Leslie Bustard offers the inaugural essay of a new Cultivating section focused on art and artists.
In this essay she discusses the fundamental gift artists give to help the rest of us cultivate our seeing.
Imagine a child or two squinting their eyes up at the bright blue sky while they name the cloud formations.
Or accidentally coming to a still yellow finch lying on the ground, and shedding tears for the death of this little creature.
Or sitting on the porch swing, listening to the rain and watching as the lightening and thunder makes them jump and squeal.
These ahhs, giggles, tears, and wide-eyed smiles sometimes will catch me off-guard. That a young child can meander through their day and welcome in new sights, sounds, and experiences is one of those mysterious grace-upon-grace gifts that God gives us. And this grace is compounded for me when I am in on it, when I accept the in-the-moment invitation to experience it with them—getting to see their big eyes and quick laughs as they run around glad for whatever has caught their attention.
Those wonder-filled children are like the many artists and poets throughout time and in every culture who, after having caught a glimpse of the world in its beauty or in its suffering, generously have given us their sight. Whether on canvas with shaded lines, or on paper with meaning-filled words, or with notes that shape sound and silence, their generosity in offering their vision and creation to the world makes it possible for us to gain new eyes . . . or maybe it’s the reason we need to wipe clear our own smudged glasses.
I like how Calvin Seerveld speaks of artists: “God’s Spirit calls an artist to help her neighbors who are imaginatively handicapped, who do not notice the fifteen different hues of green outside the window, who have never sensed the bravery in bashfulness, or seen how lovely an ugly person can be—to open up such neighbors to the wonder of God’s creatures, their historical misery and glory.”
Following in the steps of the God who voiced creation and saw it was very good, we are made to be cultivators of sight—of what we see, and how we take in and name for ourselves what we have seen. We glance; we glimpse. We linger; we observe. We behold; we discern. As Jesus says, “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a musty cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!”
Cultivating our sight need not be done without help. The Holy Spirit is given to be our counselor. And allies are offered—like children, poets, and artists.
It will seem that some allies come by happenstance and that some come by choice. But reflect on your own life, and you may find the Holy Spirit has been guiding you and helping you to see and grow in wisdom and in love.
Last summer, while re-reading The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, I noticed that the main character carried with him a copy of Rainer Marie Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne. Since Cezanne has long been a favorite artist of mine, I bought my own copy of Rilke’s book, with the question, “What would I learn about Cezanne from Rilke?”
While I was reading of his love for these paintings and his observations of what he saw, I was learning to see Cezanne’s paintings in ways I never had before. Despite many years of enjoying Cezanne’s water scenes and mountain vistas on canvas, I realized my “seeing” had been shallow.
As I read, I underlined many of Rilke’s words and ideas, such as, “Although one of his idiosyncrasies is to use pure chrome yellow and burning lacquer red . . . He knows how to contain their loudness within a picture: cast into a listening blue, as if into an ear, it receives a silent response from within, so that none outside needs to think himself addressed or accosted.”
Despite all the times I had sought out Cezanne’s paintings in my museums, had I really looked at the colors he used? Did I see how they played with each other in a picture? How is Cezanne’s blue a “listening blue?” How does Cezanne’s work welcome me in, instead of attacking me? These ideas fascinated me as I looked at his still life paintings. I found his classic piece of oranges and apples on a table covered with a white cloth and thought about colors, reality, and “there-ness.” I wrote a poem in response to what Rilke had shown me.
“As if these colors could heal me of indecision once and for all. . .”
—Rainer Marie Rilke, 1907
Cézanne arranged his still life with much thought,
having planned each detail of the table
with its white cloth, jug, and bowl. The apples
and oranges placed in their own spots. He
took pleasure in seeing the reds with the
greens and the blues with the yellows, and how
these colors conversed quietly among
themselves. Painting was a simple act of
love, one that held on, continued. His work
came from here. Oh Lord, may I live each day
like this before you, grabbing hold with love
all I see—like the sweet goodness of a
crunchy apple and a juicy orange,
and warm baked bread and a glass of red wine.
Through the late spring months and early summer, Square Halo, an intimate gallery run by my husband Ned, hosted a show of the French Expressionist Georges Rouault. Each time I walked into the gallery and paid attention to Georges Rouault’s paintings, I saw his lament as well as his hope, and I held onto this vision of his. Cezanne’s vibrant use of colors came to mind as I looked at Rouault’s vivid swathes of orange, green, and blue.
Georges Rouault’s vision was rooted in a call from God. In his paintings and in his prints, he showed clowns, prostitutes, dancers, as well as ordinary folks, wealthy ladies, and kings. Looking out into the world with compassionate eyes and heart, he was concerned for the downtrodden and their suffering. But his goal was not just to show sorrow, but to illuminate for us the light behind the light. Just as stained glass windows glow, his vibrant colors painted between black lines also seemed to shine with light from underneath. Even his black and white prints held a soft light. For him, this light was Christ.
His hope was rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of the Suffering Servant, which he also spent years painting. Whether illustrating the humbled, bent head of Jesus on the cross or Christ with outstretched hands toward a kneeling woman, Rouault captured the loving heart of God’s Son for his people. He wanted to show Christ as the light in a world that was rife with trouble and sorrow.
Over the past year, I have admired the photography of The Cultivating Project contributor Tom Darin Liskey. Research and attending to the work of Georges Rouault enlarged my enjoyment and respect for Tom’s vision and expertise with a camera. In my mind, Tom has been doing with his camera what Rouault did with his paintbrush—and both have helped me see the world with more love.
Each day his photographs show up on my Instagram feed. Some days his posts include a brief title. Recently I saw his black and white of a cross with a bird on the tip-top titled “Birdsong after a summer rain.” Sometimes he tells a story that goes with the photo, such as the time he shared about flying back from Mexico and meeting Maria who was carrying a life-size El Niño Jesús (doll) in the airport. She was taking this family heirloom to Louisiana. In the photo of her and El Niño, I saw how Tom captured her caring heart and determined eyes.
Tom says, “People are stories bound in blood, bone, and sinew.” He piques my curiosity of people and places as he tells these stories through his photographs—mother and daughter dressed in white and ready for first Communion, grand churches, a crucifix with cobwebs, a sleeping homeless man, and a young girl’s hands offering the “kiss of peace” at her church. Whether taking a photograph of someone old or young, wealthy or poor, in their faces or in their postures, his portraits capture each person’s uniqueness. He has traveled the world and met all types of people—from small town America, to Mexico City, to Portugal—and with his camera, the stories he captures, as we learn to pay closer attention, can help us see with clearer, more caring eyes.
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it . . .” said the sage Ferris Bueller back in the 1980s. So how do we cultivate eyes that see in this age of scrolling and swiping. . . eyes that see deeply with love and compassion and hope? For me, the answer has come through community with others who are also paying attention to their world. Tom Liskey, Georges Rouault, Paul Cezanne, and Rainier Marie Rilke have been several who have been my guides as I seek to keep my eyes open to all the colors, to all the details, to all the joy, and to all the sorrow in the world around me.
 Calvin Seerveld from Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation between Two Worlds, p. 211 IVP Academic, 2017
 Matthew 6:22-23 The Message
The featured image titled “Radcliffe” is courtesy of Tom Darin Liskey and used with his generous permission for Cultivating.
You can see more of Tom Liskey’s brilliant work on Instagram here.
Leslie Anne Bustard takes great joy in loving people and places, whether at church, around her kitchen table, in a classroom, or traveling around. She delights in words and the way poets and storytellers put them together, and marvels at the beauty found in the details of ordinary life. Reading, writing, teaching literature, baking, producing high school theater, and museum-ing are some of Leslie’s favorite things. Leslie is the host of The Square Halo, a podcast for Square Halo Books (https://www.squarehalobooks.com/podcasts) and is developing a book titled Wild Things and Castles in the Sky: A Guide to the Best Children’s Books. She and her husband Ned have been married for 30 years and live in a century-old row house in Lancaster City, where they raised their three daughters.