Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-color as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles all in stiple upon trout that swims
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pierced—fold, fallow, and plough…
~Gerard Manley Hopkins
God’s glory is indeed revealed in dappled things, but it is a hidden glory, tucked away inside that which for all the world looks ordinary, unless you have eyes to see. It is glimpsed only by those who have both eyes wide open and unhurried time to look. So, when poet and painter use their gifts to help me see what I usually miss, I am grateful for that grace. Which is why I am grateful for Bruce Bezaire, whose paintings are meticulous expositions of God’s glory hidden in the ordinary things of creation. I had a chance recently to talk to him.
DH: How would you describe your art?
BB: My fine art images are observations through redeemed eyes of the tension between the beauty of the Creation and the deleterious effects of sin on the Creation. The content is realistic—landscape, still life, portraits—with an emphasis on technical and formal excellence. Sometimes my choice of imagery is intended to embody my response to God in a kind of homage that is the visual equivalent of someone else singing a hymn. Often, there is what I refer to as a fractal aspect to the content of my work. That is, I see in some very mundane subject matter shards of profound spiritual realities. A biblical example would be the story of Elisha and the floating axe head. What was that all about? Taken at face value, the prophet was expressing God’s care for us in the smallest details of life. On a more profound level it speaks of redemption through the exchange of natures—the wood’s ability to float is exchanged for the iron’s natural tendency to sink and the axe head is thereby ‘saved.’ In a way I’m about the business of painting floating axe heads, without further explanation. This is not ‘symbolism’—the fractal concept is key. In a fractal image, the smallest component has the same form as the largest view of the overall reality. So too, in observations from our everyday world we can recognize the big pattern of transcendent truth. This aspect of a given painting is somewhat fugitive and requires either explanation or unusual insight on the part of the viewer. It is always sublimated in the image which is first and foremost to function as a good landscape, still life or portrait.
A Canadian by birth, Bezaire freelanced as an artist and worked as an illustrator for the Canadian Museum of Nature’s Botany Hall after earning an M.F.A. from Southern Illinois University. In 1992 he joined the faculty of Belhaven College in Jackson, MS, where he taught for ten years, the last six of which he served as art department chair. In 2002 he moved with his family to Smyrna, TN, where he has once again launched out as a freelance painter. Along the way, he has maintained an interest in narragraphic art (comic books), serving as an illustrator for a publisher of Christian literature for Native Americans. Bezaire was raised in a nominally Christian home, but it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 25 that he took Christianity seriously. After a long absence he attended church before his surgery. The sermon was un-helpful, “a humanistic deconstruction of some of the miracles of Christ,” but the Scriptures spoke of a God who redeems and can heal. The surgery was successful, and his life was indelibly marked by grace.
DH: How did you arrive at your particular style?
BB: My style is meticulous, realistic. I find this both constantly demanding and personally satisfying. I don’t hold this approach to be either artistically or morally superior to others—some Christians, perhaps out of a general conservativism, tend to think of abstraction or expressionism as suspect on both counts. I have identified my strengths and weaknesses as a painter and practice my craft according to the way my Maker wired me. I used to scoff at the idea of doing landscapes, but when I got out of the hospital I got a job painting murals in another hospital and from my own experience had a sense of what the patients would appreciate—scenes of the world they were temporarily denied rendered in a way that consciously attempted to be beautiful. From that time my approach has evolved to take on more layers of meaning but has not abandoned the desire to be beautiful and edifying.
DH: How do people respond to your work? What do you most want to hear them say? Dread hearing them say?
BB: The only people I’ve run across, Christian or otherwise, who don’t express some level of appreciation of my work are artistic ideologues who despise realism, or even painting itself, on theoretical grounds. Not everyone appreciates what I do for all of the reasons I’d like them to, but that is to be expected. I derive most satisfaction from a response to my work that in one way or another indicates the viewer has been blessed, pleasured, edified. And although I understand it to be a compliment, I quail at the frequent comment that ‘it looks just like a photograph’ because it indicates the viewer has a fundamental misconception about the art. Painting and photography are distinct disciplines with distinct formal languages and aesthetic aims. If I could accomplish what I wanted to by taking a photograph, then I would be a photographer and not a painter.
The first time I saw some of Bezaire’s paintings they were hanging in a small gallery in the library on the campus of Belhaven College. My first impression was that of being enabled to see. To see not just details, but beyond the details to meaning. One painting in particular so captured my attention that I found it difficult to turn away. Titled “Dawncatchers,” the perspective was ground-level on the edge of a frozen lake in the spring thaw, at dawn. In northern regions, when the lengthening days bring warmth in the spring, the thick ice (often 6 inches to several feet in depth) begins to crack and heave. Near the shoreline it piles up in tumbling ridges, slabs jutting up into the air under the force of wind and waves. Bezaire had taken the quiet beauty of that moment, capturing the bright rays of sunlight through the translucence of the ice, the broken surface of the ice-covered lake stretching out beyond it. The technique was stunning, but what impressed me most was not simply the formal excellence involved, but the fact that before me was a work of art that made the ordinary extraordinary.
Bezaire’s work is time-consuming and labor-intensive; he uses a brush with only a few hairs to make the final touches. His etchings are intricate and finely crafted. It is work of great beauty, but a real beauty which honors what the creation is like in a fallen world. The beauty comes not by giving the image a saccharin quality by removing any hint of the fall, but by revealing a hint of the glory that God implanted in his creation.
DH: What is the relationship between your art and evangelism?
BB: When I discuss the ‘fractal’ aspect of my work, I refer to something that is very important to me but which I realize will be fully comprehended by the viewing public only rarely. And that’s okay. If the painted images were such that the layers of meaning became very overt and did not remain allusive, the work would take on a polemic nature that could in fact weaken it. The question is whether the truth, when it is presented like propaganda can ever rise above the perception that it is propaganda. At the time I became a Christian, I was writing comic book scripts for a publishing house that specialized in horror titles. I soon gave that up as incompatible with my new faith. I often wonder if I should not have set about seeking to redeem a mode of artistic expression almost totally hijacked by the world. It was not until 1990 that I had the opportunity to return to narragraphics, and I did so partly because I had become frustrated with the perceived lack of spiritual fruit issuing from my fine art activities. I’m sure now that my assessment of the value of my painting at the time was off track, but I continue to this day to be fascinated by the narragraphic medium. I do not feel evangelism is a desired end of my painting. The paintings are an end in themselves—they are the fruit of the redeemed life that produced them by God’s grace. However, I remain very curious concerning the degree to which the narragraphic medium can successfully serve a high calling like evangelism and remain aesthetically viable in so doing.
DH: Judging by the “art” displayed in religious bookstores, your work will not achieve much popularity among Christians. Care to comment?
BB: Not wanting to ascribe to all Christians the homogenized corporate aesthetic embodied in most commercial “Christian art” I would generalize my assessment of the work to which I believe you’re referring as the substitution of the Pretty for the Beautiful, the Sentimental for the True, and the Nice for the Good. The problem with paintings of angels who haven’t had a make-over since the seventies, or scenes of little fieldstone villages with a lighthouse on every corner, where the sun sets twenty-four hours a day over azalea-lined streets, where it never rains but has always just rained, is that if they tell the truth at all, they tell only part of the truth. The world is left to conclude that the average Christian, to judge by his choice of art, harbors a theme-park view of the world which has very little to do with the reality the non-Christian tries to cope with daily. My work consciously seeks to be beautiful in form, technique, and often in choice of subject matter. But I never edit observations of corruption out of my imagery since I believe that one of the first things grace does is make us aware of what we need rescuing from. Most Christians seem receptive to my work, but usually not enough to invest in an original.
Bezaire’s perspective of creativity, faithfulness, and biblical piety has been nurtured by thinkers like Francis Schaeffer, Hans Rookmaaker, John Stott, Hudson Taylor, and E. M. Bounds. When I asked him about the artists that have shaped him, his answer was exactly what I expected from someone who taught studio art and art history in a private college for a decade: “Durer (engravings), Vermeer (light), Dutch still life (obsessive-compulsive detail), Alex Colville (Canadian surrealist), Arthur Rackham, Charles Dana Gibson, and Alphonse Mucha (illustrators), Edward Hopper (composition, subject matter), Al Capp, Carmine Infantino, Murphy Anderson, Hal Foster, Burne Hogarth, Joe Kubert, Carl Barks (cartoonists), Michelangelo (work ethic), Bernini (denial of the medium—incomprehensible facility), Monet (color), Cezanne (over-achievement), Kandinsky (quirky formalism), Whistler and Rembrandt (etchings), Sargent and Mark Tobey (brushwork), Andy Goldsworthy (virtuoso ephemeral constructs), M. C. Escher (visual imagination, relief printing), Mark Tansey (esoteric humor). I could go on.”
The postmodern generation doubts that Truth can be found, but is convinced that Beauty can be glimpsed even in our fragmented and broken world. And though art should always be of importance to Christians because it is such a good gift of God in a fallen world, this openness to Beauty means that it is all the more important for believers to demonstrate the glory of the God who redeems. We need to bless, as families and as churches, those who are called to the arts, and support them in ways that are appropriate to their calling. I remember a time when Margie and I were young parents with three children, but we carefully saved our pennies over numerous years until we could afford a bronze sculpture by an artist friend. I have never regretted our decision, nor felt guilt over not adding those pennies to the check we sent each month to support an orphan in India.
DH: What can discerning Christians do to nurture a Christian imagination?
BB: My concern is that Christians cultivate a mature sense of Beauty—the aspect of the aesthetic trinity of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty that is most routinely neglected or misunderstood amongst evangelicals. Each aspect of this aesthetic trinity is necessary to a full comprehension of the others. And each has its source in the Godhead—they are not higher abstract principles to which he must answer. God is Truth itself, Goodness itself, and Beauty itself. We do not have the luxury of saying as a church that we will focus on Truth and Goodness, but not Beauty. And it is just as dysfunctional, if not more so, to focus on Beauty at the expense of Truth and Goodness. While visiting places of worship after relocating, we were at a church that is meeting in a public space and considering the purchase of property for their own building. The brochure outlining the church’s plans promised ‘no stained glass, only functional utility’ as an architectural vision. While we might legitimately contemplate the degradation of a culture’s sense of Beauty when it has turned away from God, I’m concerned about the church’s understanding of God when it has turned away from Beauty. What does stepping into a gray drywall box contribute to our experience of reverence, joy, exaltation, worship? I believe there is in the church sympathy for the concept of redeeming creative expression in its various forms—music, drama, dance, film, visual arts. However, too often support for this high goal is prioritized (music is more significant than visual art), very selective (only certain art forms appear to be regarded as having Christian potential, for limited applications, primarily liturgical), or theoretical. Per-taining to this last point, we feel we have accomplished something if we’ve read a book on the issue and had a healthy discussion about sanctifying the arts. However, practically speaking for artists trying to do the job, moral and verbal support approaches being told to depart in peace, be warmed and filled, notwithstanding those things which are needful are not given. To agree together that the arts are largely in the hands of the adversary and that it is our corporate responsibility to redress that situation, and then to fail to act is reminiscent of the son in the parable who told his father that he would go to work in the fields and then didn’t go. During the Renaissance, Florence, a city of not many more than 100,000 souls, supported upwards of 40 thriving art studios, most of which were kept busy beautifying churches and private and public spaces—because it was a priority. In our culture, it is athletes who are known by their first names: Michael, Kobe, Sammy. Then, it was Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael: names that have survived the centuries only to be appropriated in our enlightened times by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In the mid-eighties my agent introduced me to a Toronto businessman who was interested in supporting the arts. For 6 1/2 years this gentleman averaged my income by providing a check for living expenses every month. During that period I mounted three one-man shows and the first proceeds from the sale of the paintings went to repay my patron. For each show, he then received a painting worth ten percent of the gross value of the show. Everybody benefitted. It was a creative solution to a problem nearly every artist faces: cash flow. He gave me complete freedom to paint whatever I wanted, knowing I was working from a Christian perspective. I was given to understand, however, that he himself was Jewish. If we are to nurture anything, a Christian imagination or sense of Beauty, we must invest in it, in the form of time, effort (study and/or practice) and resources.
Western society has long been enthralled by the spectacular. And truth be told, there is something exciting in an epic production that is somehow bigger than life. The trouble is that such moments are fleeting, and life quickly reverts to the ordinary. More spectacular than the occasional epic, however, is catching a glimpse of infinite glory hidden in very ordinary things. The wonder is that it was there all along, but invisible until someone with clearer sight graced me with their ability to see. And the hope is that now that I’ve caught a glimpse of a deeper reality in ordinary things, I might be less blind to the glory that shouts God’s existence and goodness in every single thing he has made.
That is one thing the art of Bruce Bezaire does in my life, and I am grateful for the chance to thank him for it here.
Bruce Bezaire can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or by phone at (615) 220-6171. Please mention you saw his work on Ransom’s website or heard about it in Critique.