Gregory E. Reynolds
River Grace, by Makoto Fujimura. New York: Poiema Press: International Arts Movement, 2007, 22 pages, $27.00.
Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture, by Makoto Fujimura. Colorado Springs, Col.: NavPress, 2009, 175 pages, $24.95, paper.
I still remember the thrill as a very young Christian, converted out of the counterculture in 1971, having been raised around creativity in the form of drawing, painting, poetry, and architecture, of discovering that there were serious Christians involved in the arts. My mother collected all things Japanese and Chinese, brush paintings, cinnabar boxes, and jade jewelry. She loved the profound simplicity and spare beauty of Haiku poetry, Japanese tea rooms, and brush painting. Later in life she would study Japanese brush painting and obtain her own Chinese chop, or block print signature, a lovely orange red ideogram. So it made perfect sense that Frank Lloyd Wright should be the architect to emulate in our house. She designed and built houses to prove it. Several years after my mother became a Christian, Edith Schaeffer's Hidden Art helped rescue her from the cultural suffocation of her fundamentalist church, dear as the members were in so many other ways.
Francis Schaeffer's Art in the Bible was of similar help to me, because he took art seriously (even though I have come to doubt aspects of Schaeffer's worldview approach). For Schaeffer the legitimacy of artistic endeavor had to come from the Bible, rather than from common culture, as the Bible itself teaches was the case for Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-cain (Gen. 4:20-22). Examples of artistry in the Bible, such as the tabernacle and temple, or literary structures, like the poetry, are all shared with the common culture. The Holy Spirit simply put these to sacred use. These common temporal blessings of God are no less the work of the Spirit than the eternal redemptive blessings he pours out on God's people.
The weakness in Schaeffer's view of art resides in his failure to appreciate the common grace gifts of the Spirit in common culture. A lack of faith is not the only ingredient in the creativity of unbelievers, although unbelief sometimes expresses itself in ugly and even reprehensible ways. True beauty may be created by the non-Christian artist or poet made in God's image. General revelation is no less God's revelation.
Like Schaeffer, Fujimura self-consciously reflects on art through the lens of his Christianityas well he should. However, Fujimura also recognizes (Refractions, 23, R in subsequent notes; River Grace, 8, RG in subsequent notes) the brilliant insight of the artistry of his unbelieving Nihonga master Matazo Kayama-sensei (1927-2004) (R, 21), as well as many other modern western artists, like Mark Rothko (RG, 3).
River Grace is an elegant, concise, reflective memoir of Makoto Fujimura's development as an artist. He was born in Boston in 1960 and raised in Japan. After graduating with an undergraduate degree from Bucknell University in 1983, he received an MFA from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1989. As a bi-cultural person he was the first outsider to be invited to study in the prestigious traditional Japanese Painting Doctorate program, in which he was trained for six and a half years in the highly disciplined tradition of Nihonga (literally "Japan-painting" 日本画 14th C), which is described in detail in this volume (RG, 2-3, 18). Nihonga is a thousand year old Japanese tradition in which pigments are handmade from minerals and precious metals and a sumi ink is made from pine tar (RG, 2-3). These pigments and ink are applied to silk or handmade paper (RG, 18). "Nihonga materials create a cacophony of sensuality and extravagance. They are an ideal medium for capturing the expansive vision of the world centered by God" (RG, 4).
In River Grace Fujimura reflects on his own idolatrous view of art before his conversion. This is helpful spiritually, but perhaps not in terms of the quality of his art, in which common grace is the formative influence under God's providence. He was already enormously talented; and it was this gift that enabled him to be considered for advanced training in Nahonga. Certainly his conversion altered the subject matter and motivation for his work. This made all the difference for him as a man, surrendering his artistic gifts to the lordship of Christ.
Refractions includes twenty-three essays in an ongoing series of essays reflecting on Fujimura's journey of faith, art, and culture. The continuation of the written pilgrimage can be viewed at his personal website, www.makotofujimura.com.
My copy of Refractions came slightly bent at the spineas it were fractured, a fitting image of Fujimura's philosophy of art. But, as I turned the pages, slowly the dent in the gutter disappeared, a little more with each turned page. Refractionsyes, splintered light ushers in healing. This is a major theme of Christian artist-author Makoto Fujimura.
Reflecting on the empty areas of space on the canvas, known as "yohaku," Fujimura explains:
I am interested in creating ambivalent visual space between the two (ambiguity and depth) ... Grace, it should be grace that exists between the immanent reality of earth and the transcendent reality of heaven. (RG, 3)
The spare beauty of Japanese Nihonga painting and the essays of Fujimura may also serve as a model for preachers. Spare verbal beauty is a perfect medium for the gospel. Psalms read aloud from the KJV or ESV will impress preachers with verbal economy and rhythm, using silence like the empty space in Nihonga paintings.
Fujimura has worked tirelessly to integrate his art with his faith, but also with other artists around him and throughout the world. While the International Arts Movement he founded in 1990 may be far too optimistic in its quest to change the world through art, Fujimura is to be commended for reaching out to a wide range of Christians and non-Christians. His TriBeca Temporary project after 9/11, discussed in chapter V, "The Disintegration Loops: The September 11th Issue" (R, 37-40), sought to bring healing to his neighborhood near Ground Zero. Chapter VIII, "L.I.B.E.S.K.I.N.D.," movingly amplifies this neighborhood involvement (R, 65-72). His involvement in the world of art is a wonderful example of how Christians ought to bear witness to the gospel by sharing in common endeavors with unbelievers, and making a genuine contribution to those endeavors.
Fujimura is also an expert and articulate interpreter of art. His understanding of historic Christianity lends a unique depth to his insights. I was especially surprised and enlightened by his chapter "A Visual River of Gold" (R, 91-102) on Christo and Jean-Claude's Gates installation at Central Park in 2005. He helped me appreciate two artists whom I had never really understood. The most impressive interpretive essay is Chapter XXII, "Come and See: Leonardo da Vinci's Philip in The Last Supper" (R, 147-56)a tour de force apologia for the value of viewing original artwork.
As a painter Fujimura's integration of eastern and western painting traditions is a work of true genius. Anyone who labors under the illusion that abstract painting is a sham or simply the fruit of the chaotic worldview of unbelievers (such as in Jackson Pollock) will be disabused of such a notion if he takes Fujimura seriously. It is also important to remember that appreciation of anything fine requires reflection, experience, and training. The cry for accessibility is often a feeble excuse for laziness, inured by our saturation in the instant gratification of our image-ridden world. Advertising thrives on instant recognition, rather than subtlety, depth, and ambiguity. Fujimura explains his medium in this way:
In watercolor, the light is reflected from the paper underneath. In oil and acrylic, light is basically reflected from the surface of the paint. But the Nihonga materials allow both, as they are semi-opaque and uniquely suited for ambiguity and depth. (RG, 3)
Both books are, as one would expect, works of art. Binding, graphics, typographyall conjoin to please the eye. Anyone with an ounce of artistic instinct, visual, spoken, or written, will find these slim volumes endlessly stimulating. Officers aware of artistic talents and aspirations in their congregations could not do better than to recommend these books.
Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, November, 2011.