I've been mulling over the idea of the stranger for a while now and from the outset I wanted to play with the idea of 'the alien'. I wasn't exactly sure how the images would translate onto paper but I had convinced myself that this was the way in. After all, the concept of alien, whether it's the literal alien who comes from another planet and dimension or whether it's the label 'resident alien' that is commonly used for those who come from another country, captures the whole notion of strangeness and otherness. In fact it is not uncommon to talk about odd experiences and odd occurrences as alien. We are surrounded and bombarded by a reality that we consider strange or maybe just simply not like us.
Obviously the painting I ended up with has nothing to do with aliens or spaceships but that's not where I started. I had spent a couple of Saturdays etching and creating a collage of figures that would, in my mind, be perfect for capturing the stranger. I had it all planned: in the middle there would be a central Christ figure bearing the resemblance of his surrounding alien followers. The fact that he was a stranger to this world would jump out on the page as his ethereal body touched base somehow with every other ethereal body. Can't you just hear "take me to your leader" in the background? I thought I had it in the bag except that when I showed it to Paul, who is always more than encouraging, he took a while to respond. What I thought was in the bag was no where near the bag; somehow I had missed the point. In trying to capture the stranger I went all literal and failed to allow the truth and the nuance of the other to enter my reality. In keeping it one-dimensional I could still walk away unaffected. If that isn't the normative response to the stranger I don't know what is - guilty as charged.
So back to the drawing board. Scrap the New-Age Christ and the nebulous airy images. Clear the mind and take a different approach. I was a bit surprised at how easily I picked up the eraser. Maybe when we miss the mark so obviously we feel a bit relieved at being given another chance. At least that was what I felt that day, a gift to be sure.
It didn't take long for new images to bubble up. All that was needed was a turn of phrase. The word 'alien' needed to be replaced with 'citizens with God', a completely different concept. Now instead of 'outsider' being the operative word, 'unity and belonging' became the catchphrase. But not just any kind of belonging. The words strange and stranger were still making its way onto the page with feathered rays winging out from the sun, trees whose branches clap happily in the wind, stars swimming in a rainbow river, a colourful sun rising out of the old ashen skeleton sun like the daily phoenix it is. This time it was a good strange because this black and white world, where things are compartmentalized and categorized and what is like and what is unlike are boxed away for safety and security, doesn't quite know what to do when differences cross borders (internally and externally) and begin play with one another, letting colours and shapes meld together so new colours and shapes can emerge. Where love and spirit call the shots and where death and decay stand under something much more vibrant and life-giving. Instead of human figures, nature became my subject, my new way in. I so much wanted to get across the idea that to live in perpetual isolation, where otherness and strangeness is seen in the light of paranoia, is the ticket to death, to despair and to living without color. Nature, being what she is, has those times of death and decay but in the end, she wants nothing more than to be reborn, to come alive and weave in and out, linking hands in freedom. Fences, walls and borders eventually break down and instead fish fly, feathers give off the warmth of the sun, trees clap their hands and stars swim in a current of colour.
I am very grateful for that moment of silence, for the wise friend who was willing to risk saying your first try is just a little off. This time it was just a painting that needed re-working. My hope is that next time, when my day gets dismantled by the strange and the stranger, and when bigger plans fall to pieces I will be given the gift of an open heart and know with a sense of trust and openess that all this strangeness is possibly God's invitation to unity and belonging.