Tim Lowly: A Profile by Karen Halvorsen-Schreck from Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion
The silent painting speaks on the walls and does much good.
St. Gregory of Nyssa
Therein lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the
life of the one who must make it -- that it is his epitome;
the knot in the rosary at which his life recites a prayer.
Rainer Maria Rilke
The year is 1423; the place, Russia.
A boy lies outside a battered hut, his
body so wasted that it seems sunlight could pass through his skin. He
looks up at soldiers, who have asked for his father, the bellmaker. The
soldiers are desperate: the Duke has decided that his kingdom needs a bell,
and they have orders to find the person who can cast it. They cannot return
empty-handed. Wearily, the boy tells them that his father, mother and sister
are dead, killed by the plague.
When the soldiers turn away, the boy leaps to his feet, suddenly
invigorated, transformed. "I know the secret, he cries. "Father told me the
secret on his deathbed. Take me."
Reluctantly, the soldiers agree -- how old is this boy? Thirteen? Listen to how
his voice breaks when he gets excited. They warn him that failure means a
The boy gets to work. For months he tests earth, searching for the proper
place to cast the bell. He is trudging through a downpour when he slips,
falls, and comes up gripping handfuls of the clay he needs. Still more time
passes while he casts the mold, haggles for silver, and fires it.
Finally, on the day the bell is to be tested, people fill the village
square. They watch as men hoist its great weight into the tower. The boy is
brought before the Duke. Another man begins to swing the bellrope -- slowly at
first, back and forth, gathering momentum. Heavy wooden supports creak. The
boy collapses to the ground.
Then a low gong reverberates through the still air. It expands, holding the
sound of many bells in its resonance, holding the whole kingdom. The Duke is
pleased. The people, momentarily, are lifted from their poverty and fear,
from the death that surrounds them.
Later, the boy is alone, still prostrate in the same place. He is weeping
like the child he is, when he feels himself lifted up, cradled. Opening his
eyes, he sees the face of the monk who, throughout the laborious process,
has watched him, silently. "Why do you cry? he asks the boy, rocking him
gently. "What a treat for the people. You've brought them such joy and you
The boy can barely speak. "My father never told me," he sobs. "He took the
secret to his grave."
Tim Lowly has said that he wants
his painting to be more the stuff of
parable than the stuff of sermon, more poem than narrative. He remembers, in
particular, this parable of the bellmaker, which forms the final sequence of
Andrei Tarkovsky's film, Andrei Roublev, a fictionalized account of the
fifteenth century monk and icon painter. One night, after seeing the movie,
Lowly dreamed that a good friend was speaking to him. In waking life, this
man had cancer. In the dream, he tells Lowly: "We must be about the business
of making bells."
In the center of the painting,
the bells sits, squat and heavy, on four wooden slats.
Mute as the art of painting itself, the bell's voice, the tone by which it can be known,
What can be intimated about the Korean woman in the red skirt, pictured in
the act of walking away, bearing a bag of cement on her head? Her identity
is her own; yet perhaps we can sympathize with her labor, perhaps we can
enter into her anonymity and imagine what waits for her"for us"at the end of
the road. Is that a temple or shrine she will pass by? Are all sacred places
ultimately as mysterious? Should we always enter the presence of God with so
As in daily life, we perceive these simple, concrete images with clarity.
Yet their meaning is ambiguous, as a foreign country can be to a visitor.
The golden leaves, the barren tree limbs show that it is autumn; as the
title of Tim Lowly's painting indicates, it is a "Season of Silence". But
who is silent? The woman? The people who worship at this temple? Lowly
himself? The viewer?
A small image at nine-by-twelve inches, Season of Silence asks for close
inspection. Yet because of this very size, and the quiet, careful
composition, the painting, at a first glance, might be passed over. Perhaps
it will be taken in on the second look, and then more fully, with
This, in fact, is Lowly's hope: that our initial connection to his
painting -- based on our assumptions about what appears to be "realism" will be
subverted. Lowly explains that his approach is realistic only in the sense
that he represents life the way we think we see it. Although he sometimes
bases his paintings on photographs, he is not trying to mime the apparent
"truth of photography"; he doesn,t want to construct documentaries.
Instead, his work seems to rise from a premise similar to that of George
Tooker, a contemporary American artist (admired by Lowly), who has stated:
"I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns
as a dream, but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy". Lowly
has said that every figure in painting -- as in dream -- can be seen as an aspect
of either the painter or the viewer. In this way, both painter and viewer
participate in the reverie of art-making.
For Lowly, strange, dream-like images are the most fascinating because they
evoke the subjective level of response; they are like God, described by
Lowly as a "mysterious being about whom we don't have much of an inkling.
The ambiguity of meaning that comes with a lack of narrative allows the
viewer to bring his or her own translation or interpretation to the work. In
this sense, the viewer "completes" it. Perception, as an act, is part of
painting. Finally, meaning is as complicated and layered as those who
perceive it, who bring to it their own silences and seasons.
Another of Lowly's smaller paintings -- one that also alludes to Korea -- reveals
the multiplicity of possible resonances. Like Season of Silence, Carry the
Body appears accessible, but a second look reveals that this seemingly
realistic situation is in fact complex and mysterious. Five young Korean
women kneel on a wood floor, their bodies slightly reflected in the floor,s
gloss. A black book has been conspicuously placed before them. Is it a
Bible? Is this a small country church? Lowly's medium, egg tempera, lends a
delicate corporeality to the skin of these women; one can read the soft
texture of their clothes. Yet their expressions are immutable. Does this
stoicism spring from pain or faith? On their heads they bear a board upon
which lies an older Caucasian man, who wears the rubber shoes of a Korean
farmer. He lies on his back, resting or dead. The ephemeral white light
glowing from the ceiling evokes notions of transcendence, and yet the man is
immanent -- a weighted and weightless presence -- supported by the seemingly
effortless strength and patience of these young women.
One could translate this as a portrait of quiet reconciliation, revealing
reverence for the aged, or affirming the strength of women, who carry the
bodies of many institutions. Then again, the painting could be seen as
indicating the political, social, and religious tensions between two
cultures -- Korean and American. Or it could figure the oppression of women
that extends across cultures, and at the same time, is culturally specific.
Alluding to the tradition of representing monuments of civilization
supported on the backs of common people -- e.g., the sculpted figures holding
up Greek temples or Renaissance tombs -- Carry the Body critiques the
unquestioned assumption that this traditional image is natural. (As Walter
Benjamin has said, "There is no document of civilization which is not at the
same time a document of barbarism.") At the same time, Lowly refuses to
point fingers and reduce the complexity and resonance of the painting.
Tim Lowly grew up in Korea, where
his parents, Alma and Merrill Grubbs,
worked as missionaries for the Presbyterian Church. He has said that this
experience instilled in him a sense of always being the foreigner,
complicating traditional American assumptions about who is alien and why.
He returned to Korea for a year in 1983, a stay which coincided with his
decision to reevaluate his vision of his painting -- its style as well as
content -- and perhaps his vision of Korea. Carry the Body, Season of Silence,
and some of his other works are based on impressions from this visit and
earlier memories. A series of Lowly's recent drawings, many of these as
blurred and hazy as the process of memory, respond to photographs that he
took during the sixth grade. (Although Lowly would be the first to laugh at
the idea of himself as a youthful prodigy, he remembers that his interest in
making pictures began at about that time.)
During his undergraduate years at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan,
where he graduated with a B.F.A. in 1978, Lowly began to make what he
describes now as "childlike, quirky late-modernist work". Influenced by such
artists as Georges Rouault and Marc Chagall, he was more concerned with the
application of paint to the surface of a canvas than with picturing figures
or scenes realistically. He frequently worked in mixed media, trying to
achieve -- as he still does -- a synthesis of drawing and painting. Gradually,
Lowly became concerned that he was struggling to rectify bad compositions
with beautiful surfaces. He wondered if his work was more concerned with
style than content and if it sometimes put up stylistic barriers for the
At the end of his year's visit to Korea, Lowly met one of that nation's
foremost artists, Lim Ok-Sang, a painter concerned with the "minjung" -- a
Korean word that refers to common people, who may not be powerful by
society's definitions, but who are connected to the earth and everyday existence.
Coming from a background that stressed the aesthetic dimension of art, Lowly
was struck by the compassion he saw in Lim's work. Here were paintings that
communicated -- simply, directly -- Lim's desire to better human existence,
emphasizing social responsibility at the same time that they avoided the
didactic proselytizing or polemical agendas so predominant in contemporary
American political art -- the kind of ironic, impersonal work that Lowly has
said "makes me feel guilty, but doesn,t move me to love people". Rather than
indicting the oppressor, Lim, in his painting, identified with the
The transformation that began during Lowly,s encounter with Lim Ock Sang was
furthered during a trip to Europe, where Lowly saw, in the work of Italian
and Flemish painters of the early Renaissance, a directness reminiscent of
Lim's. These painters seemed to speak on a common human level. In addition,
their images resonated with what Lowly describes as "a strong sense of
physical presence"; the figures in the paintings seemed almost sculptural,
corporeal, immanent. At the same time, these painters approached their art
with a diligence and care that seemed to reflect great spiritual faith.
Witnessing these great works, Lowly felt drawn to the disciplined grace of
The tempera medium, utilized by such artists as Giotto and Fra Angelico,
seemed appropriate to his own concerns and acknowledged his spiritual and
aesthetic inheritance. While a Zen brush painter captures the essence of
hours of contemplation in the mastery of a single stroke, for Lowly, the
process of contemplation was more easily wedded to the methods of egg
tempera. This labor-intensive craft involved learning the characteristics of
the powder pigments -- their consistencies, for example, and how they naturally
took to the egg-oil emulsion. Then, small stroke upon stroke, layer upon
layer, he worked to convey the tactile quality, solidity, tangibility, and
intensity of hue that he so admired in Renaissance painters.
Lowly also appreciated what he saw as a balance between the intuitive and
the rational in these artists. While his earlier work had emphasized the
intuitive part of his nature, after his return to the United States he began
to acknowledge what he describes as his rational side. In retrospect, he
realized that this was not just due to his perception of Renaissance art. In
going "home" to Korea, Lowly was also given the opportunity, for the first
time in years, to live near his parents. In particular, this gave him the
chance to more fully know and be known by his father, who, during that year,
seemed to understand more about his son's vocation, ultimately affirming
Lowly's commitment to painting. Because of this, Lowly explains that he was
able to more fully embrace the rational part of his nature that is more like
that of his father. He could, in this way, say yes to that which had said
yes to him.
Looking at Lowly's work now, one might wonder whether the traditional
binary oppositions of rational and intuitive shouldn't be challenged. In a
recent work, Plague [later retitled Merry-go-round], he alludes to a painting,
Et in Arcadia Ego (And I Too Am in Paradise), by seventeenth century French
artist NicolasPoussin, who typifies the painter of idealized nature. Lowly
qualifies this reference to arcadian beauty by recontextualizing Poussin's vision
of death-in-paradise into a contemporary setting. Rationally we can say that
Arcadia still seems to be with us, in the painting's verdant background,
even in the innocence and bliss we might associate with the school
playground. Each lush leaf shimmers on its branch; the colors of the
merry-go-round gleam vividly, pulsing with life. Yet strewn beneath this
familiar object are children, awkward and vulnerable, either dead or playing
dead. Studying the painting more closely, we see how the light falls: the
strip of shadow under the trees parallels the gloom cast upon the bodies.
But what is rational about this realism -- about this Eden -- where things
dissolve into darkness?
Although this visceral image doesn't have a single meaning, it seems to
imply that even the most carnivalesque pleasure can have its horrible
ramifications, which can,t be explained, justified, or, perhaps, reconciled.
It is possible to see in it the impact of our many social crises, not the
least of these, as the title suggests, being AIDS. But Lowly has said that
if one does translate this painting as an anti-AIDS statement, one should
not consider it an anti-gay statement. The pain here is figured as the
suffering of children, and such pain is not to be ignored or indicted, but
identified with and eased. In Lowly's work an almost scientific technique
mediates a dream-like depiction of reality -- here the mundane and the cosmic
meet, as one critic put it. Lowly goes beyond a mere balancing of elements;
at his best he achieves a fusion, a wholeness of vision. Like Lim Ock Sang,
Lowly now wants to make art for other people, seeing it as a form of real
communication, and hoping not so much to "afflict the comfortable", but to
"comfort the afflicted". Like the Renaissance painters, he strives to ensure
that his painting engages viewers. In his paintings, we are drawn into the
solid presence of the figures in his images, where we are invited to share a
space, a place with them. "I want to make art that one can live with," Lowly
says. "Art that one can come back to repeatedly." He wrote in a 1986 journal
I hope to communicate on a variety of levels to a variety of persons. No art
is entirely accessible to all people, yet the idea of most contemporary
artists, that the public must climb their aesthetic ladder, is unrealistic,
elitist, and self-handicapping. Supposedly one must cross-over to the media
or other more commercial art forms in order to touch the "masses". However,
I suspect that this is a self-perpetuating notion which in the long run will
further isolate artists and their little society from the rest of the world.
One does not make a building without doors...and when one makes art which is
inaccessible to the public, it becomes its own tomb.
The figure of a child appears
in many of Lowly's paintings. Sometimes, she
is haloed by gold leaf, and hands elevate her like a consecrated host.
Sometimes her face is a luminous shard of beauty, as fragmented as
understanding, memory, or history. Look closely, with care, and you can
count the strands of her hair, the facets of gray and blue in her eyes. As
Rainer Maria Rilke has written of Cezanne, it is as if Lowly, through his
attention to detail, is intent on "discovering the inexhaustible nature
within by seriously and conscientiously studying her manifold presence
outside." Again -- the child,s eyes. Are they troubling? Do they comfort? How
still they are...but why should this surprise? This, after all, is a
But how much is our relationship to a painting separate from our experience
of relationships in life? For here is the paradox: in Lowly's most "known"
subject rests the unknown. Even in these most intimate and personal
portraits of his daughter, there is an element of quiet, careful distance.
But this is not the distance of irony, irreverence, or guile. Instead, it is
akin to what one sometimes feels in the most sacred of spaces, where rituals
and realities, loss and recovery, entombment and transfiguration, are all
mysteriously contained. This distance or otherness of the holy moves between
us and a very human child, who embodies the very thing we sometimes remember
in children and consistently forget about in ourselves: that absolute power
and absolute vulnerability are the common partners of our human condition.
The little girl in Lowly's paintings is his only child, Temma, who is
multiply impaired. These impairments include a seizure disorder and cortical
blindness. Lowly communicates this information to clarify the specific
impact Temma's condition has had on the content of his images. He describes
her as his single most important influence, and points to the fact that her
birth coincided with, and greatly motivated, the shift in style and content
in his work. Because she cannot see or understand his paintings, Lowly says,
"Temma calls into question the whole purpose of art-making." Although one
might wonder whether or not a question like this will ever be completely
reconciled, Lowly has realized that one lesson he continually learns from
his daughter is "the value of being, apart from the capability of doing
something." He sees this lesson as relating to his desire to make paintings
that are less didactic, more muted in their messages. Like Temma, many of
his images cannot explicate themselves, or be explicated.
In Autumn of Ashes (1985), the first painting Lowly did of Temma
after her birth in 1985, she appears as a baby who seems, at the same time,
as aged as the infant Christ can seem in traditional icons. She lies alone
on a barren plain, as if she, like the shattered Greek vase beside her, has
fallen from the brooding sky above, a gray sky that is echoed by the color
of her impenetrable eyes. Rather, she is almost alone: a Korean woman mourns
in the distance. Nearer to the child, a stack of rice husks smolders like a
pyre. In a kind of geometric logic, the two panels that comprise this
painting join in a thin horizon line of obliteration, an infinity of
emptiness between sky and earth. On one of the broken fragments of pottery,
Nike the Greek goddess of victory walks. Perhaps the allusion connotes lost
illusions, a shattered history of absolute ideals -- of beauty, of success, of
expectations for ourselves and for our children -- what Lowly has called "the
daily dying of dreams and ideals." Yet, the living, immanent baby, like the
goddess, is clothed in a golden garment, which falls in shell-like folds
over her body, revealing what Lowly has said he looks for in simple,
complicated things: "infinite layers of meaning." Qualifying grave reality,
the child in her luminous dress seems to emanate not just meaning, but
light. Like a pearl lit from within, beauty is realized only through time's
Beacon (Kite), shows an older child, again lying on the
ground, again strangely alone, as isolated as the dim, distant figure on the
beach -- a person who, perhaps, mirrors the stance of the viewer. The child's
isolation is striking in this painting because she has a visible companion:
Lowly looks out through the circle cut into a traditional Korean kite. The
entire image is itself a circle, composed in the round tondo format found in
Renaissance painting, and this roundness is echoed once more in the tiny
shoreline beacon of bright light that punctuates a sky only slightly less
foreboding than that in Autumn of Ashes. Here, too, the girl,s eyes reflect
the gray between the clouds.
In many ways, this piece seems
to explore the phenomenon of looking. Lowly
has said that the round composition recalls for him a porthole, and we are
certainly faced with a large body of water, if not the sea. Multiple
perspectives -- Lowly's, the child's, the viewer's -- are established through
circular forms. Sometimes these perspectives intersect: does Lowly catch the
viewer's eye, and how does that change the way the viewer looks at the girl
on the grass? Sometimes, too, these perspectives don,t meet at all -- and
therein lies part of the pain -- the viewer, like Lowly, can't catch the child's
gaze. Where, in fact, is she looking? At what horror; at what beauty?
Perhaps for someone else, this circular frame evokes not a porthole, but a
mirror. In this sense, the viewer might see himself seeing, and reflect on
his own perspective. In the act of looking does the viewer seize a certain
power? Does he interpret, does he judge? How might his perception be used to
distance or diminish those who seem different from himself? How would he
look at a child like Temma? How would she want to be looked at?
"I want to promote a childlike perception/creation, Lowly has written in
his journal. "Rooted in trust, calling for trust." Can anyone call more
explicitly for trust than those without powerful voices, like the "minjung",
or the handicapped child who so implicitly trusts us? There is, in Beacon
(Kite), a thin string that trails from the base of the kite, over the beach,
the grass, the girl's body, and out into the picture's frame, almost off its
edge, dangling there, waiting to be grasped. It is, ultimately, as clear as
the passages Lowly has marked in a copy of Andrei Tarkovsky's aesthetic and
philosophical statement, Sculpting in Time:
Everything can be reduced to the one simple element which is all a person
can count upon in his existence: the capacity to love.... My function is to
make whoever sees...aware of his need to love and to give his love, and
aware that beauty is summoning him.
A thin string, dangling there like a cord from a bell, waits to be grasped.
Mid-morning, dead center of a
Chicago winter. Thin, gritty sunlight filters
through a sky the color of ashes, illumines the courtyard of a large brick
building, and makes its way at different angles into apartments that from
the outside all look the same.
Inside one of these, northern light refracts through the windows of Lowly,s
studio. Although the window glass has aged so that the outside world seems
to waver as if under water, the light does not tremble. It falls even and
cool across the room, touching things one might expect to see in such a
place -- an easel, a drawing pad, brushes standing in jars, dried paints on a
pallet, a few paintings in various stages of completion (in some of which
gold leaf glints) -- and things one might not expect. A basket of neatly folded
laundry sits near a small television set. There is a couch, several chairs,
a single bed, a few toys, a wheelchair. It is impossible to tell where the
work ends and the living begins. Studio, living room, child's bedroom -- the
boundaries blur; all are one and the same.
Of course, Lowly is here too, moving quickly about the room, pouring a cup
of tea for a friend, putting on a tape that he thinks she might like (Sam
Phillips now, later Thomas Tallis). He shows her a reproduction of Bellini's
St. Francis in Ecstasy. The painting depicts a thin bearded saint who,
though he is undergoing a mystical experience, is depicted with a hard edge
of realism. If this St. Francis had a full head of hair instead of a shorn,
cropped halo, and wore slippers, jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt instead of a
cowl...he could be Lowly's twin.
Temma will be brought home from school soon, and Lowly must use this time
well. His friend has agreed to sit for a drawing, and Lowly has been at work
before she arrived. He has hung a piece of thick string from the ceiling, a
plumb line, weighted at the end with a little clay angel, whose skirt forms
a bell. This string is crossed by another, stretched horizontally, from wall
to wall. A Renaissance technique: together the strings make an axis, a point
of reference, against which he has positioned a kitchen table. In front of
his friend, a massive history of Italian Renaissance art lies on the white
metal tabletop, open to the work of Antonella da Messina, a painter of the
fifteenth century. A reproduced painting of a woman looks up from the book,
her right hand lifted gently in some kind of recognition, her left hand
drawing her veil close to her breast. A Virgin Annunciate.
It hardly matters that the friend he is drawing doesn't resemble the Virgin
Mary in the art history book, as Lowly once clarified in a magazine
I'm not interested in doing a portrait, just a representation of somebody.
The only way I can think about it is as an incarnational mythology. God
becomes human, this larger-than-life story enters into someone,s life, and
their life becomes another story.
Conversing with his friend, he
smiles and rings the angel-shaped bell, which
makes a muted, earthy tone. The artist's pet canary, Pete Gabriel, sings a
response from the dining room. Lowly spends some time adjusting the
horizontal string to his friend's height. Then he pulls out an instrument
that looks something like a crossbow, explaining that he made it after
seeing a movie about Antonio Lopez Garcia, a painter he admires, who, when
working from life, uses a kind of proportional device. Lowly holds it up,
points it at the model's head and shoulders. While he continues to get his
bearings, she looks out the window, across the courtyard to another
apartment, where cartoons flash across a television screen.
Lowly begins drawing, a study that he hopes will lead toward a painting.
They talk while he sketches, erases, and shades. From the model's
perspective, the image seems oddly distorted, as if she's looking at herself
in a funhouse mirror. When she does stand up after four hours or so, and
comes around to the front of the easel, the face he's drawn shifts and falls
into place. It is her and it is not her at the same time.
Facing this painting, she realizes that Lowly,s paintings are not so much
mirrors of the people pictured-- the paintings don't tell so much about them.
Rather, they cause her to reflect elsewhere, on herself reflecting, a
viewpoint that changes as she changes. A viewer's perception is always
specific to his or her specific vision -- just as, in Lowly's drawing, the
Annunciate Virgin in the open art history book is fractured, transformed by
being seen through the eye glasses held in the sitter's hand.
What kind of annunciation is this? Not so much an original story -- not the
Annunciation, but an annunciation; a devotional image, more than an event,
timeless and abstracted from the text. Painting as annunciation. Perhaps the
angel is actually the viewer who brings the message to the painting. With
each viewer, a new portrait is seen within the portrait.
The word "icon" has
its etymological roots in the Greek word meaning
"image." It is the word used in the Greek Bible in the first chapter of
Genesis, which describes man and woman as made in the image of God. In the
Epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul chooses this same word to speak of Jesus
as the image of the invisible God.
In contrast to the rational, intellectual emphasis in much of Western
Christianity, where the inerrant Word is all, the icon is a strongly
intuitive form (although this intuitive element is achieved through
carefully administered techniques involving perspective, color, and light).
An icon serves as a vehicle for the viewer's imagination, revealing that God
can enter souls as much through the eye as through the ear. In his journal,
Lowly writes of his efforts to infuse his work with this tradition
The images I strive for are those which speak "icon" -- towards kingdom,
towards God -- and simultaneously are non-didactic. They have a life/presence
of their own, yet have/are nothing apart from God...What does this mean for
those who have not chosen Christianity? I don,t know. Am I trying to convert
them? No. But I feel that I must put into my art what I believe is
fundamental. I want to point to what I believe is life. Their choice is not
mine to make.
Centuries ago, St. Stephen the
Younger wrote that "the icon is a door to
the inner world of the viewer's spirit." Perhaps stepping through this door
is what Lowly believes to be fundamental in life. His paintings, like icons,
might be said to function as metaphors do in poetry; as visual metaphors,
they encourage those who are receptive to meditate and make connections. As
Lowly explains, an iconic painting acts as "a conduit or catalyst, directing
the viewer beyond itself." At this point the viewer becomes a participant, in
a sense completing the icon. A kind of communion takes place.
In an altarpiece made for an Evanston church located near his apartment,
Lowly intentionally conflates the iconic tradition with those of the
Northern European Romantics and contemporary Realists, a synthesis of
approaches which, on one level, places Lowly within the current tendencies
of post-modernism. Yet artists immersed in this movement frequently express
themselves in a kind of pastiche, making flattened surface allusions to the
past, reflecting what cultural theorist Frederic Jameson has described as
"an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten
how to think historically in the first place." In contrast to this
frequently ironic, cynical, distanced vision, Lowly,s vision appropriates
and transforms the blessings and burdens of the past with reverence. As
writer Susan Bergman has put it: "He borrows as a means of
learning...replacing distance from the past with an earned proximity to it."
Lowly notes that while "deconstructionists seem pre-occupied with bringing
to light (naming names,) those invisible powers which operate behind the
scenes, demystifying things, I wonder if it isn't possible to name names in
the process of identifying and hallowing mysteries."
....(left) Chapel Painting (Ordinary Time), by Tim Lowly. ......(right) Woman in Morning Light, by Caspar David Friedrich
Lowly's altarpiece realizes this possibility. Like many icons, it is a
two-sided image. One painting -- to be viewed during Ordinary Time in the
church calendar -- shows a woman standing on the church,s flat rooftop, looking
out over a grim but perhaps not hopeless city. Like the
laborer in Season of Silence, this woman stands with her back to the viewer,
her anonymous figure allowing us to look on with her. Lowly based this
figure on Caspar David Friedrich's painting from the nineteenth century,
Woman in Morning Light. Friedrich's piece, which shows a woman standing
before a meadow at sunrise, is a Romantic effort to resurrect a sense of the
sacred and its rites within the locus of the natural world. The woman in
Friedrich's painting is the isolated Emersonian heroine and mystic, who,
alienated from traditional Christian ritual, finds access to spirituality
Unlike Friedrich's secular woman, the figure in Lowly,s altarpiece does not
stand alone; her hands, in supplication or benediction, seem tangled with
the barren trees. These hands lift up the seemingly desolate urban community
that spreads before her, as well as the church community that will worship
in her presence. She is truly the body of the church -- doing its work in the
city -- the body of Christ embodied; she mediates between the individual and
the outside community. At the same time, Lowly portrays her as terribly
human, frail and alone in the face of a complex and confusing world. He
refuses to idealize her as a devotional figure, just as he doesn't idealize
the neighborhood that is both her sanctuary and the thing from which she
must take refuge. Reinterpreting Friedrich's reinterpretation of traditional
Christian iconography, Lowly not only returns this iconography to its
original religious domain -- altarpiece -- but he augments that domain with
If, on one side of the altarpiece, the figure embraces the urban world, on
the other side -- Lenten Time -- the vanity of this world is emptied out .
Here, a little boy looks into the eyes of the viewer, and holds
out his hand. From it falls grains of dust or ashes, invoking an awareness,
true to the season, of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." Like God, the boy
holds mortality in the palm of his hand. Yet he is smiling, he is radiant
against the dark background. With a child's faith and hope, he is perhaps
encouraging the communicant to say, with Abraham, "Now behold, I have
ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes."
Lowly has said that he hopes to paint a picture that functions,
metaphorically, like a bell or a pearl, an image that resonates -- a single
note or luminous glow that reveals itself, over time and with meditation, as
many-layered. At another moment, he connects his vision of art-making with
the work of a sluice. How, he asks, can he remove barriers to the experience
of meaning? How can he prompt a moment of connection, an opening up in
people, an opening up in himself as an artist and initial viewer? It is not
so much that he wants his painting to provide this meaning, but that he
wants it to encourage a "bringing in of meaning." When this happens, Lowly
says, "art functions as a catalyst for making people think."
Adapting this metaphor to his faith, Lowly relates it to the movement of the
Holy Spirit, who brings meaning to those who, like Tarkovsky's young
bellmaker, are open to discovering the many-layered secrets of self and art
and God. Perhaps then, the business of making bells is -- for both the painter
and for us -- the business of faith.
Copyright © Karen Halvorsen-Schreck, 1994. Karen Halvorsen-Schreck is a Chicago based writer. As one can tell from the text this essay was a labor of love for which I am very grateful. Tim Lowly index