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The Birch Tree Leaf Newsletter Issue 4 - Christmas 2019

ITS THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR

On Sunday mornings in December, for years now, I wake up wanting to start the day by listening to one of my favorite Christmas songs. It has to be a very specific version of this particular song — Andy Williams hit from 1963, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. I specifically like the version from Andy’s 1994 Live Christmas Album which starts with an announcer saying, “Ladies and gentlemen... Mr. Andy Williams.” You then hear the crowd go wild as the music takes off and Andy starts crooning. I absolutely love it!

Mr. Andy Williams

It’s not a sacred song in the least with the “kids jingle-belling” and “much mistletoeing,” but it has a way of filling my heart with such sentiment and joy, it very well could be a sacred hymn in its ability to remind me we have much to rejoice and give praise for. BUT, I gotta have the announcer bit at the beginning of the song. Any other version just lacks a sense of build up to the excitement.

It does make me think about Advent - a season long forgotten in our secular celebration of December. Advent is sort of critical for ushering in the celebration of Christmas. It highlights a number of the “announcers” leading up to Christ’s coming. We need these announcers of Advent. They play the critical role of helping us remember WHY we should be filled with joy come Christmas.

In American culture, we are willing to sit with darkness, sadness and pain for about 2 minutes before we toss them aside and get back to “parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting” et cetera, et cetera. Let’s face it, Advent can feel like the “Debbie Downer” of the most wonderful time of the year. It brings to mind the scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas with Lucy and Schroeder on the piano.

Lucy and Schroeder, A Charlie Brown Christmas

Lucy Van Pelt: Can you play "Jingle Bells?"

[Schroeder proceeds to play "Jingle Bells", which sounds like a traditional grand piano]

Lucy Van Pelt: [interrupting] No, no. I mean "Jingle Bells." You know, deck them halls and all that stuff?

[Schroeder begins to play again, with the piano sounding like an organ]

Lucy Van Pelt: [interrupting again] No, no. You don't get it at all. I mean "Jingle Bells." You know, Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho, and mistletoe and presents to pretty girls.

[gazes lovingly at Schroeder, who then out of frustration taps one key of the piano while playing "Jingle Bells," which sounds like a child's toy piano]

Lucy Van Pelt: That's it!

[Schroeder turns a few unplanned flips from Lucy's reaction]

MELANCHOLIA

Melencolia I, 1514 by Albrecht Dürer
Melencolia I is a depiction of the intellectual situation of the artist and is thus, by extension, a spiritual self-portrait of Dürer. In medieval philosophy each individual was thought to be dominated by one of the four humors; melancholy, associated with glack gall, was the least desirable of the four, and melancholics were considered the most likely to succumb to insanity. Renaissance thought, however, also linked melancholy with creative genius; thus, at the same time that this idea changed the status of this humor, it made the self-conscious artist aware that his gift came with terrible risks. — the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I may not be the “Charlie Browniest of all the Charlie Browns in the world,” but I would fall into that category. I’ve come to realize and accept that for the most part, I am a sad person. Maybe that’s why I so enjoy taking Advent’s dreary journey. I’m not talking about depression, though I have wrestled that dragon at different times. Depression feels different than this resting state of sadness. It’s the same sad state many artists identify with, the most famous depiction of which is by the German artist, Albrecht Dürer. Melencolia I could just as well be my self-portrait.

I don’t own a pair of rose-colored glasses. You won’t find me skirting yucky feelings or depressing topics of conversation. I’m prone to suspect something is awry. I’m quick to lose hope in a difficult situation seeing only doom and gloom on the horizon.

Oh, I do like to have fun, in fact I thoroughly enjoy ongoing jokes, teasing, all manner of silliness and frivolity, good hearty laughter. It’s just that between dance breaks, moments of fun and nights of joy, I go back to my “Charlie Brown walk” plumbing the depths and contemplating all that is broken in myself, the world and those around me. I spend my time in Scripture visiting Elijah, Jeremiah and the like.

As I get older, I am beginning to see that how I am and how I experience life and the world around me is not necessarily a bad thing. True, it is 100% completely counter-cultural to not be focused pursuing happiness, but I like to think of part of my God-given calling being able to hold the sadness of the world, to walk the way of grief, to let others know that silent suffering isn’t what God intended. I believe many artists have been given this same calling.

I also see, thanks to the world of social media, the others out there like me. They don’t all realize the mission they have (some do), the role they fill, the ways they provide connection by giving voice to feelings and experiences that are painful, sad or disappointing. They are the brave ones, the vulnerable ones — the artists and poets and song writers and to name a few. They are the prophets of our modern age — they are the announcers, the Advent embracers. And boy, does our world and our culture need them.

This realization helped me to finally decide what visual and words I wanted my website visitors to be greeted with upon landing on my home page. A faded image of my textile piece of Christ Pantocator paired with Jesus words of assurance from the Gospel of John:

www.MichelleLHofer.com banner image, 2019

HOW SHALL I MEET YOU?*

O Lord, how shall I meet you, how welcome you aright?

Your people long to greet you,

my hope, my heart's delight!

O kindle, Lord Most Holy, your lamp within my breast

to do in spirit lowly all that may please you best.

Love caused your incarnation,

love brought you down to me;

your thirst for my salvation procured my liberty.

O love beyond all telling, that led you to embrace,

in love all love excelling, our lost and fallen race!

Rejoice, then, you sad-hearted,

who sit in deepest gloom,

who mourn o'er joys departed

and tremble at your doom.

Despair not, he is near you, yea, standing at the door,

who best can help and cheer you

and bids you weep no more.

You come, O Lord, with gladness,

in mercy and goodwill,

to bring an end to sadness and bid our fears be still.

In patient expectation we live for that great day

when a renewed creation your glory shall display.

*Translation by Catherine Winkworth of several stanzas from the German hymn, Wie soll ich dich empfangen, by Paul Gerhardt, 1653

Messenger of Strength (Archangel Gabriel) by Michelle L Hofer, mixed media on paper, 2019

1 KINGS, THE BOOK OF REVELATION AND AN INSTAGRAM AD

This fall I branched out and began working in porcelain. I was able to create several bodies of work rising out of the two main themes I’ve been exploring over the past few years: PRESENCE and PROVISION.

In my painted works, these themes have appeared in images of Elijah’s raven (the visual representation of God’s provision from I Kings 17) and angels (the visual representation of God’s presence from I Kings 19). Both ravens and angels are winged creatures and both appeared to help the prophet Elijah, the Biblical figure I most identify with. Reflecting over my past work and seeing these themes inspired me to make ceramic wings. I created a series of darker colored wings to associate with ravens and God’s provision and a series of white wings to associate with angels and God’s presence. Each series features various lyrics from the Christian hymns I learned as a child stamped on the wings which makes a personal connection for me.

WINGS OF PRESENCE

I had in mind the story of Elijah being encouraged and strengthened by a heavenly messenger (an angel of the Lord) from I Kings when I created this series. Elijah has fled to the desert after overseeing the killing of Baal’s prophets in Israel, an act that has enraged Queen Jezebel. He is afraid, filled with despair and asks to die. God sees him there lying under the broom tree comes to him at his lowest moment.

I learned many of the great Christian hymns as a child. As an adult now, many of those songs and bits of lyrics are a comfort and a reminder of how God does not leave us or forsake us — even now His angels watch over us.

WINGS OF PROVISION

The story of Elijah being fed by the ravens from I Kings inspired this series. God instructed Elijah to flee to the desert after telling Israel there shall be no rain. (This flew in the face of Israel’s erroneous belief that Baal controlled the rain.) God makes sure Elijah’s needs are met while he waits in a place of barrenness.

I learned many of the great Christian hymns as a child. As an adult now, many of those songs and bits of lyrics are a comfort and a reminder of how God tenderly cares and provides for us in amazing and sometimes unusual ways.

PRAYER WINGS

I also created smaller wings in a variety of colors to serve as a visual prayer and reminder of God’s eagerness to grant us what we need when we ask. Its wing shape is also a reminder of God’s presence and provision.

He put His arms around him and took care of him; He protected him as the apple of His eye. Just as an eagle stirs up its nest, encouraging its young to fly, and then hovers over them in case they need help, and spreads its wings and catches them if they fall, and carries them up high on its wings; so the Eternal guided Jacob through the wilderness without the help of any foreign god. — Dueteronomy 32:10-12

TREE OF LIFE LEAVES

There is another story of provision that inspired my work in porcelain. It is from the book of Revelation:

My heavenly guide brought me to the river of pure living waters, shimmering as brilliantly as crystal. It flowed out from the throne of God and of the Lamb, flowing down the middle and dividing the street of the holy city. On each bank of the river stood the tree of life, firmly planted, bearing twelve kinds of fruit and producing its sweet crop every month throughout the year. And the soothing leaves that grew on the tree of life provided precious healing for the nations. Blessed are those who wash their garments. In the end, they have rightful access to the tree of life and will enter the city through its gates. — Revelations 22:1-2, 14

When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, their transgression cut them off from the Tree of Life and its many benefits. In the book of Revelation, we are told one day those in Christ will again be free to eat its fruit and access its healing leaves.

I think about that tree. I long for those leaves of healing for our world. I created leaves stamped with individual words: peace, hope, joy, strength, faith, love to serve as a reminder that God provides these for healing of all that is hurting and broken.

ALL this new work came about after an ad appeared in my feed while I was “surfin’ the Gram” (that’s the cool way of saying I was scrolling my feed on the social media app, Instagram) back in September. I love Instagram. I mostly follow close friends and family and then I have a growing collection of visual artists, musicians and writers that are out there creating and sharing their work with the world just like I have been doing. I get inspired, I feel part of the movement fueled by artists around the globe. It really is amazing to me.

As I was saying, an ad pops up and it’s from Sergio Gomez, a visual artist I had been following and watching his show, Breakfast with Sergio, where he gives career advice to other artists. The advertisement is for his annual Small Works Art Sales Challenge and I am interested immediately. His challenge is to create a body of smaller sized artworks and then sell those pieces in the months of November and December. Not being real great at motivating myself (I need all the external motivation I can get) and really not that good at the sales end of things, I saw this as a great way to push myself to new heights so I joined the challenge.

Sergio Gomez, Small Works Art Sales Challenge Video

Long story short, I leapt into a new medium, and I sold three quarters of the pieces I created and even opened my online shop on my website. That is a big accomplishment! You see, I do not like promoting my work, myself, or asking for money. If I could just go ahead and pass out all the art for free, I very much would! This would not make for good business practices and I already do a lot of pro bono (no pay) commission work or donate a portion of time spent creating for various church organizations. A little show of income is helpful for balancing the books. Thankfully, Sergio’s challenge included non-sleazy approaches to sales and promotion and a guide for determining appropriate pricing for the things we were making. I didn’t have to feel like I was pulling prices out of thin air like a certain artist who recently duct taped a banana to a wall and slapped a $120,000 price tag on it. Wow. read more>

A main suggestion from Sergio was to host an open studio night, whether than was a private event or a public showing. I chose to hold my first private studio night in November for a select group of supportive family and friends. I was expecting to mostly receive affirmation in the form of people attending and viewing the work. I did not expect to see for instance, my display of Tree of Life Leaves plucked clean! All of the collections sold well that evening. What I had created and shared about resonated with many in attendance. This was a precious gift and a blessing to me as an artist.

THE DAILY GRIND

Mural project on the East wall of the Birch Tree Studio featuring a Rose Window/color wheel of gems, the Tree of Life and Elijah’s raven, 2019.

I have been sticking with my commitment to create and post daily some artistic effort each day. September & October got me working on a mural for one wall in my studio which features a large rose window (like those in the big fancy cathedrals, the tree of life, Elijah and his raven. I am planning to mural all of the studio in due time. The entire project is inspired by one of my favorite Scriptures — a lovely, and quite visual prayer from Paul:

I pray that from His glorious, unlimited riches He will give you mighty inner strength through His Holy Spirit. And I pray that Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts as you trust in Him. May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high and how deep His love really is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is so great you will never fully understand it. Then you will be filled with the fullness of life and power that comes from God. — Ephesians 3:16-19

I didn’t complete the wall by the end of the 30 days I had committed to, but it is a good start and its there for me to see every day and calculate next steps for when I’m ready to get back at it.

Going into December and looking ahead to 2020 I found myself longing to get back to my acrylic routine — working with abstract backgrounds and finding imagery to enter into these colorful expressive explorations. I also enjoy looking at what has come from the daily paint session and pairing it with a thought or a quote or a Scripture and then posting these to my social media accounts. Many individuals have told me they enjoy seeing these in their daily feed. Several have told me they consider this a ministry. I’d like to believe it so, I have felt the pull to pick it up again and have committed to making it my daily practice for all of 2020.

HOPE IS FOUND IN A DIAMOND

The Hope Diamond, one of the most infamous jewels of all time, valued at $200-$350 million dollars, currently owned by the Smithsonian Institution Offices.

Going on seven years now, I have been asked to provide a visual for a Christmas card sent out from the conference ministers of Central Plains Mennonite Conference. This has been a challenge I look forward to each November. I am provided with a Scripture passage and possible visual ideas to inform my design.

I was given this Scripture for 2019:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. — Romans 15:13

There is something about the Advent and Christmas season that draws me to look for inspiration in the work of Celtic Christians from centuries ago — mainly, their illuminated gospels. Taking the time to properly research and explore all possible options with a particular Scripture is a process I thoroughly enjoy. This time I found myself caught up in deeper exploration of both the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Me admiring the beauty that is the Chi Rho page from the Book of Kells illustrated Gospels, Scotish, 800AD

The Chi Rho (that’s the Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ) page of the Book of Kells offered up information I had not yet known — Christ is represented by a diamond shape. It’s there, right at the heart of the page. I learned the diamond has been a symbol for Christ since the 1st century where it is featured in early Christian mosaic designs. And once I read this, I found the symbol all over the place and not just in the Book of Kells. There are wonderful delicate diamond patterns of those special red dots on the fancy pages in the Lindisfarne Gospels too. I admire the genius and cleverness of these past Christians artists.

Sketches and research in preparation for Christmas card design.

My design went through a number of phases before I finally found what worked. The diamonds worked beautifully as an energetic background and the opening of the “O” in HOPE provided a wonderful place for the Savior in a larger diamond shape to lodge. The full design featured a hymn lyric from John Morison (1781): To us a child of hope is born. Indeed, Christ is a treasure, a diamond, of infinite worth — one in which we may place all our hope for this life and that which is to come.

Final Christmas card design for the Central Plains Mennonite Conference ministers, 2019

WING YOUR FLIGHT O’ER ALL THE EARTH

My own Christmas card design, a personal tradition I’ve been carrying on for more years than I can remember was inspired by the dream journal project I undertook this past summer where I illustrated and set words to some of my most memorable dreams. Funny... there too ravens and angels have made appearances. I designed a special spiral of wings to feature at both the beginning and the end of the journal. Many of my social media followers found that design quite lovely and I decided it would work nicely for Christmas especially when paired with the opening words of the hymn, Angels From the Realm of Glory.

Colin, Michelle, Madeline & Claire Hofer family Christmas card design, front and back, 2019

FINAL THOUGHTS

2019 has been a very long, but good year. I’ve grown, I’ve wrestled, I’ve dragged myself through sorrow and exhaustion, physical pain and new scary ventures. I can wholly say I’ve had my share of trials and sorrow (and beyond the trouble that gallon of turkey brine I managed to spill all over my kitchen at Thanksgiving caused). I pray you are experiencing God’s presence and provision “to help and to cheer you” just as I am each day. It’s holding the tiniest gem of hope in the midst of trouble that fills me with the gusto to rise from my bed on a Sunday morning in December and join Andy in singing at the top of my lungs.

It's the most wonderful time!

Yes the most wonderful time!

Oh the most wonderful time!

Of the year!!

(Nobody got anything on Mr. Andy Williams…nobody.)

At Days End — Elijah’s Raven by Michelle L Hofer, mixed media on paper, 2019

All praise and glory to the Eternal One for the gift of the glorious Son!

God be near to you, my friends!