Pratt: Chris, I wonder if we could start out by talking about the work you showed recently at the Northhampton Museum and Education Center?
Page: I had some ideas of pieces of art from their collection to include in the show and had found an interesting correlation between what I do with sky-viewing and the writings of Jonathan Edwards, an eighteenth-century theologian. Originally, I had thought to include a bedspread that has an interesting pattern. They encouraged me to use just the two nineteenth-century painters I’d mentioned: Charles Burleigh and Edward W. Nichols. The arrangement and artwork I chose from their collection was up to me.
Pratt: I notice you titled the show SKY AND SPIRIT: Unfolding Continuities in the Pioneer Valley. Why did you choose that title?
Page: The connection with the romantic landscape painters, for me, is a spiritual connection. For me, the thematics are sky, space, and how we connect to God. Every culture has some symbolic and experiential connection to sky and divinity.
Pratt: Under your title, you’ve placed three of your cloud photographs and under that this quote from Jonathan Edwards:
I feel God, so to speak, at the first appearance of a thunderstorm, and I used to take the opportunity at such times to fix myself in order to view the clouds and see the lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunder, which often times was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God.
How did you come to make these choices?
Page: After I printed these photographs, I noticed they suggested a quality of fire and brimstone, so I was hoping to find a way to use them for this upcoming show at the museum. But after I found the Edwards’ quote about thunderstorms and the sweet contemplation of God, I just thought the correlation with my own process and work was apt. The quote and the photos articulate different notions of “unfolding continuities.” First, the sequence of three cloud photos expresses different moments of time in the continuous unfolding of sky. The other continuity is the cultural one wherein I drew from Jonathan Edwards’ time up to the present and my own contemporary expression.
Pratt: As a contemporary artist, what was your thinking about the juxtaposition of your work with these nineteenth-century painters from the romantic landscape period?
Page: Well, the similarities are that all the older paintings have a strong sky presence as does the work I do that is based on sky-viewing, so that ties them together thematically. On the other hand, by positioning those paintings next to my work, I am intentionally adding some contrast. There are the representational, older paintings mixed with the abstract, more contemporary pieces. Another difference is that what I have on the wall is a sequence of paintings that represent change over time as opposed to the fixed view of a subject so characteristic of the nineteenth-century landscape painters.
Pratt: When you talk to other artists and art lovers, what do you say?
Page: I often talk about the importance of process, of experiencing nature as a living process, and also, about the contemplative experience when encountering nature directly. Also, I’ll touch upon the importance of encountering beauty as spiritual practice and how it differs from judging what is beautiful.
Pratt: I’m curious to know how you integrate your art and your faith. For instance, where do you place yourself in the range of contemporary views of the purpose of art?
Page: I’ll generalize here a little bit. Artists play with cultural expressions for the purpose of either social change or intellectual exploration. The nature of the avant-garde is to disturb cultural norms. I, personally, don’t set out to intentionally disturb and there are some things that people put out there that I’m beginning to question. I’m speaking of contemporary art that sometimes takes on grotesque expressions for the shock value or to be “new” or disruptive. Sometimes I like that kind of work and sometimes I feel it can be too predictable and not thought through in a larger sense. In general, I don’t resonate with this type of work.
Pratt: Could you speak more about your sense of the purpose of art?
Page: The last sentence in my artist statement sums it up: “The vision I hold for my work is to awaken perceptions and emotions that elevate the human spirit.” I think the role of art is to engage in a cultural dialogue about how we see and understand ourselves and our relationship to the universe, the “outer” universe and the “inner” universe where we approach Reality/God.
Pratt: What do you think of the current conversation amongst artists on the subject of beauty?
Page: It varies from being a completely forbidden subject to a subject artists are willing to begin to look at again. What happened was that beauty was perceived to be a type of judgment of an art’s worth, both monetarily and in substance. This combination of judgment and beauty gave power and control to the adjudicators of beauty. What was perceived to be good art fell into the narrow constraints of what was considered valuable, what had status. This created an elitism. But then a democratizing movement began to emerge, born of a Marxist perspective, particularly in the late 60s and 70s. This was a strong reaction against formalist thinking and aimed to give equal voice to cultures previously ignored and also to women. In the process, the art standards around beauty got blown out of the water. Even the idea of beauty came under attack. Critics couldn’t see beauty as a quality that transcends culture. Now the pendulum is beginning to swing back again.
Pratt: I’d like, now, to peer into your personal approach to your work a little. What are the sources of inspiration for your work and how do you prepare yourself for a session in the studio?
Page: My strongest influence right now is my direct experience of nature. I usually prepare by getting outdoors before I work. In the winter, I sometimes use looking out the window to connect. I have to let things fall away and get bored enough to go into the studio. By this I mean, leaving behind all of the mental chatter and practical pressures until I am able to enter a state of being.
Pratt: Describe for me, if you don’t mind, a typical work session. But first, would you describe the physical aspects of your work — your studio, your method of working?
Page: Sure, it is a large studio with north-facing windows. The floor has a layer of thick painter plastic which collects layers of paint over time and which I replace about once a year. When I work in oils, I paint standing with the canvas on the wall. But now I am using acrylic paints more. Since my mix of paint is quite wet, I work standing or kneeling with the canvases tacked to the floor. The sizes of canvas are typically 4 x 6 or 5 x 8 feet. I have larger and smaller work, too.
As to my usual work session, I spend anywhere from one to six hours working in the studio in a non-stop flow. For instance, for this show, I was working on a sequence of four canvases. I’d work on one painting, then the next down the line. If a piece called to me, I’d go back to it, building up a dialogue and building the work. My success depends on catching a theme and letting it develop and carry me through the whole sequence. Very often, I’ll find something that feels exciting and go almost all the way to completion. Then I’ll see that my efforts have failed at some level, in which case, I’ll restart. Just the act of scraping paint off pieces that aren’t holding together can be enough to start up a new rhythm. Whatever is happening, whether in one continuous flow to completion or having to scrape and start over, it is all a process of building up a body of work, an idea, a concept, an experience.
Pratt: Chris, you often use photos at your shows. How does photography work into your process?
Page: I use my iPhone to take pictures on contemplative walks or just to have on hand in case I see something in nature that excites me. I will print out photos of the sky, for instance, and pin them to the studio wall for a reminder, a reference point to help me remember some experience I want to explore. I am interested in translating the optical or outer way of seeing into pieces of art. What I mean is, these photos remind me of moments of internal awareness or excitement, and I will explore that inner experience through the process of painting, which is in itself a contemplative practice.
Pratt: What other activities do you engage in that enhance what you do in the studio?
Page: I often bookend my work sessions with time in town visiting friends. Having people around helps, I find. After I’ve been in the studio, I’ll go to a café and journal about the session. Or I’ll journal about my sky-viewing walks. I also keep a small visual journal for drawing out ideas. Late afternoon café-sitting has also been where my most unusual photographs have come from, especially watching storm clouds move through.
Pratt: Would you name the artists that are your source of inspiration for the kind of work you do?
Page: Well, in the abstract expressionist school, I like Pollock, Newman and Rothko. Other contemporary artists I admire are Brice Marden and Terry Winters.
Pratt: Chris, for the rest of this interview, I want to address the subject of being an artist in the context of Bahá’í community. What unique contributions dp you think artists bring to the Bahá’í community?
Page: Speaking from a western context, as an artist, I bring this constant search for understanding and finding ways of expressing whatever we are tuning into.
Pratt: Why do you think artists sometimes struggle to find their place in the community?
Page: My experience has been that over the years the Faith has had priorities. In the 1970’s, it was to build up the administration, the local Spiritual Assemblies. Now the goal is doing the Ruhi sequence and expanding core activities. As an artist whose work is grounded in nature, I sometimes struggle to find my place within these very specific Bahá’í tasks. As an artist, I don’t think of myself in an isolated socio-religious context, but as a participant in the larger global culture. As a Bahá’í, I like to explore nature and the physical universe. Bahá’u’lláh writes a lot about observing nature and learning from it so that wisdom can arise. Here are two quotes of which I am very fond, from the Tablet of Wisdom:
Look at the world and ponder a while upon it. It unveileth the book of its own self before thine eyes and revealeth that which the Pen of thy Lord, the Fashioner, the All-Informed, hath inscribed therein. It will acquaint thee with that which is within it and upon it and will give thee such clear explanations as to make thee independent of every eloquent expounder.
Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. Were anyone to affirm that it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion.
This quote led me to a place where I could feel a connection to God at the level of the creation of the universe. This is significant because our usual context of discourse and relationship is within the sphere of humanity. What arises for me is this process of deep listening and observation, and this is a process that doesn’t always have a neat place to fit within the current focus on community development.
My personal spiritual quest, more and more, is about connecting to a force and power in the universe. It’s a mystical thing. God’s power is equivalent to the power of the entire universe and the only thing that can contain God is the human heart. On this scale, the spiritual search and scope of awareness is enormous. You see, Bahá’u’lláh is equating the power of God with the power in the entire universe. So I relate to the “Cause” as the power of God that is operating both within as well as beyond the Bahá’í community.
Pratt: Are the ways you serve the Faith in the Pioneer Valley separate from your life as an artist or is there a connection?
Page: The connection I’ve found is doing the music for the devotionals. Music has been a strong part of my process; I’ve spent years listening to a broad range of music.
Pratt: For you, does being an artist enhance your teaching efforts?
Page: Yes, but it’s usually indirect. The focus, for me, is more on conveying ideas or concepts rather than specifics. I intentionally try to make my art work broad-ranging in its appeal to audiences which are neither religious nor political.
Pratt: How do you think the Bahá’í Faith can make imaginative use of artists?
Page: The most obvious way would be have physical places in the Bahá’í world for art to be shown. Bahá’í schools could and sometimes do provide a space for showing art — this has been done recently at Green Acre. And artists such as myself could offer programs. For example, I could offer a summer school for a group of Bahá’ís to give them an experience of my sky walks in contemplative outings. In this context, the act of seeing becomes an art action. Sky-viewing becomes a way to connect to the present moment and open up to our connection with all of life and with God as well. It generates a feeling of oneness, of being in harmony with all things.
Pratt: Thank you, Chris, for your patience, especially since it is the fast. My last question is: what in the Bahá’í teachings do you find most inspirational for your work?
Page: God’s mercy, grace and love seem to be associated with images of a boundless ocean, an infinite sea. I sometimes see the sky as a floating ocean. It is powerful to meditate on and accept the infinite grace of God’s bounty.