Form to the Formless

I remember a particular day in my drawing class. A still-life arrangement sits in the middle of the room. Large easels are scattered in all directions from the still-life, ready to capture every side. The art instructor says to start drawing what we see. Where to start? Somewhere easy. Not the textured column, nor that drape with its folds and shadows that would show your lack of ability. No, start at that nice, round orange. There, it’s on the paper. A kind of circle. Work fast, the instructor says! OK, what’s around the orange? Ah, the books it sits on. They’re not too bad. Then move onto the grapes. Tiny circle, tiny circle, tiny circle…

But the art instructor does something ridiculous. He spins the table. It’s only been 1 minute. He says to start over.

The sound of paper ripping fills the air as everyone uncovers the fresh paper behind their pitiful drawing. Now what to draw? The orange is still visible so why not there? It’s on the other side of the paper now but it’s doing its job. Like a little orange anchor, it’s a stable mooring in a sea of nothingness. Ah, those books again, with their nice rectangular forms.

The table spins again. It’s only been 30 seconds! The instructor says we’re not working fast enough. This pattern continues but increases in speed. The next time its only 15 seconds before the reset. We’re all scribbling as fast as we can.

Then he explains what’s holding us back. You’re drawing outlines, he says. That’s a waste right now. You need to capture the energy of what you see. The action in the moment. What pulls you in? What’s underneath the forms you look at? Where do the shadows clump together and fight against the light? Where is the conflict? The symmetries offset by dissymmetry? The smoothness pushed aside by hardness?

After practice, I found I could capture the essence of a still-life in a matter of seconds. I drew the substance behind the form and then layered the form on later. It was the substance behind the form that people engaged with. The forms were merely decorative.

I’ve realized that exercise pertained to more than drawing. Part of creation is focusing on the substance behind the form instead of the details.

Look back at the creation story in Genesis. Of six days devoted to creation, only two were based on populating the earth. The other four separated light from darkness, split the sky from the water, drew the land from the sea, and distinguished day from night. A sequence of distinctions that provided a vibrant backdrop for life, art, and the marvels we take in. A series of golden means that, to this day, are awe inspiring when gazed upon and provide much of the substance upon which our fleshly forms rest. We sleep at night, and rise in the morning. We follow water and abide by the sky.

But not all creation is done by adding things until the substance and form appear. Some things are created through subtraction. Sculpting an object from stone, wood, or ice is a process of removing obstacles to both the form and the substance behind the form.

And this is where Lent comes in. Lent is a season of fasting and letting things go. Of denying the flesh to bring us closer to the One who created us. Of repentance for our frailty to reach acceptance of God’s sovereignty. This process of letting go is a form of creation through subtraction. It is the removal of obstacles to find both the form and substance behind the form. The thing you fast is the form, but what that thing means to you, how your flesh cries for it, and how you struggle without it is the substance behind the form. It is your place of conflict, where hardness is pushed aside. The pain is you taking an active role with God in your own creation, your perfection, your fullness. In one of the most creative acts possible, an all-powerful God invites us to help create our own story and form through both addition and subtraction.

So as you travel this Lent season, be mindful of both the form and the substance behind the form. Watch for the energy behind the outline, for the conflict between light and shadow, between hardness and softness. And know that you are in the process of creating and being created.