Yesterday, Bridget mentioned that Bishop Robert Barron’s site had a feature on actor Jim Carrey, and I reacted by making a snide comment or two about him. I’m sorry that I did. Bridget hadn’t read the story, but explained the gist of it, at least what she gathered from the blurb she had seen. I am thankful that I expressed remorse for my close-mindedness then, telling Bridget that stories of redemption are worth hearing, and I asked her to send me a link. It turned out to be rather fascinating, but even better is a video about Jim Carrey’s artworks and painting process. I got to it through a link in the original post. The video, “Jim Carrey: I Needed Color” is only about six minutes long, but in those six minutes, Carrey encapsulates nearly everything I’ve learned, written, and shared about art and faith. Who knew?
In the first 30 seconds of the video, Carrey mentions vocation. He says, “Your vocation chooses you.” That’s a rather foreign concept in a society that wants teenagers to know how they’d like to spend the rest of their lives, pushes college on everyone, and encourages taking on tens of thousands of dollars of debt as a first step towards “the career of your dreams.” But vocation? How many people outside of Catholic circles even know what the word means? Carrey was raised Catholic, and it sounds like what he experienced early in life continues to affect him.
In a scene that captures him, at 5am, squishing clay onto a wire armature, he says, “It’s really kinda cool what happens with these things, you know, cause you really don’t know what a sculpture or a painting totally means. You think you do. Most of the time, I start out with a plan, and then, you know, like a year later, I’ll realize that the painting was telling me what I needed to know about myself a year before.”
In the next scene, Carrey is working on a canvas and says, “I think what makes someone an artist is that they make models of their inner life. They make something physically come into being that is inspired by their emotions or their needs or what they feel the audience needs.” Right here, Carrey is touching upon the way in which the creative impulse in artists echoes the creative power of God, but Carrey is also hinting at the incarnational aspect of art: manifesting God in the world in some way. At the same time, we get into the sacramental aspect of art.
A sacrament is, according to The Catechism of the Catholic Church, “an outward symbol of God’s grace instituted by Christ entrusted to the Church by which we receive the life of God through the work of the Holy Spirit.” There are only seven sacraments, but at some level, art can be a tangible sign of God’s grace. The first example that comes to mind are the hymns of Saint Caedmon. According to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the Church in England, Caedmon, who lived in the seventh century, was an uneducated laborer attached to the Monastery of Whitby. Ashamed of his inability to compose and sing, Caedmon dejectedly left a feast. But that night, as he slept in the stable, he had a vision of someone asking him to sing. At first, he tried to beg off, but the person in the vision persisted, asking Caedmon to sing of creation. So, he gave it a try and ended up with a beautiful hymn, the likes of which had never been heard before. In the morning, Caedmon told his story to the priests and nuns of the monastery, who declared that he had received a divine gift. In other words, Caedmon’s song was the outward sign of the grace he had received. The laborer was then taught by the monks and became one himself, and he continued to compose.
Now, back to Jim Carrey. About 30 seconds later in the video, he says, “Art has to be service, you know, it’s like you’re servicing your subconscious and at the same time, you’re doing something that someone’s going to relate to, hopefully.” I’ve shared here before Madeleine L’Engle’s take on serving the work, haven’t I? Well, even if I have, it bears repeating. But, wait, I found something that I know I haven’t shared, and it still deals with serving the work. In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, L’Engle writes:
The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.
Obedience is an unpopular word nowadays, but the artist must be obedient to the work, whether it be a symphony, a painting, or a story for a small child. I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary.
This explanation of serving the work was huge for me. I didn’t really understand it the first time or two I read that passage, but it has since taken on great meaning and has been integral in my study and pursuit of art.
Today, I turned to Photoshop to create a digital piece with nine photos of one watercolor painting. After more than an hour, I was ready to save and name my creation. Glancing to my left, I noticed A Solider of the Great War in the basket on my desk, so I told myself to open it at random and find a phrase to use as a title. My eyes fell on the words “an unimaginably great reward,” so I made that the title of the work. A few minutes later, as I was giving the piece one more look, I noticed the word “Reward,” which had been placed in the image haphazardly, via a digital brush I had acquired at one point or another. I have many, many word brushes, and I used probably six of them in this image, so “Reward” could have just as easily not been there.
But it was.