Art can help us locate ourselves in the world.
Awhile back, I was attending a meeting in New York City, in a fancy Park Avenue high rise that overlooked Central Park, and feeling rather out of place. Surrounded by efficiently gracious folks in suits and business shoes, I seemed to stick out like a sore thumb in my sweater, jeans, and Converse sneakers.
I sat in the waiting area and nervously turned to the coffee table to see what magazines or books I might be able to bury myself in. I recognized one book immediately by its art on the cover as well as the artist’s name: "Golden Sea" by Makoto Fujimura. I suddenly felt much less awkward; here was something I could relate to, someone I knew could be equally at home in painting clothes and dress clothes.
I had first heard of Makoto when I was drawn to his book, "Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering", for its crisp hardback cover and sheer vellum dust jacket. The story it contained — a word of both joy and lament, longing and fulfillment — was an encouragement and a guide to making sense of my own spiritual journey. Here I found a teacher and a mentor articulating some of my experiences of God as both silent and beautiful, remote and very present. So the opportunity to interview Mako was very exciting and personal to me.
In the foreword to Makoto’s new book, "Art and Faith: A Theology of Making", Bishop N. T. Wright declares that “as readers will discover, the book itself is a work of art. Like Mako’s paintings, its many layers of meaning are laid carefully on top of one another, with the individual parts crafted from materials prepared with patient skill.”(1) "Art and Faith" can be seen as something of a magnum opus, the culmination of many decades of creating paintings and developing his process of “slow art”.(2) Instead of worrying about the completion of a project, slow art values the actual process of making, which Mako does by focusing on each step of the process.
In appearance, Mako embodies an artist who is comfortable with himself and his career. With his blue button-up shirt with navy sweater, rounded glasses frames, and mid-length salt and pepper hair, he has the easy, comfortable air of someone who belongs in a gallery, giving quiet contemplation to the works before him. He was in his own gallery for our call, with the sweeping blue and white wings of a slightly-abstract bird stretched across the canvas behind him.
I started our interview by asking about his thoughts on beginnings and endings:
Chandra Crane: As you were writing this book — which has to have an ending, but as we’re in this liminal space of saying “Well, we aren’t finished yet” — and as you’re thinking about this theology of beginnings, do you have a theology of endings, as well? How do you know when you’re done?
Makoto Fujimura: This book is one-third of what I’ve written ... so I have a lot more to say ... It’s kind of my life’s work, so I’ve been writing this book for the last 20 years, really. And so my editor Kathy Helmers did such a wonderful job of helping me to see what the reader would appreciate as an entry point. And so I really think at the end of the book, that’s a great encapsulation of my theology of making, but I also felt like it was the beginning of a journey. And so the ending was the beginning. And so the Benediction came about because you do need some sort of an ending, but it is for everyone to be sent off ... In that sense, it was a launching pad for, I hope, many other writings for me ... [and] inviting others to participate in this journey to a new creation.
"Art and Faith" is theological but also practical, filled with analogies and prose that border on the poetical. When he speaks of the “red clay soil”(3) of his garden, I can feel the weight of the clinging dirt; when he describes the process of using “sumi ink (sticks made from pine shoots that I must rub against a stone for more than an hour)”,(4) I can hear the rasp of the stone and catch a glimpse of him at work in his studio. At one point, he reminds readers that Jesus had a “vision of abundance”(5) and told the crowds to “consider the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6:28). As he exhorts the reader to pursue a childlike wonder and create something, I can think of so many ways that our small efforts can bring encouragement to others and glory to God: time spent coloring with a niece or nephew, preparing a meal with a friend, or honoring an elder with a gift. When I asked Makoto if he had a word of encouragement for those who don’t feel “creative” in the traditional sense, he spoke of a different perspective on making:
MF: Everybody’s a maker ... We can recalibrate by being makers — what are we making? is a better question to ask ... In that sense, if we can be more integrated, I think it will pretty easy to convince everybody that they’re making something, or destroying something ... We’re created to be creative ... God sees us as makers, as well… and so God is waiting for us to make — in faith — and it doesn’t matter if you’re a plumber or a nurse or a chef. We all can be making something new, I believe, into the world.
Fujimura speaks joyously of the fact that what we create now affects the New Creation to come: “Think of God’s Kingdom coming as a heavenly invasion into the ordinary, an infinite abundance injected into our scarcity-marked world”,(6) and thus “God’s voice of Creation can open the heart of each one of us, to respond differently. As God’s Creation is sumptuous and excessive, so must our responses be.”(7) I believe that Mako’s perspective of “invasion” and the “Kingdom” are rooted in reclamation and liberation, in the same way that Jesus quotes the justice-drenched Isaiah passage proclaiming good news to the poor, to captives, and to the oppressed (Luke 4:17-19). When I asked Mako what our responses to this coming justice should be, he again emphasized the breadth of work and choices which should be honored as part of a culture of making, listing farmers but also those in business:
MF: Somebody may be a maker, but somebody may be a maker of businesses, and that is needed in the world, obviously — we wouldn’t have all this technology without that ... there’s always a side of that that creates a new world ... so there’s a perfect example of something that’s created into the world that reshapes how we communicate, how we view ourselves.
Fujimura links various styles of art to biblical insights, comparing the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi to the work of Jesus. Kintsugi art is mending broken pottery in such a way that rather than hiding the cracks, the cracks are embraced and embellished with lacquer and gold paint. “Redemptive and restorative acts are the signs of the New Heaven and the New Earth,”(8) Makoto reminds us, a place where our sin and brokenness are healed in the “sacred wounds of Christ ... [which] exist because of our failures to honor God.”(9) Mako doesn’t shy away from his view of the reality of the fallen world around us, and he places great honor on the sacrifice of Jesus, which he believes is the way to hope. He holds each in tension, one with the other, in the unique way of artists. Kintsugi pottery is beautiful not because it is perfect, but because something new has been made from broken pieces.
Rather than falling into the despair of the current reality or having a “head-in-the-clouds” idea that only the coming world matters, "Art and Faith" encourages readers to find their place in this current age of the here-and-not-yet Kingdom. As we push into justice work to decolonize a church that was never intended to be a bastion of disembodied whiteness, Fujimura believes that creating and making is an important part of our day-to-day work. For those who would like to join him in this culture of making, Mako suggests that the power of words is greater than we realize:
MF: We’re so in need of new language, really ... new perspective to look at theology ... it can liberate how we see our churches, how we see our ministries, how we proclaim the gospel ... “Make disciples” means make ... it’s not just individuals, it’s communities, it’s cultures ... people should be able to take my book and create something new out of it ... I can see some things that are growing out there that would be for the next generation and beyond.
My one criticism of "Art and Faith" is the surprising lack of diversity in the artists and authors whom Fujimura shares as having informed his life and work. As a Japanese American immigrant, he occupies much of the “border-stalkers”(10) space of liminality (which multiethnic folks such as myself can understand), an identity that obviously has shaped his identity and his art. As he points to such luminaries as Emily Dickinson, Wendell Berry, N.T. Wright, and Vincent van Gogh, one can appreciate the deep connection he has with these creators. He also mentions the ways in which mentors such as Nakamura-san have directly impacted his creative spirit. But even as he emphasizes the important truths of “#BlackLivesMatter” and counters a Western, imperialist, consumer-driven mindset,(11) a reader may wonder who the other non-European, non-white influences have been in Fujimura’s life that have helped him develop a robust theology of diversity, inclusion, and the inherent goodness of humans called to echo and follow Creator God. Makoto is currently working on a project with Professor Ellen Davis where he will “spend a decade or more creating a journey into the Psalms.” As he continues to paint, write, and speak, I hope his works will give us further glimpses into the diverse array of his mentors and mentees.
"Art and Faith" is a devotional, theology tome, and poetic benediction. As a piece of art itself, the dust jacket has a lovely bit of Makoto’s work (“Walking on Water — Azurite II” 2016), printed on heavy embossed paper, a sensory connection to Mako’s art. In the final chapter, “Lazarus Culture”, Mako offers “A Benediction for Makers ... May we steward well what the Creator King has given us, and accept God’s invitation to sanctify our imagination and creativity, even as we labor hard on this side of eternity.”(12) Whether God has called us to be practically-focused plumbers or dream-building artists (or both!), it’s a good word for those of us who seek to create art and live a life of faith.