LeAnne Martin
Christians in the Arts

Monday, January 29, 2007

Calvin Edwards: Thinking in New Ways

Today I’m featuring arts enthusiast Calvin Edwards. Calvin is an executive with more than 20 years experience working with charitable, educational, and religious institutions. In 2001 he founded Calvin Edwards & Company (www.calvinedwardscompany.com), to “maximize the good of giving” by consulting with philanthropists as they support faith-based causes. The firm brings a mixture of art and science to bear on major giving decisions made by affluent persons, family offices, and private foundations.

Calvin is also the good friend who introduced me to my husband, for which I'll forever be grateful.

LeAnne: Why do you love the arts? Have you always loved them?

I love the arts because they make me think in new ways, they help me see the world from a different perspective. I like who I am, or who I become, when I engage with the arts.

Now, I realize that some people will think this is a little peculiar, that my love for the arts revolves around thinking—some would say the arts are about feeling, imagining, and experiencing, not something cerebral like thinking. And the arts surely are about all those things. My point is precisely that one thinks differently as a result of feeling things.

A few weeks ago on this blog Mart Martin referred to Les Miserables and the impact of that great musical (or film). One cannot help but be deeply moved by the contrast between grace and law in this monumental metaphor set in the French Revolution. To immerse in that profound and engaging story is to emerge a different person. How? After being there, I think about life differently. I understand the power of grace and want to show it to others. It is more than just a great story, it changes lives. Ultimately the arts help to shape who I am, what I believe, and how I think.

Have I always loved them? The short answer is “no.” I grew up in rural New Zealand where sheep grazed outside my bedroom window. My friends’ dads drove bulldozers in a logging town. There was beauty in my life, but not the arts. However, my father had a great collection of classical and sacred music on 7” spools of tape that I learned to load on a tape player when I was a teenager.

I came to love and appreciate the arts as a college student when I was invited into a circle of friends who loved music, drama, and literature--and many performed, some even performed live on the Australian ABC. I remember thinking how peculiar it was to lie on the floor and listen to Mozart or Handel on an old gramophone when others were listening to Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, or AC/DC. I’m grateful to those friends who introduced me to the world of the arts.

LM: Which of the arts would you say are your favorites?

My favorites would have to be live theater and classical music. I go to more live theater each year than I go to movies. (Sorry Hollywood.) Last year my wife and I had season tickets to three production companies and couldn’t use all the tickets and ended up giving some away. I enjoy everything from Shakespeare and the classics, to modern drama, to musicals and comedy. Especially if it has something important and challenging to say.

One musical I really enjoyed is the Broadway show, The Boy From Oz, a biographical sketch of the life of Peter Allen. The songwriter and performer married Lisa Minnelli in 1967 but soon separated and later died of AIDS. I saw it in Allen’s home country of Australia which added to its power and impact. It is the moving and passionate story of a kid who rises above his circumstances, finds his purpose, but never finds his home. A soul-stirring musical extravaganza that makes one think about one’s own life, values, and direction.

I love all manner of classical music but when asked for a favorite, two come to mind, Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Who cannot be moved as the cannons are sounded at the triumphant end of that magnificently crafted composition? One can feel the celebration of Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s armies in the core of one’s being at the climax of the Overture. (By the way, Grieg’s piece is based on Ibsen’s play by the same name, and another piece of theater worth seeing is Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, an early, wrenching exploration of feminist themes.)

More from Calvin Edwards on Thursday.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Jeanne Murray Walker, Part 2: Why Poetry?

Today I’m concluding my interview with Jeanne Murray Walker, a professor of English at University of Delaware and award-winning author of six volumes of poetry and many theater scripts.

LeAnne: Why do you write poetry?

The truth is, much of the time I don’t know. I wonder why anyone in her right mind would write poetry.

Then in the middle of the night when I wake up and I’m alone, I turn on the light and read the poetry of Milosz. Or whoever. These days, of Anna Kamienska. The light seems less glaring. I feel at rest. I might jot down a metaphor, if I can catch one as it zigzags through my mind. Then I turn to sleep again.

When someone I don’t know asks me what I do (the question about work seems first on the list of Americans) I don’t tell him I’m a poet. Come clean about that and the questioner replies that his nephew, for example, is a poet, too. He has 57 body piercings, a tattoo on his forehead, and a ways to go before he discovers that he actually wants to work on Wall Street.

To be a poet is not a profession. It used to be, when Emily Dickinson was a poet, though at her death, she still did not know she made it into that blessed club. (I wonder whether she looks down with irony on her adoring readers.) Even the Modernist poets could still claim writing was their job. But since the Beats, writing poetry has appeared synonymous with rebellion. Since the Confessional Poets, it has gained overtones of self-indulgence. It seems like hardly anything but a lifestyle. To write poetry, most of us believe during our rational moments, is more like surfing than it is like putting on hubcaps. I disagree. It’s like both. But I confess that I have yet to convince the culture of that.

Looking at a bowl of strawberries ripening in the window as I make dinner, I wonder why poetry sometimes seems so trivial. It is a force a thousand times more powerful than cost-efficiency. I’m fixing meatloaf because I can make two meatloaves and freeze one for later. Yes. Okay. Cost effectiveness, the rational mind at work. But why am I cooking at all? I could open a can. I could order out. But I love the pressure in my thumb and fingers as I cut garlic. I love the smell of bread in the oven. I love the astonishing green of fresh asparagus. I am driven to cook for my family by whatever once drove me to change twenty diapers a day without thinking about the clock. Cooking and poetry make sense, not by the mathematically calculated standards of capitalism, but by something we glibly call the heart. As Anna Kamienska wrote, When the intellect really tries, it can, for a time, replace the sun, but it will never ripen strawberries.

I have to try to remember this so I can mention it casually next time someone asks me at a dinner party what I do.

LBM: What are you working on right now?

Most days this month I’m writing. That’s a luxury I don’t often have because I teach. I love teaching, but it takes up a lot of time when I could otherwise be writing.

As usual, several threads weave the fabric of my writing life. This month, in addition to the thread of writing poetry, I have been editing translations of poetry, putting together a book manuscript of my own poems that have already been published in journals, and finishing a book of essays about reading and writing. I’m answering to three different editors this month, each with a deadline and a different style manual. And I’m answering to a self-imposed deadline—to write 20 sonnets before I go back to school—even if they’re bad. I want to get fluent enough to write one in an hour. Even more, I want the magic of that old form to prune back some of the prosiness that’s crept into my lines.

The phone rings and I stop juggling end rhymes for the second quatrain of a sonnet to talk with an editor about the worrisome eighth and ninth lines of a translation of one of Anna Kamienska’s poems. As I talk, I glance around my office at wicker baskets of notes waiting to finish the book of essays. (I don’t jot my ideas in a journal. I scribble them on pieces of paper and toss them into a relevant wicker basket until I find time to pick up the basket, take the notes out, and start working.) There’s a nervousness about the wicker baskets askew on my office floor. They feel like fillies before a race. All that raw energy! Later today I’ll drive into the city to attend a taping of a documentary about dance at Philadelphia’s public TV station, WHYY. It’s one of six documentaries about arts in Pennsylvania the station will be airing soon. I’m writing and hosting the documentary about poetry in the Commonwealth, which will be filmed next month. It’s something I need to turn to soon.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Jeanne Murray Walker: Getting Below the Surface

Jeanne Murray Walker, professor of English at University of Delaware, is an award-winning author of six volumes of poetry, the latest of which is A Deed to the Light (University of Illinois Press, 2004). She is a frequent contributor to periodicals such as Poetry, The American Poetry Review, Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, and Image. In addition to teaching poetry and script writing workshops and other classes at the University, she gives readings, runs workshops, and speaks across the United States and abroad.

The author of many essays, she has also written extensively for the theatre. Her scripts have been produced in Boston, Washington, Chicago, throughout the Midwest, and in London. Her work has been honored with prizes and awards including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, seven Pennsylvania State Arts Council Fellowships, the Prairie-Schooner Reader's Choice and Strousse Awards, many new play prizes, and the prestigious Pew Fellowship in the Arts. She serves on the Editorial Board of Shenandoah.

LeAnne: Why do you think should Christians care about the arts?

The arts get below the surface. We live in a materialistic society and we see the surface of things. Most art (opera, painting, dance, etc.) is really about love, death and human longing. It gives us good, rich, deep questions. The arts are always surprising, not clichéd. They offer a new way of seeing things.

They also create camaraderie or community. They bind people who are unlike together, like when we see a movie and talk about it afterward. Or when we see a ballet, we are together with the dancers and the audience. Or when we read a novel and think, ‘This author knows! I’ve had that experience, too!’

These are very biblical principles—creating community and getting below the surface.

LM: Why should we read good literature?

Literature creates empathy. A good novel helps us know how it feels to be that character. With empathy, we walk in their shoes. Literature takes you out of yourself and you become less self-centered.

I think good literature leads people to stillness, meditation, and reflection. We live a manic lifestyle, constantly multi-tasking. It is possible to sit quietly with a book or with poems. Sometimes I think poetry is close to prayer.

LM: You’re a poet yourself. Who are some of your favorite poets?

Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, and contemporary poet Billy Collins.

The greatest writers are the greatest writers because they talk about spiritual questions. All truth is God’s truth. Shakespeare wrote about profound questions that dealt with truth. He was tapping into the complexity and truth that Christianity speaks to as well, things like human longing, death, limitations, and fear. There’s only bad art and good art, and good art deals with issues that Christianity also deals with.

More from Jeanne Murray Walker on Thursday.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Tom Key, Part 2: On The Bloodknot

This week, I’m talking with Tom Key, Executive Artistic Director of Theatrical Outfit, a company that has its home at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, the first restaurant in Atlanta to voluntarily desegregate in the 1960s. From a new work dealing with desegregation called Waiting to Be Invited to Mahalia, a musical about gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Theatrical Outfit (www.theatricaloutfit.org) tells stories that stir the soul—plays about community, spirituality, and racial understanding.

As a solo performer, Key has been in demand across North America for three decades. He is well known as the actor and creator of the off-Broadway musical hit Cotton Patch Gospel. He has been featured in the award-winning television series In the Heat of the Night and I’ll Fly Away, as well as the Mirimax Family Films Gordy and The Adventures of Ociee Nash.

LeAnne: What are one or two of your favorite roles?

One favorite role was The Rev. Jim Casey in The Grapes of Wrath at The Alliance Theater [in Atlanta]. He was a great example of a saint who, no matter how addicted and broken he was, and no matter how fiercely he tried to flee from holiness, God would not let him go. His story was a great illustration of the translation of the 23rd Psalm which reads not “…surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” but rather “…surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life”. His prayer for Grandpa Joad, which he is practically forced into saying, achieves the level of poetry.

Another favorite role (actually to choose among these is like choosing favorite children) was Athol Fugard’s The Bloodknot at Theatrical Outfit. I was playing the half-brother of a black man, played by actor Kenny Leon, in apartheid South Africa. We share the same mother who was black but my father was white and my brother’s father was black. I have passed as a white man, and my black brother has worked a menial job. I have never had children because that could expose me and, not being able to stand the double life anymore, I join my brother in a hovel. It was an exhilarating challenge because the conflict as ancient as Cain and Abel was dramatized in the microcosm of the brothers’ relationship. Living that, just with two of us on a set over the course of three hours in front of 200 people, was extraordinarily powerful. We nearly kill one another and then are given a breath by which we escape primal violence and are left with each other. When Zach, my brother, asks me what just happened (the violence that overcame both of us), I respond with, “It’s called the bloodknot, the bond between brothers.”

This to me seems like our greatest challenge to which we must now attend: either we learn how to live with one another as children of God on the earth He entrusted to us, or we destroy the earth and one another. My hope, of course, is the first, and the dramatic story empowers our ability to imagine such a solution.

LeAnne: What about Theatrical Outfit has you excited right now?

I think I am most excited about directing an early Horton Foote play, The Chase, which hasn’t been done since it was produced on Broadway in 1953. Because there was a bad film made about it with a script NOT written by Horton, it killed interest in the play. He encouraged me to read it—and not to see the movie—and indicated that he would very much like for it to be produced. I did read it and think it’s one of his finest works—it has the Foote signature of nuance of character of Trip to Bountiful or Tender Mercies and an extremely forceful plot. So, I feel like we have an opportunity to re-discover an early work by an American master.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Tom Key: The Simple Power of Story

Today, as we think about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all he stood for, it’s fitting that I'm featuring Tom Key, Executive Artistic Director of Theatrical Outfit, a company that has its home at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, the first restaurant in Atlanta to voluntarily desegregate in the 1960s. From a new work dealing with desegregation called Waiting to Be Invited to Mahalia, a musical about gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Theatrical Outfit (www.theatricaloutfit.org) tells stories that stir the soul—plays about community, spirituality, and racial understanding.

At the helm of Theatrical Outfit is Tom Key. As a solo performer, Key has been in demand across North America for three decades. He is well known as the actor and creator of the off-Broadway musical hit
Cotton Patch Gospel. He has been featured in the award-winning television series In the Heat of the Night and I’ll Fly Away, as well as the Mirimax Family Films Gordy and The Adventures of Ociee Nash.

LeAnne: Two weeks ago, I posted some of my favorite quotes from Madeleine L'Engle's book, Walking on Water. One of those dealt with the danger of calling work created by people who don't believe in Christ "nonChristian" art. Do you think that God can use art by nonChristians?

Tom: When we see a great painting, hear a piece of music, see a play, or read literature, we are in the presence of a gift—of something extraordinary. If the artist is about capturing the truth, revealing truth, I believe Christ shows up in the work because He is truth, regardless of the intention of the artist. I think it’s important to recognize the gift and that the Giver of the gift loves the artist. Even if the artist is not a Christian, the gift has still come from God. When the artist uses it, I don’t think that takes away from the power of it.

LM: Let's talk about theater. Why do you think people should go to the theater?

TK: Theater is an art form of language. It is the spoken word, and the Word was at the beginning of all things. It’s powerful when it works and people are connected. In a way, I wonder if there’s not a more evangelical art form than the theater.

If Christ is present in the arts, it doesn’t have to be about the Bible in order for the Holy Spirit to change lives. One of my greatest influencers was the movie Bonnie and Clyde. I grew up in the church and heard many sermons on Romans 3:23 and 6:23, but I didn’t think of myself as that bad of a guy deserving hell. When I saw the movie, for the first time, I identified myself as a sinner because of the power of the dramatic art form to make me identify with those characters. That’s the simple power of story. That’s why Christ never taught without telling a story.

There’s great instruction to artists in Revelation when John sees the vision of Christ and He says, “Write down what you see.” My responsibility is to be obedient to that. I trust the Holy Spirit to do what He wills with it. Just about the time I think it’s not having any effect, I hear a comment like the one from a respected stage manager after she saw our last show last season, Keeping Watch: “Every time I see a play here, I feel it changes my life somehow.”

More from Tom Key on Thursday.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Frank Boggs, Part 2: On Composers and Music Appreciation

Today is the conclusion of my interview with Frank Boggs, internationally acclaimed bass soloist and the first recording artist for Word Records. In his varied career, he has directed choral programs, co-hosted a radio show, appeared on TV, and even sung for the queen. Currently he directs the Georgia Festival Chorus and is minister of music at a church in Atlanta. His website is www.frankboggs.com.

LeAnne: Who are some of your favorite composers?

Frank: Mozart, Bach, and Mendelsohn. Mozart never wrote a bad note. Everything is a masterpiece. Bach was probably the most Christian composer we know. Every week he had to compose a motet. He had no music paper, so with quill pen and ink, he wrote out all the lines plus the music. He did this with a house full of 20 children, and he still ended each piece with Soli Deo Gloria.

LM: For people who would like to know more about classical music but don't know where to start, what would you suggest? And what would you suggest for parents who want to teach their kids about music?

A good place to start is a course in music appreciation at your local college or school. Also, check your library or bookstore for a good book on music appreciation that gives an overall picture of the main eras and composers.

Since schools have practically cut out music and art, parents should seek out a church choir where kids can learn to sing and learn music skills and an appreciation for music. I’m a big believer in piano lessons. Parents have so much on their plates now but kids need some kind of participation in the arts, whether it’s piano or singing lessons, ballet for girls, etc. Parents need to do that for their children.

Next week I'll be featuring actor, creator of Cotton Patch Gospel, and Artistic Director of Theatrical Outfit, Tom Key. You won't want to miss his insights into theater and story.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Frank Boggs: The Language of Heaven

Internationally acclaimed bass soloist Frank Boggs is the first recording artist for Word Records, where he has recorded 24 albums. In his varied career, he has directed choral programs, co-hosted a radio show, appeared on TV, and even sung for the queen. Currently he directs the Georgia Festival Chorus and is minister of music at a church in Atlanta.

LeAnne: Why do you think most Christians don’t appreciate the arts?
The primary problem in my lifetime is that Christians back away from anything they don’t feel confident in. We have the winning side but we are afraid to take the chance. We’ve been told that people in the arts aren’t the types we should associate with. We are scared to be challenged and that we won’t come up to the challenge. I believe Christians ought to be bold in everything.

LeAnne: Why should we love music?
Music is the language of heaven. If we don’t keep ourselves in line musically, we won’t be prepared for heaven. When the angels and everyone sing “The Hallelujah Chorus”, we won’t be able to keep up.

The Georgia Festival Chorus is in its 20th year. We have 85-90 singers. Our mission is to keep the great music masterpieces vital and alive. So many churches have gone contemporary that a great legacy is being ignored, such as the music of Handel and Mozart.

Many Christians I know in music use it as a testimony. For example, John Nelson [conductor of L’Ensemble Orchestral de Paris] started Soli Deo Gloria [a non-profit organization that encourages composers and conductors to promote great sacred works. www.sdgmusic.org]. He goes all over the world. In Paris last spring at Easter, he did Bach’s St. John Passion at Notre Dame. In Atlanta with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, he led performances of Mendelssohn’s Elijah and used soloists who are Christians.

Join me on Thursday as I conclude my interview with Frank Boggs.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Creativity: "A Way of Living Life"

I hope you've had a good start to the new year. Next week, I’ll be featuring Frank Boggs, internationally acclaimed bass soloist and the first recording artist for Word Records. In addition to recording 24 albums, in his varied career he has sung for the queen, directed choral programs, co-hosted a radio show, appeared on TV, and more. Frank has much to say about music.

Today, I’d like to share with you some gems from Madeleine L’Engle, whose book Walking on Water continues to inspire me every time I pick it up.

On Living Creatively

"What do I mean by creators? Not only artists, whose acts of creation are the obvious ones of working with paint or clay or words. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter what our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts or having some kind of important career. "Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water, pps. 89-90.

On “Non-Christian” Art

"We may not like [the idea that God can reveal himself in the works of non-religious people], but we call the work of such artists un-Christian or non-Christian at our own peril. Christ has always worked in ways which have seemed peculiar to many men, even his closest followers. Frequently the disciples failed to understand him. So we need not feel that we have to understand how he works through artists who do not consciously recognize him. Neither should our lack of understanding cause us to assume that he cannot be present in their work." Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water, p. 30.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Live Creatively

Here’s one of my top goals for this bright and shining new year. I hope it inspires you too. It comes from Galatians in The Message:

“Live creatively, friends…Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you’ve been given, and then sink yourselves into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life” (6:1, 4-5).

Happy New Year!

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