The Nets of God

Last week’s worship post featured an essay and poem, “Banding,” by Suzanne Rhodes on the experience of participating in a bird banding expedition—the process of netting, measuring, marking and then releasing many individual birds in order to study their health and patterns of movement of the larger population. The monoprint shown above is one of a large series of works in several media based on that poem and its imagery by Rhodes’ friend, G. Carol Bomer, and provides an opportunity to explore not only the way images are fertile sources of other new metaphors and ways to think about the world, but also to examine the way that entirely “ordinary” material processes nevertheless produce extraordinary and individual things—how even repeated and apparently repeatable acts result in moments of “special creation.”

The idea that printmaking offers us another way to think about the creative process of artists and our relationship to the Lord as His “image bearers” was first broached in a previous post on a woodcut print—a subtractive method of producing an image that relies on the removal of material from the surface of a wooden plate. In contrast, the process of creating Banding /Nets of God was additive; it began with Bomer building up a layer of wet dry-wall joint compound on heavy watercolor paper used as the “plate.”

The next stage of the work involved the artist scraping and pressing shapes into this wet surface to produce the image of a bird, the lines symbolizing “the nets of God” from the poem, and the numbers (using an antique number stamp) to reference both the tracking numbers on the tiny leg-bands for the birds and the biblical assurance that God “numbers the hairs on our heads.” (Bomer suggests that another way to put it is that “God has our number.”) The plate was allowed to dry completely, given an acrylic sealer, and then rendered officially a “collograph” with the attachment of a feather to the surface.

The production of the print itself began when the prepared plate was coated with ink and then carefully wiped back down, and re-inked here and there to accentuate features of the design by making them either brighter or darker in the finished piece. Finally, the plate and a dampened sheet of cotton rag paper were run through a press, both transferring the ink to the surface of the now-pliable paper and impressing into it the three-dimensional shapes and textures of the inscribed compound and feather. The result is a distinctively singular work from a technically repeatable process: a monotype from a collograph. While the basic form of the plate is stable, the application of the ink for each print allows for freedom and subtle changes and distinctions to be made. The manipulation of materials and substances that were “at hand”—common and ordinary—were re-purposed to a different, more beautiful and richly meaningful use.

While that “redemption of the ordinary” narrative of the creative process is suggestive enough, there was also a collaborative aspect to pulling the print that bears mentioning. As Bomer did not have a large printing press in her own studio, she relied on the equipment and companionship of Mary Nees, a friend working at East Tennessee State University as a printmaker, as she produced finished pieces from several plates over the course of a few days. The realization of Carol Bomer’s creative intentions, then, drew upon the imagery and words of Suzanne Rhodes and the printmaking studio of a fellow printmaker, Mary Nees, in addition to the physical media of the collograph/printmaking process.

In this case in particular, Carol Bomer’s agency was mediated not only through material, but also interpersonal means. Does that make the work less her own? Or might it make it more her own, more representative of her identity as a relational soul, herself caught in the webs (or rather, nets) of friendship and interdependence? While we are all embedded in specific material conditions and are subject to those possibilities and constraints, living out our distinct humanity, like this art-making, is an additive rather than a subtractive or reductionist process. Understanding the complexity of being human requires that we see and embrace the way our physicality is intertwined with our spirituality (which is in its essence about relationships) without treating either as preeminent over the other.

Speaking exactly to this point about another of her works that uses “additive” methods, Bomer notes that using the collage process is sometimes seen as a statement that individual creative agency is a myth in its own right, and that “art has no authentic meaning apart from some collected diversity. Truth and individual creativity are blurred and manipulated.” But she goes on to identify the specific model and guide for the way such tensions between freedom and constraint, chance and purpose are expressed in her work:

My purpose in layering images and texts into the surface of my paintings is to bring unity out of diversity and to point to the truth and the mystery of Christ. He reveals mysteries and speaks daily in creation (Psalm 19) and is called “the mystery hidden for ages.” He is the Creator of things seen and unseen, Spirit and flesh and the Word Incarnate. He alone unifies all seeming dichotomies (Col. 1:15ff: “…in Him all things hold together”). The Master of layered meanings and metaphor brings beauty and grace to a broken world. My work as an artist and a believer in Christ is an attempt to do the same.

Bomer’s emphasis on the way faith provides for an integration of the material and immaterial should help us take note of one other aspect of the printmaking process, which serves here as an analogy for divine creation: when the printmaker applies the ink to the plate and otherwise manipulates the means of the artwork’s production, the work is not then “finished” with this display or trace of restorative intentionality. No, when the print is pulled, transferred and fixed into a material form, the work becomes a separate image—her image, in fact.

Being creatures who bear the impression of our maker through the mediation of material (even “mechanistic”) processes in no way diminishes the pattern-maker’s artistry, nor control, nor possession of us as His work. On the contrary, in both art and life it is the fact that pattern and relationship are inscribed upon matter that emphasizes the maker’s agency. Moreover, even when a painting or print or sculpture is sold, the artist retains “moral rights” to the works of her mind and hands—a say in what is proper and honoring use of them though they go on to have “lives of their own.” For as the works are sent out into the world they become the most immediate means by which her character and intentions are known. In other words, the separateness of creator and created is a means through which the creator becomes more present in the world, rather than less.

So it must be with us as we bear the imprint of our maker: neither the mundane “stuff” of which we are composed nor the “repeatable” processes by which that stuff was arranged diminish the identity we have with Christ. Instead, the physical image is both the record of this first relationship and the means by which new connections, new patterns are made in the world. To return to the imagery of Rhodes’ poem and Bomer’s print, may we—once caught up with the Lord and numbered as recipients of His grace—find joy in being released to the world, rather than from it.

A native of Alberta living in Asheville, NC, G. Carol Bomer has worked professionally as a painter since 1976, with more than 40 solo shows in the United States, Canada, Ukraine and the Netherlands. She uses a diversity of media, including watercolor, pastel, acrylic, and oil, as well as creating three-dimensional collographs, sculpture and installations. Her work is often abstracted and gestural, evoking both image and impression, the tangible world and the spiritual world. An Asheville Times review called her work “a silent form of poetry,” and, following Hans Rookmaker, she views her own art as “a form of play rejoicing before the face of God.” More about Carol and her work can be found here, and inquiries about this particular image may me made here.

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About the Author

Mark Sprinkle

Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.