We tend to think of creativity in terms of flashes of insight and brilliance, of novelty, and especially of unexpected things bursting upon the scene. But creativity is no less creative and no less remarkable when it proceeds step by step, according to discipline, according to rule. We notice significant ruptures in the flow of things and upheavals of the regularity and predictability of life, faith, or science, precisely because such revolutions happen against a background of the ordinary. Even when the rules are interrupted and disturbed, they are usually not obliterated but modified. We and the rest of creation begin again by applying them anew and continuing on in light of what has changed.
Artist Linnéa Spransy makes this paradoxical ‘rules and rupture’ quality of life the method, not just the subject of her art, bringing a fascination with the mathematical underpinnings of the natural world together with her commitment to the kind of renewal-through-brokenness that comes with following Christ. As she says, “the boundaries between art, worship and natural sciences are fluid. I go [to that place of intersection] to be more amazed by the strangeness of existence, to experience awe and wonder.”
Confronted with the scriptural assertion that “eternity is written in [our] hearts,” Spransy wondered how we even begin to understand what that means. What might visual corollaries for such a statement be? How do we represent the tension between freedom and constraint, that dynamic dance of continuity and change, of predictability and surprise, that exists at every level of our experience and study of the world—from quantum physics to genetics to geology—and that seems fundamental to the ways of the Lord with us, as well? Her answer began to form around the study of fractals, mathematical rules whose reiteration in nature leads to endlessly new things. In her own work, a similar fractal sensibility leads to visual representations of something eternal.
Spransy says that every painting she completes “is the manifestation of a predetermined scheme – a system of small limits, with a clear beginning and end. These scripted pieces of visual choreography are allowed to accrue to show me their beauties and surprises, allowing discovery in the midst of certainty.” In other words, images like Frenetic Sequence, 2011, above, are not pictures of natural systems or objects, but representations and results of the processes and relationships by which natural systems and objects come to be. They are built from the inside out, as it were.
To begin a piece, Spransy assembles a library of “research drawings” that play out the various rules and rule sets she intends to use—essentially a kind of preliminary modeling of the visual system she wants to explore. Sometimes these are based on fairly simple mathematical or geometric rules that tell her when a line or shape will turn or divide or end. Other times she uses several different sets of rules at the same time—whether mathematical or derived from biological relationships such as those between base pairs on the DNA strand, or the way bacteria will move towards available sources of food in a Petri dish. But though these rules are established at the outset of a new piece, when she begins a new large-scale work, the outcome is anything but mechanistically predetermined, for several reasons.
First, the physical context in which she’ll be exploring each basic “module” or set of rules is different from that of her research drawings, having moved from a sheet of paper onto large prepared canvases that are five or six feet on a side. She does not transfer the small drawing from the paper to canvas, but regards that earlier work as preparation and practice of the process out of which the final work will emerge. Second, because the works are hand-drawn, there is always the element of her own agency and engagement with both the materials and the rules. There is an inescapably subjective quality to the way she responds to both materials and means. There is also subjectivity to the way she engages with the lines and shapes she has already laid down. Put another way, the abstraction of the rules is always mediated by and expressed through specific, very concrete and physical circumstances.
Finally, Spransy’s process includes what she thinks of as cataclysmic events or moments of chaos: intentional ruptures of the emergent system by gestures that overwhelm and obliterate sections of what she’s already done. Often she will shield sections of the existing system from the coming trauma either by masking them off or by subtly manipulating the flood of color—tilting the canvas to preserve sections of what was there. Afterwards, she will continue scribing and painting lines from the original system on top of or adjacent to the new areas of color, but in ways that respond and adapt to the new visual ecosystem. In this way, layers of work are built up, obliterated, and built up again.
Again, there is an inescapable agency at work in what—from the imagined standpoint of the system itself—must seem a randomly destructive occurrence, but Spransy’s point in breaking into the system is to test the limits of its creative, integrative capacity. By creating “environmental pressure” in this way, then coaxing the fragments and remnant information to multiply and reassert their orderly identities again, she asks, “How flexible are the rules?” The finished paintings are not rote recitations of fractal or statistical formulae, then, but objects with both a physical and a relational history. They are records of a thoughtful, physically engaged, but also humble exploration of how the confluence of order and chaos creates meaning.
Though Spransy denies that there can be such a thing as a “perfect analogy,” her artistic practice has spiritual underpinnings and spiritual implications, as well as visual results. Like many working scientists, she is seeking a way of understanding how the creator engages with His creation, and a better grasp on how we creatures should make our way in response. On one hand, her attentiveness to the basic orderliness of the material creation has a corollary in the familiar disciplines of faith, including reading the scriptures, prayer, and responding with mercy to ruptures in human lives and communities. But on the other hand, her embrace of surprise and chaos is, as she says, an “invitation to the otherness of God,” and a recognition that radically “dissimilar things sometimes occupy the same space.” In combination, those divergent elements help Spransy’s works hover at the boundary between knowing and un-knowing, between control and accident, between freedom and determinism.
Spransy notes that “even in the aftermath of great destruction, life is given great opportunity. In science we’re actually happy and excited when there’s a break in the rules.” This insight, clarified and lived out in her life as well as her artistic practice, directs us to consider not only the necessity and goodness of diligent pursuit of the rules, but also to reconsider the goodness of what we are otherwise inclined to see as calamity and chaos. Indeed, Spransy’s work points us back to the central paradox of the Christian faith: that the most radical disruption of the natural systems of the world occurred two thousand years ago in Palestine with the coming of Christ—singular proof that rupture does not necessarily end in destruction, but may be our means to redemption.
Linnéa Gabriela Spransy grew up in rural Oregon in a community attentive to Christ’s call to live in community with one’s neighbors, but was herself equally aware of God’s presence in the natural world around her. She received her BFA in Drawing from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and her MFA from the Yale University School of Art. In the midst of exhibiting in solo and group shows in university and commercial galleries, she moved to Milwaukee to study the Bible and consider how it might re-frame her sense of self and her career as an artist. In 2005 she relocated to Kansas City to help found the Boiler Room, a prayer-focused intentional community where she lives and in which she is the artist in residence. She continues to show her work widely, has pieces in pubic and private collections, and was the subject of a recent film-making project: Linnéa: Freedom Through Limits. More of her art can be seen on her website.
Originally posted February 4, 2012