Ordinary Saints is a collaborative project featuring the work of Bruce Herman (painter), Malcolm Guite (poet), and J.A.C. (“JAC”) Redford (composer). They have turned their collective attention toward a series of ordinary faces —“people in our immediate circles who are often overlooked, and who are dear to our Lord”—and have responded through their respective mediums.
With JAC in California, Malcolm in Cambridge (U.K.), and Bruce in Massachusetts, perhaps it seems surprising that the first public manifestation of their project would emerge in a remote Canyon deep in the Hill Country of Texas. But a closer look reveals a startling synchronicity between the project, Ordinary Saints, and the place, Laity Lodge.
Laity Lodge was built upon a conviction of the high calling of the laity–the ordinary people of God, in all their common offices and occupations. And the experience of venturing here, of being here, offers a quiet and somewhat mysterious means of rediscovering a sense of the sacred all around us ... not just here in the Frio River Canyon, but back in those ordinary places that define our day-to-day.
Wendell Berry has written, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Sacred spaces, sacred faces … maybe they’re both closer than we think. “Gaze on this painting, let it gaze on you,” Malcolm begins one of his poems … “what will you allow yourself to see?”
The ordinary saints, the ones we know,
Our too-familiar family and friends,
When shall we see them? Who can truly show
Whilst still rough-hewn, the God who shapes our ends?
Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold
That is and always was our common ground,
Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold
To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound
From which the light we never noticed fell
Into our lives? Remember how we turned
To look at them, and they looked back? That full-
eyed love unselved us, and we turned around,
Unready for the wrench and reach of grace.
But one day we will see them face to face.
All portraits carry something of the icon,
Some inkling of the light behind the sill
Of all our seeming, of the unquenched beacon
Whose radiance we never see, yet feel
Just under everything. But here that cross
Of light is made explicit, shines behind
A woman’s strength and beauty, all the wise
And humorous awareness in her eyes,
The sense you have of her quick-piercing mind,
Unflinching, yet compassionate. You trace
The lines of a long love, and a strong heart,
The to and fro of healing and of hurt.
You could not hold a falsehood to this face,
Or not for long, before that open gaze.
This summer, we had the pleasure of talking with Bruce, JAC, and Malcolm about Ordinary Saints. They spoke about the origins and hopes for their project as well as their thoughts on collaboration and beauty.
How did the three of you meet?
BH: I met Malcolm in the early nineties when we were both participating in a C.S. Lewis conference at Cambridge. Later Malcolm saw the painting I did of my dad. I had painted it as a way of coming to grips with his death, and Malcolm wrote an ekphrastic poem [a traditional poetic form responding to a work of art] about that painting. He ended up coming out to Gloucester and spent four days in my studio taking notes about a bunch of these paintings and then writing poems. By now I think he’s written 17 poems and is working on more.
BH: There was a big celebration at the cathedral in Seattle and some of JAC’s music was being performed to the setting of a poem, and I loved the music. I met JAC and his wife LeAnn that night.
Malcolm, what was the beginning of this collaboration like for you?
MG: I found the portrait of Bruce’s dad very compelling; it gave an extraordinary sense of presence … the whole presence of his father is there. When you get close you see so many colors and details in the skin textures, for example, which seem to suggest a kind of light and abundance. Every time you return to the painting you see something more … just as, in the presence of the real person, there is always more in each encounter.
Then Bruce invited me to his house to look at that portrait again, because I wanted to see it to write about it. Bruce revealed that he intended to make a portrait of me, partly so that I would understand his process when I came to write about the other portraits. That was a fascinating experience.
He showed me a board, covered in gold leaf but with a scar of the red clay beneath it, showing through. I could see my faint reflection in the gold. He said, “Your portrait will emerge from the scar,” and he began by sanding, almost flaying away the layers of gold leaf and red clay, unmaking something in order to transform and remake it. In that sense I realized that the process of making these portraits is itself a kind of parable of fall and redemption. Bruce isn’t just an artist. He has something of the prophet in him—the maker and enactor of parables.
These works also gesture towards that lost image of God in us … to the way the false must be purged away and the true lovingly restored. The works catch something of the enormous “yes” that Christ constantly speaks to us as he restores us to our true identity in him. And then JAC’s music adds a new dimension. It creates a sense of expanded space and time, a kind of alert stillness in which to look at the paintings and hear the poems.
JAC: It’s interesting that Malcolm mentions space. I think he’s referring in part to music creating an atmosphere or architecture in which words can resonate and invite new or enhanced responses. That can be true of the relationship of music with painting as well. With both painting and poetry, some ineffable qualities may be underlined by the music, and some left unaddressed, but in my experience other dimensions are always revealed.
What kind of hopes do you have for this exhibition?
JAC: We hope that through engaging with these works–through these faces–people will turn to the faces of their neighbors, friends, and even their antagonists and see them differently. We hope that viewers will create or deepen the habit of seeing the image of God with the people they live and work alongside.
Bruce, I came across a quote of yours that struck me deeply: “The radical autonomy that we enjoy as artists can be a very real danger and the main danger is meaninglessness.” After considering it for a while I realized it was actually an indirect statement about collaboration.
BH: Collaboration is like magnifying whatever small gift you have ten-fold. It opens all kinds of doors and avenues of research, production, and creativity that would otherwise remain dormant in you as an individual. The other thing is a philosophical conviction I’ve had all my life that art really isn’t, at its best, a solo flight. This gift isn’t meant for us. The gift is through us for others, and collaboration magnifies that.
Malcolm, what are your thoughts on this front?
I think the collaboration between the three of us goes right to the heart of this project. In one sense all art involves collaboration: collaboration with the images, ideas and language which the artist inherits from tradition; and collaboration with the viewer, reader, or listener, who must, in some sense, remake the work within their own imagination.
JAC, what did it look like for you to engage in this collaboration? Are you responding to both Bruce and Malcolm in your musical scores?
JAC: Yes, sometimes to the paintings via the poems. When I’m responding to the visual stimuli of the painting, I’m trying to make a connection that the painting is suggesting. I’m trying to look through the painting to something else, to enter a conversation with the painting. Ultimately, each work reveals in the other something that would not have been seen otherwise.
Bruce, can you talk a little about the relationship between your paintings and icons?
BH: I’ve always been interested in iconography and the idea that a painting can also be a portal. Not something you look at, but something you look through. I believe that real icons (under the rubric of the church) are a stage where two of God’s children can meet—the subject of the icon and the person praying. There’s a theology of meeting there that I’m very interested in.
Ordinary Saints lives somewhere in a weird, fraught liminal space between icon and portrait. I’ve violated some basic portrait rules. You never center the head in the middle of the composition. But I’ve done that with most of these paintings. I wanted them to be read as a place of encounter with the person, not just with their effigy. I want to think about how a painting can function as a kind of meeting space between “I and thou.”