Recently Wesleyan Accent chatted with visual artist Katie Fisher about her project illustrating the struggle and grief written in the Old Testament book Lamentations.
She shares in her bio that she works as a graphic designer, writer, and visual artist. As a farm kid from the Great Plains, she learned to run wild with the wind and live in the trees. Now in Dallas, she and her husband grow as many plants as their house can hold. In her writing and visual art, she explores what it means to be human and how our very existence depends on and interacts with the world around us.
Wesleyan Accent: How do you approach your artistic process? How do you delve deeply internally to express your perspective? Where are the borders of what you experience internally with how you want to communicate it and how you hope it will be perceived?
Katie Fisher: My process of getting into a project starts with research. I try to create a base of readings, experiences, conversations, and resources that I can connect together. From this base, I start to build connections using my own voice. In the beginning, I try to find a path or catch the scent of the project.
Dust in My Mouth came out of a personal question. I had read, discussed, and heard a lot about theodicy—why bad things happen to good people—but answers to that question did not give me tools to deal with the reality of suffering in life. Even the most eloquent and thoughtful explanations of theodicy remain cold explanations of God’s interaction in the world. I wanted better tools to respond to my own suffering and pain as well as God’s response to me. In gathering resources I looked for anything that hit on that nerve. Often before getting into a work session, I had to take a deep breath. Trying to hit a nerve never feels good. Rather than diving inside myself, I tried to bring my own vulnerability to the reading, drawing and reflecting.
I hope others will open themselves to this work in a way that allows them to interact with the rawness and struggle found in the book of Lamentations, Dust in My Mouth, and our lives.
WA: Your art project centers around “lament.” What does lamenting mean to you? What has your experience been with how lament is expressed in faith communities?
KF: My thoughts and experiences about lament have changed so much through doing this work. The research started by looking at Lamentations but I wasn’t sure where it would end up. The communal expression of lament provided some form of an answer to my initial question of what to do with my sorrow and suffering.
This project on lament has many parts and the initial work came as part of a collaboration with literary critic and theologian Tim Basselin. Dust in My Mouth shows my portion of the work. Through conversations with Tim, I realized much of my focus lined up with the poems of Lamentations. I decided to follow their outline and push into the text more. Each poetic movement I drew sketches around forces me to wrestle with God’s response to unanswered pleas for help. I learned from my drawings while drawing and grappling with lines of the poems.
Through the first four poetic movements the woman, Zion or Jerusalem, goes back and forth with the poet as they both express anger and deep pain while their lives and worlds fall apart. At every turn, I asked, “What substance of hope does she have in the face of such excruciating circumstances?” If a substantive hope exists in the extremes, like the violent siege of Jerusalem, surely it would apply to me as well. Many times people want to locate hope of Lamentations in the poet’s expression of the goodness of God in Lamentations 3:21-24.
The title of the overall body of work Dust in My Mouth actually comes from Lamentations 3:29: “let him put his mouth in the dust— there may yet be hope.” (ESV) At every turn of the project, I had to wrestle again with this line. I have written more on this perplexing image here.
The poet’s expression in Lamentations 3 failed, for many reasons, to work as a balm of hope I needed. In looking elsewhere in the poetic expressions of Lamentations, I saw a functional, tangible hope in Lamentations 5. The people of Jerusalem come together in their suffering and express not just their individual pain but the pain of their community. Finally, for the first time in the book they come together as their dancing turns to sorrow and they sing and dance a dirge of lament.
The book of Lamentations comforted me long before I started working on Dust in My Mouth. I found refuge in the honesty of the lines and a permission to put my own anger, hurt, and pain into my prayers. Taking those honest prayers, however, and sharing them with a community scared me. Yet, the poet leads the women of Jerusalem into communal lament. And in such a lament I find a tangible hope.
I see lament as an outward expression of pain, sorrow, or even anger. Or, to put it more succinctly, a confessional dance of give and take. In lament, we come together—exposed and vulnerable. Deep life-giving hope activates in the dance of the corporate lament. The final drawing which sprang from Lamentations 5 shows that vision of hope and lament.
WA: You say, “Dust in My Mouth has been a long, painful, and yet deeply joyful labor for the past two years. So many edges of the drawings were made wet with tears.” In your opinion, how does artistic expression function as prayer? What is it about the visual arts that function differently than spoken words or written language?
KF: Our senses activate us at our core. Speaking or putting things into words requires us to go into that core area and draw out an abstraction. It seems, at least in Western philosophies, that words have a “higher” status than our perceptual reality. I disagree with that notion and instead place the higher function in our senses.
As Lin Yutan says in his book The Importance of Living, “we all labor under the misconception that the true function of the mind is thinking…” For Yutan, the brain functions more like the tentacles of an octopus feeling for truth and eating it. Reducing prayers to words limits my prayers to the realm of abstraction. In visual art, I can pray with my whole body—not just my words.
The visual arts affect our senses. And, again along with Yutan, I would say the education and development of ourselves on a sensual level will allow for better prayers with our words.
WA: For you, where does lamentation fit in the seasons of Christian living? It seems like many North American people of faith expect empowerment, self-help, health, and well-being to be the norm.
KF: Many people do expect celebration as the norm of life. Their experience, however, contrasts their expectation—pushing them toward bitterness and isolation in response to reality. Often when people see my work on lament they comment on the relevance and name some event happening either in their lives or the lives of people around them. They assume the human experience exists as a parade of goodness and this one isolated event has temporarily obstructed their parade. I could say a lot about the need many people have for celebratory parades to go on unhindered. In researching for Dust in My Mouth I read Soong-Chan Rah’s book Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times. Rah writes directly about the desire for some branches of the church in North America to have a constant celebration. I encourage everyone to pick up a copy.
I think of lament as both a season and also a constant state. At times we enter into a season of lament and other times we lament alongside others—but always we dance. I think the church moves and lives in a dance of lament. That’s not to say that I see life or the church as sad. Again, I find the tangible substance of hope in the give and take as we move together in vulnerability, honesty, and grace.
WA: How would you encourage people to express their own lamentation? What insight about grief do you hope people will walk away with?
KF: I long for this work to invite others into the dance of lament and hope it prompts people to seek out a community to share their lives with. Pain in isolation leads to despair. I know it takes courage to move toward others in an exposed way. The human experience leans more toward suffering than celebration. Even people living the most protected lives will experience the death of loved ones. At the end of Prophetic Lament, Rah uses one of the poems from Lamentations to write his own lament. If you don’t know where to start look to the examples in scripture and write your own experience into that framework.
Out of my work on Dust in My Mouth, I created a six-panel visual show as well as a book and prints. Look for all of that on my website after November 15th.
If you enjoy the spirit of Fisher’s writing check out her visual work at katiefisher.us or follow her on twitter at @katiefisher_km