A central and persistent mystery in both science and faith is the boundary between life and non-life. While we can see evidence that the transition between the two has occurred (both in deep history and in our present experience), we still can not say exhaustively what happened or what happens at the moment of such a change in either direction. A few argue that it is merely a matter of degree of organization or energy at the molecular scale, but the nearly trans-historical human consensus has been that life is something more than the sum of our working parts, and that the significance of both birth and death surpasses the physical, even though inescapably tied to it. Moreover, we have a sense that life and death are not exactly opposites but that the boundary between them is somehow permeable, though in a way that we can only address by recourse to image and metaphor.
During the season of Lent in particular, we are called to contemplate this strange permeability and the paradoxical Christian claim that the way to the fullness of life is actually through the embrace of our own death, following the example of Jesus who entered into His glory by pouring Himself out as a sacrifice for others. Though Jesus gave several images of re-birth through death as He spoke to the crowds and the disciples, He began His public ministry with an act that combined cleansing and renewal—His baptism in the Jordan River. So today we feature Down by the Riverside Nos. 1, 2, & 3, a set of three woodcuts by contemporary artist and theologian Steve Halla through which he explores how we come to bear the imprint of the Savior.
The three prints record the results of an experiment (of sorts) in Halla’s basement, involving the cast of a human skull, a clear plastic bucket, and water. Halla had previously set the cast in the bucket, but came across it again while contemplating how to depict baptism as part of The Evergreen Life, a larger series of works on “the intermittent joys and struggles inherent in the lifelong process of spiritual and artistic maturation.” While in baptism our old selves are drowned to make way for a new life, Halla notes that it is actually death that is conquered and buried in Christ. Thus the skull —perhaps the classic symbol of human mortality and transience—seemed the appropriate object to stand for what was washed away by repentance and faith.
Yet it was the physical properties of the skull and the liquid medium of baptism that gave new richness to the images that appeared as Halla watched the scene unfold. The first print shows the bucket one third filled and the skull seeming to drink (or begin to drown in) the water. The second print shows the bucket two-thirds filled and death now mostly submerged, but also beginning to be born up by the water itself, as the void and emptiness within the cast provided buoyancy. As the last third of the bucket was filled, the sequence culminated with the skull not only being covered but also lifted up from the bottom of the bucket. Further, the water now became a lens that changed and distorted the skull’s apparent contours as seen through the side of the container; the physical attitude of the cast changed, and with it the expression worn by the skull. Here now was an image of death not only overcome, but transformed by its immersion in the spirit.
Though Halla’s three prints were derived from the photographs he took of the skull, bucket and water, the process by which they were imprinted onto paper is no less about the giving of new life to what had been dead than is the imagery itself. The woodcut has rich historical ties to the sharing of the Gospel, as it was the medium through which Protestant artists like Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer helped tell the story of Christ in the printed Bibles that began to circulate widely during the Reformation. Now as then, woodcuts bring together an old craft with contemporary technology in a way that can emphasize continuity with historic faith and, at the same time, the perpetual newness of life in Christ.
More specifically, though, Halla notes that the wood block into which the image is cut was, itself, once a living thing, though it has been utterly transformed by mechanical processes and now seems all but devoid of its former life: what was alive is now seemingly dead. Still, traces of its living origins persist in the different densities of the wood grain, which reassert themselves in response to Halle’s carving and find new expression in the finished print. The grain pattern is visible overlaying the contours of the skull, and what was dead now lives again: another example of a life transformed rather than utterly destroyed in making way for the new.
But the aspect of Halla’s artistic process that is most resonant with the narrative of death and new life in Christ comes in the tools he chooses to maintain the exactitude and precision of his photographic source while also embracing the intensely personal engagement required when we confront the cost of Jesus’ sacrifice. Halla’s transfer of these images of death overcome was accomplished by methodically scarring the wood block with hammer and nails. Each blow brings a point of relief to the face of the wood and, therefore, a light space to the final print; where Halla does not strike the blow, the image remains black. It is the piercing of the once-living substance that results in giving it a new life, another implicit image of suffering and death redeemed.
The final stage of pulling a print from the woodcut is inking and re-inking the surface of the wood, laying on a sheet of paper, and then painstakingly rubbing the surface of the paper to make sure that each detail is conveyed onto the sheet, despite the occasional recalcitrance and unevenness of the wood surface. So while the original photography allowed some distance between the scene and its creator, the final transfer is an intensely personal, almost ritual activity. When the paper is finally pulled from the block, the artist can see the plate and the print side by side (as Halla says, “not opposites of one another, but one the reflection, imprint, image of the other”) with his agency and, indeed, love at the intersection.
For Christians, a similar sense of God’s presence in our own transformation—in our own process of coming to reflect the image of Christ—gives shape to our understanding of the connection between non-life and life, life and death. In the light of Christ’s own resurrection and the promise of a renewed creation to come, we confess that the Lord, Himself, is the boundary between life and death, with His presence and agency giving meaning to both. Does this mean that we take death and suffering lightly? By no means. For we know that it is God’s love that has allowed us, like the prints that come from Halla’s blocks, to show only the image of the scars Christ took upon Himself. In these forty days before Easter, may we all pray for God’s power to bear such marks for others, and to die unto an “evergreen life.”
Detail of Down by the Riverside, No. 1 showing the “negative spaces” (light areas) created by individual nail marks of various sizes on the original wood block.
Steve Halla grew up in Wisconsin and graduated from Moody Bible College before pursuing his THM in Historical Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. During his time at DTS he discovered the woodcut medium and rekindled a long-time passion for art-making, though he was unsure how to combine his academic/ministry and creative interests. While getting his PhD in philosophy with an emphasis in aesthetics at the University of Texas at Dallas, he simultaneously taught undergraduate drawing there and systematic theology at DTS. He then became the founding Director of the Center for Theology and Arts at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before moving, two years later, to Union University to fully integrate his theological training with his own studio work. He is organizing the upcoming ACT Conference at Union. “Down by the Riverside” and other prints from the Evergreen Life series are currently included in the show "Resonant Vision: Christians Making Art Now”at the 930 Art Center in Louisville, Ky.