In the essay on educator and textile artist Holly Smith’s Haircap Gregarious that inaugurated the BioLogos worship project, I suggested that the way her work brings together such disparate creative and expressive techniques as painting, printing, cutting, drawing, fusing and stitching fabric is analogous to the way the Creator God is intimately engaged with His creation, impressing His characteristics and qualities upon the physical world, but also being pierced and broken in relationship with it. The same is true of this second work of Smith’s, but the geographic imagery she uses in Midwest Meander(2005) can also remind us of the complex way God’s agency appears to us through the Scriptures and the life of the Church, on one hand, and in the natural processes He has ordained and established in the material world, on the other. While in both areas we can painstakingly tease apart many layers of meaning to answer questions of origins, in so doing we risk losing the more important emphasis on purpose.
As an interpretation of the farmland of the upper Midwest as seen from the “bird’s eye view” of a window seat on an airplane, Midwest Meander reflects the give and take between underlying geology, cultural artifacts (such as grid-like property boundaries), and practices literally “on the ground” that give us the distinctive look of this agricultural landscape. Smith’s image/object is built upon a bedrock piece of fabric, upon which are placed many smaller segments of cloth, painted and printed with semi-linear but not rigid patterns of lines and swirls that resemble the furrow lines of plowed and planted fields and circular irrigation patterns. Smith’s work “references the patchwork quality of landscapes by finding the lines, patterns and color fields in aerial photography and translating them into a textile medium,”1 but her work is not strictly representational—that is, she is not trying just to re-create the scene from her window. Rather, for Smith, “looking at land and water from an airborne vantage point feels like reading a good poem,” and her own process is a series of creative decisions made in response both to what she saw from above and what she knew from having lived upon a similar landscape, herself.
This aspect of interpretive agency is especially true of what Smith called the “arresting line that cuts throughMidwest Meander [and] became a repeated and emphasized element in subsequent pieces.” She continued, “This flowing line would be my last addition to the construction of each piece in this series, although it was a design decision I would weigh throughout the entire process.” In other words, the dark, flowing river shape was intended from the beginning of Smith’s work, and fulfilled the creative purpose she set out for it, but the specific way it relates to the other patterns and shapes on the surface that we see now includes moments of adjustment to those smaller parts (see the boundary between river and the white and grey “field” section in the upper center), as well as superimposition over them (such as the way the river cuts across the smaller swirl patterns). Smith’s process of depicting the river and its directional purpose echoed the natural river’s own negotiated and winding path through the land.
Especially when we think about their geology—the way they cut through the layers of earth and rock through which they run, but also deposit new layers and leave positive evidence of their presence in the past—rivers like the one Smith gives us in Midwest Meander can be symbols for the activity of God in the natural world, but even more, offer a commentary on the way His people tend to desire a clear and unambiguous sense of what He has done and is doing, especially focusing on what He has done and is doing for us. By going to where a river flows we may, indeed, see its current power and action, but also peer deep into history in the ancient layers it erodes and exposes, and in the pieces it has transported from distant lands. We may see the way it can carve through the hardest stone, flow along seams, find and reveal weaknesses in the underlying strata, but also build up new land along its banks and even miles into the sea—lands which we are quick to claim and put to our own productive use.
But from the vantage point Smith gives us, we can also see how the river’s path may include wide turns and deflections, responses not only to harder sections of the underlying earth, but also to sediments laid down by the very same river in earlier ages. From the airplane window we see ox-bows, old sections of the flow now stranded as lakes, and even the vestiges of former curves long since filled and turned to the human purposes of agriculture and habitation. Rivers are not content to stay in the same course, or even to remain within their banks, but shift and flow out, constantly asserting their ability and right to reclaim and rebuild the land through and over which they flow. Though we desire to impose our own convenient boundaries on the banks, divide the fertile lands into a patchwork and orderly rows, we do well to remember that the valley land is defined by the river, rather than the river being confined by the land.
What, then, does Smith’s way of laying the river on the land in her work, inspired by the way a natural river makes and remakes the land through which it flows tell us about the way God reveals Himself in nature and in history? It may be simply this: that the how is not nearly so important as the why. Though revelation of activity in the past (whether in Scripture or nature) is, indeed, a gift, the purpose of that gift is to help us appreciate and participate in the current flow, not dwell more securely on long-accustomed banks. As believers, we are not called upon to shore up the walls, rebuild the defensive levee, and channel the river into something manageable, but to understand the ultimate direction of the watercourse and cast ourselves into it, even when it seems to turn back upon itself or explore new channels.
If we can share Smith’s sense of seeing the dynamic, circuitous, but far-from-random path of water towards the sea as both responsive and beautiful—a way of thinking that she attributes to her reading of Wendell Berry’s poetry as much as to her reading of the landscape of Iowa—we will find a better balance between looking into God’s past and the desire to see into our future. Perhaps then we can realize that God’s work in us is precisely like the river’s work on its banks—scouring away some things in order to build us up in others, but always for the sake of His plans and not ours. Smith’s own description of Midwest Meander ends with the concluding lines of Berry’s poem “Letter,” capturing this sense of release, of submission and hope, and it seems fitting to follow her lead and ends ours with them as well:
“Now in the long curve of a journey
I spin a single strand, carried away
by what must bring me home.”2
Holly Smith grew up in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, Iowa, graduating with a degree in Applied Art, Graphic Design from Iowa State University in Ames. Following six years as a designer for NavPress in Colorado Springs, she lived in Ireland for seven years, during which time becoming a mother shifted her focus towards guiding her own and others’ children toward creative expression. Returning to the U.S., she earned certification in art education and a Masters of Interdisciplinary Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, and now teaches elementary-age children at Richmond’s Collegiate School, where she is herself inspired and challenged by her students’ creative abandon, willingness to try new things and sense of wonder. Smith has illustrated a children’s book, Matisse and the Boy Who Loved to Draw, but is also being continually drawn back to her work in textile art by its possibilities for the manipulation of color, stitching, texture and line.
1. All citations from Smith’s essay “Places on Earth,” submitted as part of the degree of Master of Interdisciplinary Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. December, 2009.
2. Berry, Wendell. The Wheel. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.