Phaedra's New Liturgical Art Commission

Recently Phaedra completed a new work of liturgical art which City Church in San Francisco had commissioned. Karl Digerness supervised the project. (He also happens to be a very fine hymnodist; the church, in turn, happens to be a very art savvy community). Because the commissioned involved a request for a sizable triptych, which would be used during their worship services for Eastertide, Phaedra had to become a little creative, knowing that she'd be shipping artwork 2,812 miles across the country. It would be exorbitantly expensive to ship three large encaustic works across the country.

So Karl pitched the idea that she create the artwork as a series of modules. She used 16 panels to complete the work and included a code so they'd know how to put it together when they pulled the art out of a collection of UPS boxes. I've included here a few photographs and the statement she wrote to unpack the work artistically and theologically. I'm so proud of her and excited about her next project too.

"Sweet the Timber, Sweet the Iron."

Encaustic and Mixed Media on Wood Panels, Phaedra Jean Taylor, 2014
For most of my adult life, I’ve associated Easter with the culmination of the Christian life. All songs, sermons, prayers and liturgical events climax at the Lord’s resurrections. Here we arrive at the end of our yearlong pilgrimage and then other things ensue, such as the final weeks of school and the onslaught of summer activities. Recently, though, I’ve found myself re-thinking this theological experience as a kind of beginning. When Christ is raised from the dead, something utterly new takes place. The whole cosmos turns into a new thing, re-oriented to a new end, inviting us to begin a new thing ourselves.

After forty days of Lenten observances, the church celebrates the work of Christ who breaks into the darkness of lives plagued by sin and who offers hope through his resurrection. But it is not all finished on that day. The fullness of that resurrection life unfolds through time, beginning with the apostolic community and continuing to this day, with you and me, here and now. When Jesus ascends to the Father’s right hand, he leaves the disciples with a promise, the presence of the Holy Spirit, who empowers the faithful to embrace a long walk through uncharted territory. Here, in this broken and brokenhearted world, faith is required. Here friendship with God’s people is required.

In a sense, I have begun to think of our whole lives as a kind of long Lent before a new and brilliant Easter, that day when Jesus returns as King. In this time in-between, you and I are invited to see our lives as perhaps brightly sad, rather than endlessly happy. Here in the regular course of our often not-exciting lives, we hold our hearts out to the Spirit, who knows all things, including the depths of our hearts, and we take halting steps towards the day when Jesus shall make all things new, despite our unclear paths and hearts that frequently grow faint.

The purpose of these paintings, then, is to invite you to sit inside a clouded landscape which allusively evokes the pilgrimage nature of our lives as Christians. What is around us feels real, but there is (at least for me) always this nagging sense that things are not quite whole or solid enough, and not quite as beautiful as they were meant to be. We see now through a glass, darkly. The space that I have painted across this triptych is empty, devoid of roads and people and buildings. There are no overt signs of life. Yet it is not lifeless landscape. Greens, blues, and yellows, along with drips and scratches, all speak to the life that is teeming below the surface, barely seen perhaps, but very much real.

Over the top of, and breaking into, this landscape are three symbolic images: 1) bright gold squares, 2) old and worn wood, and 3) thin, almost translucent, paper wings. These images are my attempt to place the triune God as an active presence within this landscape.

The glory of the Father emerges around the action of cross and resurrection. The Father’s glory is concentrated around the work of Jesus on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and it irradiates out into a world which God so loves. This presence of the Father is, at this point, glimpsed in faith and waits to reveal itself in all its splendor at the end of this age. We see now only bright flashes of hope, flickers of what is to come. Yet this glory is very much solid.

The worn wood, pockmarked with nail holes, speaks of the earthiness of Jesus, the One who became fully human and yet remained fully God. On the cross he is the broken one, whose flesh is offered up for the life of the world. On the cross, he receives our poverty to himself, so that he might transfer his wealth to us. On this concrete piece of wood, everything that humanity loses in Adam is wonderfully recovered by Christ. Or as the old hymn puts it: “Sweet the timber, sweet the iron, Sweet the burden that they bear!”

The Holy Spirit in this landscape can be found in the mass of wings which rise up through the earth, dissecting the composition unnaturally, and rain down from the heavens, entering from beyond the scope of the scene. The Spirit remains intimately bound to the faithful as helper and guide, as these wings are embedded into the layers of wax from which the paintings are made. The Spirit here hovers over the activities of crucifixion and resurrection, and then is given in full measure, spread across the world.

While all visual metaphors at some point break down, my hope is that this work will help you to know something about the presence of the triune God in your world—your city and your home, your public spaces, the spaces in which you work and play and build relationships, the places which are easily seen and those which are hidden to human eyes. My hope is that as you sit with these pieces of visual art, you will be able to discover some part of your story at play as well as something of the activities of God in your life, and, perhaps too, a place where those stories, if only in quiet ways, where few trumpets sound, come together to make something new and hopeful.

Side pieces: 36x36 inches. Middle piece: 24x52 inches.


TwoSquareMeals said…
Tell Phaedra that I love this! I love that she used a landscape so like my own Blue Ridge mountains to evoke this experience of the spiritual life, one of the reasons I love returning to my mountain home. I love the old wood (was it from Ransomshire?). Anyway, it is lovely.

Ashley R.
That's very kind of you, Ashley. I think they remind me too of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which will be a fun way to remember our years here in North Carolina. It's very possible that the piece of wood is from the Ransomshire. I'll have to ask Phaedra to confirm.
shannon newby said…
Wow!! Such beautiful, rich works that will surely bless and encourage that congregation for many years to come. These seem like some of Phaedra's best pieces and it'll be exciting to hear what she's working on next! Also, big kudos for tackling the encaustic-shipping nightmare. That can be seriously tricky business.
Sally B said…
These are exquisite. Something about them makes me weep-- in that place where joy and sorrow are finally one.. Sally
Shannon, thanks for the good encouragement! I'll make sure Phaedra sees it. And, Sally, that's certainly a wonderful way to describe life in the aftermath of Easter.

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