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Art aflame

WORLD's Daniel of the Year, Makoto Fujimura, restores art's good name among Christians and gives Christians a good name in the arts

Past the Saturday brunch-goers and overladen shoppers, beyond where old women pull leashed Bouviers from flower beds and lean young moms stride behind jogging strollers, Manhattan's historic Chelsea district gives way to what looks like the wrong side of the tracks. Near Pier 60 on the Hudson River hip Chelsea devolves to industrial Chelsea, with loading docks, transport and storage holds, and the stray Jehovah's Witness hall.

But not so fast. Sea-green plexiglass has replaced some roll-up doors. Cement-block shells of buildings sport engraved plaques bearing the latest names in high art. Here the newest galleries in the art capital of the world snap up warehouse space, transforming the district much the way artists and collectors took over SoHo and Greenwich Village before.

At Sara Tecchia Gallery painter Makoto Fujimura is standing in a room aflame. Twelve of his latest works lean against darkened walls and, inspired by Dante's The Divine Comedy, depict the fires of hell. It is Sept. 10 and outside on the water Coast Guard patrol boats are queuing for the fourth anniversary of terror attacks on the city. Inside it is five days before the opening of "Water Flames," Mr. Fujimura's largest exhibition in three years and one promoted as part of a "post-9/11 journey."

The exhibition is much-anticipated because in the art world Mr. Fujimura is both iconoclast and fixture. His works are on display worldwide (the largest, 17 feet by 23 feet, fills CNN Asia headquarters at The Oxford House in Hong Kong), yet weekends find him at church in Greenwich Village, where he is a Presbyterian Church in America elder. Founder and director of the faith-based International Arts Movement, he manages to keep and expand a following among the avant-garde.

His new exhibition is important enough, according to curator Sara Tecchia, to launch the grand opening of her Chelsea gallery. The largest canvas, over 10 feet long and nearly 8 feet in height (list price: $60,000), stokes enough fiery-looking heat for any observer to expect it to burn to the touch. Such hyper-real color derives from special imported pigments, chiefly Japanese vermillion and gold, applied using an ancient Japanese technique called nihonga, which the 45-year-old artist has carried into the world of abstract art to growing acclaim.

The flames that surround Mr. Fujimura, who paces the middle of the main gallery debating how high to hang each canvas, have a subtext. His work since 9/11-when he spent the morning trapped in a subway beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center-is about "crossing the chasm of history," he says, "back to the fallen Jerusalem that Jeremiah witnessed." The terror attacks and their aftermath prompted questions not only about the meaning of his art but the meaning of his life: "Is New York City like Babylon or Jerusalem? How do I remain faithful here, even among the rubble?"

"Water Flames" and other works since 9/11 are, Mr. Fujimura says, "my personal experience of devastation coming out in art and life with strong faith and resolute hope." While profoundly Christian works are usually shunned in New York art circles, these resonate with outsiders. "He is a profound believer and I am totally secular. But he is like a professor to me," says Ms. Tecchia. "Fujimura's paintings allow for skeptics as myself to do the one thing that secularism has labeled as a sign of weakness: to hope."

That Mr. Fujimura employs abstract forms to telegraph concrete meaning is a revelation in the realm of contemporary artists, where bedrock concepts of truth and beauty-much less biblical concepts of redemption and healing-are usually rejected, and where ironic distance has been stretched to such a limit that most non-artists regard the arts as stubbornly detached from reality and rotating in a narcissistic, varicolored universe.

Among Mr. Fujimura's fans are drama critic Terry Teachout, art critic David Gelernter, and Robert Kushner, a 1970s performance artist and acclaimed fabric painter for three decades. "The idea of forging a new kind of art, about hope, healing, redemption, refuge, while maintaining visual sophistication and intellectual integrity is a growing movement, one which finds Fujimura's work at the vanguard," wrote Mr. Kushner in a review of "Water Flames."

But what does a painter have to do with that ancient prophet of Babylon who walked through his own batch of flames, testing and besting the powerbrokers of his day? Everything, considering he walks among a culture that worships the visual and gorges on the beauty of the moment. "It's been a catastrophe for the church that we have abandoned high culture," said Greg Wolfe, editor of the arts magazine Image Journal. "One generation's high culture has a way of becoming the next generation's pop culture. And Mako is one of America's leading visual artists."

And so "Mako" Fujimura, with an impressive exhibition, an established ministry dedicated to promoting thoughtful art in modern Babylon, and a presidential appointment to the National Council on the Arts, is WORLD's eighth Daniel of the Year.

Although Mr. Fujimura's solo shows and formal exhibitions extend back two decades, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, have a fervent claim on his current work. He, his wife, and three children live in an apartment three blocks from the World Trade Center. On that morning son CJ, then 10, and daughter Lydia, age 8 at the time, headed to the first day of school at P.S. 234 near the north tower. Older son Ty, then 13, began eighth grade that day at a middle school nearby. Mr. Fujimura's wife Judith left the apartment to run errands, and the artist traveled by subway to a Bible study uptown.

Mr. Fujimura's wife saw the first plane go into the north tower and before understanding what was happening, found herself instinctively running back to the apartment for passports and important documents. Returning by subway to lower Manhattan, Mr. Fujimura was trapped beneath Ground Zero for over an hour, until eventually the trains were backed north two stops and passengers were let out. "You could say we were too close to know what was going on," Mr. Fujimura recalled. Above ground swirled a gray storm of ash, with stricken, blood-smattered New Yorkers rushing past him: "There were 8,000 kids around the towers at the time of the attacks, and I didn't know where mine were."

He found CJ first. "If I'd come out of school five seconds earlier," CJ told his father, "I would have been in trouble." What happened is now legend. Firefighters and teachers saved the lives of Lower Manhattan's schoolchildren, evacuating many to nearby stores and other schools, hustling them behind sealed doors just before a jet-fueled fireball incinerated bystanders and torched vehicles for blocks around. The students heard and in some cases saw the deafening avalanche of glass, cement, steel, and people as first the south, then the north tower collapsed.

Mrs. Fujimura managed to locate the couple's other two children. Safe and reunited, Mr. Fujimura and his family found themselves homeless. The collapse of the towers shook their own building, exploded glass, created a gas leak, and filled the block with debris. They would not go home again until December. School would not reopen until February. Everywhere they were surrounded by the deaths of friends, neighbors, friends of friends, or dads of friends.

While his family found temporary housing with a series of friends, Mr. Fujimura returned to his Tribeca studio a few blocks west of Ground Zero. There he found the sirens of 9/11 persistently shrieking in his head, along with "my own inept, feeble prayers during my subway ride home as literal hell was breaking forth above." He wrestled with the artistry of the terrorists, the penchant for destruction in his own heart, and the idols to modernism now fallen in his backyard. Then came the seed of an idea, and he wrote an e-mail to friends: "Create we must, and respond to this dark hour. The world needs artists who dedicate themselves to communicate the images of Shalom. Jesus is the Shalom."

Tribeca Temporary grew from that seed, a "Ground Zero teahouse" and a community space for artists displaced by the attacks. With fellow painter Hiroshi Senju, Mr. Fujimura turned a studio into a place for restoration and healing from spiritual as well as artistic losses where, Mr. Fujimura said, "beauty too is defined as a participant in the suffering of the world."

At Tribeca Temporary incomplete works were the norm and beauty-through-brokenness the theme, yet the artists managed to pull together exhibits of the work and gained a following.

Faced every day with the smells and sounds of Ground Zero, and at nightfall with its floodlights, Mr. Fujimura found more and more that the way to Shalom was through refining fires. In the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Dante he fixed on the line, "The fire and the rose are one," and launched into his own "knot of fire" with imagery that, too, moved beyond destruction to redemption. Instead of the destruction in his neighborhood, he focused on what he calls the "sacrificial art" of firefighters who protected his children. "Rescue workers imagine saving lives, a beautiful and relevant use of imagination. The artist who tries to be vulnerable will intentionally suffer," he said.

Born in Boston, Mr. Fujimura spent his grade-school years in Japan, graduated from Bucknell, and returned to Japan for six years of study in the traditional nihonga technique under a Tokyo master, earning a master's and a doctorate from Tokyo National University during that time.

Editor Wolfe says that few appreciate the discipline it involved: "Mako slowed his life down and submitted to this time-consuming process, mastering a technique that is pre-technology." For striving young artists in an on-demand age, said Mr. Wolfe, "there's something prophetic to this-learning an ancient system that requires real human investment in time, money, and patience."

Nihonga, Fujimura-style, uses pulverized pigment mixed with water and an animal-hide glue, then applies it to handmade paper. The pigments come from minerals-azurite, malachite, cinnabar, Japanese vermillion, gold powder, cochineal derived from beetles in India, and more. Craftsmen make the paper by hand in Japan, and some with Mr. Fujimura used hemp and the Japanese mulberry tree to invent a new variety that is now called Fujimura paper. For "Water Flames" he had a paper called Kumohada specially made.

Mr. Fujimura admits the works do not reproduce well in photos, but he likes to create something "only the naked eye can experience." The elements combine to create a one-of-a-kind dimension, a layering effect, which has to be seen to be believed. One work in the "Water Flames" exhibit takes pulverized oyster shell layered with silver to create a flame form that is treelike, its background tied to Japanese woodcuts and Buddhistic scrolls, its foreground afire with burning-bush imagery.

Mr. Fujimura is as much drawn to the process as to its finished product. He has been known to videotape the paint as it dries. Unlike abstract expressionists who say their work must be interpreted inside its own created sphere, he often writes about his works in progress, noting in one piece, "As the light becomes trapped within pigments, a 'grace arena' is created." In "Water Flames" he captures the tension flowing through Christian life in a fallen world: Using water he creates fire, and with minerals from a solid earth he creates movement. By adapting ancient Eastern techniques he produces Western masterpieces that-according to Mr. Wolfe-"refute the idea that certain styles are incompatible or disqualified from reflecting Christian truths."

Mr. Fujimura's work is not universally appreciated. Several newspapers chose not to cover the new exhibit because of its blatant religious content. "We are really closer to the 'fire' here, and even such a reluctance may be a good sign that I am on the right path," said Mr. Fujimura. "They don't know what shelf to categorize my works on. They do see the obvious religious dimension, but, even if they like it, it is out of their semantics as contemporary critics."

Mr. Fujimura faces two sets of potential critics, Mr. Wolfe notes: He teaches the mainstream culture that "art which grapples with the reality of traditional experience in a biblical context can be as good as anything anyone is doing in visual arts." He also challenges Christians "to be more discerning as we are called by the Apostle Paul to learn the signs of the times." Mr. Fujimura is content to have it that way, noting that, "we as Christians are far from having perfected our own condition or having arrived at any perfection." He hopes both to "grieve with the world but also serve the world that needs love."

Abstract art and the Bible

Cultural conservatives tend to cast a dim eye on abstract art, insisting that true art should "look like something." But nonrepresentational art has roots deep in the Bible.

According to the Ten Commandments, "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them" (Exodus 20:4-5). This commandment forbids idolatry-striking at the essence of all humanly constructed religions then and now-but it specifically mentions making a "likeness."

This does not forbid all representational art, since God soon after commands that He be worshipped in a Tabernacle adorned with images of cherubim, almond blossoms, and pomegranates (Exodus 25). In the Temple, God commanded making representations of lions, palm trees, and bulls (1 Kings 7:2-37).

But the ancient Hebrews were still leery about making "likenesses" of the sort that their nature-worshipping neighbors venerated as manifestations of their gods. This did not mean, as is often charged, that they made no art. Whereas the pagans adorned their pottery and other artifacts with pictures of animals, human beings, and deities, the Hebrews favored nonrepresentational designs: intricate patterns, interlocking shapes, and pleasing colors.

Such monotheistic abstraction finds its highest expression today in Islamic art, which strictly forbids "likenesses" but which gives us the beautifully complex patterns of mosque decorations and Persian carpets.

The classical aesthetics of the Greeks were grounded in "mimesis"; that is, imitation, both of nature and of the ideal forms thought to lie behind nature. This was in accord with the Greek worldview, which saw the physical world itself as nothing more than an imitation of a previously existent ideal.

Biblical aesthetics, though, are grounded in "creation," in which the artist is doing something analogous to God, who created the universe in all of its beauty, from nothing. Thus, the Christian tradition, while accommodating also classical imitation, has given rise to art forms such as fiction, fantasy, and pure design.

The Reformers attacked the Roman Catholic veneration of religious images as idolatry, but they too channeled art into a more purely aesthetic direction. Calvin said that "only those things are to be sculpted or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing" (Institutes I.11.12). This, ironically, meant the "likenesses" of a new artistic realism. But when the Dutch Reformed artists painted landscapes, portraits, and still lifes of tableware and fruit, their interest was in purely aesthetic effects.

This tradition was carried into America by Dutch settlers. Artists of the "Hudson River school," America's first artistic movement, painted landscapes because they considered nature to be God's art.

Just as we take pleasure in the complex pattern of a tree's branches, we can take pleasure in the visual impression created by an abstract painting.

Much modern art, with its black canvases or random drippings, can be Gnostic or nihilistic. But it can carry meaning. The art of Makoto Fujimura, with its natural materials and the words attached to it, reflects Reformed theology. His "Water Flames" are abstract, but their portrayal of fire in water evokes not only 9/11 and hell, but baptism and the Holy Spirit. Judgment is real, but extinguished. Now both fire and water are cleansing. Mr. Fujimura's art is abstract but redemptive, carrying on the great tradition of biblical art.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.