LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Marlene Dickinson, Part 2: "Masters of Our Craft"

Today, I'm finishing my interview with dancer Marlene Dickinson.

LeAnne: On Monday, you were saying that the Church has allowed itself to lose ground in the arts for a number of reasons, and you discussed the first one: that the Church has withdrawn from the arts so therefore, very few voices for Christ are in the arts. What are some other reasons that the Church has lost ground?

Marlene: Other than musicians, we have largely failed to encourage artist-believers to seek the technical training and education required to produce a mature artistic expression. It is only through this process that artists can develop the skill to make a viable contribution to the Church and to the world. We limit ourselves immeasurably when we require ourselves and our children to be mentored and trained primarily by other Christians in Christian institutions. How many Christian institutions can you name with even an undergraduate dance program?

We, of all people, must be masters of our craft, gleaning from any and all resources the Lord has provided. Of course we are discerning about the teaching we expose our children to, but I am speaking of adults here as well. Learning to separate craft from content is part of being “in but not of the world.” This is infinitely trickier and not nearly as safe as operating within the walls of the Church. Study at the best schools, learn from the top teachers, attend the most inspiring performances. Then, treasure the treasure, trash the trash. Unwavering artistic growth is one of my life goals.

Another reason is the captive audience can be a curse. Those of us only producing work for presentation in the context of the worship setting have inadvertently exempted ourselves from the primary standard of good theater, namely: Can it draw and hold an audience? Artists working solely in the Church are not burdened by this most basic mechanism of self-evaluation. Of course our purposes are ultimately higher, but I am still speaking in the context of artistic integrity. Just as our music expression has gained credibility, I would like to think that our dance and theater offerings, with regard to quality, could be viable outside the walls of the Church building. This remains one of my personal goals.

LM: Have you found that Christians don’t understand why you are involved in the arts?

MD: Not really, though some seem mystified that a Christian would choose to work outside the Church.

LM: How would you encourage other “artist-believers” working outside the church?

MD: I would pray the same prayers for them that I do for myself:

1. “Lord, help me to give.”
Give myself fully to You, give of myself to others without expectation of return, give by fanning the flame of artistic instinct in others, give by serving silently. I often ask myself if I am living more like Christ today than I was yesterday. It is in giving that He is increased and we are decreased.

2. “Lord, help me to grow.”
Make me a life-long student. I want to mine everything You have placed inside. Growth is the evidence of life. I want to read, listen to lectures, observe those around me, take classes, take risks, go to performances, keep an idea journal, cultivate relationships with people who challenge me.

Regarding this last one, you can find some fine Christian people working professionally in dance and theater at:

www.danceaddeum.com (I highly recommend their summer dance intensive.)
www.cita.org and

3. “Lord…”
What!? Only two points? Now you know why I’m a dancer and not a preacher.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Marlene Dickinson: Our Universal Language

Marlene Dickinson, choreographer and dancer, has worked in theater most of her life. She has choreographed over 25 musicals and revues and has developed several original dance works for the conferences of Dr. Lori Salierno of Celebrate Life International. Marlene has toured Asia, Europe, and Hawaii with Operation Appreciation, a military outreach, and has entertained on numerous cruise ships throughout the Caribbean. For ten years she was Director of Theater Arts at Church at the Crossing in Indianapolis where she also worked at Indiana Repertory Theater and Beef and Boards.

In addition to countless workshops and Master Classes, she has continued to study dance throughout her adult life at Butler University’s Jordan Dance Academy and at The Georgia Ballet, among others. Marlene has served on the Board of Christians in Theater Arts. She holds a B.F.A. in Theater from Northern Kentucky University where she attended on full theater scholarship. Marlene and her husband Curtis have two children, Lily and Tommy.

LeAnne: What is your background in dance?

Except for a few weeks surrounding pregnancy, I cannot remember NOT taking dance. My childhood teachers were all about creative communication, so I grew up thinking of dance not as spectacle but as language. Ballet, modern, jazz, lyrical, tap, etc., were like dialects of this wonderful universal language of movement.

For me, dance in performance has to be about something, and the more specific, the better. This seems like a no-brainer to theater artists, but it is actually fairly foreign to the way we train young dancers to think. Look no further than your local dance school recital [for proof].

So, my background is mostly about dance functioning in or as drama. Other functions of dance are perfectly legitimate, of course, but only interest me as they might serve my work to this end.

LM: How do you decide what projects to work on?

I use a number of criteria in evaluating an opportunity, the primary being Audience Worthiness. My notion of “Performances Worth Asking People to Show Up For” grows ever more limited as I age and as art becomes increasingly more accessible through electronic media. I have to be sure that what I offer in live performance is worth leaving your house to go see. (This is to say nothing of the cost of a ticket; I am only speaking of time and energy here.) For me, live performance has to be an experience that cannot be brought to you on DVD, CD, or iPod, nor can it be found in a cinema, book, or museum. It must be experienced live, in community, where both artist and audience are known. The distinctive of live performance is that it can, on some level, nurture this insatiable desire for intimate exchange which is so basic to our nature.

LM: How has your faith affected your passion for dance?

Sadly, I spent the first twenty years of my life completely oblivious to the fact that faith and dance had any relationship whatsoever. Church was Sunday and Wednesday, dance was Tuesday and Saturday, and never the two would meet. Fortunately, dance was not forbidden in my faith culture, as it was for many Christians in generations past. But for me, dance and faith were not adversaries, they were complete strangers.

Sometime around 1982 I began to discover what has been known since the dawn of time: Movement has the power to move us. It is for this reason I name my pick- up performance companies “Moving People.” Dance is our universal, primal language. It transcends all barriers of time, culture, and communication.

Now, we know that all powers can be used for good or evil. I choose good. As dancers, we literally offer our bodies as living sacrifices and our work as fragrant offerings to God. It is His work to transform. So, I see dancers as translators of truth and dances as spaces for God to move—not that He needs us to do so. I am thankful for a host of studios and professionals across the country that are now connecting the dots for young dancers, teaching and mentoring them in these principles.

LM: Have you faced challenges from the world because of your faith?

The dictionary defines challenge as a call to account. So, that would be “yes,” as an artist-believer I have been called to account by the world in many ways. The most prominent has to do with artistic integrity. As believers, our heart’s desire is to honor the Lord in both the content and execution of our work. I am encouraged that our generation is witnessing growth in both areas, but we have a long way to go. I think the Church has allowed itself to lose ground in the arts for a number of reasons.

For example, aside from the music industry, we have neglected, even bad-mouthed the arts communities for so many years, withdrawing our presence and discouraging our children from taking a rightful and necessary seat at the table of artistic influence. Now we are indignant that our worldview is either misrepresented or missing altogether.

Can you imagine if we advised our children, “Whatever you do, avoid going into business, son. It’s full of self-serving, greedy scoundrels who sleep around. And some of the product is questionable at best. You won’t meet many Christians there, and you’ll probably fall into the same lifestyle.” No. We are salt and light, working as unto the Lord in all we do.

So today we find ourselves in a spiritual battle to regain our voice, led by a handful of courageous and unrelenting visionaries. We have a lot of lost ground to cover since we have been M.I.A., especially in dance and theater, for far too long.

More from Marlene Dickinson on Thursday.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Expressing Thanks on Thanksgiving

For this week of Thanksgiving, I thought I’d share a quote with you from Edith Schaeffer’s book, Common Sense Christian Living. Have a wonderful, safe, and art-filled Thanksgiving.

“Appreciation can be expressed to God with spoken words in prayer, alone in one’s ‘closet,’ or sitting on a stone in a field, or walking in the woods or on a city street. Appreciation can be written to God in your handwriting for His eyes alone, written in a private notebook or on the back of an envelope. Praise and thanksgiving can be in the form of a painting if that is a person’s best medium of expression, or in song, or with a musical instrument. It doesn’t always have to be verbal…nor heard by anyone else.

“Prose, poetry, or musical instruments can be used by you alone to praise God, with only the sound of the rain adding in anything to whatever sound you are making your communication. A dancer can dance with a heart full of adoration and appreciation being expressed directly to the Lord, as that person dances alone up and down a curving staircase, alone in the house, alone in a room, on the grass or field in the moonlight, with a string trio as the music comes from a record player…and no eyes watching except the Lord’s.”

Next Monday I’ll be featuring professional dancer Maureen Dickinson.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Bruce Herman, Part 2: "Made to Be Makers"

Today, I’m continuing my Q&A with painter Bruce Herman (www.brucehermanonline.com). Currently Professor of Art at Gordon College, Bruce lectures widely and has had work published in many books, journals, and popular magazines. He completed both undergraduate and graduate fine arts degrees at Boston University School for the Arts. He studied under Philip Guston, James Weeks, David Aronson, and Reed Kay. Bruce’s artwork has been exhibited in over 55 exhibitions in eleven major cities including Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and has been shown in five different countries, including England, Italy, Russia, Canada, and Israel. His work is housed in many public and private collections including the Vatican Museum of Modern Religious Art in Rome; the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts; and the Armand Hammer Museum at the University of California in Los Angeles.

LeAnne: What challenges have you faced from the world because of your faith?

I don’t think my challenges are unique. In many ways I think it is simply the problem of communicating well and truly. Of course, as some wise Christian once said, if you’re not being persecuted, you may not be communicating your Christianity clearly—and as another said, the Gospel is innately offensive—we as Christians ought not to be. In one sense, to be an artist and a Christian might doubly marginalize you, but I have always felt a bit of an outsider being an artist in a culture of athletes, not aesthetes. Why should any Christian be surprised by being rejected? Like most artists, poets, and composers, I could probably wallpaper my home with the rejection letters I’ve received. That shouldn’t stop us from sending “love letters” to the world. It didn’t stop Jesus, and we’re supposed to follow him, right?

Contemporary art culture is confused and confusing for most non-experts. The popularity in middle America of Thomas Kinkade’s mass-produced kitsch is a testimony to how out of touch high-art culture is from the general populace. I am, for better or worse, a high-art sort of painter but I have a heart for those who don’t “get it” when they see contemporary images. My heroes are artists like Rembrandt, Robert Frost, Johann Sebastian Bach, Shakespeare—all those masters whose work can be appreciated by egg-heads as well as by lunkheads. A third-grader can read Frost, and the same poem can deeply move a literary scholar holed-up in his library.

LM: Have you found that the church in general doesn't understand your calling to be an artist?

Like the famous St. Francis prayer, I seek not so much to be understood as to understand. By what I’ve already said, you can guess that I sympathize with rank and file Christians who don’t “get it” with art and artists. Yes, I’ve encountered a fair amount of misunderstanding and even rejection by fellow Christians for my art. The way I see it, that gives me a second job in my work as a communicator: make it accessible to the whole range of persons who Christ loves. My dream would be to make paintings like my hero Rembrandt, paintings that art connoisseurs and commoners alike can respond to, be moved by.

LM: What would you say to encourage your students and other artists trying to blend their faith and their art?

Blend faith and art? I think it’s really impossible to disentangle them. For me, art and faith are almost identical or at least coterminous because they both flow from the Creator and flow back to the Creator. We are made to be makers like our Maker. There is no divide between knowing God and seeking to imitate God. That’s what children do—play act at being like Mommy and Daddy. My art is simply my attempt to act like Daddy.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Bruce Herman: A Broken Beauty

This week, I’m featuring a painter I met this summer at the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute (www.cslewis.org) at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Bruce Herman (www.brucehermanonline.com), currently Professor of Art at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, lectures widely and has had work published in many books, journals, and popular magazines. He completed both undergraduate and graduate fine arts degrees at Boston University School for the Arts. He studied under Philip Guston, James Weeks, David Aronson, and Reed Kay. Bruce’s artwork has been exhibited in over 55 exhibitions in eleven major cities including Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and has been shown in five different countries, including England, Italy, Russia, Canada, and Israel. His work is housed in many public and private collections including the Vatican Museum of Modern Religious Art in Rome; the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts; and the Armand Hammer Museum at the University of California in Los Angeles.

LeAnne: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I had intimations that I was made for making art at an early age — my guess is that I had a fairly definitely sense of this at around six years old. My very earliest memories are all strongly visual, and my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and teachers all commented regularly that I was an artist and had a “vivid” or “wild” imagination. Of course, they may have simply been kind and really meant that I was crazy. I also remember many times during childhood, and since becoming an adult, that beauty has been able to move me to tears, to ecstatic feelings, to a sense of the numinous. I’ve always felt that I wanted to share those feelings — to communicate these things to others — particularly the intuitions about God... and about beauty being at the core of God’s self-disclosure to me.

LM: Tell me about A Broken Beauty.

A Broken Beauty (www.abrokenbeauty.com) is a book and an exhibition I initiated that brought together fourteen other artists, four art historians, and a number of museum curators in a collaborative undertaking centered on the connections to be discovered between the human body, brokenness as a spiritual and physical reality, and beauty. The initial impulse to do this was the desire to see if any other artists were thinking about these connections. My own Christian faith centers on the Eucharist — Christ’s broken body as a locus of true beauty, despite the apparent “ugliness” and horror of that brokenness. The book that resulted from the project was published by Eerdmans (http://www.eerdmans.com/shop/product.asp?p_key=0802828183) and contains a number of fine interpretive and analytic essays on both the historical precedents for this project and about the art and artists of A Broken Beauty.

More from Bruce Herman on Thursday.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Ken Gire, Part 2: "Look This Way"

Today's post is the second part of my interview with Ken Gire (www.reflectiveliving.org), author of Windows of the Soul, The Divine Embrace, and more.

LM: You’ve also written about the movie Les Miserables.

KG: Yes. In Les Miserables, Valjean, mayor of the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, stands up for Fantine against Javier, a police officer who lives his life by the law. It’s like John 8, when Jesus stood up for the adulterous woman against the religious leaders of the day.

Later, Valjean tenderly serves lunch to Fantine outside. Fantine can’t believe he’s doing this. She feels awe that he would even spend time with her. This scene reminds me of Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me."

It’s a shared meal. Jesus is nourished by that as are we. In some way Jesus needs our love. That makes us uncomfortable. If we don’t show up, there can be no celebration, no honeymoon.

LM: This intimacy with Christ is a recurring theme in your work. In fact, the subtitle of The Divine Embrace is “an invitation to a more intimate relationship with Christ, one exhilarating, ennobling, uncertain step at a time.”

KG: Christ longs for us to be more intimate with Him. He calls us to partner with Him in His work. He draws us close before He sends us out to minister for Him.

He is not indiscriminately intimate with people. As we become more intimate with Him, He discloses Himself to us more, like in John 14:21: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

God will use anything He can that will reveal Jesus to us, anything that will glorify Him and make us His own. The Holy Spirit is a vital presence in our lives, turning our attention to the things of Jesus. It’s as though He takes our heads and says, ‘Look this way’.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Ken Gire: "Reflections of Jesus"

Last week, I wrote about one of my favorite books, Windows of the Soul by Ken Gire (www.reflectiveliving.com). A few years ago, I interviewed Ken at a CBA trade show about his latest book. I had never met him before and I confess that I may have gushed a little. I did manage to stop just short of saying, “I’m your biggest fan!” Although he was a little taken aback by my enthusiasm, he responded with grace, and we went on to have a wonderful conversation.

In several of his books including Windows of the Soul, Divine Embrace, and Reflections on the Movies, Ken has written about movies and their ability to touch us. Here’s a portion of our interview.

LeAnne: Why are movies such a powerful medium?

Ken: A lot of people have been alienated by the church and for good reasons sometimes—alienated by legalism, hypocrisy, arrogance, lack of compassion. They think, if this is the best Christianity has to offer, I’m not sure it’s the best place to be.

Movies tell stories you can’t tell in church, particularly if they don’t have a happy ending: the pain of abuse, abandonment, divorce, and what that looks like. If you tell the story and are honest, people distance themselves from you. Movies are where those stories can be told with honesty and vulnerability.

Movies are an unapologetically emotional medium [when] many churches are more cerebral. They focus mainly on the sermon. There’s a pastor who is not sharing about his life, who is more doctrinally oriented. People long to have their hearts touched. Most people criticize the pastor because he doesn’t speak to them where they live.

Movies go beyond the surface. They take us places we would never go and let us see what that life is like. Movies help us understand that place or that person more. Hopefully they illicit greater compassion in us.

LeAnne: Which movies have broadened your understanding and compassion?

Ken: Sometimes it’s entire movies, sometimes it’s a character, or a scene, or even a line of dialogue.

In some movies, we see examples of Jesus incarnate. We see something of Him, just as we see in real people, like Mother Teresa. In Fried Green Tomatoes, we see something of Jesus in the way Idgy Threadgood treats Smokey Lonesome, the homeless person at the Whistle Stop Café. She puts her arm around him. She does what Jesus would do.

We see Jesus in Braveheart’s William Wallace, both in his death and the reason why he dies--for the freedom of His people. We see something of what he went through as a reflection of what Christ went through on the cross.

I think the Jesus within us responds to the reflection of Jesus in movies. We think, I want to be like that or fight like that or sacrifice like that.

I'll be featuring more from my interview with Ken Gire soon.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Joseph Pearce, Part 2: "Art and Propaganda"

Today's post is part two of my feature of Joseph Pearce, a professor, writer, and editor I met this summer at the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute (www.cslewis.org) at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. In addition to being the author of numerous acclaimed biographies of major Catholic literary figures, Joseph is a Writer-in-Residence and Professor of Literature at Ave Maria University (www.naples.avemaria.edu) in Florida. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Ave Maria University Communications and Sapientia Press, as well as Co-Editor of The Saint Austin Review (or StAR) (www.staustinreview.com), an international review of Christian culture, literature, and ideas published in England (St Austin Press) and the United States (Sapientia Press). Joseph regularly speaks at a wide variety of religious, cultural, and literary events.

LeAnne: On Monday, you discussed the arts and culture. What would you say to artists who are struggling in our culture to blend their Christian faith and their art?

I would say that they need to keep the nature of creativity, as I’ve described, at the center of their creative focus. Creativity is a gift from God and, it should be offered up to Him as a gift in return. If the Christian artist does this he will no longer have to worry about “blending” his faith with his art; his art will be a natural and supernatural expression of his faith. His faith will become magically or miraculously incarnate in his art! Christ will become flesh in his work. As such, a Christian artist should never abuse the gift by trying to use the gift to create Christian propaganda. Art is not propaganda, and propaganda is not art. If we trust the Giver of the gift of creativity, He will pour Himself out, in grace, through the creative process. We should not try to make Christ talk, we should let Him talk.

In addition to books and journal and newspaper articles, you write poetry. Which poets have influenced you the most and why?

That’s a good question – and a difficult one! There have been so many. Among the most important are Dante, Hopkins, Sassoon, Belloc, Eliot, Francis Thompson, R.S. Thomas, George Herbert and St John of the Cross. Other literary influences who have been very important, though perhaps not strictly in the poetic sense, are John Henry Newman, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton and last, but emphatically not least, Shakespeare.

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