Blog: When I Was Finishing This Work
Posted on December 11 2020
Featured image: In The Beginning by Christine Alfery
When I was finishing this work “In The Beginning,” I kept asking myself, “What should the title be?” I settled with “In the Beginning” because of a poem I had read.
I was reading this imaginative portrayal of God as an artist and felt strongly that this work needed to be titled after this poetic retelling of Genesis by African American poet, James Weldon Johnson. When I personally, Christine, think of God – I think of the Creator, and every time I think about creating, I think of Him.
James Weldon Johnson started out this way: “As dancer and storyteller, I embody and enact”… Genesis this way:
“And God stepped out on space,”
The dancer enters with long slow steps, her form, voice, and breath becoming an image of God at the foundation of the universe. Now stretching her arms into the emptiness of infinity she pronounces:
“And [God] looked around and said,
‘I’m lonely –
I’ll make me a world.”
With God’s decision to bring forth life, the dancer leaps into the boundless energy of creation: she flings the stars across the universe, “spangling the night”; she gives birth to the world and declares, “That’s good!” God’s footsteps hollow out the valleys; she swirls with abandon to spit out the seven seas and throws herself to the floor, sliding across it like the waves of the surf. God’s spine arcs to feel the curve of the rainbow; her toes become the blades of green grass sprouting. Then God lifts his arms to call out “Bring forth! Bring forth!” and she becomes the antelope bounding, the salmon coursing, and the eagle soaring across the sky. With all of life teeming around him, God proclaims with profound pleasure, ‘That’s good! That is so good!” But finally, when God surveys all that has come forth from his very being, God slows down to listen inside again. In that moment of stillness, God discovers, “I’m lonely still.”
Then, we see God sit down by the side of a river to think. Here, even God honors the rhythms of the cycles of creation, where some moments are replete with abundance and fullness, while others are spacious and quiet. In God’s own surrender to the unknown, a new possibility awakens in the mind of God – “I’ll make me a [human.]”
Now God leans over to scoop up clay from the riverbed, curving and shaping and fashioning a human. “Like a mammy bending over her baby,” God toils. We see God working … and we are reminded that the process of creation is not always easy: it takes care, detail, and loving attention. In the end, what we create is a reflection of ourselves. And so, God shapes us, humanity, into God’s own image. As the dancer embodies this moment, she holds in her hands an imaginary figure of the first human, the first living being that looked up in the heavens to contemplate the origins of the universe. And into this lump of clay, God breathes the breath of life.
As humans we awaken to the breath of life; we awaken with the breath of life, Ruah, Great Spirit, Holy Spirit is breathing in us from our moment of waking to our last gasp of embodiment. God’s Spirit is our in-spiration. As the dancer breathes, she turns and recognizes all those seated before her. There she sees God’s handiwork, fourteen billion years in the making. She takes a deep inhalation, then blows a long stream of breath out on to her audience, her witnesses to prayer. Three times she inhales, and gives forth, passing from one end of the audience to the other, in a holy trinity of breath, before ending the prayer – “Amen, Amen.”
Oh wow, this poem had a profound effect on me as I was finishing this work. The entire time I was working on this piece I was thinking of other things, like how to make stained glass look like stained glass. I pondered on how to get the wonderful blues that Chagall had in his stained-glass windows. I even bought a book on Chagall and researched his blues. When I first thought of doing stained glass windows, I asked myself, “How do I want to do stained glass windows?” I expanded my research even more.
As I began to work on this, I soon realized that I was coloring in the lines. I am not a “color in the lines” person. So, this disturbed me. But, I wanted to learn and I wanted to learn from this piece. So, I continued. The struggle is very evident in the work and I decided to capitalize on the struggle. For me, this piece illustrates clearly what I have been trying to say all year about “what art is” and “what it isn’t.”
In the art creating process, we risk entering the unknown with the hope of making it known. If we already know about something and create it, there is no risk and no uncomfortable zone. The left side of this piece was the unknown and I was so uncomfortable with this. Yet at the same time, comfortable with taking the risk. I just charged forward. As I did, other ideas for doing stained glass windows came to me which I will be trying out as soon as my tables are cleared and fresh paper is on them. They were ready two days ago – and low and behold, I needed to add just a little bit more control to the work – ugh. Anyway, the right 2/3rds of the work is my normal spontaneous self. When adding this side to my work, I became very comfortable with it and began to think about the process of creating and just what “creating” is. It was glorious to have the work speak to me like that!
You know I always talk about differences and this piece so clearly illustrates that. One isn’t better than the other. It merely is different. And they both exist within me. I can’t imagine how God’s mind thought about difference. My guess is that He never did. He just made all things beautiful.