Monday, June 15, 2009

An Interview with Janee Noble (On Art and Christianity)

I do not doubt that I am not alone when I say that I like art, but I really wish that I understood it more. Most of us know how vast and incredible the heritage of Christian art is (let alone good art more generally), yet many of us feel quite lost when we view a piece. It is as if we are trying to read another language that we only know the most elementary basics of. "Sure, it's pretty, and I couldn't draw that- but what am I supposed to do with it?"

Enter Janee Noble. Janee is a good friend of mine and in artist in Southern California. She is a godly and thoughtful woman.

I am amazed at the two pieces above (click to enlarge). Her work really grabbed my attention when I noticed the print of Ezekiel eating the scroll (from Ezek. 3) in my ex-roommate/her boyfriend's bedroom. She has since also completed a carving of Cain killing Abel. So I asked her if I could interview her about her work and art in general, and her responses were really helpful. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

Janee, thanks so much for taking the time to teach us theo-dorks about art. Let me start by having you tell us about the medium you used for these pieces. What is it exactly, and what goes into producing them?

The medium is called printmaking. Printmaking can take on many forms but the particular one I used for these pieces is linoleum carving. The best comparison I can think of for linoleum carving is a giant stamp. Basically, you put the image you want to carve on the linoleum and you
spend countless hours wittling away at it with tiny little tools in order to keep all the detail.

How long did each piece take to create, from start to finish?

Each of these pieces took approximately 30 hours to carve from start to finish. Both pieces have areas of minute details that required caution and patience.

Tell us a little about the process, not in terms of physical creation, but in terms of what goes through your mind as an artist? Are you spending all your time simply thinking about details, or is there something, for lack of a better word, "deeper" that goes into it as well?

The process - mentally - of creating these images is really quite meditative. The carving is entirely manual and automatic, it doesn't require very much thought at all. So I get to spend my time thinking about the image that I'm carving or whatever else is on my mind. It is a time I
have used to unwind from the stress of the day or even just relax for a short time during the middle of the day. The time I spend thinking about the content of the image and reflecting on personal applications from the narrative create more passion in me about the subject of my image, this gives the final piece more "soul" if you will. So yes, there is "deeper" thinking that goes into these pieces than the thoughts about where to place my tools next.

Perhaps on a related note, what was the impetus for you to create these? Why did you decide to take up these subjects?

The first piece that I did (Ezekiel eating the scroll) was first a class assignment, although I went quite a bit above and beyond the requirement because I wanted to use the piece as a Christmas gift for my boyfriend, Greg. Greg had been writing an extensive paper on the passage in Ezekiel 3 where Ezekiel is commanded to eat the word of the Lord. He really enjoyed the paper and his research reading for the topic so I had been wanting to make him a piece for further reflection on the passage, so the linoleum carving assignment came at a perfect time.

The second piece (Cain killing Able) came from a similar purpose. I had greatly enjoyed making the first one and wanted to continue making more like it although I had been a little uncertain about what topic I should focus on next. During a trip to Italy in January 2009 Greg and I were quite taken with a painting and sculpture that depicted Cain killing Able as well as the lecture we heard about the pieces. It was something we talked about for some time after seeing the painting and sculpture and led to my decision to do my next carving on that topic. The second piece was also a secret from Greg and ended up being a birthday present for him several weeks after it was

On another related note, both of these images are very small sections derived and modified from larger scenes originally drafted by a wood carver named Albrect Durer.

I've read that, historically speaking, a lot of Christian art has been composed to function almost like graphic sermons- there is a main point that the piece wants the viewer to walk away with. Is there anything like that with these? Anything in particular you would want someone viewing these pieces to take away?

Yes, these pieces are definitely meant to serve as "graphic sermons". I would love for anyone who is interested in these passages to be able to look at and meditate on the meaning of these images for hours at a time. The same way we listen to sermons several times and think about them afterwards is the same function I would like for these pieces to serve. There is a great disconnect between the church at large and artists/artwork. I think one of the ways we as artists and art enthusiasts, or even just vaguely interested viewers, can help to repair this breach in art's function and acceptance in the church is to spend time allowing art a place in our thoughts and valuing it as we do other methods of meditating on Scripture.

When you are creating directly biblical art like this, what goes into your reading the source Scriptures as you prepare to work on the piece, and as you work on it?

Spending so much time meditating on shorter passages of Scripture really gives me time to think about what I should be understanding from each passage and how it applies to me personally. For example, with Cain killing Able the story was extremely familiar to me and had no shock
value, but the more I thought about the story and really how devastating it is, the more real it became to me. I was able to "feel" about the story in a way I never had before, and it gave knew meaning and insight to other passages that relate to it as well, such as Matthew 5:21-26.

For that matter, how has doing this work affected your reading of those texts now that you've finished it, if at all?

Being an artist type I have a hard time really grasping and meditating on things unless a have some sort of visual to keep in my mind. So spending so much time with these pieces has allowed me to not only delve deeper into these passages than I normally would from simply reading them, but it has allowed me to continually think and develop thoughts about these
passages. And when I see the images hanging on the wall in passing I am reminded of my feelings about the implications of the images in my own life, it's sort of like a quick check if I'm still trying to live out the word of God as it is spoken in the passages the images reflect.

Anything else you'd like to tell a bunch of theology nerds about these two pieces?

Seriously, take a piece of art that you enjoy, with blatant Christian themes or not, and spend at least an hour looking at it (obviously this would be better if you can be with the artwork in person). Think about why you enjoy the piece, and try to draw out some truths that
you find in it. Make some personal connections between the artwork and your faith. Maybe even make a connection between the piece and a particular passage and extract some well thought out connections between the piece of art and God's word. You will enjoy finding God's truth in
places you never would have thought to look before.

I myself have a print of the Ezekiel piece hanging up in my office at church, and I love it. It constantly reminds me of my need to be taking-in God's Word- to be "eating" it. If any of our readers would like a print of one of these, how could they get one?

The best way would be to contact my directly by email: The dimensions of the pieces are: Ezekiel: 11.5" x 17.5" Cain/Able: 9" x 12" Prices will vary based on if you want a print by itself, a matted print, or a matted and framed print. Just for reference though a matted print would cost around $150.


Ian Clausen said...

Fabulous interview. I'm reminded again that in the history of our faith there has been at least two movements in relation to art, iconoclast and aesthetic (for lack of a handy term at the moment). Neither extreme will do. The scene with Dante and Beatrice also comes to mind: she represents the 'anagogic force' that leads one to - but is not in herself - the final beatitude, who is God.

Next visit to the Art Museum may take a little longer...

Kyle Fox said...

Those prints are fantastic. Thanks for posting this and letting us "theo-nerds" know that good Christian artwork is being done.

briankb said...

Thanks also for the post. It is gratifying to know that others out there appreciate and value great art in a spiritual context. I must be very lucky, as the church I work for is literally a 20th and 21st century art gallery, both sacred and secular.