do with Icons.
In his extraordinary autobiography, "Balancing Heaven and Earth" the great-souled Jungian master Robert Johnson has an honestly-lived theory that God calls some people to be "claimed by the inner life" and if you feel that call, you will be led by "slender threads" which are there for you just in time to lead you to the next part of your life. I did these two self portraits to look into my own beginning of a life as an artist who is also a priest, and then the latter part of trying to live into that continuing mystery. One of the things I have learned is you have to keep something, as Jesus seriously counseled, of the child within you or you cannot see or find the true kingdom of God. When I see my siblings surrounded by grandchildren, I can see God provides this naturally for them. Those without children must work a bit harder to stay young at heart and not become jaded, hard hearted. My prayer for this birthday is to paraphrase the very brief Psalm 131:
O Lord let me not get too stuck in fear or any feelings
inside that stop me from giving You back any gift
You gave to me-to give away.
Make me an "Archer of Love" to send these gifts into the
Church, the Bride and into all the waiting
Then let me rest like a little child in Your arms.
Let me continue to see the wonders of life
as a child and not fall into cynicism or despair.
Open my heart (again and again) to You and the
World of people made for Infinite
Love, which is only You.
10 July 2017