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vacilando: when the experience is more important than the destination

A Study in Space


"The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light." (Matthew 6:22)

Once upon a time I declared, "Creativity and spontaneity need space to work their magic!" How easy to say when it's summer, right? Well now that I'm back at school, I must reiterate: ESPECIALLY at school, where we're saturated with rich and challenging experiences, it is absolutely vital for us to protect creative space for spontaneity and reflection. Otherwise, we may miss out on opportunities to go deeper into our own stories. As someone who is really J according to Myers-Briggs, I love to plan, organize, make lists, and be prepared for whatever comes my way. However, over time I have come to relish organic opportunities to grow because they reliably reveal something new (and often profound) about myself and my relationship to those around me.

Last week, I was invited to share my story with several first-years enrolled in the introductory neuroscience course at Duke. Informed by an excellent article by Errol Morris for my film capstone class, I likened the brain to the filmmaker: Both strive to make sense of reality and to construct a meaningful narrative based on experiences. However, to tell a story well, you need SPACE TO REFLECT - because the brain has limited attentional resources and an impressionable memory - and SPACE TO TAKE RISKS AND FAIL - because conflict develops character, and that's central to any good story.

In other news, I finally finished unpacking my room this weekend. My favorite part? The whiteboard I've reserved as a creative space in my room.

This weekend, my friend Stephanie and I discovered the joy of SHARED SPACE to reflect and take risks spontaneously. We've wanted to collaborate on a dance video for awhile now, so last week we reserved time on Friday to practice in the Duke Gardens since I have minimal experience with dance. At the last minute, capricious weather decided to rain on our parade in favor of a study party... but alas / hallelujah, the study party was not to be! Books closed and laptops open, we soon found ourselves excitedly sharing our art with each other.

Amidst this organic exchange of hopes, fears, fledgling projects, and feedback, "You Don't Miss A Thing" entered the conversation, a beautiful worship song by Bethel Music that has given me much hope this past week. Steph and I are both part of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and before the first verse even concluded, Steph had an OH! moment of - "I can dance to this! Like you and storytelling, I want to explore dance as worship!" - and up she sprung, graceful limbs painting the lyrics through the air. There aren't words to describe how amazing it was to see this song, of all songs, shape the space for our collaboration. Between doubts and loneliness in my relationships, and fears about my laptop crashing, I've needed so much grace this week. The song grounds me in the truth that I am seen even when I feel like no one sees or loves me, and when I don't even know how to love myself. The words mean so much to me because I've experienced healing through them. Again, I am reminded that great pain is necessary to fully grasp truth - and to bring it to life through great art.

As Steph twirled and tuned her creative pulse to this musical heartbeat, I teased the light and the space. A key light here...a fill there... It was an exhilarating exercise to try and make much out of little, all the while marveling at how God does it all the time. I had an idea to project the blue mountainous background of the lyric video as a light source, and wow the result was dramatic, moody, and definitely more beautiful than I expected. The light rays of the projector itself were a delightful surprise, wrapping Steph in rippling light, visually drawing us in to a sacred space of worship. Caught up in the spirit of creative collaboration, we danced - Steph with her body, me with my camera. She improvised, and I extemporized. She acted, and I reacted. Together, we pooled our creative visions and expressions as worship. What was supposed to be a practice in the gardens, and then a study session...unexpectedly became a window into the posture of wonder we feel dancing through life with God.

Given the impromptu nature of the footage I gathered, I was initially unsure about what story I could communicate. Yet as I reviewed the footage, I found myself re-experiencing the beauty of being wondrously lost in the Lord, and I knew I wanted to invite others into our creative communion. This vision guided all of my editing decisions in Premiere Pro as I integrated visual moments with lyrical meaning. While I really enjoy color grading, minimal adjustments went into this video because I wanted to honor the nostalgic elegance characteristic of Steph's visual brand.

What have I learned about myself and my creative process? When I create space and open myself to learning about and supporting other artists, inspiration organically follows. With a desire to grow our creativity together (TEAM ART), we can make a lot out of very little. What wonderful exercise for the eyes of our souls!

A Happy Medium

I took an inadvertent break from online thought-life during my last six weeks in Madison. Between blogging, uploading photos, and interacting on Facebook and Instagram, I was just exhausted by the pace I had set for myself to continually process my offline life through online conversation. Yet in this hiatus, I've had time to examine my heart posture in artistic creation, especially social media. And God, doing what he does best, made a beautiful thing out of a broken thing and renewed my desire to build up community and point to Him with my story.

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Stories from the He(art)

I can’t believe two weeks have already passed since I attended the Pulse Arts Conference at Blackhawk Church! While my takeaways are still crystallizing, I’ve gained a clearer view of the connection between the art of storytelling and God’s heart. Ever since I participated in DukeEngage Colombia, I've spoken about the power of stories to connect people across borders. What exactly do I mean by that? Well, when you hear someone else’s story, I think that experience exposes your assumptions, invites you to reevaluate how you relate to them, and changes your attitude towards them going forward. In this manner, stories can be a medium for deeper reflection and, ultimately, reconciliation. I’m definitely still learning how to articulate this idea, so I find it ridiculously cool that, between Pulse and several miscellaneous sources these past few days, I’ve begun to hear a diverse ensemble of voices that all seem to affirm the same message: Stories matter. They deepen and sensitize your vision of yourself and those around you. In whatever form, art nurtures in you the creativity and language to navigate pain and build bridges of love.

Paul LeFeber, the Creative Director at Blackhawk, quotes scholar N.T. Wright to explain why the arts matter.

The arts are not the pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. They are highways into the center of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped, any other way. The present world is good, but broken and in any case incomplete; art of all kinds enables us to understand that paradox in its many dimensions.

A bit abstract, but I hear him saying this: Art helps us deal with the pieces of life that don’t make sense, enabling us to better see a purpose to all the purposeless moments. Through creative self-expression (sharing your story) and history (examining other stories), we can develop an expectant posture of unshakable hope for beauty to come from brokenness. Indeed, this hope for redemption is the paradoxical crux of the Gospel, a story of how love outlives death.

Pastor Tim Mackie put it this way at Pulse: Stories train our minds to expect meaning out of our lives and the lives of others. To illustrate his point, he walked us through the provoking “Shadow Sculptures” exhibition by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, who use trash from the streets of London to challenge our conceptions of city streets and the people who live there. On first glance, the carefully arranged trash looks pointless - after all, it is the worthless stuff we discard. But once a spotlight illuminates the trash's shadow, a story unfolds. Suddenly, the trash gains incredible significance - and chances are, we would expectantly approach the remaining displays with a newfound keenness to discern their message. In this manner, art - especially stories - trains us to view moments in our life as vehicles of meaning and purpose.

Now if the above is true about stories, then how does the Bible - one epic unified story that points to Jesus - help us deal with life? Sparknotes-style, it’s this redemption story about people who are meant to partner with God but instead rebel and wreck the relationship (that’s us). Because he loves us, God responds with blessing and never abandons his promises to us in our darkest moments, as exemplified through the lives of the Bible’s many characters. Ultimately, God immerses himself in our story by participating in our suffering through the Crucifixion of Jesus. Although Jesus cried out in anguish and implored God to find an alternate route to redemption, he trusted God to use the Resurrection to bring life out of death, good out of evil, hope out of despair…and sure enough, God did. Sounds to me like a promising posture to emulate, as I face paradoxical states of hope and despair in my own life every day (which the new release Inside Out explores through Joy and Sadness!). By immersing ourselves in the stories of the Bible, we are thus being taught to navigate our own stories, and to let the life in the Scriptures - not our dark moments - define meaning in our lives.

Why don’t all believers connect their lives with the Bible in this way? Often, Scripture is taught to youth in a sugarcoated or dissociated way that either blunts the uncomfortable brokenness in the Bible or fails to show the connection of each book to the larger story leading to Jesus. As a result, we find ourselves uncertain of how to deal with pain. It seems easier to discard our darkest moments and veil them with the virtual veneer of social media. The Bible Project is Tim Mackie’s response to this problem. His nonprofit creative art studio animates the books and themes of the Bible to show how it is a unified story that points to Jesus and addresses the real-life brokenness in our own lives. By communicating the Bible in this way, Mackie artistically invites us to make sense of our personal stories through the lens of biblical history.

The creative speakers at Pulse aren't alone in this conviction. As I ponder intersections between art and neuroscience (my undergraduate major), I am continually reminded that both offer important lenses to understand the human condition. Check out the second hit I got on a Google search for “neuroscience and art”:

In his commencement speech to the Stanford class of '07, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia said "Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world - equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being - simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, imagination, memory, and physical senses.” ...What if instead of viewing art as a dispensable luxury, we could see it as a key ingredient in unlocking the great mysteries of neuroscience? University of California-San Francisco surgeon, art enthusiast, and author Leonard Shlain writes that just as combining information from our two eyes enhances the third dimension of depth, by “seeing the world through different lenses of art and science and, by integrating these perspectives, [we] arrive at a deeper understanding of reality." (The Neuroscience of Art, Mengfei Huang, Stanford Journal of Neuroscience)

Sound familiar? Between these remarkable sources, here’s the message I’m hearing: Art helps us make sense of reality. In particular, stories like the Bible educate us to see meaning in our own lives.

How did the art and stories about God's heart at Pulse influence my perception of my own art and story? These are the realizations I’ve come to, so far:

  • My art is nothing without love, per 1 Corinthians 13. I want to think about how I can use visual storytelling in service of others.
  • My art is an agent of worship, for better or for worse. Between self-promotion and planning shoots, it can easily become about me. However, I want my storytelling to be about God: “He set up this moment. I just happened to be there!”
  • My art has purpose, even if I can’t see its trajectory right now. At Pulse, I told God how tired I am of saying “I don’t know,” and he immediately said, “Well, then how about "I trust"?” Those two words felt so right, and peace like a river continues to wash over me when I declare them.

I’ll end with a beautiful definition of worship that the music director of my home church shared with me last week. If worship is all these things, then art approached as adoration will nurture my ethics, intellect, creativity, heart, and peace of mind. Sounds life-giving to me.

Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, Nourishment of mind by His truth, Purifying of imagination by His beauty, Opening of the heart to His love, And submission of will to His purpose, And all this is gathered up in that emotion which most cleanses us from selfishness because it is the most selfless of all emotions: Adoration.

More artists at Pulse who live out their art as adoration.