-Pastor Melissa Fain-
This is a continuing Lenten exploration of non-religious artists' take on religion.
This is how I’ve suggested one engages these meditations.
Self Portrait of a Young Man (29000.344)
About the Artist
Rev Howard Fenster (1916-2001)- Born in Alabama, he was one of 16 kids. In 1930, compelled by the Holy Spirit, he took up preaching. To supplement his income, he was also a bicycle repair man. In 1961 he moved to Pennville. It was while he was checking a tire with some white paint, he felt the Spirit again. The paint on his finger looked like a face. He heard the Spirit tell him to paint. Already, he was frustrated because he believed his sermons went in one ear and out another. His only concern was his talent. He heard the Spirit again to do it anyway. That’s when he started his career as a folk artist. His work is almost exclusively sacred in nature. He’s been on album covers, music videos, and late night talk shows. He created over 46,000 individual pieces of art from 1961 until his death in 2001.
About the Art
Self Portrait of a Young Man (29000.344) When you have an artist that has so many pieces to see, what do you focus on? I decided to focus on a very specific self-portrait. This specific self-portrait is more than Rev Finster. This one also includes the Holy Spirit. “Where?” you might ask. Well, friends, in the words written on his face.
Here’s the truth about hearing a message from the Spirit. If you’ve experienced it, you know.
Really, that’s it. You can relate to others who have experienced it. There is no way to explain it, except to sound completely and totally nuts.
Also, you learn the people who don’t get it, REALLY don’t get it. People think the Spirit’s call is really like picking up a nice hobby, or doing something where you have a natural talent. In reality, the Spirit call is almost never fun, or rewarding for that matter. It’s an act of sacrifice for the sake of the whole Body of Christ. For Howard Fenster it is a wild ride. For many, it’s not.
I felt compelled to include Rev Fenster in this collection of writing, even though he never really stopped being a minister. Then I realized it wasn’t that he never stopped being a minister, it was that he never pushed against the corporate church beyond basically saying congregants' memories were easily lost. He wanted to preach in a way that would be lasting. He felt called to leave the church and paint his sermons.
I won’t lie. I was smug as hell when I first saw his work.
First, I thought his theological reflections were adolescent. You saw them, and there they were. There wasn’t any deeper meaning.
Second, I thought his artistic style was too simplistic. I could do that in a day, and not even blink.
The final thought I’ll share after I tear down my first and second thoughts first.
He wanted to preach in a way people would remember. Of course his messages had to be simple! What I want to do is different. I want to preach in ways that can’t be conveyed in words; messages that can’t be preached at the pulpit. This doesn’t mean I’m not going to let up on critiquing the theological message. A bad theological message can hurt way more than just the person who believes it. I am going to put away my superiority complex to want something deeper from a person who clearly had deep faith. It’s fine that his messages were simple. It’s necessary for his call.
His style reminds me of how I used to draw in elementary school. I need to get down off that horse fast. We live in a world where painting hyper-realism is doable. We can use digital media to stop a moment. We can zoom in on said moment, and get variation of color in a way we never could. Really great artists can use these tools to make near photo quality paintings. That is a statement of their skill, not their art. It disheartens people into not even trying. Even Rev Fenster had his moment. He felt called to paint and told God he didn’t have the skill. Why would anyone even want what he’s making? Then he felt called to try anyway, and he did. I feel we need to encourage art in all forms. It not only expands our definitions of art, but it helps people see skill in others.
This leads me to my third critique, and one I can’t reorder in my brain. It’s not smug. It’s just the truth. Rev. Fenster was a man. The longer I’m doing this, the more I’m seeing secular religious art being an easier path for men. In fact, the longer I’m doing this, the more I’m seeing women being put in support roles for men, so men can have an easier path. I have quietly been watching other art forms where the men seek help from women, and when the time comes for the women to get the same support? There are crickets.There are not fewer women in these fields because the women are less talented. There are fewer women because that door doesn’t go both ways.
This makes even my hopeful expressions of art a bittersweet experience for me. It carries weight, and even a small added weight, wears one down after years of it being chained to you. I basically told a close friend a year or two back: If I have to quit now. That is not a failure. Even the biggest fighters go down during fights. They are not all wins. At some point, you either die or quit. If I quit before I succeed, that might not be my failure either. I was just worn down too much by others to make it. Like the portrait: It’s not my message, it’s God’s, and I’m not vain enough to believe the message would die with me. I am, however, realistic enough to my own limits, and how it is very possible to wear me down to them.
I’m saying all this to help you see context when I say, I’m happy for him and his wild ride. I’m saying all this so you understand why I pray, “God, I’d be doing so much better if you hadn’t made me female. Why me?”
See, his wild ride might speak to more than just me. At least, that’s what I’m hoping for. You might be chained to your own weight. You are allowed to appreciate someone for what they bring, while also pushing against it.
How does Rev Howard Finster preach the Word of God to the people of God?