Makoto Fujimura: A Letter to Young Artists

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We just discovered this piece (thanks to Katy Bowser) by renowned painter Makoto Fujimura, adapted from his introduction to our friend Michael Card’s book on creativity, Scribbling in the Sand.

Dear Young Artist:

Remember your first love—how much you enjoyed creating as a child. If you ever lose that sense of joy, you will need to reflect on why you lost that spark. Of course, the craft of expression takes much “dying to self” and much discipline. A discipline of any form takes perseverance. But when we are going through a period of training, we must remember the reason for our training. Our journey needs to have a specific direction. Our direction need not be toward being successful and being famous. We need to start from your first love; what we cherish, what we are, and what we value. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

matthew_14_a1_thumb-300x300-1C. S. Lewis writes about what the Bible calls the “Good News”: “God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature” (Mere Christianity, p. 167). The message of Jesus has been distorted in recent times in culture. The gospel of Jesus is not a message that we can be trained to run faster and jump higher in a race of moralism. The historic work of Jesus is still relevant in the twenty-first century because, despite the advancement in technology and communication, the distance between us is greater, and the bloodshed of hatred continues to spill, spreading our “Ground Zero” conditions all over the world. We cannot possibly meet God’s standard of righteousness and goodness. We do not love each other. We cannot even keep our own promises, let alone God’s commands. St. Paul reflects on his own efforts of trying to meet God’s standard and confesses: “What a wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:24) And he emphatically states, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Jesus’ love for us can only be received as a gift. Only when we rest upon him as a gift does he give us wings, to hover between heaven and earth. These wings are gifts of grace, aligned to the original intention for our being. Our journey will begin in a Garden and end in a City. We are headed toward the City of God, a reconciled city, humanity, nature and God.

Read the rest at Makoto’s website, where you can also see some of his beautiful paintings.

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


33 Comments

  1. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I love this, AP. This and Pete’s last post are perfectly timed in my life for maximum effect. Playing music, writing songs, or any creative endeavor are really largely about surrendering to the moment.

  2. kelli

    Oh…wow!

    Thanks for the intro to Makoto, AP. I’ve spent the last 30 minutes on his website…such good stuff!

  3. Susan D.

    I love that you posted this piece. I ran across it a couple of days ago and have been pondering it ever since. I agree that his writing seems to coincide well with many topics and conversations in The Rabbit Room. I loved the C.S. Lewis quote, “…It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature” (Mere Christianity, p. 167).

    AP, you have mentioned before the importance of remembering how to be a child and the clarity that can come from those moments both creatively and spiritually? Would you -or anyone else- be willing to expand on that thought? Picasso is quoted as saying, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” And the Matthew 18:3 states, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What are the qualities that embody this state of being? Innocence? Wonder? Trust? Simplicity? And once “lost”, how is it re-gained?

  4. LauraP

    Sometimes I struggle to articulate why I think art and artists matter so much in this world. It’s always been something I’ve “felt”, but I haven’t always been able to explain it so clearly to the people doing the math on the price of nard per ounce. I’m hanging on to this piece for the next time I need to do that.

    I love these additional lines from the rest of the essay:

    “Art helps us to confront darkness head-on. For that reason, you must not cease to create, even in the darkest of hours; by creating, you can participate in announcing that great arrival. You can also help your community to articulate their suffering, with a deeper call for community.”

    “We need to redefine art and its effectiveness by how it helps us to love one another sacrificially.”

    “Even when we cannot paint or write, love is available to us a creative resource to share with others. Stand on the ashes of your “Ground Zero”; look up and create in love and hope.”

    “Lastly, remember you are not alone. A soliloquy can become a symphony of soliloquies. I look forward to hearing many voices joining, , through the echoes of time, when future grace becomes reality, when mourning is transformed into dancing.”

    And here is another of Makato’s entries that gives expression to my belief that churches need to be persistent and consistent supporters of Christian artists, rather than considering them as “extras”; as in “if-we-can-afford-it-good-but-otherwise-please-volunteer”. (Thanks to Arthur Alligood for the post that brought this one to my attention.)

    http://www.makotofujimura.com/writings/a-letter-to-north-american-churches/

  5. Sondorik

    Brilliant! Love this piece and all the beauty and truth it highlights. Thanks for posting it here and introducing me to Makoto.

  6. Becca

    I loved this except for the promise that we will be famous and successful in the next world. Lord, I hope we will be finally be free there from the needs those words imply.

    Makoto seems to write as someone who has experienced loneliness and rejection, so I empathize with the ache. I just don’t think fame or success is the balm for those particular wounds. Maybe I misunderstood him though. Or maybe I misunderstand something crucial about heaven.

    I think I’d be far more excited about creating in an environment where I was finally and fully known. And knew that I was known. The peace of that seems unfathomable.

    Does anyone happen to have a copy of H.R.R. Rookmaaker’s “Letter to a Christian Artist?” I changed computers and lost my file, but I am interested in comparing the two pieces. (Rookmaaker’s _Art Needs no Justification_ is online free in a PDF here. Similar theme to Makoto.

    http://www.patrickdodson.net/files/Rookmaaker.pdf)

  7. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Becca, the fame and success of the next world is not about money or feeling above others. It is about being valued for our contribution. Here, in this world, we often misplace that sense of value in “what others think” and fame and worldly success.

    The success of the next world will be that we are loved, cherished, valued, and useful. It will also mean rewards are given. The “Well done” from the lips of Jesus will be all we’ll need for eternity.

    That passage comes to mind from The Great Divorce, where the artist from the Grey Town says, “Won’t there be any famous men?” And the Bright Spirit says, “They will all be famous.”

    That need for fame and worldly success here is just a good desire perverted to a wrong use; it is to turn our need toward a wrong object rather than toward God. But the need itself is good.

  8. Becca

    Susan D. :

    Do you know the song “Going North” by Missy Higgins? I have no idea what her belief system is, but I ran into this song on Pandora this morning and thought about your question. I can’t find an official music video, but here’s her singing it in a Borders.

    I’m torn on this, because there are some places in Scripture that advocate growing up, and there are others that advocate being like a child. My natural bent is Wordsworthian, so I tend to idealize childhood. (I’ve been known to tuck a tabula rasa safely under my armpit and run away yelling, “Blah, blah, blah, I can’t hear you,” to any proper theologian who tries to prove that the mechanics of the world don’t work the way I want them to.”)

    But in the end, I wonder if tapping into proper childhood isn’t so much about finding lost freedom or innocence. (Though I’m drawn those thoughts.) I wonder if the Biblical childhood lies instead in trust and identity.

    By this, I mean whose child are we? Can we rest there, and make beauty with all of the implications of being carried on shoulders all the while?

    If this were true, a young child could be very old. And an old man could be very young. The streetwise could learn to dance in the rain. The hardened and betrayed could nurse like a child at a mother’s breast.

    I don’t know, but I feel like there could be immense creative energy at the ends of the law. Making beauty in the sheltered dependancy of grace and paternity. It seems much would come unbridled.

  9. Becca

    Thanks, Ron. I think I see what you are saying.

    Maybe those terms are just hard for me. I can’t think of anything I would hate more than “being famous.” That’s not humility speaking. It’s just that everyone knowing who I am wherever I go is not something I desire.

    I would love to be deeply known by a few people I could fully trust. People who speak my language… maybe five or eight or twenty. Also I would love to interact with a tactile Jesus I could perceive with senses… knowing that He knows me fully.

    “Famous” is just not anywhere on my list of things I’m looking forward to about heaven. I’d be so much happier to know there’s a soft landing somewhere up there for introverts. Can we take our nametags off after the first hundred years or so?

  10. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    I just read the entire article from Fujimura’s website. These posts for the last few days have really helped me out during a tough part of the path.

  11. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Becca, also yes, to be as a child is to have trust and identity in Father – not some fancied return to innocence. Children create without thought. My son writes stories every day for hours, and draws, and reads. I see a writer being created before my eyes. He has always seen pictures in his mind; I have often seen him telling a story with a glazed look in his eyes, where he is not seeing me or the things in the room, but the things in his mind. One of my main jobs is to foster that, to encourage it, and not to be an editor. He’s learning enough about writing itself in homeschool.

    But that’s the trust relationship, and identity he gets from me. I tell him who he is by listening to his stories and being delighted. I tell him by my delight that he has what it takes to be a writer. I want him, as long as possible, to remain in that state, that place of abundant creation. When he comes to times of writer’s block, hopefully much later in his life, I will hopefully be there to help point him to the answers – having been one who did not have the encouragement, trust, and identity necessary early on. I have found and am finding answers by the grace, love, and power of God.

  12. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Becca, Ron, here’s a passage about this idea of heavenly glory/fame from my book The World According to Narnia (is that tacky?). This is from the chapter on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

    Glory in the biblical sense isn’t merely brightness; it’s the brightness of honor, of accolade, of good report. Reepicheep’s obsessively cultivated honor is just a shadow of the honor he will exude in Aslan’s country. For the truest and highest honor is the approbation of the Judge of Heaven and Earth: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

    To bask in God’s approval—it may sound like the ultimate vanity. But, as Lewis argues, it is the purest, even the humblest pleasure of the creature, to please the One who made you for his pleasure.

    There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing God made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex for ever will also drown her pride. [from “The Weight of Glory”]

    In Aslan’s country, all selves will be free—and their freedom will be a freedom from the self. Eustace’s self-absorption will be a distant memory as he absorbed glory and is absorbed into it. Lucy will no longer care what her friends say about her behind her back, overwhelmed instead by the loving words the Lion speaks to her face. The darkness of Lord Rhoop’s inward hell will be flooded by the light of Aslan’s Country. The last we see of Reepicheep, he is headed for that country, completing the journey he has pursued so long and so hard. Forgetting himself, forgetting the world, forgetting everything that lies behind, he goes up, up, up, to be welcomed into the heart of things.

  13. kelli

    “…forgetting himself, forgetting the world, forgetting everything that lies behind, he goes up, up, up to be welcomed into the heart of things.” i love this!!!

    thanks for the peek into your book, jonathan. what a beautiful portrayal of pleasing our Maker!

  14. Becca

    Thank you, Jonathan. Very helpful and not tacky in the least. I’m going to check out your book. I didn’t know any of you people except for AP existed until a few weeks ago, and I can’t wait to unpack the wealth I’ve been missing. There is so much here. Watching Evie make art on JG’s video made me ache for heaven in a way I haven’t felt many times in my life. Where have these conversations been my whole life? It’s like being found wandering in Babel.

    As for what you wrote, yes. I can almost see how the sort of “fame” you describe would be more peaceful than anonymity. I can only grasp the idea for a few seconds before it fades. But I’ll keep thinking on it.

    I suppose sinlessness would remove the barbs from being known. “Self” would be aligned perfectly within a greater purpose, so the distribution of attention would be healthy. A mutual enjoyment of one another’s strengths, like chamber music. Or Adam and Eve, glorious but not seductive. Or that green woman from Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Or that perfect fruit from the same book… fruit that you could eat to satisfaction without craving more. Comfortable in our skin.

    It seems like a blending in to something beautiful and secure instead of being separated from it, our individual role distorted by the spotlight.

  15. JenniferT

    I don’t know whether this will be a helpful point or not, but if you look at the context of the passage about becoming like a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, it’s about status. The disciples have just asked Jesus, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” A child doesn’t have status or worldly greatness or power over others. And Jesus says, that is the true greatness. All of the expectations of this world about who is important are overturned. This is a theme throughout Scripture: the lowly will be lifted up, the humble will be exalted, the one who loses his life will save it. In Jesus’ kingdom, which we are already part of, the greatest ones (even now) are the those we would least expect to be, even the children. Maybe even a few humble artists.

    J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a wonderful story called “Leaf by Niggle” which few people know about. In this story Niggle, a painter who is unknown and seen as worthless in this world, but who doggedly and self-sacrificially keeps doing his art, finds in God’s beautiful new world that his painting has come alive and been redeemed and perfected in a way beyond his wildest dreams, and that in fact his name is honored there.

    I have thought a great deal about what it means to keep one’s childlikeness, and George MacDonald is the best author I know for illuminating that question. I am still searching for the answer and love to hear others’ thoughts.

  16. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    I don’t know much about Eastern religions, but isn’t the goal of Buddhism to disappear into an undifferentiated blob–like a drop in an ocean–free at last from all desires and passions? In the Christian tradition, on the other hand, heaven is a place where our desires are burned pure and turned loose. Which is another way of saying we’re more ourselves than ever–and our selves will be glorious. Sorry, Becca, but you might just have to get used to the idea of being eternally famous.

  17. Becca

    Jonathan: You better get your fan shirt early while they’re cheap.

    Jennifer T: Love what you wrote. And I can’t wait to check out Niggle.

  18. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    p.s. … The World According to Narnia is out of print. I recently got the rights back, though, so hopefully there will be a new edition in the not-too-distant future. If nothing else, I may cut and paste the whole thing into a comment on one of Ron Block’s posts.

  19. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    JenniferT: on children not being concerned with status – that’s the fact. That is why they can so completely be absorbed in the continuing moment of creation. They are not worried what so-and-so will think, or whether or not it will be good, or whether or not they will sell a million copies. They don’t even ask those questions.

    I remember when I began playing music at around 11, the idea “Do I have talent” had not ever entered my mind. “Can I do this?” wasn’t there either. I was completely taken up with the absolute thrill of learning to play the guitar and banjo. When I learned something new it wasn’t “Can I play this perfectly” but “This is AWESOME!” (being from, like, California). My point being that the questions of status or security were not in my mind; it was unselfconscious activity.

    Writing songs for me has to be a continuous flow of that Now moment. It happened today; I played slide on my metal-bodied National resonator guitar. Then suddenly I switched to humming a tune over chords. It all came out in a flow and all sounded good. Then I decided to turn on Garage Band. I hit record and the flow became more stilted, jerky. I asked myself “Why?” It’s because it became more self-conscious: “I am writing a song. Will it be good? Will it be as good as others I’ve written?” and all those kinds of flow-deadening questions. That’s the inner Editor jumping on his gig too early. The Child is the master of flow. The Editor can come along later and clean up.

  20. JenniferT

    Ron, I think you’re exactly right about the self-consciousness factor. I have a very good friend who is a dancer, and we have talked about how children are absolutely unfettered in their freedom to move in all sorts of silly and beautiful ways. And at some point in life, for most adults, the moment of self-consciousness hits us and we are too afraid of looking stupid in front of other people, and we stop dancing.

    One of the things that was important for me when I was trying to get the courage to write a story that other people would actually read was the Old Testament story about King David dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6). Others mocked him for his unselfconscious, unseemly (for a king), wild display of devotion. But he didn’t care. He chose to be humble. God moved him to dance, and so he danced with all his might before the Lord. That’s being a child in the kingdom.

  21. Becca

    Woah. What if your childhood wasn’t like that at all? What if you don’t have those memories as a template? Any suggestions?

    What you guys described was not my childhood experience at all. I felt pressure to perform from the earliest moments of my life. I can remember being three-years-old and feeling like every skill I learned and every creation I explored needed to meet (and exceed) expectations. (I think that’s why the ideas of fame and success makes me want to vomit. I’ve had the earthly version of that world, and it was pretty traumatic.)

  22. kelli

    Becca…my childhood wasn’t like that either.

    As soon as my parents found out I had a musical gift (at age 4), I started taking piano lessons. That became my identity, as well as a crutch for my parents. My little brother crumbled in my shadow. I was known as Kelli, the piano player. My parents were known as the parents of Kelli, the piano player, etc. It was ugly and awful and something we’ve all had to work through.

    After 13 years of lessons (and at this point my teacher was quite renoun), winning many competitions, and excelling musically, I had to stop. I was dying. I had no idea who I was outside of playing the piano and singing, and I had to explore that.

    It took me many, many years to come down off of the pedestal I had been placed and had placed myself on. In the midst of that, I started to dabble in learning the guitar, writing music, painting, writing…other arts. I was budding, and the blooms were beautiful. But it has been so hard for me to see. I will never excel in those areas like I did as a pianist, but I am so much more alive!

    And now, though still a journey, I am able to embrace my long lost friend anew. I sit down, my fingers stroking the same ivory they did at that tender age of four, but now we make a different kind of music together. God has taken what was broken and made it beautiful.

    Often when I play, I find myself barefoot, dressed in a simple, white gown. I am in a meadow, amidst the wildflowers and grasses. My Father takes my hand, spinning me around as I freely dance for Him. He smiles….and I am home.

  23. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Becca, Kelli,

    My original childlikeness wasn’t long in being lost, but in a different way. It wasn’t pressure to perform; it was pressure the other way – to not become a musician because “How are you going to ever own a home or raise a family?” I heard that stuff a lot from the age of 16-21, and I know now it put a cap on my ability because it induced several lies in my consciousness. “I must practice constantly or I can’t play well” was one of those. “I am not as talented as other people” was another. In other words, I went from being totally unselfconscious, absorbed in the thing itself, to feeling I had to prove myself. I went from the joyfulness and ease of learning to “practicing.” The gift remained, but some of the lies I believed manifested, particularly, “I have to practice a lot or I can’t play well at all.” Playing in a high-level band for years heightened some of those lies as well as I put more pressure on myself to perform well, to prove myself. It has been miraculous to see that lie uprooted by the Holy Spirit. I am learning to return to that young boy who loved sound, who loved experimenting.

    If we are self-conscious in any relationship, it eventually wrecks the relationship. Any activity is the same. Activity is a “letting” and not a striving. To run well we must stretch and be relaxed. No one shoots baskets well if they’re uptight about missing the shot. Technique is important but if we WORK at it in a self-effortish and uptight way we are actually encoding our mind and hands with tension. There is a letting-go into living in the moment. All my practicing was to prepare for living in the Now, but while I practiced I was not living in the Now. I was striving to achieve better technical precision. Now I know I don’t have to practice all the time to live in that Now moment when I play.

  24. Susan D.

    Ron, thank you for sharing your experience. The experiences I had during that same time in my life correlate somewhat to yours. The message I received from spiritual mentors was that participation in visual arts was impractical and self-indulgent. Messages from school instructors consisted of advice that only the truly elite should continue, and I would have to prove that I had the talent and vision required to be an artist. All of which removed the joy and freedom from that which I enjoyed, and steered me down a completely different path for a time. However, I always continued to draw and create “secretly” in my spare time, at times even with a measure of guilt as if I were doing something forbidden or simply engaging in a time-wasting activity. I have since learned a great deal about the gifts and abilities God has given me and their subsequent purpose. The joy is returning! The Rabbit Room is a continual instigator of creative thought and inspiration.
    Thanks to everyone for the encouragement!

  25. Lee

    I remember how much I enjoyed reading this letter at the end of Michael Card’s book. It encouraged me a lot and I’m glad you posted it here at Rabbit Room.

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