The beginning of each new year seems to present a distinctively creative moment—a transition when we look to the past as the foundation for the future we will have a part in building. But while we pay more attention to this sense of connection and possibility when the calendar turns, sculptor and teacher Gregg Luginbuhl recognizes that such is always the character of our experience of and place in the Creation.
Pictured above is the culmination of Luginbuhl’s “The Creation Series” of eight raku-fired earthenware plates, on permanent display at Bluffton University’s Yoder Recital Hall: the “Creation of Humankind.” While based on the Genesis 1 account of God’s creative work, the series and this plate in particular are not merely re-tellings or illustrations of the Biblical story, but are the way the artist gives physical form to his meditations on the unfolding nature of human identity and engagement with the world, and with the creative God whose image we bear.
Luginbuhl speaks of his own creative process this way:
“Creative acts begin with an idea and intuitive direction. As an artist, I am most successful when . . . I allow ideas to develop and grow as I proceed. I allow my materials to interact with my ideas and participate in the outcome. I seek surprises. I try to set up an environment where good things might happen. To over-plan, or to force the outcome, results in art which is static and stilted.”
He does not claim that God works in precisely this way, but his words and work do suggest that our own experience as creative beings can help us understand this aspect of the Lord and our relationship with him and with the rest of the material world. Luginbuhl notes that, “in the Genesis story, humankind is created last. The most complex and difficult element in the composition is the result of knowledge and insight acquired in earlier creative acts. Each creative act nourishes the next. In each creative act are the seeds of the next. The implications of this simple observation are enormous for artists, art students, and art teachers at every level.” In other words, we are both the culmination and the agents of an ongoing process that is beautiful in its improvisatory quality—in the way freedom interacts with the constraints of what is and what has come before, something at the literal heart of the artist’s own ceramic work.
At the visual center of the piece is a play on the most famous image of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel decorations (and arguably the most famous image of the Creation in all of western art), and Luginbuhl is making a nod to the way we draw upon the work, the images of others as “raw material” for our own creative process and activities—though those materials are not truly “raw,” but are themselves indebted to the creativity of those who have gone before, all the way back to the Beginning. What Luginbuhl seems to find of most interest about the “moment” of creation is not an imagined instantaneousness but its relational quality: surrounding the iconic human/divine touch are other human hands and faces that place us (still) in the middle of the processes we seek to understand.
In the artist’s own description of the plate, “God’s hand reaches from a swirl of clouds and passes the spark to three hands:
- A negative hand print similar to those early “signatures” found in Paleolithic cave paintings, representing the earliest evidence of mankind’s self-awareness. (If we are to mark the moment of the creation of humankind, it might be here.)
- A fist, with a weapon and trailing a strip of cloth, representing the rebellious nature of humankind, and sin against God. (My plate series was based on Genesis Chapter 1, but this is a foreshadowing of Chapter 2 and the Fall.)
- A small beckoning hand beneath these two indicating a reluctant willingness to accept the challenge and responsibility of the gift of life. (As opposed to the confident hand of Michaelangelo’s Adam, it is indicative of human weakness, but also of a positive spirit.)
“Faces—life casts of two of my children—emerge from the raw material of earth. (They are my personal experience of the miracle of creation of human life. The life casts were taken from my daughter Alison at age 10, on the right, and my son Ben at age 8, on the left.) A footprint (my own in clay) represents the mere trace that we leave behind, the ephemeral impact of our creative efforts in light of the magnitude of God’s Creation.”
In Michaelangelo’s version of the creation of humankind, a very human-like God reaches across from heaven to touch a very God-like man—the epitome of Renaissance humanism in his physical perfection. But Luginbuhl offers us not one unified and idealized sense of the human person, but a ceramic rendering of the complicated process of living out the imago dei, encompassing the way the divine relationship, inaugurated freely by God sometime in the ancient past of our biological species, meant a new awareness of ourselves as selves as well as an awareness of the God who sustains all life.
This is the handprint—the first evidence of selves in art. It is also the faces that we recognize as specific human persons (and the artist recognizes as his own children), the most “natural” yet profound example of how we share in God’s creation, even of the human race. Here again, we have an intrinsic meditation on the relationship between the creator and the created, as Luginbuhl in his process as a sculptor has literally “formed from the earth” beings in his own likeness, a recasting of the biological genesis of creatures that share in his identity and with whom he enjoys a deep and abiding relationship.
But, as any parent knows, children also resist our claims on their selves even as they seek identity in their relationships with us. Indeed, Luginbuhl’s entirely Biblical implication that with self-awareness, or awareness of our relation to our creator, comes rebellion, is given form in the second human hand emerging from the world at the lower left: the clinched fist makes it clear that this resistance to God’s sovereignty is part and parcel of the Natural Man.
Thus, perhaps it is all the more remarkable that Luginbuhl’s central image for our reaction to the God who reaches towards us is the smallest, and it’s position tentative and questioning rather than strong and self-contained. The size of this third hand—the one actually “in touch” with the Divine—does not imply that this attitude (or our relationship with the Father) is unimportant or trivial, but rather indicates that the proper relationship with God is one that recognizes its asymmetry in both power and goodness and allows God to do the reaching, us the opening of our selves to the touch of the maker. That posture is the foundation of a life rightly lived; may it be the one we adopt together as we enter the coming year.
Gregg Luginbuhl received the Master of Fine Arts degree in Ceramics from the University of Montana in 1975, following a B.A. in Art from Bluffton College in 1971. Now in his 35th year of university art teaching, he is Professor of Art and Chairman of the Art Department at Bluffton. He has exhibited pottery and ceramic sculpture in more than 100 regional and national exhibitions, and is included in many public and private collections. More on the Creation Series and his other work may be found here.