A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 363: Ron’s 2017 Gallery, Part 3

I Have Seen the Light

As I wrap up this creatively momentous year for me, I have been sharing examples of the artwork I did in 2017. The past two days I have shown artwork that pointed to a development in style leading me to work on mosaics but also a lot of experimentation as I tried to stretch myself in different ways. Those themes continued on for me, though the burst of energy into mosaics abated somewhat (until I hit my Christmas holidays… more on that later).

This is part 3 of my gallery from 2017 – A lot of illustrated quotes and spontaneous drawing and painting, in reality a lot of disconnected things that ultimately become connected. Here we go…

In August my family and I spent a few days in one of our favorite places – a lovely cottage in Quebec. My wife and I, in particular, love to take this time to do art. For me, it meant trying my hand at plein air painting. I have done precious little of this over the years. Plein air simply means painting in the “open air”, outside in the elements, and creating what you see in front of you. It is its own form of challenging as things don’t sit still for you, the earth rotates and the sun moves, light and shadow shifts, clouds roll and change. In the end, you don’t so much “take a picture” of a scene as record an interesting mix of elements that give the scene a unique quality. Painter and subject get intimately acquainted.

I sat down at the dock by the lake and made this painting on an increasingly overcast August day:


Clouds Over Lac Joly, Acylic on canvas, 2017

I ended up leaving the painting at the cottage as a thank-you to the friends who allow us to spend time there. Looking at this painting again, as we endure -30 weather now in Ottawa, makes me long to be back at the place.

After those few days off I was back at work. I help to run an art studio at a day program for adults with developmental disabilities. One of the things I try to do is come up with fresh and interesting ways of making art, perhaps coming up with ideas or media that will click with the clients at the program. I came back from a shopping trip one day with a pack of color diffusing paper. I had never used it before and so I did some experimenting with it. Below are some of those results including a self-portrait:



Self portrait, pen and markers on color diffusing paper, 2017

For 2017 in this blog I used a lot of quotes. I found inspiration in the words of other people often throughout the year. It is probably no surprise that I would join the words with some of my own images eventually.

As I sat in a cafe one evening, waiting to pick my daughter up from her college class, I drew the following quote buy Marilyn Monroe:

Imperfection is Beauty quote

I had a lot of fun with my art markers in creating this piece. It put me in the frame of mind to work on others. The next one was considerably darker in tone as the quote was a heavy one:

To be wounded quote

If you’ve been following my blog, the image above will look familiar. I used a similar take on a profile of a Christ with crown of thorns motif I had painted earlier in the year. Again, I was enjoying the bright colors and possibilities of my pack of art markers.

That got me going on a series, likely inspired by my time in Quebec at the cottage, hiking trails and enjoying nature as I do. Below is that series of five quote/drawings I completed, all based on my love of trees and lakes and all things outdoors:

Today I Have Grown TallerPerhaps Truth Depends on a WalkI Drank the Silence of GodAnd into the woods I goAdopt the pace of nature

I think the last one of this series, pictured above, was my personal favorite. I was remembering sitting in a kayak on the lake, seeing those amazing trees that grip the stone and grow out of a seemingly impossible place to grow.

During the summer months I was not feeling inspired to start any new mosaics. I had a canvas primed and ready but didn’t have a muse. However, I saw a posting in the Ottawa Artists Facebook page about an annual Cock Show art exhibition happening in October. The Atomic Rooster, a pub in downtown Ottawa, puts on this show every year and invites artists to submit pieces with rooster theme. Well, I couldn’t pass up on this opportunity. So I created a mosaic rooster for the show, using a quote (big surprise), this time from the incomparable Muhammad Ali:

I Have Seen the Light

I Have Seen the Light, Craft foam mosaic on canvas, 2017

I was great fun to see this artwork up on the wall at the Atomic Rooster, along with so many other creative, funny, profound and odd creations of roosters. I sold this piece within the first couple of days of the show. I was very happy with how this one turned out. Yes, I’m crowing a bit, aren’t I?

There would be no more mosaics forthcoming for a couple of months. Instead, I did a lot more drawing and some simple painting. I decided to try and loosen up a bit again and draw some expressionistic human figures. I ended up with a series of figures drawn over water color abstracts, each with a quote regarding creativity. I called this series Creative Spirits:

Comfort the disturbed disturb the comfortableBuild confidence in the creative spiritevery set of eyes has a right to the truthbetween the desire to communicate and the desire to hidewho we are and what we do is lifeTake your broken heart turn it into art

These were just okay in my estimation, not anything outstanding, but they did help push me along in an expressionist direction, one that would lead to my final mosaic of the year. More on that after…

Peter Pumpkinhead – From a song by XTC that was clearly based on Jesus Christ, I did a water color pencil and pen artwork of a crucified scarecrow. It was around Halloween time so this drawing confused some people. I didn’t mean it as something fun but as something provocative. Perhaps the cartoonish look of it detracted from any deep sort of meaning:

Peter Pumpkinhead

Peter Pumpkinhead, Water color and pen on paper, 2017

The combination of the Creative Spirits drawings and the tree idea of the above led me to grab my oil pastels and sketch the following:

creation story drawing

Creation Story, Oil pastels on paper, 2017

I realized after I had drawn this that a few things were coming together: The expressive sketches I had done, some spiritual themes, themes of mortality and divinity, and the personal study I had done this year of a few Canadian indigenous artists. In many ways, I had never done a drawing quite like this. It became an inspiration for me for the last mosaic I would make for 2017, one that I have just completed, only a couple of days before 2018. But before I show you that one, here is the second-to-last mosaic of my year, completed just before Christmas:


Horse, Craft foam and burlap paper on canvas, 2017

Why a horse? I’m not really sure. The beauty of the animal? The sense of freedom, of joyful spirit? Who knows. What I do know is that I used leftover scraps of colored foam that I had purchased to make Christmas decorations at the day program. I loved the colors and patterns so much that I went out and bought my own versions of this foam at a local dollar store, primed and painted a large canvas, and set out recreating the Creation Story drawing into a mosaic. In many ways, I now realize that this piece is a great way to cap off this year:

Creation Story 2017

Creation Story, Mixed media mosaic on canvas, 2017

I spent many of my holiday hours on this piece, a Creation Story indeed. This past year has been all about creation and about discovering the creator in myself. It was certainly apropos for me to invest my time and energy into an artwork that encompassed many thoughts and themes from my 2017.

So there you have it. Not a complete gallery of my 2017 but certainly the highlights. Of course I took photos and wrote poems and essays as well in this past year. But the truth is that the visual arts are most deeply rooted in me, from the first time I picked up a crayon to a day or two ago when I glued that last piece of craft foam on the artwork above.

I believe we are all made in the image of the Creator. After this year I am more thankful than ever that the Creator gave me the ability to do some minor creating of my own.


A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 362: Ron’s 2017 Gallery, part 2

Bob Dylan Dream

As my Year of Creativity draws to a close, I have decided to take a couple of days dedicated to a small gallery of the artwork I did in 2017. Yesterday, in part 1, I described (and displayed) how I became, through a series of different art experiments, a mosaic maker. Today, here are some of those first true mosaics. Of course, no artist ever dabbles in just one thing so there are some drawings and a neglected painting finally finished in today’s post, as well.

Here we go…

As I began to realize that the experiments I had been doing in colored foam on paper were mosaics, I was, of course, drawn to things mosaic. It so happened that a site I follow on Facebook posted a story about a wonderfully intact mosaic from the third century that had been discovered in Turkey. It showed a reclining skeleton, enjoying wine and bread, with the words (in Greek): “Be cheerful and live your life”. I was so struck by the juxtaposition and humor of the happy bones encouraging me to enjoy my life that I decided to recreate it as my own mosaic:


Be Cheerful and Live Your Life, Craft foam mosaic on canvas, 2017

I had purchased craft foam at my local dollar store which had animal print designs on it (zebra stripes, leopard spots, etc). I cut these up into mostly squares to create the above. My skeleton enjoys a pizza, be it a blue spotted pizza. This artwork was fun to make and I enjoyed the result so much that, well, I was determined to try this mosaic thing again.

The next thing I tried was a portrait of an artist that inspired me. My wife had bought me a book of all of Bob Dylan’s lyrics for my birthday. The book has an iconic photo of  Dylan from the mid-1960’s on the cover. I decided to try and recreate that portrait in mosaic form:

Bob Dylan Dream

Bob Dylan Dream, Craft foam and burlap paper mosaic on canvas, 2017

There was something about rendering Bob in colorful mosaic that made sense, and it made sense to me to include a phrase from one of his quirkier songs. It was meant to be provocative and a bit out there, much like the enigmatic songwriter himself. I think I succeeded.

After this portrait of Dylan I became interested in the work of the man he named himself after, Dylan Thomas. I began work on a very large mosaic, the biggest one I had tried so far, based on a line from a Thomas poem. However, it took me a long time to put that one together so in the meantime, some other artistic experiments were underway…

I had seen an article online about an artist that made single line portraits. I decided to have a go at it, not drawing anyone in particular, but using a black art pen, putting it to paper, and not taking it off the paper until a portrait was “done”. I filled up a couple of sketchbooks doing this. Below are some highlights from that experiment:


These were fun and challenging. I consider myself very loose and spontaneous in my drawing to begin with but this style stretched me more than I expected. I found that if I thought too much about it they didn’t turn out so well. But if I just went with the flow I ended up with more satisfying results.

I decide to expand this experiment, this time sketching particular individuals and doing so in 18 different lines each. Why 18? Because I had a pack of 18 colored markers on hand, fine point. This proved to be far more difficult because (1) the introduction of color and (2) attempting to draw the person as that person looks! Below is a self portrait and three portraits I made of individuals in my art studio at the day program where I work:

18 single lines self portraitNolaSophiaAlison

As I mentioned, these were a lot harder than they look. But it was another good way of pushing myself outside my own artistic comfort zones.

Around this same time I picked up a neglected canvas that had been lying around for about two years. A co-worker of mine had mentioned that she liked the half-finished painting that it was. I was a bit appalled that she’d like the monstrosity that it was and told her I needed to finish it. This same co-worker was injured at work and wasn’t able to return. Missing her at work, I believe, was the impetus to finish the painting. I had a background but then, using textures and acrylic paint, added the five birch which became the foreground and title of the painting:

Five Birch

Five Birch, Acrylic on canvas, 2015-2017

I gave this painting to her as an early wedding gift.

Around this time I had finally finished the large mosaic based on a line from a Dylan Thomas poem. The line:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Rage, Rage…, Craft foam and burlap paper mosaic, 2017

There was something about this raging against inevitable mortality that struck a chord with me. I decided, instead of trying to come up with an image to go with the words, to illustrate the powerful words themselves.

This theme of mortality and the drive to live life to the utmost, to pursue dreams and use your talents, to love people and explore and take risks in the face of that dying of the light was no doubt a huge motivator for me this year. It was a great contributing factor in the creation of the next mosaic to follow this one, another large work, this time based on a character whose delusion is heroic and relatable:

Until Death It Is All Life

Until Death It is All Life, Craft foam mosaic on canvas, 2017

As I get older the character of Don Quixote becomes more real to me. He is deluded, surely, but also full of imagination, so full that it becomes reality to him. He is a tragic-hero in some ways, comical in a pathetic way, but also honorable and, in some odd way, a role model of sorts. Having had a great experience living in Spain back when I was 21, this work became a bit of an homage too. The background colors are meant to imitate the colors of the Spanish flag. The tiled lines flowing across the painting (which also wrap around the outside edges) were meant to be evocative of a Spanish artist like Gaudi as well as their penchant for great ceramic work. And, of course, Cervantes’ great comic-hero Quixote is the pinnacle of Spanish classical literature.

There would be more mosaics before 2017 was through but also more artwork in general. Tomorrow for part 3 of my gallery I will share more with you.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 361: Ron’s 2017 Gallery, part 1

Self Portrait, Chagall-style

My 2017 of daily creative exploration is almost at an end. Frankly, I can hardly believe it. I set out on January 1, 2017 with the goal of posting in this blog each day, hoping to offset the negativity in the world and in my own spirit with art and artists and various expressions of creativity. Along the way I have discovered so many things, been inspired, and in many ways rewired my own brain to better take in all the good things around me. I also found the time to do a lot of art, perhaps more than I have ever done since I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Over the next three days, I’ve decided to use this space as a sort of gallery. Though I am not very good at exact dating of things, I will attempt to show you examples of my artwork from this year, semi-chronologically. It was a year that I thought would involve more painting but, as it turned out, I did a lot more “painting” with craft foam, burlap and Modge Podge in the form of some mosaics. It was also a year where I tried to push myself into new directions and challenge my own established way of viewing and things.

Without further ado, here is part one of my 2017 Gallery:

Punk Rock Warlord (Joe Strummer Vs The Void)

Punk Rock Warlord (Joe Strummer Vs. the Void), Mixed media on canvas, 2016

Technically, this painting of Joe Strummer was finished right at the end of 2016 (I think on December 30 or 31, to be exact). However, it was done in the spirit that led me to my Year of Creating Dangerously, so I include it here as a very important jumping-off point for me.

Joe is a great hero of mine because of his own spirit and willingness to put himself out there in a vulnerable but powerful way. Instead of a traditional portrait, I chose to picture him battling the forces of brutality and banality (what I called the Void) with his chosen weapons: his voice, his words and his guitar slung around his neck. I intended it to just be an acrylic painting but the addition of shredded newspaper with Joe’s lyrics on them became a harbinger of things to come for me in 2017.

I had a difficult time completely shaking my disgust at the political reality in the world at the beginning of 2017, particularly as it played out south of the border. That led me to creating this next piece that appeared on my blog on inauguration day:


Divisible, Mixed media on canvas, 2017

My roots are in the United States so I couldn’t help but be distressed watching my former country from my vantage point in Canada. I had drawn a number of expressionist-type American flags with oil pastels. I tore those up to create this collage, Old Glory shattered and in disarray. It was very cathartic for me to make this artwork which I called “Divisible” as a counter-point to the “Indivisible” claim of the Pledge of Allegiance I used to give before the start of my school days.

About three years ago when I was getting back into art, I tried to recreate some famous portraits using oil pastels. It was a way to train myself and fire up the creative Jones again. This year, I decided to created my own self-portraits but in the style of a famous artist. I ended up finishing four of them which I share below, side-by-side with the original:





In descending order, then, is Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Marc Chagall. I confess to having a lot of fun with these, particularly the Chagall-style self portrait as, just like the original, I added autobiographical details to the picture (e.g., Colorado in the dream bubble, a church and a bit of Spider Man on the canvas, Ottawa’s parliament hill out the window). These portraits were really great at getting me to think color and form and help me see things with a different set of eyes.

I had marvelous intentions from the beginning of the year to create a painting per month in 2017 dedicated to a favorite artist of mine. I ended up making three, none as pure paintings. The one below was finished in February, 2017:

Maya Rising

Maya Rising, Mixed media on canvas, 2017

Maya Angelou is a great inspiration to me. This work was completed with a combination of black markers and acrylic paint, over photocopied sheets from her book I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, along with the words to her poem “Still I Rise”.

I have done many portraits of people – my co-workers, some friends, and some famous folks but I have avoided drawing my family. Frankly, that scares me the most and I think I get frozen up worried about getting them right. Below is my attempt at drawing my daughter from a beautiful photo of her when she was about four or five years old:

Picking Dandelions

Picking Dandelions, Oil Pastels on paper, 2017

I ended up with something very impressionistic but I was still very dissatisfied with it. Why? Because I didn’t think it looked like my daughter!  I have come to appreciate it more over the course of the year but am bound and determined to get her right sometime in the near future.

Because this year was about creativity to me, I spent a lot of time researching different artists. At times that would lead me to attempting to recreate something they had done to stretch myself in new artistic directions. Jean Arp was a Dadaist who created some works by dropping geometric shapes onto a canvas. I tried the same thing with bits of craft foam dropped onto sheets of construction paper. The results are below:


Little did I know that this seemingly simple artistic lark would lead me down the road to mosaics. These geometric patterns led me to thinking about stained-glass types of artwork, with shapes bound by black lines. I started experimenting with images having to do with the crucifixion (we were nearing Good Friday and Easter) and I came up with these small paintings on paper:


I was trying to stretch myself again, thinking expressionist lines, solid colors, geometric shapes, and unusual glimpses of a familiar subject. From these ideas flowed the idea for a large painting, one of the few pure acrylic paintings I did this year, and the idea for a large cross to be on display at my church for Easter Sunday. Below is the painting, posted on Good Friday, and below that is me with the Easter Cross. Note the continued use of geometric shapes and solid colors:

Crucifixion Coronation

Crucifixion Coronation, Acrylic on canvas, 2017


There was a wonderful coming-together of ideas and imagination at this time of the year for me. I was beginning to see the possibilities in this art form. As I have time in my day where I am part of running an art studio, I found I was often experimenting with things, trying things out. I found some leftover craft foam in our stores and used it to create a quick self portrait on paper:

Self portrait in craft foam 2017

Little did I know that just four months into this year I discovered the style that would define my art for 2017 more than any other. I was turning into a mosaic-maker.

Tomorrow in part 2 I’ll put a few of those artworks on display in this blog gallery.





A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 360: Boxing Day


Happy Boxing Day! Yeah, I have no idea what that’s all about either. Having grown up in the U.S.A. we did not observe anything particularly special about the day after Christmas.  I now live in Canada, which often finds itself remaining under the sway of some particularly British traditions. One of those is Boxing Day. The origins of this term are not completely clear, but it seems to refer to the giving of a “Christmas Box” to boys or men whose job it was to deliver mail and parcels to your door. In the U.K. on December 26 it became a day to thank the people who do this work of service, in other words. It has in our day, of course, grown into another excuse to lure shoppers to stores for BARGAINS! BARGAINS! BARGAINS! At least, that is the case here in Canada.

However, for me, Boxing Day never fails to make me think of … well, boxing and that makes me think the Rock em Sock em Robots game I used to play as a kid, which in turn makes me think of one of my favorite comic bits from the Toy Story movies:

So Happy Boxing Day! Whatever that might mean to you!

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 359: Merry Christmas from Ebenezer and I


“For it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

As a repentant and renewed Ebenezer Scrooge said today, “A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”

On this Christmas Day 2017 I want to share with you some favorite quotes from my second favorite Christmas story:

“I have always thought of Christmastime, when it has come round…as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

“Come in, — come in! and know me better, man! I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. Look upon me! You have never seen the like of me before!”

“God bless us, every one!”

“In short, I should have liked to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet be man enough to know its value”

“Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years it was a splendid laugh!”

“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”

“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”

“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 358: Love Came Down at Christmas

winter landscape caspar david friedrich 1811

Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape, 1811

On this Christmas Eve, for one of my last God Quotes of the year, the simple poem by Victorian poet Christina Georgina Rossetti that gets right to the heart of it all:

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

A Year of Creating Dangerously Day 357: At Home


Self portrait on color diffusing paper, pen and ink and markers

Ronald Kok, Self portrait on color diffusing paper, pen and markers, 2017

There is very little of the “Christmas Spirit” in this but a whole lot of real.  The season can amplify the battle each of us fights inside. I wrote a psalm about that battle, and the one who won’t leave me in spite of it all, a couple of days ago. Here it is:

At Home


Homeless at home in my heart


Stubbornly throwing buckets of Hope

On my hopelessness


I can’t seem to shake you


No matter how far I drift

In the current


Dragged along with the weight

Of failures




This dark country closes in,

Suffocates me


My days are sometimes filled with



Nights filled with pain,

Restlessly resting


I wonder if I’m fading,

Maybe disappearing


A shallow shell that once seemed full


Dreams no longer exist even

In dreams


My heart punctured, lacerated,

Beat up


I want to let go


I want you to let go


But you won’t


Dammit, you won’t


A dark heart doesn’t put you off


Embracer of failures,


And fools

You put flesh on bleached bones


Warmth washing over the icy gaze




How is it possible?


How can you be Hope




You are ignored but

Never offended


You are treated like shit

But never despair


Despair looks like a tin shack


Next to your skyscraper of



You could dwell there,

It’s a perfect fit for you


But instead you bed down in squalor


At home in my heart


-Ronald Kok

December 20, 2017

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 356: Christmas in Masterpieces, Part 5


Fear, anxiety, murderous rage – these are not the emotions we normally associate with Christmas. Of course, that could describe your holiday family get-together for all I know…

This is the season when “Joy” and “Peace” dominate the decorations. We associate words like wonder and glory and adoration and love and family with Christmas. It is right that we should do so. At its core the story is of God the Father who cares so much for his world, his creation, that he sends his only Son to us to save us. This alone should cause great praise and joyful songs to spring from us (as it has done over the centuries). But also attached to  the Christmas story are themes like faithfulness, sacrifice, generosity and hope – themes that can be celebrated by the believer or non-believer alike.

However, the great weight of our celebrations hang on a partial reading of the full Christmas story.  For Christians there are the weeks leading up to the big day, a season called Advent, in which readings from the Old Testament prophets remind us of the time of waiting and anticipating the coming Messiah. Then, of course, come the pre-Christmas Day moments – the Annunciation when Mary is told she’ll be with child, the dream of Joseph telling him to marry her, the journey to Bethlehem – all important aspects of our view of the holiday story. We’ve come to include the Magi at the stable along with the shepherds, though it is now believed that those visitors from the east came along likely two to three years after the famous birthday.

For the most part, the above elements (plus the famed heavenly host) make up the characters and circumstances of the very familiar Christmas story. But that is not where the biblical narrative ends. In fact, the story continues in a chilling and violent direction. No one would ever put “Danger” and “Death” in their Christmas decorations (unless you are seriously disturbed) but that is exactly how this great story of the beginning of the life of Christ ends.

Today, to finish my series on Christmas in masterpieces, I present two works that wrap up the story. The first is Flight to Egypt by Goossen van der Weyden (c. 1516) and the second is The Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel


Goossen van der Weyden, Flight to Egypt, c. 1516

The threat of imminent danger is the driving force behind Joseph and Mary packing up their belongings and taking their child to safety in Egypt. In the story, Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream to leave Bethlehem, as King Herod was seeking their son in order to kill him. This reality of their story makes the Holy Family the most famous refugees in history, forced to flee their home and loved ones. This painting by van der Weyden is one of two panels of an altarpiece which found a home eventually in the National Gallery in London. There is not much of desperation or fear in this painting, at least not on the initial viewing. It seems too pastoral and colorful, the look on Mary’s face too serene, to pass for an image of refugees fleeing possible death. We have seen the faces of refugees in our news – exhausted, emotionally overwrought, eyes filled with anxiety. Here we see what passes for a pleasant journey on a beautiful day.

There is, however, the “massacre of the innocents” happening in the distance, the very event the family flees from: Herod had ordered his death squads to Bethlehem to kill all boy children two years old and younger. This horrific element of the story is a tiny detail in the background of this work. The artist has chosen to focus on Mary and the child, perched atop a friendly-looking donkey.

The profound imagery for me in this painting is that of the Christ child nursing at Mary’s breast. Today we have such a squeamish attitude towards women nursing their babies in public, and outrage follows the slightest hint of a bare breast in public viewing (i.e. the “wardrobe malfunction” of a Super Bowl half-time show past), that the presentation here of both strikes me as instructional to the paradox of our prudish yet permissive society. The artist pictures it here in very realistic terms for a painting done in 1516. It is a mother tending to her vulnerable child, completely in need of assistance for all things from his parents. Anyone who has cared for a newborn, be they the parents or not, knows that those little bundles of pooping, crying and eating are maybe the most helpless of all the young in the animal kingdom.

Vulnerability – herein lies the core of this painting and the somewhat secret core of this part of the Christmas story. We are told that an angel came in a dream to Joseph, but no angel armies come to protect the Son of God. He is the one in desperate need in this painting, and, as with all newborns, has no clue that he has that desperation to begin with. The idea of God as a fragile, dependent baby is often overlooked in our ideas of Christmas. This thought is outrageous, maybe even blasphemous in the perspective of some people. The Father chooses to place his only Son in the care of weak people in the midst of awful circumstances, where any misstep could mean a violent death.

This message, then, points to the reality of the life of Jesus, and the reality of his sacrificial death. Jesus came to weak people in the midst awful circumstances (the Jews under the oppression of the Roman Empire) and he set out to fulfill his purpose and his mission, where each step he took brought him closer and closer to his own death. No matter how pastoral or colorful we try to picture the life of Jesus Christ, at its core is the God who made himself vulnerable and offered himself up to die.

That whole idea doesn’t sound very much like Christmas to most folks. But without the fragility, without the immense sacrifice and burden of sin and the specter of death, there is no Good News. There would simply be a cute story. And this story is far from cute.

Bruegel kindermord massacre of the innocents.jpg

Pieter Bruegel, The Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1565-67

The Massacre of the Innocents is a very common theme in the history of Western art. There are many, many versions of the scene, some extremely graphic with the bodies of murdered little boys on display. For my purposes I have chosen to go back to Pieter Bruegel. This week I showed you his painting, similar to this one, of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem for the census. It was another bird’s-eye view of a European town full of people. In the previous painting, it was full of normal human activity, fun and business alike. In this one, there is much human activity as well, but it is fraught with fear and horrific events.

It takes a moment to realize what you are seeing. But a scanning of this work brings revulsion and a deep sadness. Unfortunately, our world, our history, our present still gives us images like this. There are truly horrifying things going on here, no more so than the casual killing of children by a group of soldiers in a circle. Parents weep, plead and beg. Children lie dead in the snow, hang limp in a soldier’s hand or across their mother’s lap. Soldiers break down doors, chase a mother fleeing with their child in her arms, look on impassively as sorrow and blood flow all around them. One soldier, in an ultimate symbol of disregard for the suffering around him, urinates on the side of a building.

Bruegel pictured this in a very contemporary setting for him and his viewers: a simple Dutch village in the depth of winter. He also gives the soldiers a very modern feel by making them Spanish, along with German mercenaries. This is the Massacre of Innocents as a prelude to the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule, also known as the Eighty-Years War. For Bruegel and so many of his countrymen, the murderous rampage of soldiers by order of the despot Herod was not some strange event from centuries past; they were living that reality.

But how could this tragic and violent scene wrap up the Christmas narrative? What begins as the hope of a life foretold for centuries ends with young lives cut short, fear, horror, bloodshed, grief. The prophet Isaiah had written that the Messiah would be called “the Prince of Peace”; the angels who came to those shepherds outside Bethlehem had also proclaimed “peace on earth” and “goodwill” to all.

A merry Christmas? There is a good reason that this part of the narrative doesn’t make its way in to our lore, our decorations, our songs of the season. But it is a shame that it is not remembered the way it once was. The power of evil is great in our world, and all attempts to white-wash it are in vain. This painting was victim to a form of censorship itself as the bloody elements and the dead children were painted over, making it look like soldiers were ransacking a village for food instead of killing innocents. This censorship was ordered by the powerful, of course – in this case the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, who objected to the content of the painting. But restoration has revealed its true content, evil wasn’t allowed to stay covered up.

We do not like this aspect of the story making its way into our jolly holiday. It is an intrusion of painful reality into our escape from it. But the story will not go away. I believe it is preserved, among other reasons, for the simple fact that it displays the deep depravity of human hearts, the awfulness of a world that is wrong, and the desperate need for a Savior, not only to save us but to give us a pattern for right living, for knowing peace and acting on its behalf.

Of all things, Christmas should not be a time for white-washing over wrong. It is a time to acknowledge that we are far from peace on earth, far from goodwill to all people. Is God to blame for this? Has his plan failed? Or are we living as part of that plan, that ongoing plan, to claim the good and live for it, to speak and act in peace, to use each day of our lives for mercy and forgiveness and love to define us?

Only you and I can answer that. Know that a Christmas can only be truly merry when it is merry for all. Christ came not to rule the world and drive out despots. He came to rule in our hearts and drive out the despair that lives there. Ultimately, that is the reason for the season and the driving force of this opening chapter that is the Gospel, the Good News.


A Year of Creating Dangerously, 355: Christmas in Masterpieces, Part 4



The Nativity Scene – A ubiquitous part of our Christmas lore, a common decoration and motif in and outside our homes, a source of controversy at times, and an undeniably sweet and homey image that never fails to draw us into the spirit of the season. We recreate them as live scenes, we satirize them in memes, we see them everywhere in the days leading up to December 25.

Today in part 4 of my series of Christmas in masterpieces, we take a look at two very different scenes of the most famous stable in history. The first is The Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco (1612-1614) and the second is Dream of Joseph by Rembrandt (1645).


El Greco, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1612-1614

The Spanish master El Greco was known for his elongated figures and dramatic use of shadow and light. His lines are on the move in this painting, making the whole piece pulsate with life. I am struck by the ragged look of the shepherds, barefoot with beat up items of clothing to cover them, looking very much like the lower-rungs of society that they were in Jesus’ day. The shepherds have become such a cutesy part of our Nativity scenes and Christmas plays that we’ve forgotten the scandal of angels coming to them first – first! – with the news of the birth of the God King. These were people considered the trash of their times, uneducated, crass, poor and dirty. Yet they are chosen to be the human heralds of the beginning of the Good News:

When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. – Luke 2: 17-18

The power of this work comes, however, from the explosion of light off the Christ child. We are used to images of Jesus kind of glowing in our Christmas artwork, but here he is fairly blasting light, illuminating what would presumably be a very dark place with his own radiance. Mary shines brightest in this light, of course, but every other figure is given shape and form because of it too, including the strange, little naked cupids floating above.

There is enough of the common imagery of Nativity for us to recognize this scene, but also plenty of elements that remove it from a feeling of the commonplace. That is not altogether a bad thing, of course. We have often made our Nativity scenes so pop culture that we forget the foundation of divinity and miracle that gives it gravitas and a sense of the eternal. This may not be my favorite Nativity scene, but it still serves its purpose to remind me of the power of God becoming a human, of the forever becoming temporal, of the Word becoming flesh.


Rembrandt, Dream of Joseph, 1645

There is much of the ways of the flesh in Rembrandt’s Christmas masterpiece, that is, in the need we all have for sleep, especially after exhausting experiences. In this scene, an angel is coming to Joseph to give him specific instructions, following on the heels of the visit by the Magi:

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until the I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” – Matthew 2: 13

The man in question was King Herod, the puppet king set up by the Romans to rule Palestine. When the Magi came to him in Jerusalem, expecting to find there the answer to the star that told them of a newborn king of the Jews, Herod’s own wise men had pointed them to Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah’s birth in prophecy. Since they had left, the shrewd king had stewed in jealous rage, waiting for them to return with news of where to find this child. Whereas the Magi had adoration in their minds, Herod had infanticide in his seething brain.

An angel had told the Magi to go back home on a different route, with no stops at Herod’s place along the way. Then he went to Joseph and the scene depicted here by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn.

In the Christmas story, Joseph receives two angel visits in dreams on two separate occasions. The first was back when he discovered that Mary was pregnant before their wedding. Then the angel told a distraught Joseph the news that the Holy Spirit was responsible for her being with child, and to continue with his plans to marry her. The dream pictured here is clearly the second dream, as the surroundings suggest the stable, with the newborn child sleeping, wrapped in those swaddling clothes, lying in manger, with Mary’s comforting embrace around him.

This is a very delightful painting, warm and human as Rembrandt so often communicated his subject matter. He pulls that off despite the presence of an obvious supernatural visitor. You can almost feel the coziness of the place, smell the hay and animal smells, hear the snoring of Joseph, the gentle breathing of a contented but exhausted Mary. To me his stable comes across as the most real and comforting Christmas stable ever depicted in art. It isn’t a frightening, dark place like El Greco’s stable, and it isn’t too otherworldly or artificial, it is just the kind of place you’d imagine these people could bed down in for the night.

Art history is full of images of a radiant Christ child, an adoringly attentive and aging Joseph, and a Mary shining with divine grace. Rembrandt gives us a distinctly earthy Holy Family, a pair of rustic and lower class people grabbing much needed sleep after the birth of their child in extraordinary circumstances. To me, this is a refreshing image that draws me in and makes me want to curl up for some sleep myself, after giving that jovial cow on the right a good pat on the head or two.

Christmas is about so many things that glow from this painting, but the treasure here is the recapturing of the serene and silent moment in time that would one day become spectacle.

Tomorrow is the final day of this series of Christmas in masterpieces, we’ll finish not with glory but with danger and death. If that doesn’t seem very Christmas-like to you, then you’ve not read the Christmas story to its shocking end.







A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 354: Christmas in Masterpieces, Part 3


Three Wise Men? How about Thirty-three? My series on the Christmas story in masterpieces continues today with Part 3, featuring those most famous Magi.

It is, of course, well known now that these men were the scientists/magicians of their day, not so much Wise as Learned, the scholars and star-gazers who came from a long distance away led by the most famous of all Stars. Most biblical scholars agree, as well, that the Magi likely came to Bethlehem long after the birth of Christ, perhaps even two or three years after the first Christmas. They have traditionally been included in our Nativity scenes and Christmas cards but it is likely they were not around when the shepherds found Mary, Joseph and the baby, lying in a manger. Most likely they gave their extravagant gifts to a toddler instead (which is an even more precious scene, if you think about it).

The two masterpieces I’d like to share with you today have the Wise Men in common but not much else. The first is The Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459-1461) and the second is The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens (1609-1610).


Though not a household name to us today, Gozzoli was prominent enough in his time to be commissioned by the wealthy and influential Medici family to create this fresco for the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, Italy. We see again a biblical story portrayed for a contemporary audience that would have recognized the clothing, hairstyles, architecture and landscape as very familiar. They might also recognize the faces of the entire Medici clan. As was often the case, the artist put the images of his patrons right into the artwork. In this painting that means not three Magi but thirty-three Magi coming to adore the Christ child. How many verses would the “We Thirty-Three Kings” Christmas carol contain, do you think?

I imagine this inclusion of the Medici clan into the artwork as the Magi made them feel honored and respected, as well as giving them that taste of immortality rich people seem to like, putting their names to arenas and hotels and skyscrapers and other edifices in our day. It was meant to flatter and give praise to the ones who put up the moolah for the painting in the first place. Artists sometimes turned that into a subversive form of protest but here it seems Gozzoli is content to give adoration to the Medici’s as they proceed on their way to the Adoration.

All that aside, there is something about this artwork that reminds me of a fantasy world, some kind of Elf-like realm from The Lord of the Rings perhaps. There is, of course, an ascension that is going on here, as the Magi make their way up to the city where, presumably, the Child King awaits. In fact, just about everything in this painting points up or flows up, giving the viewer the impression of being lifted up themselves. I believe that Gozzoli was attempting to make this entire work an act of adoration, not to the Medici clan, but to God, giving the viewer a chance to ascend in praise. In a way, he’s made his patrons prominent and up front but still made us all, the rich and poor alike, drawn up to the Divine.

Part of the message of the Magi as included in the Christmas narrative is the fact of all nations, all peoples, coming to bow down to Jesus, offering their gifts, whatever that means based on their station in life. This painting welcomes the poor, too, to ascend to meet Christ, the pauper-King, the homeless-at-home in people’s hearts.


Muscular, powerful, detailed and rich, Peter Paul Rubens knew how to blow the viewer away like few other artists before or since. This composition is like an avalanche of adoration directed at the tiny, shimmering Christ Child. Everything directs your attention to the baby, even the smoke from the torches and the posture of the horses. The animals’ eyes glowing in the light is a favorite detail of mine, especially in the eyes of the camels peering over the crowd. You can almost imagine Rubens laughing out of sheer joy as he added this feature.

Rubens has pictured the Magi in a much more traditional way, at least to Western culture sensibilities. There are three of them and each is given a different ethnicity to emphasize the “all nations” aspect of coming to adore the King of Kings. As I look at it I imagine this image alone must have had a lot to do with our popular idea of the Wise Men. The three gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew are the only reason we’ve come up with the number three. It could’ve been 3, it could’ve been 13, or even thirty-three for all we know.

A fascinating fact about this painting is its role in reconciliation. The town council of Antwerp commissioned Rubens to paint this in 1609, but the piece was given to the Spanish ambassador at the end of a twelve-year war in 1612 as a peace offering.  Later it was acquired by Philip IV of Spain. It seems very appropriate that a painting of the powerful and wealthy coming to adore the humble Prince of Peace should function as a symbol to the end of conflict. It brings to mind one of the most familiar passages read at Christmastime:

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”Luke 2: 14

Those words were spoken to the shepherds in the hills outside of Bethlehem, of course. Tomorrow, in part 3 of this series, we’ll include those caretakers of sheep in the Christmas story in masterpieces.