For those of us in the northern hemisphere, we have officially entered the dead of winter – that time after Christmas and New Year’s when the activities have waned and the bleakness of the February sky provokes our innermost melancholy. Even for those of us in milder climates, this time of year can be taxing socially and spiritually.
In winter, my body craves the comforting and familiar – butternut squash soup, a fuzzy blanket, and tea. This year, I’m also reminded that returning to works of art that I have come to love from museum visits, art history classes, and personal discovery can help my soul get the dose of beauty it needs to thrive in the cold.
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I want to note that not all art is beautiful. There is a plethora of media that can be described as art but can also tarnish our spirits and relay harmful messages. At the same time, secular art can also transmit beauty and afford us glimpses of God in our everyday life.
When I go to the Art Institute of Chicago, it is a necessity for me to visit the Contemporary Wing. There are pieces there such as Jack Whitten’s Khee II that bring me comfort and excitement each time I visit. The work’s subtle colors and bleary lines, created by a multi-step method involving thin sheets of Japanese rice paper, evokes a monochromatic calmness and luminescent frenzy all at once. Becoming familiar with a piece of beauty – whether it be a painting, song, movie, or book – opens my heart to both connect with the piece and revitalize my own spirit.
When I began graduate school, I struggled with transitioning to a new place where I didn’t have an immediate community. I started playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” every morning when I got dressed, and it soon became a natural part of my routine. Its whimsical rhythm imbued a buoyancy into my day that both soothed and energized me. Just like I sing along to the lyrics of my favorite songs, I began to recognize the phrases and melodies of “Rhapsody in Blue” in the same way. Like a phone call with a close friend who I haven’t seen in a while, listening to this song helps lighten whatever weight is on my heart.
While this song uplifted me, art can also be a way of affirming our suffering and reminding us that we are not alone in it.
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On a mantel in my house is a large painting of Jesus in Gethsemane that my parents got from a great-aunt when she passed away. It has a dark blue hue cast over ominous silhouettes of trees and a moon peeking through dark clouds. It depicts Jesus as the focal point, looking over Jerusalem in profile with an expression of loneliness and anxiety, the impending destiny evident in his solitude. I can see resigned desperation on his face as he fears what is to come, the vast landscape swallowing up his gaze.
This painting is in a room where I often work on my writing. At first glance, the image is jarring and makes me want to look away, to avoid the pain Jesus was feeling so that I prevent similar feelings from arising in myself. The visceral reaction that art can provoke is key to recapturing our humanity when life becomes monotonous. Seeing this painting on a regular basis may alleviate the intensity of such a response, but I think it affords the opportunity to get over the initial shock and explore what is happening beneath the surface: What was Jesus feeling in this moment? Why did the artist choose such a somber scene? What prompted my great-aunt to obtain this painting? What was she going through at the time?
If I walked past this painting in a museum or a church, I would not be able to ponder these questions with the same intensity, turning to them over and over again with a new perspective each time. Becoming intimate with a piece of art not only establishes a connection with the themes and emotions illustrated in the work, but also with the artist and patrons who made the piece come to be.
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Sometimes I find myself thinking about what the expression on Jesus’ face means in the painting, the nuances of melancholy, grief, and acceptance. Other times I think about the artist and my great aunt, and the experiences that led them to create and obtain the painting. This interconnectedness in turn causes me to think about the audiences that my own creative endeavors might reach, and what emotional circumstances may draw them toward my articles.
In his Letter to Artists, St. Pope John Paul II wrote, “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future.” I don’t need to spend exorbitant amounts of money on paintings or sculptures to grow this kind of intimacy with a piece of art. I can save a painting on your phone lock screen, or print it out and post it next to my bathroom mirror. Regardless of the mode, infusing art into my daily life invites me to elevate my most mundane experiences. Art helps me engage with my own humanity, unearthing the beauty that may seem muffled by the dreariness of a mid-winter landscape.