It was a rainy summer afternoon in Atlanta. I was about 20 years old. I had taken the MARTA train from Lenox where I had just finished a shift selling clothes at J. Crew and was certainly dressed the part.
There has always been something about rainy, dreary afternoons. Most people hate them. I find them inspiring, however, albeit in a rather depressing, lonely kind of way. Rain clouds move me to places of solitude in search of the deepest parts of my soul for moments of spiritual clarity and creative output. Even if I’m in public, rain makes me reflective and forces me to keep to myself. That was certainly the case this summer afternoon.
I arrived at the Arts Center station in Midtown and, instead of going straight home to get out of the weather, I decided to pop the collar of my raincoat and walk a couple blocks to the High Museum of Art. My mother has always insisted that whatever it is my brother and I do in life, we also must be well-rounded and cultured and have therefore maintained a membership at the High as long as I can remember. Earlier that week I had received a preview email from the museum welcoming me to a members’ only tour of their latest exhibition that same afternoon. I didn’t know much about the one referred to as only The Artist, but the content of the gallery intrigued me and being out of school for summer, I didn’t have anything else to do.
I walked through the entrance of the museum and handed the clerk at guest services my membership card, as I had done dozens of times before. After printing my admissions badge, she smiled and said, “You are right on time.”
Being in no hurry, I decided to walk the massive Guggenheim-styled spiral walkway to the top floor where the event was to take place. Considering the miserable weather, I remember how shocked I was to find myself alone in the exhibit. A single docent approached and after welcoming me to the gallery, asked if I was Mr. Gallimore. Guest services had apparently made my arrival known and I now found myself walking this special collection with my own personal guide. I typically tend to stay away from docents in museums simply because I’m more of a pioneer when it comes to navigating an art gallery. For some reason, however, I felt that this fellow art-lover understood that and made herself more of a friend for the journey ahead.
The art snob in me was embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of The Artist and was not familiar with his work. My small talk with the docent quickly turned to a very detailed conversation about pieces we would soon view in the collection.
“Truthfully,” she said, “much of The Artist is a mystery. He is foreign, but has lived and traveled almost everywhere. He doesn’t work in any particular type of art more than others and seems to have a piece from almost every genre. He works with wood, metal and stone, acrylic, oil and watercolors. He’s really more of an artistic craftsman than the visual artists we typically display. His work ranges from the practical to the absurd, the understood and the debated. Many modern art critiques and historians have tried to make sense of his work but few have ever put forth any kind of rational interpretation.”
As I entered the gallery, I was almost floored immediately by the way the subtle lighting hit the pure white walls, causing the bright hues of the art itself to shine like freshly washed stained glass on a Sunday morning. The docent’s introduction had not sold the exhibit short; it really didn’t make any sense. It was beautiful, that was for certain, but also bizarre. There were pieces that looked as if they had taken years to design and forged by the hands of a skilled worker arranged beside those resembling the scribbles of a preschooler. There were works resembling 17th-century Baroque with details as sharp as Rembrandt as well as 19th-century impressionist-like strokes (some clearly created under the influence of absinthe). There were sculptures, installationist projects made of metal and iron, all as horrifying as they were aesthetically pleasing.
As I walked the halls of the exhibit I reflected on all that I had been told about The Artist and all of the works I had just experienced. I understood how those with prestigious art educations often wrote such work off as frustrations. It really didn’t make any sense, but I understood it perfectly. The art I was viewing wasn’t art at all, it was my life. The moments of brilliance and stupidity, simplicity and the abstract, I had just walked through a creative narrative of my own existence. It all finally made sense.
At 20, worried about the direction of my future and conscious of a few unwise decisions already made, I understood the grand process of which I was a part. In The Artist’s collection, it was OK when things didn’t make sense and it was OK when some pieces didn’t come out as perfect as the others. Everything hung in balance. Everything worked out. Everything had its place in the greater collection. And just like that, everything disappeared, and I woke up.
It had all been a dream, so I thought. I sat up in my bed and immediately became aware of the presence of something Wholly Other. I became aware of the Divine. I felt as if the glory of the Creator had landed on my chest. My trip to the museum had happened, but as a vision, a love song from The Artist reminding me of the never failing truth that every decision, every turn, every success and every failure all work into the greater collection. My life, my ups and downs, highs and lows, were all part of a larger work, moving together in continuity toward an ultimate goal.
I didn’t know the final stroke of the brush, and perhaps neither did The Artist, but every movement of my life was part of the process toward that final stroke, and everything was a celebrated work in that collection; nothing was wasted.
I have found myself thinking about that dream a lot lately. As a young pastor desperately hoping to make a difference in this world and in the world of my congregation, I am more conscious than ever of the highs and lows of ministry — the moments I feel successful as one who has found his stride and the moments I pray my failures and inexperience will not undo our collective progress.
Furthermore, as the main reader and interpreter of a congregation and its history, its larger role in denominational life as well as its place in the arc of church history, I feel more and more aware of the moments in which we have lived up to the call of the gospel as well as the moments which have damage our witness toward building God’s kingdom on earth. I feel the weight brought on by those years of continual church growth as well as periods of massive decline, courageous prophecy and fearful order.
If, however, the message of my dream is true, everything has its place. Everything moves in a fluid continuum as the story God is painting through the church, and every individual in every congregation is a part of that creation. Nothing is lost, nothing is wasted, everything fits and hangs in balance. Everything flows in divine process to tell the story of The Artist and the grand collection that is his redemptive creation.
May we trust in that process, and may we find ourselves in that collection.
Alex Gallimore ([email protected]) is pastor of Hester Baptist Church in Oxford, N.C.