Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saliva, Mud

Tuesdays, the dozen of us who’ve gathered every week so far during Lent to make art together begin with a check-in before we move into our studio space. This week, we started by reading, from Chapter 9 of the Gospel of John, the story of Jesus healing a man born blind.

Jesus spits on the ground to make mud that he then smears on the man’s eyes. The local authorities freak out when he's cured. Getting no answers about how it happened that they’re prepared to accept, they finally drive him out of town. Jesus searches him out, and their conversation ends with Jesus saying, “I’m the one the prophecies are about. If you can see that, you’ve got your sight. The ones who can’t are blind.”

After we’d read the story aloud to each other, we took turns sharing one or two words, at most a single phrase, that had pulled us in. One of us–God bless him–chose, “Saliva. Mud.” It’s the weirdest detail in the whole story, the one least likely to get attention from pious readers. I can’t help but think the way it unsettles well-groomed reverence for a clean-scrubbed Jesus is somehow of a piece with the suspicious, hostile reaction he gets in the story itself. The Savior of the World isn’t supposed to treat bodily fluids and dirt like sacramental substances. Holy Spit is a South Park episode waiting to happen. If Jesus had an NEH grant, he’d lose it over this one, for sure.

Later in the evening, hands figured prominently in our studio work: their outlines sometimes traced carefully in felt marker; but more often covered up to our wrists in acrylic paint and then pressed, rolled, or smeared across the paper. “Saliva, Mud” turned into something of a mantra. What struck me was how readily others in the group embraced it, as eagerly as they plunged into paint when neater media lay to hand as alternatives. In the basement of a respectable, solidly middle-class Anglican church, what most answered our longings was the prospect of an escape from Purity into the riskier territory of Dirt Out of Place.

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