Worship as Romance

This post is written to the church, but I think that non-church-goers will find it interesting and provocative as well. If you’re a person who has wondered what is the point of worship, or why some worshipers behave the way they do in worship, this may help your understanding. Personally, it has been helpful for me to understand worship in terms of romance.

What is Romance?
Of course we must start the conversation here. I make no claims to be an expert on romance, but when I got married, I thought a lot about romance because I wanted to keep my marriage from ever growing stale. As a guy, I found the whole subject to be pretty confusing. Yet I noticed that all women everywhere automatically seemed be experts on the subject. If any woman declared something to be romantic, it was so. Furthermore, women seemed to expect romance from their partners even though none of the guys I asked had a clue about how to deliver what was expected. We guessed it must have something to do with flowers. We hoped it might have something to do with sex.

Was there some secret body of knowledge on romance out there…somewhere?

I thought of a list of things that are considered to be stereotypically romantic:

Flowers…chocolate…dressing up…music…slow dancing…a candlelight dinner with a white tablecloth…poetry. But there seemed to be no consistent rules. Early in our marriage Mollie once told me that she thought a picnic we’d had was romantic. But it wasn’t even a very nice picnic. I was actually kind of embarrassed the whole time. First of all, we were poor art students. Then, it started raining, so we had to have our picnic under an overpass in midtown Kansas City. There was a big graffiti scrawl on the concrete wall behind us that said, ”CAROL IS A LESBIAN,” and I was concerned that we might get mugged at any moment. I guess I was pretty stoked that I had a wife who thought this was romantic, but what was the common thread? From the picnic I learned that it didn’t necessarily have to do with money, or sunshine and bunnies, or an exotic location. (But romance could involve an exotic location.) What’s a clueless guy to do?

Well…I have the answer! Go ahead – test my definition! Tell me any romantic act you have ever heard of, and it will fit my definition; everything from hiring a skywriter to write a lover’s name in the sky, to a simple candlelit meal at home without the kids. There is a common thread. Here it is:

Romance is an expression of loving, thoughtful, focused attention on one’s lover. Within those parameters, almost anything can be romantic.

(My female readers are now saying, “Duh.”)

Do you see how every example listed above fits? If you go out of your way to unexpectedly pick up flowers for your lover, (assuming your lover likes flowers,) do you see how this says, “I thought about you, and I cared enough to do something about it”? Our lame picnic, poor and simple though it was, began with thoughtful preparation and culminated in an afternoon of focused attention, (with a little spontaneity thrown in.) Romance has less to do with the specific material gift or activity than with the thought and intentionality of expressing one’s love.

Allow me to elaborate on the definition:

“Romance is an expression…
If it is not expressed, it’s not romantic. It might be a great idea, it might be loving feelings, but it mustn’t stop there. If you write your lover a note expressing your love, but you never give her the note, that’s not romantic. This means that romance involves making oneself vulnerable; but that’s part of the adventure of love.

…of loving, thoughtful, focused attention…
Romance is about transcendence, meaning, going beyond the everyday, ordinary, busyness of life. Yes, nice restaurants do in fact have electricity; the white tablecloths and candles are there to help to create a transcendent atmosphere. Romantic restaurants do not have a big freaking TV screen with a football game playing. It’s the same with dressing up; it says, “You are worth taking the time to get cleaned up for.” Dressing beyond the ordinary makes the statement that your lover is special to you. The point is focused attention. Therefore, talking to a third party or playing games on your phone during a date is not romantic.

Mollie inadvertently brought the idea of focused attention into focus for me early in our marriage. One Saturday, we’d been running errands together for a couple of hours, doing our necessary stuff. On the way home she said something like, “We should spend some time together. I feel like I haven’t seen you in a while.” I cocked my head, puzzled, seeing as we’d just spent 3 hours together. But we had been focused together on our errands. She was talking about set-apart, focused attention on each other. Running errands together is better than nothing, but a romantic relationship must at times transcend the daily stuff of life.

…on one’s lover.
At the risk of stating the obvious, romantic expression demonstrates an intimate knowledge of one’s lover, and that’s part of what makes it romantic. It stems from thoughts of the specific person, not generic techniques from a book, or a demonstration of how cool you are. If your lover is allergic to flowers, it’s not romantic to give her flowers. If she’s trying to lose weight, she might not consider a big box of chocolates to be a thoughtful gift. If the skywriter (who is really a proxy for you,) misspells her name in the sky, that’s not ideal. Love, romantic or otherwise, by definition is selflessness. Narcissism is at odds with romance. The power of love is selflessness.

What does any of this have to do with worship?
Possibly nothing, especially if you have a conception of Christianity that stems from religious tradition. However, if you place the authority of the Bible above human religious tradition, you will see parallels between romance and worship. To begin with, the Bible describes a relational Creator who desires relationship with us, and who has demonstrated His love for us by restoring communion through Jesus. In fact both Israel and the church are described as a bride (Isa 61:10; 62:4,5; Eph 5:31,32.) Jesus referred to Himself as a Bridegroom (Mat 9:15; Mk 2:19; Lk 5:34.)

Consider again the idea of transcendence – meaning, that which goes beyond our everyday, ordinary experience. I’ve previously written about how the arts speak the language of transcendence. I would now add that worship is an area of transcendence in exactly the same ways that romance is, and we see this transcendence created through the arts in exactly the same ways.

Consider our same list of stereotypical romantic trappings: flowers…chocolate…dressing up… dancing…music…a candlelight dinner with a white tablecloth…poetry. Excluding chocolate, can we not all say we’ve seen all of these things in a church? Can we not think of the communion table as the candlelit dinner with a white tablecloth – especially if we recall Jesus the Bridegroom’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me”? As a younger man, in my search for pure authenticity in my pursuit of God, I tended to reject these things as “religious trappings.” I saw the candles, the darkened sanctuary, incense, robes, dressing up, stained glass, and music as an attempt to “conjure up” God; perhaps even a substitute for the Real Thing. I still suppose this may be true for some people.

But now I see that these things can also be romantic expressions of love toward God.

In the same way that a lover makes himself presentable, and sets the table and lights the candles in anticipation of a set-apart, transcendent evening with the object of his affection, so the church can approach God in worship in this way. As with a romantic human relationship, such expression toward God begins with a singularly devoted heart. In fact, any romantic expression, be it directed toward God or people, is empty without a loving heart behind it. God has never valued religion over relationship:

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” ( – the prophet Hosea 6:6.)

“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” ( – Jesus, Matt 15:8,9.)

In the same way that one’s loving, romantic expression must aim to satisfy the desires of a specific lover, so our worship must aim to satisfy the desires of our Creator, who is the lover of our souls. Whether we worship underground, in a humble house of worship, or in a lavish cathedral; whether our worship is private, corporate, spontaneous, or liturgical and ritualistic, Jesus has told us what the Father desires in worship:

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘You must be born again’…The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 3:6,7; 4:23, 24.)

I suspect that God created the unity in diversity of monogamous marriage, not only to reflect His nature, but also to give us a concrete help in understanding our “marriage relationship” with Him. This relationship, after all, must be the primary one, since it is eternal, while our human marriages will come to an end (Eph 5:31,32; Matt 22:29-32.)

Graphic Design: The Thinking Heart Project

I recently completed a graphic design and illustration project that is worth sharing. One of the interesting aspects of doing graphic design work is learning about the subject of one’s commissioned work. The Thinking Heart project is centered around the life and loves of Esther “Etty” Hillesum, a young Jewish Dutch woman (1914-43) who perished in the holocaust at Auschwitz. She left behind writings in the form of letters and a journal, which have been published in the book, Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life – The Diaries and Letters from Westerbork.

Martin Steingesser, Portland, Maine’s First Poet Laureate (2007-09,) has created what he calls “poetic variations of Etty’s words for performance by an ensemble of two performers and a cellist.” The ensemble has captured their spoken word performance on a disc. It was for the graphics of this CD project that I was commissioned. Steingesser’s ensemble has been invited to perform The Thinking Heart at the International Etty Hillesum Congress in Belgium in January of 2014, in celebration of Etty Hillesum’s 100th birthday.

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Cover art: I couldn’t help but notice that Etty’s hairline suggested a heart shape. Normally I would automatically reject the heart motif as cutesy and overused, but given the title of the project, it seemed too fitting to ignore. Martin and I worked on keeping it subtle.

A Glimpse of Etty Hillesum

In the summer of 1939, near the village of Westerbork, war-neutral Dutch authorities opened a camp to receive Jewish refugees coming from Germany. The first refugees arrived on October 9th of that year. Tragically, when Nazi forces later invaded the Netherlands, they eventually took control of the camp, and turned Westerbork into an official “transit camp.” By the end of the war some 103,000 Jews were transferred from Westerbork to Auschwitz or Sobibor, in Poland.

During the unfolding of the war’s events, Etty refused to go into hiding, choosing instead to provide support for the people preparing themselves for transport. She wished to “share in her people’s fate.” Etty secured a position with the Westerbork section of the Jewish Council in July of 1942. A year later, when the special status of the Jewish Council was ended, half of the personnel became camp internees. When given the choice to return to Amsterdam, she chose to become a camp internee and remain with her father, mother, and brother, who were interned there. Etty and her family were put to death at Auschwitz within months of her decision.

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Below is a detail of the inside art including Etty’s words…

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“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.” – Etty Hillesum

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You can learn more about Etty Hillesum at www.pilgrimagetotheheart.org
There is also a Facebook page, Pilgrimage to the Heart

New Painting: Street Band – Berlin

I don’t want to give too much away in advance of our show that opens in November, because I want you to come to it. But by way of a preliminary announcement, I’d like to share a couple of new pieces I just finished, and describe how the exhibit is developing.

Mollie and I are calling the show, Zeitgeist: Paintings Inspired by Germany. (Zeitgeist is a German word meaning spirit of the times.) The show will open at the Loveland Museum-Gallery on November 9 in the downstairs Foote Gallery, and will remain open until February 23, 2014. On the evening of January 10, Mollie and I will be doing a joint demonstration in separate media. She will demo re-purposed house paint, her primary medium. I will demo watercolor, my secondary medium, (because it is so fun to watch!) We’ll take turns talking and painting while the other’s work is drying. We really don’t know if this will be fun, or chaotic and dizzying for people, but we’d like for you to come and find out.

The Zeitgeist exhibit will present work representing both the external landscape of northern Germany and visions from our internal mindscapes. Some views were painted en plein air on location, other pieces were inspired by people, places, or art we experienced. My crazy wife is busily working on 3 large paintings that will not fit in our van (sigh.)

Following are two pieces I recently completed, both inspired by our visit to Berlin. I posted earlier about a midnight stroll I took in Berlin one night when I was too excited to sleep. These pieces came from that night as well.

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Street Band – Berlin
Scott Freeman, oil, 14×16 in.

I enjoy painting urban nocturnes because of the isolated, lively colors that one simply doesn’t get in the daylight. This scene of a street band is a small painting that reflects the spirit of Berlin that I saw that night. Just a group of guys playing music on Alexanderplatz, (plaza) the site where the largest anti-government protest in East Germany history occurred, just days before the fall of the Berlin wall in November of 1989.

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One of my favorite graffiti images from Berlin.

The second piece, below, is an appropriation – an assemblage of street art, none of which originated with me. I hope I didn’t commit any crimes in collecting these pieces of urban subculture. Certain areas of Berlin were covered in Graffiti and plastered with posters and announcements. I was kind of keeping my eyes open for a cool poster from off the street, but one that I could remove intact without being an inconsiderate jerk. Down an alley, I was happy to finally discover the pink elephant poster which had mostly peeled off the wall because of the rain. So I helped it off the rest of the way. I love the juxtaposition of the anti-capitalist blog leaflet ( the wolf) over the Club Maxxim image – a wonderfully ironic statement for pluralism and freedom.

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Animals of Berlin
Appropriation, Scott Freeman

xxxxxx

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Did I Mention That My Wife is a Great Painter?

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“All About the Ladder”
36×36 inches, Mollie Walker Freeman

Living an unconventional life has little merit in and of itself; for example, choosing to measure your wealth by the number of cats in your house. But my wife is unconventional in all the right ways. She has the ability to look at the world and see options that are outside of the box. If such an option seems right to her she is willing and strong enough to run with it, even though it may go against cultural (or sub-cultural) expectations.

After moving from Iowa to Georgia as a teen, she tested out of high school 2 years early after dropping out, because she found conditions at her new school to be regressive, both in terms of academics and race relations. Then she enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute. She started out majoring in the ceramics department, but her instructors urged her to transfer to painting, since she kept making platters and painting on them. Eventually Mollie and I studied under the same painting instructor, Wilbur Niewald, who was a big influence on both of us. Of course, over the years our work has taken divergent directions, though we generally like the same artists, and in many ways share a similar artistic vision.

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Mollie is perhaps best known for her paintings of dancers in motion. Some of my favs:
Left – “Awake My Soul”, 24×36 inches; Middle – “Exult”, 36×48 inches; Right – “Joy Dance”, 24×36 inches

We’ve had five children together, which caused both of us to mostly shelve painting for a number of years. I pursued graphic design and illustration work in an attempt to bring in a regular income. Eventually I landed a decent job as an artist at Hallmark Cards. Mollie, in her usual outside-of-the-box way, home schooled our kids for several years, which we believe was a great investment in our children. However our inner city neighborhood seemed like a war zone at times, and we began praying and looking for an opportunity to relocate. Also, Independently of each other, we both eventually felt it was time to start painting again. During our last couple of years in Kansas City, several other interests crystallized for both of us as well, including a great interest in the Hebrew roots of our faith, dance as an art form, and a desire to incorporate the arts into worship. When Hallmark went through a restructuring, I was downsized, and we leapt at the chance to move to Colorado to attempt a living as full time artists.

We’ve been here some 12 years now, and it has been a wild roller coaster ride. In many ways, everything we had hoped to do when we moved here has come to pass, except that we didn’t intend to live in grinding poverty for so long. Many dear friends have helped us through the many low spots, for which we are very grateful. Mollie became quite adept at stretching money, squeezing water from a stone, and keeping several plates in the air without dropping any. Most recently, at nearly age 50, she went back to school and received certification as a holistic health coach from the Institute of Integrated Nutrition (IIN) based in Manhattan, New York. This coincides with another longstanding interest of hers, though she plans to continue her painting as well.

A few years ago, outside-of-the-box Mollie developed a process and technique using re-purposed house paint, and this is now her primary medium. She doesn’t like the stiffness of acrylic paint, and she likes the fact that she can get leftover house paint for free at the recycle center. So it’s actually a very green medium, (even when it’s red, yellow, or blue.) She works on a surface heavily textured with prior layers of paint. When our kids were smaller, at times she would have one of them painting next to her with the understanding that she would paint over their painting later. This was cuter than snot, and I wish I had gotten a picture of it.

People sometimes ask if we ever work on paintings together. Not really. Since we each approach painting quite differently now, that would probably be an exercise in frustration. We definitely critique each other’s work though, which makes us both better painters, and we are often in the studio together. She drives me crazy because she leaves her brushes standing in the paint water overnight, and she sings over the music; and I drive her crazy because I take over the whole studio so that there’s no place to even sit. She has this idea that she wants to paint enormous canvases, and I apparently have a practical bent that wants to know how we will transport them since they won’t fit in our van.

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Worship Painting: Left – “Tree of Life”, 36×36 inches; Right – “Storm”, 18×24 inches

A couple of weekends a month Mollie does something called “worship painting” at Rez Church, a local church known for its expressive worship. This means that she shows up with a blank canvas, (in her case a heavily textured one.) Then she executes a painting during the worship time. This is simply one more avenue by which worshipers may connect with God. Sometimes Mollie doesn’t know what she will paint before she arrives. Sometimes she prays for inspiration beforehand, and arrives with an image in mind, or perhaps a color feel. Often she is pleased to find that her painting speaks to someone in the congregation quite specifically.

Mollie is a lover of God above all else, and I love that about her. She has read the Bible completely through each year for the past 17 years or so. It has been sheer joy to have a life partner who is so in sync with me on so many levels, yet, like all good friends, she doesn’t tell me only what I want to hear. She is full of wisdom, insight, and character. She’s a disciplined, hard worker without being an unrelenting psycho.  It has not been easy for us to remain committed to work as fine artists in a prolonged economic downturn, but she has “learned the secrets of the Fire Swamp.” (Not that we prefer to live there.) We’ve often said things would’ve been easier had one of us been a doctor or a lawyer; except that neither of us wanted to be the doctor or lawyer. So my guess is we’ll keep doing this for as long as we can.

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Commissioned work by Molle Walker Freeman
Left – “Much Forgiven”, 16×20 inches; Right – “One Thing”, 16×20 inches

Mollie has a better grasp of the English language than I do. Sometimes when she unexpectedly does something I like, I’ll say, “Wow. You’re, like, a dream wife!” She will always smile and correct me, “No, I am a dream wife.” So she is.

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Left – Mollie’s painting of me: “My Painter”, 24×24 inches,oil
Right – My painting of Mollie: “Dread Head”, 12×16 inches, oil

You can read Mollie’s blogs, (which are less lengthy than mine,) at:
http://www.MollieSong.wordpress.com  (health)
http://www.repurposefulpainter.com (art)

The Perils of Peeving a Plein Air Painter

I ‘m not jealous of Jeff Legg. Really.

Sure, a Jeff Legg painting sells for about 12 times what a Scott Freeman painting of comparable size sells for, but I’m not jealous. It is true that Jeff bears the title of “Signature-Master-Royal-Highness-Whoop-tee-Doo-Painter,” (or something like that,) in the OPA, an organization that has never accepted any of my work in either its national or regional shows. But how could I be jealous of a guy who would do something like what I’m about to tell you?

For the past several years I’ve participated in an autumn plein air painting event in Estes Park, Colorado. Like me, Jeff is pretty much a local guy, when he’s not off winning top awards, or rolling around in the storehouse full of 100 dollar bills, which I assume he has somewhere. Jeff is not primarily a plein air painter. My guess is that he does the plein air event just for the fun of it, and to enjoy the camaraderie of little people, like myself. For a painting god, Jeff is a humble and down-to-earth guy.

At these national plein air painting festivals there is an event that bears the embarrassing name of “The Quick Draw” event. (Get it? Like a cowboy? ‘Cause a lot of these festivals happen out West?) Except that we don’t draw. We paint. Some organizers have noticed this and called their events “The Quick Paint,” which is only slightly less embarrassing, because it’s still awkward but without the clever, cowboy double entendre. But now nothing can ever be done about this because Quick Draw events are big crowd pleasers and a lot of fun, and the plein air crowd is familiar with the term. I think they should call it “The Stress Out” event.

The way it works is, all of the participating artists gather together at one location and set up their easels. Usually there are a couple of models dressed up and posed, but artists are free to paint whatever they want to. The caveat is that we can’t work from photographs, and we must all start with a bare canvas.

We start when the gun goes off. (OK…the whistle, but this is theoretically the only time an actual gun could be used in the event. If they’re going to call it a Quick Draw, I think they should at least use a gun, so I’m going to say “gun.”) An hour and a half later, when the gun goes off again, we lay our brushes down, frame our completed paintings, and the work goes up for public auction. It’s all live plein air and alla prima; often impasto and sometimes contrapposto with chiaroscuro, but only rarely trompe l’ oeil. With Antipasto typically following. (This sentence exhausts my entire repertoire of pretentious French and Italian art terms.)

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Shots from a Quick Draw event in Estes Park, Colorado – from left to right:
1) Getting started 2) A view of the crowd & fellow artists 3) FOCUS! 4) This is the stage of the painting where I wonder if I should give up painting & be a greeter at Walmart 5) Nearing the end.
– photography by Carrie Eagan

Quick Draw events are actually quite fascinating if you are interested in art. Patrons can walk from artist to artist and see how different artists approach the craft of painting. Often little crowds will gather around artists as their paintings begin to take shape. It’s quite fun. It is not forbidden to feed or talk to the artists. Plein air painting is kind of my thing, and I’ve won several awards at Quick Draw events. Since I’ve done quite a bit of portrait painting, I usually paint a model because the public seems to enjoy watching a portrait take shape.

Jeff Legg, on the other hand, is known for his sumptuous still life painting. One year he brought his own blue vase and a cut cantaloupe to the Quick Draw event, and set up a small still life on a rock ledge. I thought this was a cop out, but I didn’t say anything. But one of the participating gallery owners did say something. The complaint was along the lines of, “That’s not fair because he might’ve painted that vase before.”

This was a ridiculous complaint, because all of the landscape painters had painted mountains and trees before and nobody was complaining. Apparently, Jeff quietly made a mental note of the complaint.

It didn’t help matters that Jeff’s painting won an award. Third place. I took second. Just sayin’. Yes, the OPA reject placed ahead of the awesome OPA Master painting god. But in all fairness I should probably mention that my starting bid was $400, and his was $2400. And he sold his. Not bad for an hour and half of work. Then he went over and tried to buy it back from the buyer because he could’ve gotten more for it in a gallery, which only further proves that Jeff Legg inhabits a different reality than do I.

After the Antipasto we all went home, Estes Park closed down, snow fell, spring came, summer went, and the next plein air event rolled around. The morning of the Quick Draw event arrived. The park in downtown Estes buzzed excitedly and filled up with art lovers. Jeff Legg arrived and set up his easel in front of a freaking bush. When the starting gun went off, Jeff stared into the bush and began to paint intently.

As the hour wore on, the hushed voices of onlookers expressed puzzlement that Jeff seemed to be painting not a bush, but a turquoise vase and cantaloupe on a ledge! They stared into the bush, but there was no cantaloupe. No vase. They walked around the bush. It was like some sort of smart-alecky miracle! For me it was one of the finest moments in the history of poorly named events. I don’t think Jeff won an award that year because everyone was so confused, but more importantly, he didn’t break any rules!

I spoke with Jeff a couple of years later, trying to express how that story has made my life better. He humbly justified his actions, saying, “Well…all painting is done from memory. I just remembered what I was painting for a longer period than everyone else.” Brilliant. How could I ever be jealous of Jeff Legg?

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Painting the model during a Quick Draw event in Sedona, AZ.
– photo by Tim Poly

I regret that I have no photos of Jeff, but you can view his work at http://www.jefflegg.com (There is no charge for viewing Jeff’s work online.)

Paintings: My 2013 Governor’s Art Show Entries & Their Stories

The 22nd annual Colorado Governor’s Invitational Art Show and Sale opens April 27th in Loveland, Colorado, at the Loveland Museum Gallery. Following are my four entries and their stories. For those who live nearby, in conjunction with the show I will also be performing a new Art Theatre (live painting) piece at the Bill Reed Middle School auditorium at 2pm on Saturday, the 27th. Admission is free for this event but you must have a ticket. For info, visit: http://www.governorsartshow.org.

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“Luneburg – Co-existence of Centuries”
oil on canvas, 12 x 36 inches, 2013 – Scott Freeman

 Luneburg – Co-existence of Centuries:

Luneburg is an historic town in Northern Germany, officially founded in 956. Luneburg’s salt trade made it an important and wealthy town during the Middle Ages. Unlike many German towns, it was left undamaged during World War 2, and its old town square has many well-preserved buildings, the oldest of which dates to around 1400. Pictured in the painting is St. Michael’s Church, which opened in 1409 and schooled Johann Sebastian Bach for a time. J. S. sang soprano in the boys choir at St. Michael’s.

The painting was created from a plein air study I did while in Germany last summer. When I set out, I had a particular view in mind that I wanted to paint; a view that I had noticed the day before while touring the city. But as is sometimes the case, when I arrived with my painting gear at the location, the view wasn’t as inspiring as I had remembered it. I took a walk and found the above view down an alley a few blocks away. Of all the cityscape compositions I’ve stumbled across in my painting career, this is my favorite so far. I could give my reasons for this if anyone is interested.

This painting was actually painted for an upcoming art exhibit that Mollie and I are preparing. The show will go up in November at the Loveland Museum-Gallery, in the Foote Gallery, and will be themed around our Germany trip.

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“Calm Before the Storm”
oil on linen, 24 x 30 inches, 2012 – Scott Freeman

 Calm Before the Storm:

A few years ago I illustrated a children’s book. I happened to be looking over some photos I had shot for that project, and realized there was some great reference there. This painting is a reworking of one of those photos. I think painting and music compliment each other in many ways. In addition, many musical instruments are beautifully shaped and crafted.

For years I was a purist, refusing to work from photos. While I still prefer working from life, I definitely no longer feel constrained to only paint from life, and I feel that my earlier practice was good foundation for whatever I want to do next.

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“Jammin'”
oil on panel, 14 x 24 inches, 2012 – Scott Freeman

Jammin’ :

One night I was enjoying a house concert in my neighborhood when I realized that the composition and lighting on the guitar player were extraordinary. I asked to borrow someone’s camera and shot a few photos. This painting is the result.

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“Monument Valley Roadscape”
oil on panel,11 x 14 inches, 2011 – Scott Freeman

Monument Valley Roadscape:
On the way home from a plein air festival in Sedona, Arizona, I drove through Monument Valley for the first time, and knew I wanted to paint the buttes in the valley. I secretly hope this painting doesn’t sell as it’s one of my favorite landscape paintings to date.

Art, Transcendence, and Community

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Why are we drawn to the arts? I believe a primary reason is that the arts speak the language of transcendence. The experiences we most look forward to in life are moments of transcendence. Here I define transcendence broadly to simply mean: that which is beyond our ordinary or everyday experience.

In other words, we all look forward to moments and experiences that are set apart from the “everydayness” and necessary routines of life. These transcendent experiences may be moments of intimacy, beauty, celebration, romance, peace, spiritual connection, culinary satisfaction, physical exertion, or aesthetic pleasure. But whatever we enjoy most in life, chances are it can be described as a crystallization of our heart’s desires; an uninterrupted experience set apart and concentrated around what we enjoy most.

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This kind of transcendence defines the arts.

Music is transcendent sound. Our everyday experience bombards us with sound. But a skillful musician can take a lifeless instrument and produce an intentional arrangement and flow of sound that excites our emotions and lifts our spirits.

Using only the human voice, a skillful vocalist can carry the listener to a place of reflection, joy, or tears, powerfully touching the heart.

Poetry is transcendent language; the careful orchestration of words that evokes imagery, thoughts, and feelings in a way that everyday speech does not.

Dance is transcendent, trained movement. A well-trained dancer can hold an audience captive through the movement of his/her body, creating an aesthetic experience that takes us to a completely different place than does watching a street full of commuters on their way to work.

Painting is the transcendent arrangement of color and material. A gifted painter begins with a blank canvas and composes the elements of raw color into a nuanced visual statement that may touch our emotions.

Installation Art is the transcendent arrangement of material –  this material may even be the “everyday stuff” around us. But by human creativity and ingenuity it is arranged in such a way that it transforms the material and space, often creating a spectacular experience for the viewer.

And so it goes with all art forms. By definition the arts operate in the realm of transcendent experience.

I once had the pleasure of being part of a large ballet production. Having previously only watched ballet from the seats, watching from the wings as dancers came on and off stage only a few feet away from me was a completely new perspective. It was intensely human and earthy. I knew what the audience was seeing – beautifully choreographed stage-lit dancers, “effortlessly” leaping and spinning through space. But I was close enough to them to feel the rush of air as they blew past me, and I could see the glint of sweat on their muscles. I could hear their breath and the thud of pointe shoes on the floor as they entered the wings, and I could see them focus and gather themselves back up as they prepared to enter the line of sight of the audience again.

For me it was like looking at the backside of a tapestry, or seeing a magician’s secrets. There really was no magic at all. Just human creativity, talent, and hard work, yet the end result was magical.

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This is how art is produced – by a combination of creative inspiration, talent, and hard work.  When we see artistic genius expressed, it may seem magical and astounding, perhaps because what we are seeing is something beyond our own known abilities. Because on some level we are all familiar with the ingredients of art – we’ve all plucked a string on an instrument, or attempted to paint a picture – when we experience deeply moving artistic expression, we innately know we’re sharing in the best of what human beings can bring. Our appreciation completes the process. We can embrace and enjoy the experience, and be enriched by another person’s transcendent expression.

So in speaking the language of transcendence, the arts are also communal and relational. Most art forms are experienced in a group setting. Even a solitary individual viewing an art museum exhibit is part of a larger group of patrons. Artistic expressions are experiences that we give to each other and receive from each other as part of the human community. Being on either the giving end, the receiving end, or both, is something that we can all have the joy of being a part of.

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“Calm Before the Storm”
oil painting by Scott Freeman, 24×30″

All photos under copyright by Scott Freeman, 2013

New Painting: My Midnight Walk Through Berlin

During a trip to Berlin last summer, after a day of touring I was too energized by the history of the place to sleep. So I took a walk around the city after midnight. Berlin was still alive and full of color, music, and street performers. The painting below is a result of my late night walk. I’m also including some of my (lame) photography so you can get a sense of the color.

I loved Berlin. Is there another city in the world with such a crazy history? And yet it’s a story that ends well.

At the end of the Second World War, occupied Germany was divided into 4 zones by the victorious Allied Forces. America, France, and Britain, turned their zones back over to German control. The Soviet Union did not. The eastern half of Germany became the misnamed German Democratic Republic, disappearing behind the Iron Curtain for over 40 years. As for the city of Berlin, half of the city – the western half – became a conspicuous island of freedom and prosperity far inside the Iron Curtain. Eventually the GDR erected a wall across Berlin to keep East Germans from defecting to West Berlin. The Berlin Wall became a symbol of the oppression and failure of communism, and the differences between the western half and eastern half of the city grew stark over the years as West Berliners enjoyed the fruits of freedom.

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The night I took my midnight stroll, these thoughts were keeping me awake. The physical wall went up when I was one year old – 1961. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, I saved the newspaper headlines. But actually standing in Berlin with native Germans and hearing their stories was an amazing experience for me. Today a reunified Germany is going about the task of rebuilding the scarred city with remarkable intelligence. But it wasn’t that long ago, and the butt-ugly communist architecture is still visible. The hotel where my wife and friends were staying was behind the Iron Curtain just 25 years ago. My midnight walk took me to Alexanderplatz (plaza), site of the largest protest in East German history which occurred a few days before the wall came down. When I arrived, the Platz was full of people, but they were enjoying the night, not protesting.

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I speak very little German, but I think this was a comedy show. “Lacht” means “laughs”.

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Rising up in the background you can see the Fernsehturm (television tower) built by the GDR in the 1960s. Our German hosts told us a fun story about this tower, which I will share in my next post. The Fernsehturm remains the tallest structure in Germany.

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I don’t know what these guys were doing, but they had a large crowd. Something with a female volunteer and fire. The sign makes a pun – Bierlin. “Bier” is “beer”.

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These guys were playing music on the street. They were very patient with a drunken guy in the crowd who kept trying to take the microphone. I never saw a policeman while I was there. There were women out alone riding bikes. I’m only going from my impressions, but it seemed a very friendly and safe environment.

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Outside shopping. I wish my camera had captured the true colors.

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When I saw this blue and violet night cafe scene I knew I had to paint it. Again, the colors were extraordinary. I wish I could’ve painted this view on location “en plein air”, but it just wasn’t practical. Below is the painting that resulted, and following that is a detail of the same painting. Mollie and I are booked to do a two-person show in November of 2013 at the Loveland Museum-Gallery in Loveland, Colorado. The show will be themed around our Germany trip, and this painting was painted for the upcoming show.

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“Nighttime Cafe”
oil, 24 x 30 inches, Scott Freeman

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Snapshots From My Plein Air Painting Adventures

Some of my life’s most satisfying moments – both creatively and spiritually – have occurred while I’ve been painting alone in the mountains. The incandescent moments are rare. Plein air painting can be physically demanding and full of frustration. My plein air adventures usually include fighting the wind, or trying not to get fried by the high altitude sun, or eaten by insects. Or trying to avoid hypothermia as the temperamental mountain weather plunges, or staying hydrated when it rises. Many times I’ve finally been forced to shut the easel and wait out a rain, hail, graupel, or snow storm. I’m not complaining. This is what I signed up for when I moved to Colorado 11 years ago to become a plein air painter. I’m just describing how it is.

When I’m at an exhibit with my fellow painters, and we’re all cleaned up and dry and eating appetizers in an air-conditioned art gallery, it must seem to our friendly patrons that we’ve been out playing all week!

“Plein air” is French for “open air”. Plein air painting has become something of an American art movement over the past couple of decades with plein air festivals popping up all over the country. I first learned about plein air painting during my 10 year stint working at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri. Hallmark had a wonderful library on site, staffed by some smart ladies who purchased the coolest books having to do with the arts and creativity. I spent a lot of time there and eventually stumbled across the movement. I soon identified some favorite painters, whose work I looked forward to seeing in the magazines, foremost among them being Matt Smith.

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From time to time Hallmark would reward their artists with “creative renewal” trips. One year I was selected to go on week long trip with five other guys to a cabin in the Conejos region in the Colorado Rockies, near the New Mexico border. I have loved the Colorado landscape since childhood. Our family used to vacation there every summer at my mom’s cousin’s working ranch in Canon City when I was a boy. Everything about those vacations was magical for me, but I was a kid then, and had not yet begun to think about painting.

This Hallmark trip would be my first chance to try my hand at plein air painting in the landscape I loved, and I was stoked. When the time came, just being out in that landscape again was wonderful in itself. I lugged my gear out into the mountains, not really knowing what I was doing, and my first couple of attempts were pretty fruitless. But then one evening I had the first of those transcendent painting experiences. I was standing on a high bluff, which had taken some doing to get to with my gear. I had already been rained on and submerged in fog, and was wondering if I was wasting my time. Eventually I was able to start up again, and I got lost in my painting. It was late afternoon and I soon noticed that the air temperature was perfect. A whisper of a breeze lightly rustled the million pine trees around me and carried their scent along. As I was looked out across miles of space, the sun’s last light began to color the mountains pink and violet. In the canyon below me some coyotes began to call. I was hooked.

There are a lot of things to do in the landscape: hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding, camping, photography, rock-climbing, floating, fishing, hunting. I enjoy many of these things. However, most of them entail moving through the landscape to some degree. I once realized that of all the things I can do in the outdoors, for me plein air painting amounts to the ultimate act of appreciation. It requires me to spend hours taking in one selected spot in nature; hours dedicated to the study and discovery of what I’m seeing. As the small, wonderful revelations unfold, in one sense I become part of the environment in a way that doesn’t happen when I am moving through the landscape. This means I get to see things that others don’t often see.

I’ll tell you one of my favorite painting memories. A few years ago I was in a competition in Rocky Mountain National Park near my home. Afternoon is usually my favorite time of day to paint because the light can be quite dramatic, and I had decided to start a painting on Trail Ridge Road in the Park. Trail Ridge is the highest continuous road in the nation, at around 1100 to 1200 feet in elevation. The ecosystem at this altitude is quite different from lower elevations, and looks somewhat barren and otherworldly. It even sounds different up there. This is the region known as “tree line”, the environmental limit beyond which large trees cannot grow. The stunted trees that do live here struggle to survive and are buffeted year round by extreme wind and cold. They are called “krummholz” (crooked wood) and are known by their twisted shapes and scarcity of limbs on the windward side.

This particular evening I had been painting for a couple of hours when the sun disappeared behind some low clouds. The tourists on the overlook began to get into their cars and drive away, and soon I was left alone, small and invisible on an enormous tundra field. In front of me the tundra stretched out before dropping precipitously down into a richly wooded pine forest. Rising up beyond that was a wall of high mountains, bare at this altitude, except for the glacier patterns that I had been painting. This particular evening was quite still. In this landscape and altitude even the smallest sounds carry unusually far, and I was listening to the picas call out. My painting wasn’t going well, and I worked feverishly as I knew that soon the little light that remained would be gone.

Suddenly I looked up to see that an enormous herd of elk had silently emerged from below the drop-off. They covered the field in front of me, feeding on the tundra and slowly meandering toward me, completely unconcerned about my presence. Soon they crossed the road and I was surrounded by them. At just that moment the full intensity of the setting sun broke through a gap in the clouds so that it seemed to be resting on the mountaintops. It bathed the landscape and elk herd in a spectacular golden light, stretching their hundred elongated shadows across the landscape and into the darkening distance. My brush was still as I stood silently, thanking God that I could be there at that moment.

That is why I paint the landscape on location. While plein air painting no longer makes up the bulk of my work, I think I will always continue to paint outdoors for the joy of being and painting in the midst of creation.

Following are a few examples of my plein air works with a few notes if their stories are interesting. Unfortunately, since a lot of my plein air work is done at festivals, I often don’t get good documentation of the work before it sells. All of these are oils.

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Thunderhead Over Lumpy Ridge – 8×10”

A little afternoon study painted from the town of Estes Park during the Plein Air Rockies competition.

ImageDawning Light – 18×20”
This chapel, near Rocky Mountain National Park on Hwy 7, is one of the most beautifully situated pieces of architecture I know of. It appears to emerge from the rock. The story behind it is that a local Monsignor saw a comet hit the earth one evening in 1916. The next day he went looking for it and instead came upon this enormous boulder. He determined to build a chapel on it. After nearly 20 years, and fighting with the Colorado Highway department to keep the rock intact, his dream became a reality in 1936.

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Mustang – 6×4”
I never do animals, but I was at an artists party at a ranch and we were supposed to paint. So I followed this guy around, talking to him and trying to get him to stand still. He didn’t.

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Mountain Portrait – 5×7”
Of the places I’ve been, Sedona, Arizona is probably my favorite place to paint the natural landscape. The geologic formations and colors are amazing, yet they rise out of a lush environment. This little painting was done from the street on the opening day of a plein air festival.

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Evening Concert – 18×20”
Cathedral Rock is supposedly the most photographed site in the country. Indeed, to complete this painting I returned to the site 3 times, and every evening there would already be photographers there, setting up and having a little party. We were all waiting for the sunset to light up Cathedral Rock during the last few minutes of daylight.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Sedona, there is a very visible interest in UFOs, energy vortexes, and all things New Age. Cathedral Rock happens to be one of the main “energy vortex sites,” and I happened to be painting this piece on Oct 31rst. Under a full moon. Just sayin’. At one point I looked up from my painting to see the opposite bank of the river, (pictured here,) covered with about 30 people, kneeling with their faces to the ground. I don’t know what they were doing but it seemed very Sedona-ish.

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Bell Tower – 10×20”
I had a long skinny canvas that I needed to use, and this seemed like a good composition for it. This was painted during the Sedona festival’s “Quick Draw” event – a timed competition where artists complete a painting in 2 hours while the public watches. You’re disqualified if you keep painting after the closing whistle sounds. It’s pretty fun. I’m not a fast painter, and I don’t often like my Quick Draw pieces, though I’ve won several awards for them over the years. This day I decided to ignore the rules when the ending whistle blew because I thought the painting would be worth completing to my satisfaction. The blue tiled dome drew me to this view.

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Red Planet Diner – 9×12” (lame photo)
This painting explains why I don’t do early morning paintings during plein air events – I love painting lit up urban views at night. I was drawn to this one because of the crazy lighting of this place. Everything inside looked bright pink and violet. Also the whole thing is so Sedona. Sedona’s gotta be the only place with a burger joint called the Red Planet Diner, featuring tables shaped like UFOs, aliens inside, and great 1950s architecture. I had hoped the owner would come out and offer me a free burger, but he never did, so I can’t vouch for the food. This painting won the Artists’ Choice Award, and was purchased by a local Sedonian.

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Feed & Grain – 11×14”
This was painted down the street from my house. Readers from Loveland will recognize the historic Feed & Grain building which the community rescued from being leveled. Part of the reason I painted this was to contribute to the sense that it’s a valuable piece of Loveland history. Plus I think it’s a cool building. I expected a local to purchase this piece but instead it ended up in Germany.

Thanks for taking the tour. If you’re a plein air artist I would enjoy hearing your favorite stories.

Movie Talk: Les Miserables

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I may have had impossibly high expectations for the release of the new film version of the musical, Les Miserables. Les Miz is my favorite musical. I love the musical score. The non-musical film starring Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman is in my top 5 all-time favorite movies. Three of my musical offspring have sung in theatrical productions of Les Miz. They started showing me tantalizing Les Miz movie trailers on Youtube for weeks before the show opened. We purchased Christmas day tickets for the whole family as soon as they became available.

Was I disappointed? Not exactly. Of course I enjoyed it, but I can’t resist making a few observations and comparisons.

High points:
 Anne Hathaway’s heart-gripping I Dreamed a Dream solo was unforgettable. How can she be beautiful while looking like a completely shattered human being? Her performance was all the more remarkable in light of the recent exposure this song has had through Susan Boyle and others.
 Isabelle Allen was wonderfully endearing as young Cosette without being cartoonishly cute. Her bell-like voice and childlike gestures were a perfect depiction. Hugh Jackman (Valjean), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), and Aaron Tveit (Enjolras – student revolt leader), were also stellar in their roles.
 The musical’s original composers wrote some new songs for the movie. The best one for me was after Valjean retrieves Cosette from the Thenardiers. During the ensuing carriage ride he realizes his new role as a father has become much more than an obligation. This moment resonated with me as a dad.

Wish List:
 Russell Crowe did a great Russell Crowe-ish job as Javert – I just felt the role of Javert could’ve been cast better. Javert represents harsh justice and unbending law. Even at the end Javert doesn’t bend – he only breaks. I felt Russell Crowe’s signature soft-spoken masculinity didn’t fit the part well. Both Crowe’s visage and voice are soft. Someone bitter and more intimidating would’ve worked better, in my opinion.
 Les miz the musical opened on Christmas day 2012. We went to see it as a family. Was there any tie-in to Christmas in the movie? Kind of. When we are introduced to the Thenardiers, outside the inn in the snow we see a fleeting glimpse of a character dressed as an Old World Saint Nicholas surrounded by some street children. It’s a pretty cool shot with great costuming that feels classic. However, in the course of creating a sufficiently decadent and sleazy atmosphere around the Thenardiers, we are made to glimpse a shot of the drunken St. Nick having sex inside the inn. Was this really necessary? I think I would’ve left that little bit on the cutting room floor.

In the director’s defense, this was arguably historically authentic. During this period in Europe, Christmas was a different animal than the family-oriented holiday we know today. The crops were in, the cold weather made it a good time to slaughter livestock, and apparently people tended to spend the season in feasting and debauchery. But Les Miserables isn’t a movie about the history of Christmas. I thought it was an annoying touch.

Comparing the Two Versions:
The Liam Neeson non-musical version, and the Hugh Jackman musical version make an interesting comparison. In one sense they’re apples and oranges, and I’m delighted that there is now an artfully done movie that includes the musical score, and even brings us some new music. However, I have to say that when the smoke has cleared, for me the Liam Neeson/Uma Thurman version is unsurpassed. The creative team of the new musical version used the medium of film to do things that can’t be done on a live stage, but there were a couple of moments when the vocal performances came off as just a wee bit cheesy. I can’t imagine a way around this in a filmed musical.

But apart from the musical aspect there are a couple of instances where the Liam Neeson film outshines the new one:

In the non-musical, Valjean’s interaction with the priest at the priest’s house is spectacularly human. In fact, when the priest catches Valjean in the act of stealing silver in the dead of night, Valjean actually strikes the priest down, knocking him unconscious. This shows Valjean to be a hardened and dangerous man. For me, it also makes the old priest’s act of forgiveness (and fearlessness) toward Valjean the next morning all the more remarkable.

Another scene in which the non-musical version excels is at the scene of Fantine’s death. Here it derives its power by staying true to Victor Hugo’s original novel. Fantine is on the verge of death, Valjean is at her side comforting her and reassuring her that he will take Cosette into his care. Javert appears, mocking and exposing Valjean, and directly threatening Fantine with prison, and promising her she will never see her child again. This sends Fantine into a fit of terror and panic, and she dies in front of them. This scene is so filled with dramatic tension, and reveals so much of the three characters present that I can’t imagine why it was left out of the new version. Instead, the musical version has Javert appearing just after Fantine’s death. After dueling and duetting with Javert, Valjean escapes him by jumping from a window.

I must also add that the older non-musical version is wonderfully cast throughout, and the dialogue is insightful and smart.

Why does Les Miserables have such enduring appeal? There are many reasons, but first among them for me is that I am always looking for great stories that inspire and glorify selfless love. Les Miserables is one of the best of these. Scan the stream of movies that the entertainment industry offers. Millions of dollars are spent each year in the service of meaninglessness, gore, titillation, and post-modern ambivalence. One must look long and hard to find movies that enhance life and inspire love. Apparently it’s not easy to do this well. If you know of movies that do this for you, I’d enjoy hearing your recommendations.

(Watercolor painting by Scott Freeman; based on a steel engraving by Emile Bayard from the original 1862 edition of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables.)