I’m finished with my first semester as a studio arts major at Kent State University. I am not sure whether I’ll be registering for a second one. There were pros and cons about the experience, and I am not sure if one set outweighed the other. Regardless, I am on sabbatical this spring, have two books to complete, and figured I would do well not to be trekking back and forth in an hours worth of snow and ice over the next few months from my home to the school. So, I am taking a semester off, and I have become one of those retention risks. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the experience with only minimal consequence to my bank account and my (laughing) future in the arts.
It wasn’t a bad experience; it wasn’t a good one either, really. I learned some things in drawing, but I am very much on the fence about my experience in sculpture. For starters, I imagined playing with clay and making pinch pots while some Swayzesque spirit from beyond rubbed my shoulders. Instead, I was more Jessica Beal with a welding mask, except, instead of wearing a swanky black leotard and off-the-shoulder-slouch-dance tunic, I was wearing ugly jeans and steal-toed shoes under the green welding suit that had half-dollar size holes in it. The protective gear only partially worked; I was scared of the tools after a classmate almost lost a finger; and the top of my hair went up in smoke when a spark shot under my ill-fitting Vader hat on week two. I put it out quickly, fortunately.
By the time we got to the final project, I had just one and only goal… I didn’t want to spend any more money. Each project had become increasingly expensive, as I purchased resin, glass, paint, basic materials, glues, tools, masks, and so on. By the end of the term, I had left a few sticks of wood, an inclination to purge them, and very little else. When we learned that our last project was to be a sculptural performance piece, I thought, “great, I’ll burn it.” This was, admittedly, kind of rookie-ish, but my classmates were suggesting things like breaking their plaster projects or sitting in a chair reading a book aloud, so I felt I was at least keeping pace with the pack.
In the meanwhile, I had been listening to Leonard Cohen’s Joan of Arc. This is one song I hadn’t loved in the past on the basis of a single line, in which Cohen sings of the newly wed/burnt Joan of Arc, “I saw her wince, I say her cry…” The line suggested (and, I guess, still does) her violation and undoing, so I didn’t like the song. However, having heard it anew as sometimes happens, I had been listening to it on infinite repeat for a couple of months running. I had really started to identify with Joan. She was a woman destroyed by her faith, by her love, by her gift. In the song, she is sort of an ordinary gal, who speaks wearily, “I’m tired of the war. I want the kind of work I had before. A wedding dress or something white to wear upon my swollen appetite.”
It breaks my heart how keenly I feel that sentiment, and indeed, how I think so many of us end up feeling like that, that is, as though we would just like to stop and find a place that feels like rest. Some lost childhood, some time before time, some golden age, some Garden of Eden, even if it is a fiction that we never knew.
Case in point, I had students this semester that wrote an advocacy poem about terrorism, and with a stunning naiveté they suggested that there was a time before there was war, sometime maybe in the 80s, before they were born. They lamented in the poem never having known such a world. Their ignorance of history notwithstanding, I felt that same heartbreak when I realized how unsafe such young people felt, what respite in the world they longed for, and how their yearning would only deepen over time. They too were already tired of the war, this time literally, and their long journey was only just beginning.
Inspired by the profundity of these thoughts and my miserly sculpture budget, I decided I would make a Joan of Arc, burn the statue, witness it, stomach it, honor it, and confront the inevitable destruction. So, I began pondering how to achieve this, playing with my wood, and reading about her life. And, as I read… OH MY GOD. NO. NO. NO. NO. As I learned about her, as I learned about the horror of human burning in cross-cultural, transhistorical perspective, from antiquity to the present, I broke down. I just couldn’t do it. I wanted to save her, whisk her away, insist that there had to be a better way, to tell the good Lord, “uh-uh, not this way, not again. If you won’t do something, I will.” Even if it is only art, worse yet crummy art in an intro studio class, I won’t be complicit. I felt every act of crucifixion, every human sacrifice, every creaturely sacrifice should be resisted. Somewhere, somehow there has to be a distinction between the kenosis of the self and the destruction of the self. In the extraordinary divine calls as well as in the ordinary acts of doing unto others, we must somewhere, sometime simply stop accepting ruin for gain. And, for many of us, that has to start with the self.
Needless to say, my sculpture project became something else. She was still Joan of Arc, but this time she remained unburnt. Many people I talked to about it continued to want the fire show. It’s a curious thing to want to see a figure destroyed. Yet, I resisted. I ultimately dressed her in the fading gown I wore all through my two pregnancies; I adorned her with the fairy necklace I wore when I was fifteen; I gave her a lush bouquet of flowers to hold; I wrapped her in sparkling fabric, and I read poems of resistance before her at her presentation during my final critique. I kissed her and publicly asked her forgiveness for ever considering destroying her. She now stands in my home office as a guardian and guide, reminding me and all who enter, “not this way, not again.”
A little postscript: I still don’t know my grade and have no inclination to inquire, but someone did say something wonderful to me about her. The person offered Geppetto’s wish for her, that she would become a real girl. Maybe she will…
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.