makoto-fujimura-painting-in-his-studio

Get to know God the artist with painter Makoto Fujimura

What we make on earth matters to God and to the world.
Arts & Culture

It’s trendy to talk about faith as something that exists in competition with culture. But what if instead of engaging in culture wars, we flipped the script and recognized our God-given role in this world as one of culture care—protecting and privileging that which humans create because it’s all an expression of God?

Such is the task taken up by Makoto Fujimura, a contemporary artist who embraces the slow act of making as sacred work. “I am an artist because God is an artist,” says Fujimura, who considers his work a response to God’s gratuitous love. In Art + Faith: A Theology of Making (Yale University Press), Fujimura shares how for him, Jesus’ physical presence in the world—and the specifics about how he spent his days—makes all the difference in what we deem worthy of our time and how we build community.

As an arts advocate, Fujimura founded the International Arts Movement (IAM) where he fosters an environment “with a focus on beauty and generosity, and guided by a cultural history informed by faith.” Learn more about his ongoing efforts to uplift culture in collaboration with other artists (and non-artists) at iamculturecare.com.

What does scripture tell us about God the artist?

From the first page of Genesis, God is known as the creator. And throughout the Bible God creates a nation of chosen people. We tend to think that our relationship with God depends on us knowing about God first. And that’s fine. It’s just that God exists before our knowledge of God or even the notion of God. God doesn’t really need anybody or anything else to exist. There’s absolutely no need for God to create anything, except that God is love, and love exudes and is generative by nature.

Throughout the Bible there is evidence of culture-making, and that’s related to worship. God created us to be creative. In Exodus 31, Moses’ tabernacle is built and established alongside the Ten Commandments. Both are given as signature pieces of God’s presence in the world. Then there’s this beautiful communication box called the Ark of the Covenant, which is built by two craftsmen chosen by God, Bezalel and Oholiab.

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The prophets talk about going into the New Jerusalem with treasures of the Earth—things that we have cultivated. Jesus comes and creates a new Temple—the body of Christ—and the Book of Revelation is again full of this vision of a New Jerusalem that is connected to what we make on this side of eternity. All cultures, not just Christian culture, are welcomed into the New Jerusalem because of their excellence. It shows that culture matters to God.

When we create with the faith that what we make matters to God, there are small glimpses of God’s handiwork: What we make reverberates into the world. God is present in that experience.

God created us to be creative.

I use an analogy of a father taking his son to the beach. The son creates a sandcastle, and the father knows it’s going to be washed away. But the father happens to be an architect, so he builds a real, enduring castle based on his son’s design. What we do on this side of eternity may not seem like much to us. But we don’t have the perspective, authority, or power to say that. God takes what we make and brings it into the new creation in ways we don’t fully understand. That’s why we need faith.

Faith is about creating something new in the world. From beginning to end the Bible is a book about creativity. It’s a sacred text about a maker-God who creates the universe in gratuity and invites us to do the same. It’s an invitation to a feast that requires our participation. If God the artist creates not for transactional reasons but for sheer love, then it makes sense that God relates to us out of sheer abundance and love.

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How does Jesus fit into the story of God the artist?

Artists try to reveal the invisible. Jesus’ incarnation—God coming to be born as one of us—is profoundly artistic. God the artist who is all-powerful could have done anything to show that power, yet God chooses to come into the world in weakness and vulnerability, dependent on the created world and fallen human beings.

We are unable to capture all the glory and mystery of God’s presence in the world. Jesus coming as an infant in this most vulnerable form is a sign of God’s abundant love for what God created. God being present in the world in this way is scandalous. In Jesus, God is made utterly vulnerable to everything that we experience—pain, tears, sickness, all of that. It’s an indication of how much of the world—of art—God defines by being part of it.

When we create with the faith that what we make matters to God, there are small glimpses of God’s handiwork: What we make reverberates into the world.

Understanding Jesus’ incarnation in this way flips the modernist conception that art is what we make or what we determine to be beautiful. No, it’s the opposite. Art is that on which we are dependent, the reality and mystery of what God has created. Through a vulnerable God who is present in and subject to the created world, we realize we have been given authority to be authors, to dictate what we want to depict and how we want to depict it. We are creators ourselves. We are defined by our making. There’s total freedom in that. Yet as we exercise our authority to cocreate, we tap into awe. The burning bush is everywhere. God speaks through what we do and what we create.

I’ve experienced this so many times in my studio. Whatever I see in my art and accomplishments is just so small compared to how pleased God is when I’m just simply being a child of God, creating without thinking about the marketplace, without thinking about who to please. I don’t have to worry about any of that. I don’t have to make art so that a critic will write about it.

For me, making art is about being uniquely myself and doing my best to return by faith what God has given me. I can’t begin to articulate the presence of God in that space—the joy and peace that it brings. Even as successful as I can be as an artist, I can’t even imagine the impact of my work as an expression of God.

How does John 11:35—“Jesus began to weep”—inspire your artistic process?

Jesus’ physical tears, divine tears—his DNA—dropped on the hallowed ground of Bethany. I believe those tears have physically multiplied in some way, just like the loaves and fishes, and Jesus is present in all the earth now through water. The reality that Jesus wept is essential to me, my life, and my art. I don’t know when I started to do this, but I started to think that because I use water-based materials, I paint with Jesus’ tears.

If God creates out of pure abundance and love, then that’s all you need to know. Yet we spend a lot of time thinking about justifying faith in many ways. John 11:35 counters that theory in pragmatism. There’s no reason why Jesus should sit with Mary and cry. It’s a waste of time. Why doesn’t he just solve the problem right away? Even though Jesus does resurrect Lazarus later, I’d say that’s not what he came to do. He came to be present with Mary in her pain, in her anger, in her feelings of betrayal.

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He sits angry, agitated, and upset for the loss of his friend. That commitment to accompaniment, to hold space for feelings whether they are rational or not, stands out to me. Tears are invaluable in Jesus’ culture. In a dry desert land, tears are moisture that you want to keep. So to cry is a sacrificial, gratuitous act. It’s evidence of God’s gratuitous presence in our happiness but also in our sorrows.

I mix my own paint from gold, silver, and other minerals. I have a sense of preciousness and sacredness of the material that is directly tied with the most precious reality of Jesus’ tears. Then I pour this precious material onto canvas or paper and hope it captures some of that reality of the gratuitous love of God.

When I started to show art in New York City in the ’90s, nobody was talking about beauty or extravagance. They wanted to avoid it. They wanted to go the way of asceticism or minimalism and conceptualism. There was no materiality. I felt as a follower of Christ that because the incarnation matters, because Christ’s tears are present, I wanted to create things that are dedicated to the grand artist. God deserves the best. I’m really just trying to integrate what I know to be true, good, and beautiful into that space.

After 30 years I am now established, but I used to have to intentionally save up to get the best materials. I’d buy painting materials instead of eating lunch, because that’s the way I honored God as a student. People would ask, “Isn’t it wasteful to do that? To spend money on extravagant art supplies?” I’d say, “Yeah, absolutely. It’s wasteful in the same way that Jesus’ tears are wasteful.” I want people to see that in today’s embodied times extravagance matters, materiality matters, especially in darkness and trauma. God is fully present through Christ’s tears in these places.

How do Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ responses to Jesus inspire you as an artist?

Mary understands that Jesus’ act was sacrificial and gratuitous. In John 12 she runs to get her wedding nard, the most important thing she has, and pours it out on his feet. She responds to love intuitively with an extravagant gesture. I was discussing this with a friend of mine who’s a museum curator, and he said, “All of the arts, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Leonardo da Vinci to Michelangelo, float around in the air in the aroma of Mary’s nard being poured upon Jesus.” That’s a beautiful way of capturing how all art is, in some way, like Mary responding to the gratuitous loving presence of God. To me, all of what I do in the studio is sacred and, just like Mary, is done in response to God.

Martha gets a bad rap because she’s labeled as a busybody. At one point she is anxious about many things. But in John 11, she’s not. She undergoes a tremendous personal transformation. She is still an activist, going to Jesus while Mary stays behind being angry. She remarkably articulates her understanding of the resurrection—something the disciples couldn’t even do at that time—and Jesus carefully and lovingly has that conversation with her before going to Mary, before going to the tomb to resurrect Lazarus. Mary trusted Marthas’s encouragement to see Jesus face to face. When their eyes met, Jesus wept.

Then after Jesus raises Lazarus, I imagine Martha is the one organizing the unwrapping of her brother and the plans for the party to host Jesus that will follow in John 12, all while Mary is running off rapt with emotion to get her wedding nard.

God speaks through what we do and what we create.

Martha is not an artist type. She’s probably a business type. She’s analytical and driven, a highly organized person who I can imagine helping out with the beginning of the institution of the church. Without Martha behind the scenes, Mary can’t exist as she does.

Lazarus doesn’t know Jesus wept over his death. He gets sick, dies, and is resurrected, then he’s reclining at his seat with Jesus in John 12. Meanwhile, there’s basically an “FBI Most Wanted” sign out there for Lazarus, because his story is causing so many people to believe in Jesus. Yet he’s as relaxed as anybody can be. It’s like he’s thinking, “I was dead. My ears were rotting, and I heard the voice of Christ, and here I am. What more can they do to me? As long as I’m with Jesus, I’m going to be OK.” It’s amazing that we know more about the resurrection today than Lazarus knew then. But his experience gives him an enormous boldness and courage. If he’s so confident and relaxed, maybe we can be a little bit more like that too.

That’s what I want to see in art: something that makes me believe that there is something new breaking in. I want to follow that art until I discover whatever it is that the Spirit is doing through that work. I think one thing the Spirit does through that kind of bold, creative work is build a culture of love that’s unafraid to understand that every human expression in some way mirrors God’s expression. We are always twisting it and creating idols, but Christians ought to be the group of people who are good at twisting it back and seeing the purity, goodness, and truth behind every expression.

In the art world, what does it look like to stay faithful?

If we are walking by faith, then we are walking on water. It looks weird to other people. We will attempt to do things that often seem like failures. Maybe sometimes they are failures, but by faith we have to keep trying to walk forward. And we have to have friends who affirm that path, because it’s hard to do alone. We need the kind of friendship and accountability that will always return us to our first loves. We need people who will say, “You had this goal two years ago. What’s happening with that? Are you failing? Are you failing well? Are you trying things? Are you taking risks?” Because that’s what’s required to step by faith.

Lazarus dies. Peter fails when he tries to walk on water; he falls into the water. But those are necessary steps for them to understand who Jesus is. So we should have a community that allows us to fail but also encourages us to keep going.

I always say you need a Martha, you need a Mary, and you need a Lazarus—you need people in your life who are analytical, intuitive, and relaxed, respectively. We should create a community in this kind of triad.

At the end of the day, only you know what staying faithful looks like for you. It may be different for each person, so you want to be careful and not assume that one person’s faithfulness is the only way to be faithful. It also depends on the time that is given to you to be a prophetic witness, a loving presence, in community. I think in many ways understanding God’s presence wherever you are and wherever you’re being asked to serve is unique to that moment and unique to you. God wants you to be fully present and fully you. It takes a certain kind of persistence and imagination to stay with that moment or stay in those spaces that you’re called into. The whole entire creation rejoices when one person simply does what that person is called to do as a child of God.


You can see more of Fujimura’s paintings and videos at makotofujimura.com.

This article also appears in the December 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 12, pages 20-24). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: YouTube