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Makers and Keepers: On the Goodness of Things

Things: Issue Three

Jess Sweeney

Makoto Fujimura, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (Yale University Press, 2021).

My daughter stopped, crouched down, and took hold of something. A seedpod this time, with tiny silicone-like spikes all over it, green in color. She stuck it in her pocket and we continued on. This little habit started before she was walking. Sometimes she’d grab an object, look at it, and then throw it back to the earth. Other times she’d look up and show it to me. Undoubtedly, this was something I had cultivated in her, how pockets could be repositories for little wonders and how to collect things in her fanny pack during our walks. But when I think back on these past three years, I realize that there’s something innate in her that is drawn to the things in this world, little pieces of beauty and curiosity. There’s a little collector or curator inside of us, a maker with a desire to have and to keep and to hold.

Humans have a fascination with making things, shaping things, and collecting things. We are makers and keepers. In his book, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, Makoto Fujimura writes that “[t]he impulse toward Making seems embedded in us from ‘the beginning.’ Such an impulse imbeds our vision in actual earthly materials.” We can look to ancient examples like the cave paintings in Lascaux or the prehistoric city of Çatalhöyük in present-day Turkey. The homes of Çatalhöyük are filled with artful human activity, from painted walls and volcanic glass used as mirrors, to built-in nooks that kept special items. It is an emblem to human making, keeping, and collecting, a place where men, women and children prepared, consumed, and stored food, as well as slept, socialized, and hid away their treasures.

In his book, Fujimura develops a compelling approach to living that seeks to cultivate a core aspect of our human nature, that we, like our Creator, are makers. Our “desire and ability to make things,” mirrors God’s own creative outpouring. This mirroring importantly imparts significance on our making and on the things of this world, whether that’s making high art, designing an object for everyday use, or pouring creativity into a project at work. That creative impulse to craft, mold, and preserve is at the heart of how we live in this world. We are not machines or cogs in a factory line; our human touch and imagination matters. We are drawn to imitate our Creator. Fujimura develops an idea which he refers to as “Making into the New.” He seeks to push back against the limiting and false “binaries” we create as we stumble to try to understand the impact of the Resurrection on existence. He says that we must push ourselves to “think outside of outmoded dichotomies we have created in our culture—false dichotomies that make it impossible for us to even speak of a transformation that leads to the transfiguration of the resurrection to come.” Fujimura believes that, “[w]hat we build, design, and depict on this side of eternity matters, because in some mysterious way, those creations will become part of the future city of God.” Moreover, he states that there is a “potential that each of us has, even in our ordinary days, to attain this New Newness.” This seems utterly true. And as an artist, the lines that follow this statement resonate deeply. And yet I worry that for those who don’t necessarily think of themselves as artists, that perhaps this point needs to be further unpacked or else it may fall flat, or at least leave the reader wondering what this New Newness could look like for them. Perhaps one possibility is that Fujimura leaves that up to us, to reflect on the ordinary of our days and see the beauty there, to see the small transformations taking place, to see God’s hand molding and shaping who we are becoming.

Beauty without mercy is a luxury. But perhaps mercy without beauty is mere survival.

One avenue towards discovering what this New Newness might look like, beyond the context of the “exiled voices of poets and artists,” could be in unpacking our own relationship to material “stuff,” how rethinking that relationship might shape us into the type of people whispering from the “margins of human experience.” Perhaps it may even lead us to turn outwards towards the “poor and oppressed,” to become the kind of people that Fujimura seems to believe are also real artists in this world, who can also dare to “seek the New” and perhaps even help “redefine what Newness is.”

In a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, world-renowned designer Ilse Crawford mused on why beauty matters. “Beauty,” she said, “is often a dirty word . . . or seen as something only for rich people . . . But what if it was about creating dignity, bringing a humanity to the table.” She shared about a project that completely reshaped a church parish hall and soup kitchen. Like Fujimura, she critiques the survival mode, or the “utilitarian mode” that many operate under, particularly when it comes to social projects or helping “the least of these.” Quick, easy, and often ugly solutions that get the job done. Fujimura writes that “[b]eauty and mercy are two paths into the sacred work of Making into the New Creation. Neither one of these elements is essential for survival in a Darwinian sense…. From a Darwinian viewpoint, beauty and mercy are not only unnecessary, but even dangerous.” Particularly when it comes to spaces like soup kitchens, or even lower income daycares, or public transportation spaces, both agree that, as Fujiumura puts it, “When that [survival of the fittest] is the framework for the choices we make, altruism does not make sense; it seems like wasting time to create beauty or to stop and pay attention to the ‘least of these’ in an act of mercy.” Crawford and her team chose a different approach and provide a kind of alternative model for how to put Fujimura’s ideas into action, a way of bringing about the New. If beauty matters, if the human soul is impacted by the things around us, if we can be healed by beauty, then that must shift our action in the world. In the lecture, Crawford shares about the process of transforming the space, but perhaps most powerfully she shares the reaction of one of the men who visited this space weekly. When asked about the transformation, he said: “I love that it looks like this, because it shows that someone cares.”

The spaces we inhabit, from our homes to classrooms, to airport gates and sacred spaces, are alive, shifting, transforming. And these spaces are filled with things, the stuff that we carry about with us, objects that hold memories, reminders, and histories. And while we humans are the main actors on this stage of our daily lives, we too are formed by the spaces in which we dwell. At the end of the nineteenth century, Oscar Wilde wrote a manifesto for the significance of the decorative arts, calling it the “art we live with.” This “art” that does, or could, fill our homes, offices, and classrooms, “can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways,” he writes, can “stir the imagination,” gives us rest, and trains us to see. And yet it seems that amidst the technologized and fast-paced spaces that we inhabit today, we can too easily forget to choose beauty and the human. Instead we opt to maximize other outcomes, whether that’s speed, profit, or efficiency, at the expense of the dignity and aesthetic conscience of the human person. This art that once worked on our souls is being lost.

Fujimura’s book and art helps us find this art again. As human beings, we have a proclivity to not only make beautiful things and engage in what Fujimura calls the “sacred art of creating,” but we are also drawn towards beauty and have a knack for finding it in unexpected places. From the childhood activity of keeping things in secret tree holes, to cabinets of curiosity, museums, and time capsules. The things of this life resonate deeply with us. Likewise, our interior spaces and our deep connection to them have filled the canvases and pages of many an artist or writer, from still lifes to images of the Annunciation, to children’s stories, or novels such as Willa Cather’s My Antonia. When we make space for this part of ourselves and of those around us, when we are open to choosing beauty over maximizing efforts to be efficient, we elevate the human. This humanness requires a slowing down, an attunement to the ordinary around us that is actually refining us for the Kingdom to come.

The impact of beauty is not just for those with the means to access particular objects. If the reality of the human need for beauty reaches far enough, then those on the margins will be touched too, because those who are shaping environments, those educating the young, those making decisions about what is worth spending money on, will choose beauty and pass on a formation in beauty. Those who visit soup kitchens and shelters, hospitals, and nursing homes won’t just be in sterile spaces of survival, but in spaces where their humanity has been accounted for. Before reading Fujimura’s book I hadn’t seen this connection between beauty and mercy, but this is why these two must be hinged; without each other it seems they cannot thrive. Beauty without mercy is a luxury. But perhaps mercy without beauty is mere survival.

When beauty and mercy meet and meld, we touch up with the divine; we experience an outpouring of healing transformation. And as Fujimura makes clear, this isn’t just accidental. We aren’t ephemeral, non-bodily beings. We were placed in a world filled with stuff, and that is important. In uniting beauty and mercy, as well as making and grace, Fujimura maintains this connection between heaven and earth. He insists that “there is a profound connection between this world and heavenly reality.” And if this is true, things—material stuff—matter. These things we hold on to are certainly not necessary for survival, and yet here they are. Gratuitous, but not accidental gifts. These things which we choose to place in our spaces, the things we humans make, will “in mysterious ways…[be] amplified and transfigured.” God’s Kingdom coming will not be a destruction of the world we have known, but, instead, Fujimura implores his readers to “think of God’s Kingdom coming as a heavenly invasion into the ordinary, an infinite abundance injected into our scarcity-marked world.”

Ultimately, Fujimura claims, when we choose beauty, when we choose to notice it, choose to let it shape us and surround us, these moments are in fact “the New Creation [breaking] in, gratuitously.” In these moments, we experience a radiant wholeness, we experience the “New Creation fill[ing] in the cracks and fissures of our broken, splintered lives, and a golden light shines through, even if only for a moment, reminding us of the abundance of the world that God created, and that God is yet to create through us.” This new creation breaking in is a foretaste of the ultimate inbreaking of the second coming. And isn’t it then our responsibility to open our world up to more spaces for this golden light to shine through? We do this when we make for others, foster beauty for others, and most importantly when we notice it in the seeds on our path, in the overlooked ordinary.

And while we live in a world filled with machine-made things, a culture living in the allurement of plastic, when we encounter things made with the care of the human touch, or an awareness towards the aesthetic conscience, objects which show attention to beauty and good design, we notice them. These might be a handmade bowl, or an original painting, but it also could be a machine-made object using natural materials or intentionally beautiful design. When we touch real wood or stone or metal, glass or natural fiber, these materials connect with us on a deep level. There is warmth, there is a connection to the earth, to creation. The Christian story, from Creation itself to Christ’s Incarnation and the bodily resurrection to come, are not ethereal, non-bodily realities. They are made of the earth, of the dust. Bread and wine become the Body and the Blood. As Fujimura writes, “the greatest triumph, the bodily resurrection of Christ from the grave, is not the ‘happy ending’ of a fairy tale, but only the beginning of the New with the entry point being suffering and persecution. The greatest miracle is turning our ‘hearts of stone’ into ‘hearts of flesh.’”

The promise we are given by the Creator is not that we will become different beings, but that we will be more fully our bodily selves, more the creators that we are striving to be. And in this process, we are being repaired, Fujimura claims, healed, like the Japanese Kintsugi artists who repair broken pottery by filling up the cracks with gold. As this transformation slowly takes place, we can train our eyes, minds, hands, and hearts to seek after this gold, after this beauty, that has the power to heal us and others. We are made whole through God’s grace, through his sacraments, but also perhaps through the things of this world. Because of the Incarnation, because the Creator of the stars and moon and the sea became a baby, the things of this world can bear glory. They can be reminders of the beauty here and the beauty to come. They can help fill the wounds we bear with a kind of mysterious, heavenly gold, that will be made whole and new in the Kingdom that is coming.

Jess Sweeney is director of the Collegium Institute’s Ars Vivendi Arts Initiative and is the co-founder of a new collective serving women of faith pursuing callings as both mothers and creatives, Wellspring: A Mother Artist Project. Her work has appeared in Dappled Things, The Curator, Everyday Mamas, The Young Catholic Woman, and Genealogies of Modernity Journal. She is a wife, mother, and artist living in the city of Philadelphia. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Posted on April 20, 2023

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