Artists Make Good Theologians
Longing for Mary and for the unsayable in the poetry of Mary Szybist and the art of Hayley Barker.
Hayley Barker, “She does not touch the ground” (Pray the Rosary Daily for World Peace), gouache on pamphlet, 5 ¼ x 3 ¼” (2014). Courtesy Haley Barker
By Sarah Sentilles
I have a confession to make: I think artists might be better at theology than many theologians are. I came to this conclusion while teaching at an art school. My students—painters, photographers, animators, performance artists, illustrators, sculptors—seem to understand instinctively what it took me years to learn: the world is made and can be unmade and remade. As makers, they know their constructions have material effects, and they want to be held accountable for the work their creations do in the world. Unlike many a theologian, my students would never confuse their image of a thing with the thing itself. They are comfortable in the gap, with mystery, with the unfinished—because that’s where art lives.
My professor at Harvard Divinity School, the late theologian Gordon Kaufman, taught me that theologians are artists. Their creations are not works of art to be hung on the wall, he said; rather, they are worlds to be lived in. Kaufman often pointed to Genesis, to the God who speaks words to bring the world into being, who uses clay and breath to make human beings. You see, he’d say. In this story God is a poet and a potter, and even though that doesn’t tell us much about God, it tells us a lot about what the authors thought about artists: They knew their work was world making.
Last spring, I met with two world-making artists, the painter Hayley Barker and the poet Mary Szybist. Both have made recent work about Mary, Jesus’s mother. Barker’s show Apparition Hill was made in response to a visit in 2013 to the village of Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a site of war and trauma. While there, she traveled to Apparition Hill, where people have reported seeing the Virgin Mary since 1981, and where thousands of pilgrims now go to try to see her, too. Szybist’s most recent book of poems, Incarnadine, for which she won the National Book Award in 2013, reimagines incarnation scenes everywhere.
While Barker and Szybist talked about their creative practices, about “repurposing traditions” rather than abandoning them, I couldn’t help but think of the iconoclasts, who aimed their hammers at the parts of the sculptures that mattered most—their open eyes and their noses. Vision and breath. They didn’t destroy the statues. They didn’t leave them unrecognizable. They simply made them incomplete, broken, missing something essential, and the holes, the emptiness, made sure no viewer would forget they were artifice, constructed, lest people get confused, lest people think the painting of the saint is the saint herself.
It is the break that renders the statues holy, makes them point elsewhere—which is similar to how Susan Stewart defines souvenirs in On Longing. “The souvenir is by definition always incomplete,” she notes.1 The material object you bring home is a fragment of the thing itself—a ribbon from a bouquet of flowers, a lock of hair from the body of your beloved, a rock from your favorite mountain—and it must remain a fragment, partial. It must point to the thing, the experience, the place, the body without fully being the thing, the experience, the place, the body. Barker’s Apparition Hill and Szybist’s Incarnadine do exactly this work.
Barker, Szybist, and I met in a Portland gallery where Apparition Hill was hanging. Barker’s exhibition includes drawings she made on the hill, souvenirs she brought home with her and then altered, and paintings she made in her studio when she returned. Barker went to Apparition Hill as a pilgrim of pilgrims, looking not for Mary necessarily, she said, but for the people who were looking for Mary and for the place where they were seeing her.2 Barker was drawn to the landscape itself—to how the longing to see Mary was made visible in the rocks that have been worn away by footsteps. “If you want to see God, you go to the church,” Barker said. “But if you want to see Mary, you go to the mountain. Mary is incarnate. She can show up because she was a body first and foremost.” The pilgrims Barker saw on Apparition Hill seemed to physically need Mary. If they could not touch her themselves, Barker said, they wanted to touch the visionaries who saw her or the landscape where she appears. “They wanted to feel that energy transmitted,” she said.
Mary—or what Barker calls “the longing to see her”—makes an appearance in every painting in Apparition Hill. Barker’s paintings contain explosions of color, layers and layers of paint, allusions to other paintings, palpable energy. The paintings are small, intimate; they are like icons, Barker said, that may or may not be empty. Take, for example, the painting She is gone. Look! The Light! The title (like almost all of the titles in the show) is composed from words the visionaries have used to describe Mary and their experiences in seeing her. These particular words—She is gone. Look! The Light!—come from one of the first sightings. “Mary disappeared and then a bright flashing light took her place,” Barker said. “I tried to convey something of that in the painting.” There are blues and greens, darkness, luminous spray-painted marks of yellow, a dash of red. I can see a figure, but as soon as I move close to the painting, she is, as the title suggests, already gone.
Szybist’s Incarnadine is also about “looking at longing.” In the book’s opening poem, “The Troubadours Etc.,” Szybist writes: “but the troubadours knew how to burn themselves through, / how to make themselves shrines to their own longing. / The spectacular was never behind them.” Szybist writes about a longing for Mary—what she calls “Mary hunger,” a desire for a female mother figure, a desire for nourishment, but also a sometimes unsafe desire for a figure that has done damage to women, who is offered as a vision for female beauty, as a model for behavior that is unreachable and often destructive. “I think it is hard to imagine a figure that has done as much damage to women as this one,” Szybist said. “She is an ideal that is part of patriarchal culture, an impossible ideal, and women suffer all the time when they are measured against it.”
I grew up Catholic and understood at a young age that representations of Mary’s body were designed to teach me something about my own body—whether that lesson was about beauty or purity or virginity or sacrifice or motherhood. Barker echoed similar struggles. “My womb has always been a pretty contentious place in my Catholically raised brain,” she said. Several years ago, after ovarian cancer, after surgery, facing her own mortality, Barker was questioning everything. Seeking comfort, she started going to Mass again. “It lasted for a few months,” she said. “But then I thought, there is no place for me here, for what is left of me. I don’t fit into this paradigm. And that was so upsetting. To feel this last resort was wiped away, which is when I started thinking, can I make Mary something else? Can I make her different? Can I rebuild her or find pieces and make a kind of Frankenstein Mary that is better?” Szybist was asking related questions when writing Incarnadine. “How do you deal with this ideal that so infects the imagination?” she asked. “If women are still valued for their status as virgins and mothers, and if I am neither a virgin nor a mother, then how will I be valued? How will I value myself? I was trying to come to terms with that. It was part of the impetus.”
For Szybist and Barker, making art—poems, altered souvenirs, paintings, drawings—is a way to deconstruct and reconstruct Mary. “People are hungry for her to be reimagined and reenlivened and relevant,” Szybist said. “Just ignoring this imaginative training (that comes via everything from religious doctrine to pop culture) doesn’t make it go away. You actually have to get in and remake it.” Szybist’s goal was not to get rid of one system and “create a whole new mythology.” Instead, she said, she wanted to “get out of the shadow of how singular she was in [her] imagination.” She did so by remaking multiple versions of Mary in order to “diffuse” her—so she would no longer be “such an overshadowing Platonic ideal.”
In Szybist’s poem “Entrances and Exits,” for example, the narrator moves between several scenes: a six-year-old girl’s visit to the narrator’s office; the story of a woman who is lost in the wilderness for two weeks and is then found at the bottom of a canyon because there are ravens circling above her; the experience of looking at Duccio’s The Annunciation (“The slender angel (dark, green-tipped wings folded / behind him) reaches his right hand towards the girl”); the day of conception in Russia when couples are “given time off from work to procreate”; and honeybees. Szybist writes, “Duccio’s subject is God’s entrance into time: time meaning history, meaning a body.” That is Szybist’s subject, too. All of the moments in her poem become possible incarnations—the girl at the desk drinking rice milk, the angel visiting Mary, the woman circled by ravens, the couples taking days off work in Russia—and, Mary Szybist, writing the poem.
Szybist uses a variety of aesthetic approaches for the poems in Incarnadine. There are poems with short lines and no punctuation; there are long-lined poems; there are prose poems; there is a poem with words arranged radially on the page and another poem diagrammed like a sentence. The multiple forms reveal the “desire to chip away at the icon, to reimagine in many ways, in many forms,” Szybist said. “It’s harder to own her. It’s harder to use her.”
Barker, too, uses a multiplicity of aesthetic approaches in Apparition Hill—altered prayer cards and souvenir bags, paintings made with oil paint and spray paint, chalk pastel drawings, and infinite references within each painting to other artists Barker admires. Barker wanted her work to contain both multiplicity and fragmentation, in part because people who saw Mary on Apparition Hill saw her in fragments. “She kept appearing in pieces,” Barker said. “At first her hands would appear and then her face. Or the little cloud that she would eventually show up on.” Though the visions of Mary were simultaneous, Mary looked different to each visionary. Barker wanted to reflect these differences in her art, “to not fix [her] in one place or time or style or mark, but to make [her] diffuse or faceted,” she said.
The process of what Szybist called “chipping away at the icon” is most visible in Barker’s altered souvenirs. “Visible, permanent, and indestructible” (Neon Green Mary with Tape) is a small white paper bag from a gift shop. Barker has painted over the image of Mary on the bag, leaving just the shape of her. For “She does not touch the ground” (Pray the Rosary Daily for World Peace), Barker altered a prayer pamphlet with gouache. Gone is Mary’s face, and gone are the words underneath her. Instead, Mary floats in a sea of blue.
Having a religious experience is often thought of as faith confirming. Though the experience may be impossible to explain, though it may be unspeakable, it is often assumed that it helps people enter a different kind of knowing, a more secure faith. Not so for Barker. While on Apparition Hill, she had a religious experience—and, as a result, Barker said, she has never had more doubt than she does now.
“I saw the sun pulse at 6:40 pm, the time when Mary supposedly shows up every day for the visionaries. Focusing on the sun, with a crowd of international pilgrims,” she said. “I saw the ‘luminous phenomenon’ three times. The first time was the most overwhelming and it totally filled my vision and it lasted for about seven minutes. I was staring at the sun, but it didn’t hurt. I looked away and there was a burning in my forehead. It was amazing.” Barker couldn’t sleep that night. “It was upsetting and beautiful. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I thought if something like this would happen, I would feel changed and filled with love and transcendence or ecstasy or wonder—and instead I was just like, that was some power. That was some serious power and I don’t understand it. It makes no sense to me that we are all here on this hill looking at this thing take place. And I don’t know what this is.”
The experience filled her with questions: “Why this place? Why me? Why the sun? Why did it look that way? What does this have to do with Christianity? And does it have anything to do with Christianity? Is it about just the sun and my body and chemistry and matter and soil and history? Is it about weather and geography?” Szybist added her own questions to Barker’s list: “What is human? What is divine? What is nature? What is sight? What is insight?” For Barker, her paintings “witness failure.” She said, “Religious experience is impossible to represent, so from the very beginning they are not going to succeed. So even through trying, they’re doomed for failure. That said, this is also the juiciest question I can think of to work on in a painting.”
Szybist’s poems focus on the annunciation, which could be understood as a religious experience for Mary, a moment of incarnation. What interests her most about the annunciation—especially how it is represented by visual artists—is the space between the figures. “What’s at the center of [annunciation paintings]? Absence really. It’s the space between. That’s the subject.” Szybist continued, “We can’t really reach each other on some level, in some ways.”
The space between—which can be both a space of doubt and a space of faith—is central to both Szybist’s poems and Barker’s paintings. Szybist is interested in “the question mark.” She said: “When we think we’re connecting with the divine, what’s actually there? And when we think we’re not, same thing.” She continued, “I think there is a longing to say what can’t be said. I think there is also, for me, the longing for there to be something unsayable.”
Theology is, by definition, about what can’t be said, about what can’t be captured—and for me, God is not the only uncapturable thing. There is, rather, a part of every person (every tree, every animal, every rock) that is uncapturable, unsayable, irreducible, resistant, free, unknowable. And because it is unknowable, you cannot name it or depict it or colonize it or paint it or photograph it. It will not fit. In her book Precarious Life, Judith Butler argues that this unknowable part of the other makes a claim on her. “It comes to me from elsewhere, unbidden, unexpected, and unplanned,” she writes. “In fact, it tends to ruin my plans, and if my plans are ruined, that may well be the sign that something is morally binding upon me.”3
The more I teach, the more I write, the more convinced I become that what good art and good theology have in common is embracing failure. In Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure, Sara Jane Bailes frames failure as a kind of resistance, of refusal—a way of challenging capitalism, oppression, and violent representational practices. Bailes uses the word “poetics” to highlight “the idea of making, [to call] attention [to] the principles and techniques that constitute a practice . . . where failure underlies the activity.”4 Influenced by my work with Kaufman, I claim failure as an ethical resource. Kaufman argued that the words humans use to talk about God are human words, “infected with our [own] limitations, interests, and biases.” Words about God always, by definition, fail. People must engage, therefore, in relentless criticism of faith and its symbols, always knowing we might be wrong.5 Kaufman used to put it this way: Just because your version of God is not God, that doesn’t mean you can’t stake your life on it. But it does mean you can’t kill someone over it.
In Vibrant Matter (a book Barker referred to as her “favorite” during our conversation), Jane Bennett writes, “We knowers are haunted . . . by a painful nagging feeling that something’s being forgotten or left out.” She is referring to Adorno’s nonidentity, that “which is not subject to knowledge,” the “discomfiting sense of the inadequacy of representation [that] remains no matter how refined or analytically precise one’s concepts become.” The ethical challenge, Bennett writes, is not to eliminate this “discomforting experience,” but to “accentuate” it. Bennett reminds her reader of the origin of the word absolute: ab means off, and solver means to loosen. The absolute, she writes, is that which is loosened off; it is on the loose—and she argues that it would be a mistake to think “the absolute” refers only to God.6 For Bennett—and for Barker, Szybist, and me, too—everything is on the loose.
Szybist’s poems are filled with a world on the loose—clouds, cornfields, cows, thunder, bees, girls, grass, umbrellas, curtains, skirts, hems, cupboards, tea, yoga mat, books, milk box, fruit, puzzle piece, houseboat, chairs, breath—and it is charged, vibrant. The world is in Barker’s paintings, too—in the paint itself. “I think the paint is the ground and the alchemy and the history of organic and nonorganic matter coming together with my body. . . . It is an incarnation to me.” She continued, “Art is an assemblage of all of the forces that we live in and through, in time and space.”
In painting and poetry, Szybist and Barker open up possibilities for thinking about the entire world as a potential site for incarnation. For Szybist, the annunciation is one moment when “the world changes”—and the change happens “through the female body.” Part of what Szybist embraces in Incarnadine is the idea that there could be other encounters in the world that might also be considered incarnations. “I thought it was a question worth taking up imaginatively,” she said. “What encounters are happening and what are they engendering? What are they making or not making incarnate in the world?” What would it mean to think about encounters between endangered species as incarnations? What does the endangered right whale incarnate? What would it mean to think about war as an incarnation? Technology? Drones? “That’s part of what Jane Bennett writes about so well in Vibrant Matter,” Barker said. “If you do believe that matter is life, all matter, whether it is a plastic bottle or a cigarette butt, then we have to also believe that how we live in the world, piece by piece, has some kind of ethical or ecological repercussion. I like thinking of the potential life between things. I think the world is full of more potentials than we commonly allow it to be.”
I have always been drawn to the image of Moses breaking the tablets. Shattering what was written in stone seems to me the most faithful action he could take. It is a gesture of failure, of transcendence, a way of saying there is more to God than anyone will ever know, a reminder not to mistake our words for God’s words, an invitation to use fragments to make something new. Barker and Szybist pick up where Moses left off. Their work is both shattering and generative. It is an invitation to transcendence. A reminder that there is always more.
In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry calls what artists create—sentences, paintings, performances, photographs, videos—“fragments of world alteration.”7 She argues that by making fragments of world alteration, artists practice the total reinvention of the world. In her National Book Award acceptance speech, Szybist said, “I think often of the words of Paul Connolly who said, ‘I believe it is not arguing well, but speaking differently that changes a culture.’ Poetry is the place where speaking differently is the most prevalent. Speaking differently is what I aspire to.” Speaking differently, painting differently, imagining differently, writing differently—this is the work of theology, too. What would happen if more theologians were to understand themselves as artists and their work as art? What change might be possible? What new world might be made?
- Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke University Press, 1993), 136.
- I wrote about Hayley Barker’s Apparition Hill for Oregon ArtsWatch. Some of the descriptions of her paintings that appear in this article can be found in “The Longing to See: Hayley Barker’s Apparition Hill,” www.orartswatch.org/the-longing-to-see-hayley-barkers-apparition-hill.
- Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso, 2004), 130.
- Sara Jane Bailes, Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure: Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, Elevator Repair Service (Routledge, 2010), xvi.
- Gordon Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Harvard University Press, 1995), 56, 63.
- Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press, 2010), 14.
- Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford University Press, 1985), 171.
Sarah Sentilles, MDiv ’01, ThD ’08, is the author of three books, including her 2011 memoir, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story (HarperOne). She teaches at Pacific Northwest College of Art and lives in Portland, Oregon.