Non-Fiction


May, 2010

This article originally appeared in Traces issue #4, 2010

Opening up the Present to Eternity
by Kim Luisi

It is rare to spend an evening with an artist and not have his own work be the main topic of conversation. Rarer still is spending the evening with two artists in the same room speaking not of their own vision and accomplishments but of those who came before them.

Fresh from International Art Movement’s annual gathering, this year called “Encounter 10” (March 4–6), both Etsuro Sotoo and Makoto Fujimura spoke with traces about inspiration and companionship on their road in search of truth and beauty. Longtime Traces readers may already be familiar with Sotoo, sculptor since 1978 of Gaudi’s Las Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, Spain (which will be consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI on November 7, 2010) Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement (IAM) and 2003–2009 Presidential Appointee to the National Council of the Arts, shared many of Sotoo’s insights and hopes on the creative journey—ultimately a journey of faith for them both.

Etsuro, what was it about working on La Sagrada Familia that caused you to convert to Catholicism? 

I wanted to understand Gaudí, but as much as I studied him I nonetheless couldn’t reach him—there was still one final step. Without taking that final step, I couldn’t continue to work. This is because there were projects to be done where Gaudí had not left us anything—he hadn’t started the project, he hadn’t left any data at all. I was very distressed about this, as I wondered how to take this final step to come closer to Gaudí, but I understood that the problem would not be solved by looking at Gaudí. At that point, I decided to look not at Gaudí, but in the direction Gaudí was looking. And then, I was not waiting for it for but suddenly something wonderful happened: I had a very strong feeling that Gaudí had entered into me, and I had entered into Gaudí. In other words, as much as I looked at Gaudí, I could get no closer to him, but when I looked in the same direction as Gaudí, incredibly, we became one. In order to correctly look in the same direction as Gaudí, you must stand in the same place as Gaudí. And that place is faith.

Makoto, I understand it was the creation of art that helped bring you to Christianity. Specifically, the beauty of the materials you used to create your art brought you to an encounter with true Beauty, the Divine. 

MF: What brought me to Christianity was also frustration with myself, both in terms of my lack of capacity to reach something that I felt I could reach, but also, on the other side, it was the fact that these materials had inherent beauty and light that I felt I didn’t deserve in my own life, my own path up to that point. I was humbled by these beautiful Nihonga [traditional Japanese painting] materials. I knew that it fit my expression, so I kept getting better at being able to communicate something that I always wanted to express, but what I felt was that I didn’t have a paradigm inside of my heart that allowed me to accept the extravagance of that beauty. I felt convicted by them.

When you’re talking about extravagance, you are not necessarily talking about the price of the materials, are you?

MF: Nihonga materials are expensive, so price does have something to do with it. You work with azurite, malachite, and gold, but it’s not just price. When you look at water and you see the beauty of just water, you become aware of how far your own heart has strayed from that beauty. And you don’t feel worthy of it, if you truly understand water. But I didn’t get to that point immediately.


You were inspired by one who came before you?

Yes, the work and person of Georges Rouault has had a great impact on me. There are many things that attract me to his work. One of these is that he chose all manner of subjects, often suffering, for his paintings. But ultimately they, especially the misfits, were celebrated as God's chosen manifestation of light into darkness. I think one of the world’s greatest masterpieces is Christ on the Outskirts.

And so this “relationship” with Rouault gave rise to your recent exhibit, “Soliloquies.”

MF: Yes. I realized that if you seek truth and beauty, you will often find yourself alone, but what you thought was a soliloquy is not. It echoes throughout time, in company with others, and hence the plural, “soliloquies.” This is an invaluable companionship for me in my work and life. I felt, from the moment I went to visit Rouault’s home and studio, that he was with me. I understood how the space he inhabited spoke to him, how he held his tools, what he saw out the window…

Etsuro, in your presentations, you too always devote some attention to the space inhabited by Gaudí, the tiny space where he dried flowers and copied plants in clay, and slept.

ES: This speaks of the humility of the man at work. An artist can only be great if he is very humble, if he is following another. In the case of Gaudí, he was following Nature, the creative sign of Another.

Makoto, in your book, Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture, you wrote that an artist’s journey to believe in heaven can create works mirroring the hope of heaven and can give others the permission to speak of “that redemptive possibility.” 

MF: Art, in general, gives permission for something. It opens a door, opens a window. And it is about a journey, an encounter. You move from one place, meander in life, as we see people walking about, and I think God gives that permission or possibility to ponder that there is something other than this gray world, this nine-to-five reality that people feel trapped in. That's what I mean by that. I think, on one hand, because I do believe in God and I do follow Christ, that conviction allows me to also be bolder than others about that reality, that possibility of art. I'm not just talking about Christian art; I'm also talking about all of human expression: music, art, dance, theater. There's something about the nature of humanity that brings us to want to express hope, and want to discover new things; to move beyond ourselves. I think the interesting thing is that we have this dichotomy between now and eternity, between heaven and earth, but, in reality, in my mind, the connections are real and immediate. And I know, obviously, we're not there yet, but there's something about art that opens up even the permission to think of the present reality as eternity.

I’m reminded of St. Paul when he talks about “looking through a glass darkly now.” Is art that glass?

MF: Yes, I think in some ways it’s a small window that is maybe a little bit clearer because we are focused on communicating to others. Hopefully, our discipline as artists will allow us to focus on a tiny little hole where you can peak in to see the reality that is beyond.

At a recent conference, you said that for the Japanese beauty is more significant than love.

MF: Yes. In the Japanese language and culture love doesn’t have the same connotation as in Western society; it’s more of an emotion. In the West, it’s more rational, which is also a problem. The biblical definition is sacrificial, agape, eros. It is a full definition of love. But, in every culture there is a deficiency somewhere. In America, it’s either too sensual or too rational. What the Japanese have very well articulated in their history is the depth of reality has this beauty to it. It’s a cultural understanding. So if you try to communicate the Love of God to the Japanese, they say, “Well, that’s nice.” But when you communicate the Beauty of God, they say, “Of course.” That’s what I see in Bach, in Rouault. Beauty.

Etsuro, you were entranced with Gaudi’s sensitivity to beauty. When did you notice that Gaudí was different from non-Christian artists?

ES: It was when I realized that Gaudí was not merely an architectural genius. When I started working on the Sagrada Familia, nobody liked Gaudí. He was thought to be half-crazy. Nobody recognized his genius, not even in Catalonia. But after 20 years, and now it’s been 32, no one thinks Gaudí was crazy; people today recognize his architectural genius, but without knowing what kind of architect he was. Gaudí was not only an architect, but an architect who created people, who created human society, who created the future.

He was an architect who recognized the Other?

ES: Yes, that’s why he’s known as God’s architect. He wanted to work as an instrument of God.

Is there a difference between someone who creates art from a source of faith, and someone who does not recognize the source of beauty? 

ES: Yes. The reason why is that, in Gaudi’s words, beauty is the brilliance of the light of truth. So art without truth is not beautiful. Art without love is not possible.


A special thanks to Jim Cork for serving as translator to Etsuro Sotoo.






April 26, 2010







Below is the text of a talk I gave at the wind.water.oil.fire art exhibit at Red Bank Community Church, Red Bank, NJ. Much thanks again to Gerda and Lenny Liebmann for the invitation to their beautiful event.


Wounded by Beauty: 
Aspects of Hope and Art

A New Definition of Hope.

How many times have we heard the following phrase: “I hope I win a million dollars in the lottery”, or “I hope my children will grow up to be the new Donald Trump” or some such tycoon? “Hope” as it is used in everyday secular language, is reduced to nothing more than fantasy. Even for the Christian who has a hope in the afterlife, we are told we “hope in things not seen.” But I would like to offer a new definition, a Christian definition, of hope. A definition that is based not on some far-out fantasy, but in the reality of the past, the reality of the present and the reality of the future.

Let me give an example of what I’m talking about with Paul’s letter to the Romans 5:2
“we boast in hope of the glory of God”
What does it mean to “hope in the glory of God?” This is where the new definition, the Christian definition, comes in. But first, we have to know what the “glory of God” is. It is that God is revealed to us. This is the meaning of the glory of God: that God is recognized—that God can be known. We therefore have the hope that we have recognized God (the past); that we do recognize God (the present) and that we will recognize God(the future).

One man whose writings I pay close attention to is Luigi Giussani, founder of the lay Catholic movement, Communion and Liberation. According to Giussani, in his book Is it Possible to Live This Way? An Unusual Approach to Christian Existence. Vol.2 Hope, hope is the immediate fruit of faith. In other words, where faith is hope is sure to follow. And he is right, because for the Christian, hope is not some fantasy. A fantasy is not based in reality. For the Christian, hope is full of certainty. The second letter to the Corinthians 3:12 says it plainly:

Strong in such hope, we are full of certainty.

We have faith in Christ because we have seen Him. We have seen Him (the past) we are seeing Him (the present) and we will see Him (the future.) Our hope is based in faith and trust. Although mankind is not often true to Christ, Christ is always true to mankind.

Hope and the Invisible

What then, does hope have to do with art and making the invisible visible? In 1999, Pope John Paul II wrote a substantial letter to artists. He began the letter focusing on the texts of Genesis—God as Creator. God, making the invisible visible. He then goes on to say that “the human who crafts something mirrors the image of God as Creator.” Artists are not creators in this sense, but instead, we are craftsmen. The difference  between creator and craftsman, is that the Creator calls into being from nothing and the craftsman takes something that already exists and gives it new meaning. We take wood and fashion a chair out of it. We take minerals and make them paint. We position words on the page and develop a story.

John Paul II goes on to say, that the artistic vocation is really a service of beauty. And beauty is the visible form of the good, and the good is the metaphysical  condition of beauty. Our vocation is in the service of beauty.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Etsuro Sotoo, sculptor of Gaudi’s la Sagrada Familia temple in Barcelona, Spain and Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement. What they had to say about beauty is enlightening.

Sotoo:
Beauty is the brilliance of the light of truth. So art without truth is not beautiful, and art without love is not possible.

Sotoo began his work as a Buddhist, but because he was so moved by Gaudi’s vision, he had to follow what Gaudi followed and subsequently became a Christian.

Fujimura, a Nihonga artist, also began his work from a non-Christian perspective. But the beauty of the materials with which he works, azurite, malachite, gold and water to name a few, drew him into a deeper existence.

“What brought me to Christianity,” Fujimura says, “was the fact that these materials had inherent beauty and light that I felt I didn’t deserve in my own life, my own path up to that point. I was humbled by these beautiful Nihonga [traditional Japanese painting] materials. I knew that it fit my expression, so I kept getting better at being able to communicate something that I always wanted to express, but what I felt was that I didn’t have a paradigm inside of my heart that allowed me to accept the extravagance of that beauty. I felt convicted by them.”
Sotoo and Fujimura are evidence of Dostoevsky’s claim that “beauty can save the world.”

But it’s not a banal sense of beauty we are talking about. It’s a beauty that wounds. It’s a beauty that heals. Art gives us this beauty. Let me give an example from my own life.

A few years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held and exhibition on da Vinci and Caravaggio and their work in Lombardy. When I first saw Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus,” it was as if the breath of life was taken from me for even just a nano-second. I didn’t think about the beauty of it. No, the beauty of it took hold of me, and forced itself upon me. I understood the beauty of it, because I had seen beauty before and could recognize it. He who is Beauty is the same One, the same Other, the One who has caused us to gasp at a sunset, is also the same One whose beauty we see in this painting. He is the same One whose Beauty we see today in the art exhibited here in this space.

And so artists, performance artists, visual artists, literary artists, allow us to see a little bit of Gods glory, as St. Paul says, through a glass darkly now.

It is because of artists that we will recognize God in the fullness of His glory.

Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus." We glimpse at Beauty now as through a glass darkly.



Links of Interest:


Gerda Liebmann Arts: www.gerdaliebmann.com
Red Bank Community Church: redbankchurch.com
John Paul II "Letter to Artists" Vatican website: www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_23041999_artists_en.html
John Paul II "Letter to Artists" for purchase (easily readable): Letter to Artists (Meeting House Essays)


For Further Reflection:
Pope Benedict XVI Address to Artists







April 5, 2010



Thousands of the faithful participate in the Way of the Cross over the Brooklyn Bridge

Silence in the City
Every year, it is the same. We begin the ascent on the Brooklyn Bridge as cars and pedestrians stop in wonder at the thousands of human beings crossing the bridge in silence and prayer. Every year, we pick up a few of these onlookers, but most just stare. The spectacle of silence pulls the spectators in, and like characters in a Flannery O’Connor story they become unwitting agents of grace.
“What are they doing?” says one.
“Who are these people?” says another.
And another, on a bike, wearing a simple chagrin on his face, waits for us to cross and says nothing. We cross and he’s gone.
Every year, it is the same. The Way of Cross in NYC and various cities across the United States receives the Papal blessing and Cardinal Celestino Migliore, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, joins us on our prayerful journey. Every year, we are reminded of the scandal of the cross.
Every year, it is different. We meet new people; we meet Christ anew again. Old words become fresh as we listen to the Passion narrative of the gospels, the words of Msgr. Luigi Giussani, and passages from the works of Charles Péguy and Paul Claudel. Our hearts spring to life at the silent witness of Christ to a noisy city.
“Hope is certainty in the future based on something real in the present,” said Father Richard Veras of the Archdiocese of New York, quoting Monsignor Luigi Giussani, founder of the lay ecclesial Movement of Communion and Liberation. “What was experienced that day, on the Via Dolorosa, on the Way of the Cross, “ continued Father Veras, as he spoke to the thousands surrounding the simple wood cross held by New York City Firefighter John Bartlett, “was a promise that violence and death could not end love or life.” These words rang true for us today as we gazed upon the place where the World Trade Center stood and suffered the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Once again, we were reminded that love conquers all. Once again, those words became new.
Every year, it is different. The reminder that our hearts beg for Christ and that Christ begs for our hearts is new, whether this is the first time among the nearly 4000 participating in the Way of the Cross Over the Brooklyn Bridge, or if you were one of the handful of friends belonging to the movement of Communion and Liberation who paved this walk in 1996. Mary Ann Gensler of Southold, New York, was one of the original friends back then and she continues to participate in the life of Communion and Liberation today. “I could not help but meditate today on the mercy that Christ has for me,” she said. “The Way of the Cross makes my whole Easter, because I’m brought back to the meaning of the whole purpose. When we walk the Via Dolorosa, we are reminded that Christ walked among us. That the crucifixion was a real event; that we are living in the Resurrection.
Every year, it is the same. Old friends reunite and share news. The interview with Mary Ann was cut short because another friend of ours, Maura Kate Costello, came up to us to share good news and Easter tidings. This is the point of Christ’s Passion and His Presence on the streets of New York City every Good Friday: we are reunited in love with those who witness His hope for us. We encounter Him in old friends and new strangers along the way.
This article was first published in ilsussidiario.net.
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In the Presence of the Masters: Talking with Etsuro Sotoo and Makoto Fujimura, Part II



Here is a portion of my interview with Makoto Fujimura. The entire interview, along with an article on the panel discussion "Art and the Religious Sense," hosted by the Crossroad Cultural Center, NYC will appear in an upcoming issue of Traces, the magazine of the lay Catholic movement, Communion and Liberation.

Me: In your book, “Refractions: a Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture” you wrote that an artist’s journey to believe in heaven can create works mirroring the hope of heaven and can give others the permission to speak of “that redemptive possibility.” What is it about our society today that causes people to look for permission to speak on such things, particularly in the world of the arts?

Fujimura: Art, in general, gives permission for something. It opens a door, opens a window. And it is about a journey, an encounter. You move from one place, meander in life, as we see people walking about and I think God gives that permission or possibility to ponder that there is something other than this gray world, nine-to-five reality that people feel trapped in. That's what I mean by that. I think, on one hand, because I do believe in God and I do follow Christ, that conviction allows me to also be bolder than others about that reality, that possibility of art. I'm not just talking about Christian art, I'm also talking about all human expression: music, art, dance, theatre. There's something about the nature of humanity that brings us to want to express hope, and want to discover new things; to move beyond ourselves and so I think the interesting thing is that we have this dichotomy between now and eternity, between heaven and earth, but in reality, in my mind, the connections are real and immediate. So I know obviously we're not there yet, but there's something about art that opens up even the permission to think of the present reality as eternity.



About Makoto Fujimura:

Makoto Fujimura was born in 1960 in Boston, Massachusetts. Educated bicultural between the United States and Japan, Fujimura graduated from Bucknell University in 1983 and received an M.F.A. from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music as a National Scholar in Nihonga (Japanese-style painting) in 1989. His thesis painting was purchased by the university and he was invited to study in the Post–M.F.A. lineage program, a first for an outsider to this prestigious traditional program. During his years in the program, he experienced "a transfer of allegiance from art to Christ." His book River Grace  traces his journey of mastering Nihonga technique, using carefully stone-ground minerals including azurite, malachite, and cinnabar, along with his deep wrestling with art and faith issues.

In 1992 he became the youngest artist ever to have had a piece acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. Public collections include The Saint Louis Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, and the Time Warner / AOL / CNN building in Hong Kong. His paintings are represented by Dillon Gallery in New York and in Tokyo.

Fujimura was appointed to the National Council on the Arts, a six-year presidential appointment, in 2003. WORLD magazine honored him as its Daniel of the Year in 2005.

In 1990 Fujimura founded The International Arts Movement, an arts advocacy organization that wrestles with the deep questions of art, faith, and humanity. Fujimura has served as an elder at Redeemer Presbyterian Church as well as a founding elder at The Village Church, both Presbyterian Church in America congregations in New York City. His writings on art and faith issues have appeared in Image Journal , Books and Culture , American Arts Quarterly , and WORLD magazine.
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In the Presence of the Masters: Talking with Etsuro Sotoo and Makoto Fujimura, Part I

Last night I discovered a great and terrible thing about myself: I ask really stupid questions. Or rather, it's not that they are stupid, they are somehow inferior. I had not only the pleasure, but the honor to sit down with two masters in art: Etsuro Sotoo, scluptor at the famous cathedral in Spain, la Sagrada Familia. and Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement.

The answers these men gave to my simple and inferior questions have edified me today as I ponder over their meanings. To understand where these men come from and their approach to art, I am providing a portion of the interview here. The full interview, along with an article on the Crossroads Cultural Center panel discussion on Art and the Religious Sense will appear in an upcoming issue of Traces, the magazine of the lay Catholic movement, Communion and Liberation.

Part of Sotoo's interview will be in this post. A portion of Fujimura's interview will be in a second post. A HUGE thank you goes to Jim Cork for translating during the interview with Sotoo.

Me: Thank you, very much, Etsuro, for allowing me to meet and talk with you. Traces is a little familiar with you, but one of the questions I have for you was about your moment of conversion. What was it about working on la Sagrada Familia, begun by Antoni Gaudi that caused you to pause and convert to Catholicism?

Sotoo: I wanted to get to know Gaudi better. I wanted to get to know Gaudi deeply, but there was one step that I had to take in order to completely understand Gaudi. So, without taking that final step there was no way I could complete what Gaudi had started. There was no way he could have done what Gaudi could not do. I understood that there was a last step that I had to take. I was wondering about this for a long time until I finally realized that there was one step I had to take in order to get closer to Gaudi. That was to not simply look at Gaudi, but to look at what Gaudi was looking at. In the moment that I was able to do that, I felt as if Gaudi had entered me and I had entered into Gaudi. I could look at Gaudi all I wanted, but without looking in the direction Gaudi was looking at I wouldn’t have been able to become with Gaudi. In order to look in the same direction that Gaudi is looking at, you have to stand in the same place that Gaudi is standing. And that standpoint, that place where Gaudi was standing is the standpoint of faith.



About Etsuro Sotoo:

Etsuro Sotoo was born in Fukuoka, Japan, in 1953. In 1977 he graduated from the Kyoto University of Fine Arts and worked as a teacher in Japan. In 1978 he started working in Barcelona as a sculptor in the Temple of the Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi`. He has been a professor at the Escola Taller attached to the Temple since 1989. He has sculpted hundreds of pieces for the Temple, and in 2000 he completed, with the "15 Angels," the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Familia which was started by Gaudi` over one hundred years earlier. Also in Barcelona, in 1991 he collaborated in the restoration of the Domenech i Muntaner di Canet de Mar Museum, and in 2004 he authored the monument to Luis Vitton in Barbera` del Valles. Sotoo has also created several works of art for his hometown, where he is a university professor. He is the author of several publications, and was awarded the Ars Spiritis Prize of Lladro` in 2002 and the Fukuoka Prize for Culture in 2003.


Father Peter Cameron, OP Profile in Columbia Magazine


 This is an exciting day for me. I woke up to find that my piece on Father Peter Cameron,OP appeared today in the February issue of Columbia, the magazine of the Knights of Columbus.

As a struggling-to-get-published writer, this is a milestone day, in fact. This is my first paid commission story. In other words, I was asked to do it and then, believe it or not, they actually paid me. I got paid to write something.

Imagine that.

Somebody had enough faith that I would do this task right. It certainly wasn't me, as I had doubts along the way. That "somebody" was my friend, Father Peter John Cameron. Instead of the writer reassuring the subject, the subject had to reassure the writer.

No profile could ever really give Father Cameron the justice he deserves, but I hope I have given you a glimmer of the man I am privileged to know.

Preaching Through Culture (p. 31)

Review of Dylan's "Christmas in the Heart"





Man of Constant Examination

“In fact, if Bing Crosby had washed down a carton of Lucky Strikes every day with a bottle of Knob Creek, and then lived to be a million, this is exactly the Christmas album he would record,” so says one reviewer. Agreed. Let’s face it, this is not an album we’re going to listen to on Christmas Eve by the fire. It’s not slick; it’s not nice. But it is authentic. The album is a mix of secular and religious songs, and his voice sounds better on the secular pieces. But our review is less about how Dylan sounds and more about the message he conveys.


His rendition of “Adeste Fidelis” can only be regarded with the compassion we give the man in the pew next to us struggling to conquer the Latin, but who fails to remain in tune. It’s painful to hear, but the act alone, much like Michelangelo’s Adam trying to brush the finger of God, signifies the bittersweet beauty of man’s effort to touch the divine. The attempt redeems the failure. Dylan’s voice reminds us that we are a broken people who can still pray. We have hope. When viewed through this lens, his rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” takes on a deeper significance than almost any other song on the album. When he says he has no gift to bring, we believe him. He offers the only thing he can: himself.


The last lyric sung on the album is “Amen.” It is an amen infused with reverence, humility and a simple faith. The voice, finally, is perfect. Man touches the divine.


Why is Dylan doing this album and why now? All proceeds from album sales are going to charity, so it’s not about money. He may be nostalgic for something lost. Dylan is 68 years old and it’s quite possible he is taking inventory of his life. Several times this year, he’s been spotted visiting the childhood homes of his contemporaries: Neil Young, John Lennon, and, most recently, Bruce Springsteen. He is a constant seeker, always on the road to Emmaus.

This article originally appeared in the Traces print edition, Volume 11, Number 10, 2009