The Gifted Blog

November 11, 2010

Why We Make: California Impressionists

I write The Gifted Blog because I love to create. I've been reflecting on what it means to be a Christian and to love making things. I hope this series will be a jumping-off point for thoughtful discussion among us, no matter your spiritual background. For the whole series, click here.

I recently completed a job organizing the library of a local curator. Covered with the patina of time (and dust!), each one of these hundreds of books held a bit of personal history. From time to time I set aside books to look at later. One of these was Colonies of American Impressionism: Cos Cob, Old Lyme, Shinnecock, and Laguna Beach by Deborah Epstein Solon.

Anna Hills, High Tide, Laguna Beach, 1914

I was interested in the book because of a friend with family history in Old Lyme (hi S!). But I was most interested to learn about the California Impressionists, a group of artists who adopted the style of the Impressionist movement that originated in Paris. They "shared an unshakable sentiment about the land itself -- that nature is everywhere bountiful, innervating and good, as well as mystical, mysterious, and romantic. This attitude thoroughly pervaded California art" (pg 24).

Marion Kavanaugh Wachtell, Pasadena, c. 1920

Living in an urban, 21st-century version of California (not too far from the bridge pictured above, actually), it's easy to forget the vast wilderness this state once was. I can see how the painters of this time were impressed by the majestic natural environment surrounding them. Solon goes on to explain why nature was so important to these artists (emphasis mine):
Nineteenth-century Americans believed nature was created by God, and art by mere humans. The role of the artist was to mirror the glory of nature, its order and plan, and to evoke in the viewer the same feelings of awe, intimacy, and miracle that nature evoked. Truth was in nature, in creation, and therefore landscape became a more important subject than still life or genre painting could ever be...It was the landscape that could be morally edifying and uplifting in addition to expressing religious or spiritual conviction. (pg 24)
Benjamin Chambers Brown, The Jeweled Shore

Personally, I was struck by how clear their motivation was - God made nature, so let's paint nature as glorious as he created it. There is something refreshing and pure about this. The artist puts him or herself in the humble position of reflecting a greater work: nature itself.

I'm almost envious of how sure these painters were that their work could be "edifying and uplifting" for the soul and glorifying to God. I wrap gifts. I blog about it. It's not always as clear how these things can be "for God," how they can affect people in more than a superficial way. And yet, art that pleases God can't be limited to the California Impressionists of the early 1900s! Through excellence, listening to God for direction, and integrity, surely I can honor him, too, in my own way.

How about you? Do you feel that what you make reflects God? Or does your creative process seem separate from the spiritual?

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  1. That's a super good question.

    I make clothes. Or I try to make clothes. And most "garments" just always bunch and stuff. imperfection. I struggle through them, just trying to get them to look right. And when I finish my pieces, I believe they reflect my relation to God---I am human and God would find making this dress a piece of cake--which (laughs) consequently does end up saying something about God (truth by negation. "God is not me.")

    But I think my inspirations, what keeps me making, like vibrant colors and patterns and complementarity and the human form and beauty and equity for all people has God all over them. The ignition for my passions ends up being something completely spiritual.

  2. Thanks for the shout out Charissa! I don't know if you've seen this video, but it made me think of you :) (

  3. @boatx2 - Wow. I took some time to mull this over, and just wanted to say that I resonate. The actual product of my hands and imagination is so humble - it's so temporary, so unprestigious - but the motivation comes from the soul.

    But you put it better. I admire your way with words!

    @-Sarah - What a compliant cat! I'd seen links to this but it took your recommendation to actually view it. : )


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