Kimberly Alexander’s work as an artist is inextricably tied to her work as an ESL teacher, welcoming international students to her classroom and to their new country and language. Indeed, she considers her paintings a means by which she may better absorb the lessons she learns from her students, and “memorialize the burdens and victories” of “these brave young people.” Reflecting on her own life story but speaking of these young sojourners, she says, “I feel a oneness with them. They seem like outsiders to most people, but the displaced are my people. Even now, as a believer, I am displaced from my true home, and identifying with my students increases my awareness of my own identity as a pilgrim.”
With Alexander’s background in mind, I took the riot of different stems, flowers, fruits and animals growing from the single stem in her painting One Seed to be about the dynamics of grafting and adoption, about the way—both spiritually and biologically— lines are crossed and boundaries blurred when the Lord invites us to be part of His one family. This is certainly a worthy subject for both art and worship, for the invitation to claim Jesus as our brother and savior and thereby become children of God is a central instance of His specific grace to us. But I was wrong about her imagery, partially because I committed an error common to many who struggle to make sense of the diversity of life on earth in a way that honors the biblical descriptions of creation—I looked for the sign of God’s mysterious and beautiful agency in the world to be a case (or many cases) of “breaking the rules.”
Instead, Alexander’s impetus for depicting such unexpected, comprehensive flourishing was her sense that such things actually are the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the fruits of God’s lavish grace upon the whole of creation and the whole of humanity. Though she uses naturalistic imagery and appropriates some of the precision of scientific illustration in her work, her point is not really the workings of the natural world or even God’s sustaining hand in it. She was picturing the way a small kindness can bloom into untold variations of God’s profligate kindness; goodness is, by nature, fertile. It engenders offspring that is unexpected, strange, and even shocking, yet still “after its kind.”
Though we do not always recognize the connections, are often surprised by the shape and color of its fruit, and may even want to deny our place in the lineage, Alexander asserts as common grace the fact that for believers and unbelievers alike, kindness begets kindness just as violence begets violence. As she says, this work is about “the fecundity of our actions” and “the natural law that . . . the fruit of even a small kindness is probable but unpredictable. It’s sometimes astonishing, wide ranging, and profuse.”
For the artist, the distinction between love that is unreserved, offered regardless of outcome, and that which is manipulative or merely directed towards a specific end is an important one:
“[K]indness in my classroom does not have an endgame of preparing students for adoption or grafting on. I am sowing seeds into the wind, spending my love, as it were. You could say that the idea of excess is central to the fertility of kindness that I tried to depict. As a teacher, I want to give liberally enough to risk futility, letting go of the ideal of adoption or my role in it, but simply giving to my neighbors because we are together.”
Still, aligned with that sense of how we are to “love our neighbors” is Alexander’s attention to the natural world as an image (or companionate icon) of God’s pre-eminent lavishness. . One Seed helps us see the profuse wealth that grows from our paltry attempts at loving others. This is an essential promise in Christian relationships with the people around us, and a pointer to the character of the Lord that He has written into the natural world. She does not seem to read God from nature, but reads nature through God. The work may suggest that the most surprising and unlikely aspects of the natural world are the ones that remind us that we remain like little children when it comes to understanding the expanse and effect of divine character.
Wildly divergent creatures share a common history, and we may be hard-pressed to believe, much less comprehend their connections. But might it be that the lack of moderation and “wastefulness” of the natural evolutionary processes by which the living kingdom expands—the fact that so much of life’s fantastic diversity is damaged, destroyed or forever unknown to us—reflect the God we meet in Jesus better than that sense of “natural order” that plays to our desires for control? The very “randomness” and lack of obvious teleology of life, its eager exploration of possibility and habit of “trying things out” may also be seen as a kind of gifting to the world, a biological casting of bread upon the waters.
Kim Alexander’s work—both as a teacher and an artist—reflects the God who loves and seeks out each of his creatures specifically (as with the shepherd after the one lost sheep), but also the God who is yet advancing His Kingdom by sowing seeds far and wide, on all types of ground. And while the strangeness of her combinations and connections may seem to be pictures of how God steps in and bring us into new and fruitful relationships (which He does), she helps us to see that an equally fundamental part of His character is the profligate and fabulously wasteful way He has been pouring out his grace on the world since He laid its foundations.
God’s love for us and His creation, even reflected in that creation, is not one that prizes efficiency, it seems, but one that honors Mary Magdalen’s “waste” of perfume on the feet of Jesus. It is a love that honors above all the profligate gifting of Himself in Jesus, who is both the one seed from which we are sprung and the true vine into which we are grafted anew.
Kimberly Alexander is self-taught painter whose work and life are informed by a BA in philosophy, literature, and art history from Michigan State University, and an MA in philosophy, literature, and art history from The University of Texas at Dallas. She co-directed the Trinity Arts Conference from 1998-2009, writes about art for various galleries and publications, and will be teaching at Image Journal’s Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, NM this summer. She also teaches English to new immigrants at an urban high school in Richardson, TX, where students representing 30 nations and at least 20 languages struggle to adapt to their new country. Seeing her classroom as its own peculiar world and imagining her own sense of wonder as like that of early explorers, she appropriates the language of scientific illustration to document her impressions.