Painting Jesus

“Jesus will come in your lifetime.” Reading this statement somewhere, I was hit with a realization—not that Jesus will appear in all his blonde, blue-eyed glory on a street corner in San Francisco, but that the Second Coming takes place in any heart that opens to him. I can sort of get that this opening is a process we are familiar with from painting, a surrender to the universe (universe is a much safer term than Jesus, isn’t it?). But the religious right and other so-called Christians who have perverted and twisted the concept of redemption into some kind of righteous military conquest over the forces of evil (as defined by them) have gotten me all confused. I don’t really know what the death on the cross is supposed to signify, or how I’m supposed to be saved by that. Once again, I am grateful that painting is nonverbal and subverts the mind and its grasping at straws of truth to remain afloat, when all it really has to do is willingly drown.

Still—I always dread the moment when I’m standing in front of a blank sheet of paper and I know I have to paint Jesus on the cross. Or I should say—something in me knows it’s the next thing to paint. It’s the one image that I really don’t feel up to. I think it’s partly the idea of it—so important!—and partly the fact that I don’t know what that feeling is, the feeling of wanting to paint Jesus. I get self-conscious about it, with expectations of the pious state I should be in to paint such an image. What I’m afraid of is that he’ll end up looking like a clown with backwards genitalia. (It’s happened!) It just feels too important to leave in my hands.

Forget sensing—I’m gripping the brush like a demon strapped into a roller coaster seat. And then I’m off … careening down the page … painting the bloody head and downcast eyes, supplicating arms, body and legs coming to a nailed-down pair of feet. The last time I painted him, it was disconcerting, because he didn’t look like the usual martyred Messiah. But this Jesus was looking right at me, wearing his jaunty crown like he had just won a bloody race. Looking triumphant to be pinned to 2 pieces of wood. This ain’t no Bible story. We’re in this wilderness together, me and my made-up Jesus.

One year we had a 10-day painting intensive that happened to fall on Easter weekend. The day before Easter, I painted a huge cross. Michele joked, “Who could be on the cross?” It was too obvious, like the seasonal artwork kids do in school, only there it’s the Easter bunny, not the resurrection. I just kept painting and hung out with the feelings, didn’t try to control what was going to happen next. On Sunday morning he was there. It was embarrassing but true. Jesus came into my painting on the day he arose from the dead.

I spent the rest of the week painting him, struggling to stay true and real, trying not to let the strong images from a lifetime of religious indoctrination get in the way of wisdom. One night at home, I was looking through the Bible my mother had given me years before. It had little drawings illustrating the various stories, and one of them was of the cross with 2 ladders, one on either side of Jesus. Suddenly I had to paint those ladders! I was afraid it would be like copying, but I wasn’t trying to recreate the look of the ladders, I was just feeling the mystery of my attraction. This is the true excitement of creation. I don’t know why I want to paint this, I only know I must.

The next day I painted the cross again and then Jesus being lifted down by two Beings. And then the strangest thing, I started to feel the Nails. It felt absolutely crucial at that moment to paint the 4 nails, and they had eyes on them and they vibrated, they were yellow. All that feeling in the Nails, for the Nails. It made me realize how deep is our not-knowing, how shallow and limited our little Bible stories.

 

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