I want to tell you a story about a painting – a long and wind-ey story that’s not really about a painting at all. It’s about life and connection and faith and serendipity and how all of those things can make art. And become art.
Nolan Jungclaus came to my Studio Hop last summer and wanted to buy one of the pieces on my wall that was not for sale. It was a star – a collage that is actually a version of my business logo sewn from scraps and pieces of vintage fabrics. I couldn’t sell it, of course, and he seemed disappointed. But the exchange got us talking. Nolan is from Lake Lillian where he owns Star View Farm, part of a larger farming operation that has been in his family for four generations.
Turns out, he wanted my art because of the star. It had meaning to him.
Nolan explained that many years ago he’d had the life-changing opportunity to give the sermon at his church during Advent. For inspiration, he’d turned to an old story called “A Child Dreams of a Star” by Charles Dickens. His sermon message, he explained, was how the season of Advent is a time of preparation for a heavenly Savior that too often gets completely lost in our chaotic preparations for the things of this world. Then, he read his congregation the story by Charles Dickens.
Nolan told me that this experience was a turning point for him. So much so, that he named his farm after it. He had also lost his Dad recently, which had been very difficult.
Nolan and I connected that Saturday. He helped me remember why I put myself through all of the self-inflicted stress and work to participate in Studio Hop in the first place since my art is just a sideline to an already over-scheduled life. I was very touched by his sincerity and willingness to share such a personal faith story.
The next day, to my surprise, Nolan came back to my studio with his two kids, a stack of papers and a request.
Would I create a piece of art for him, he asked? One that included a star and took inspiration from his sermon notes and the Charles Dickens story he had read to his congregation that Sunday? One he could hang at his Star View Farm?
I was a little shocked and very humbled. I don’t normally take on commission art projects for lots of reasons, but that day I felt compelled to say yes. I’m not sure why.
But here’s the hard part.
Later, after Nolan left, I finally had a few quiet minutes to actually read the Charles Dickens story he left behind on those sheets of paper. And… oh man… let me tell you… I could hardly get through it.
It tore me up and turned me inside out. So I had to put it away. In fact, I wasn’t sure I could EVER do an art project based on that sad story. It would just be too difficult.
You see, “A Child Dreams of a Star” is about death. At least that’s what it appears to be at first glance. Within the first five paragraphs, a small boy loses his best friend and sister to a mysterious illness, then dreams of her journey with angels up to a bright, shining star in the sky.
It’s a real tear-jerker.
For me, reading that story immediately brought back memories of several dear friends of mine who have lost beautiful, precious children much to soon and much too tragically. It made their immense grief feel tangible again, even after all of these years.
It made me remember that death feels painful and final and often unfairly distributed in this world. And since my life last summer was too busy and too hectic to make time for a deeper understanding of the story, I put it away, along with Nolan’s request. On a shelf. For another time.
Then I attended the “Women of Faith” event last October in St. Paul, and it inspired me to pull down the Charles Dickens story and read it again… more carefully this time, which is when I realized…wow… huh. This wasn’t a story about death at all. This was a story about life. And love.
It was a story about hope. A beautiful story about hope. Wow.
It was the story about a boy’s ability to see a stunning, glowing star in the sky that symbolized all of the promises of heaven. Promises that gave him hope.
And then I wondered why this story meant so much to my new friend, Nolan. So I kept reading his stack of papers until I got to his sermon notes, where I found this personal story:
I remember a Christmas about 30 years ago. My mom had made a family tree as a present for grandpa and grandma. The tree had each aunt and uncle down the sides and a row of ornaments strung between with the names of each grandchild. Most importantly, at the very top of the tree, was a star. It held the name of “Orlin.” Orlin was the infant son of my grandparent’s who had died some 50 years earlier.
When my grandpa looked over this newly opened present, his eyes scanned across the names of his children and the many grandchildren until they came to the very top of the tree… to the single star with the name Orlin. And his eyes rested there as a tear ran down his cheek.
My grandpa saw the ‘star.’
Now my grandparents did a lot of things for our local church. Over the years each of them developed a long list of church functions and activities that they worked on and donated to. But did those things give them the ability to see the star?
No. What gave them the ability to see that star was the death of Orlin. It was trying to raise a family during the depression. It was the long hours in the field and farmyard…”
Then Nolan’s sermon went on to quote a verse from Romans 5:
…and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us…”
It seems Nolan’s grandparents had learned about hope the hard way – through loss and grief and struggle. And it was a lesson that had become weaved into the very fabric of their family’s story.
Wow. That’s when I got it.
Nolan hadn’t asked me to create a piece of art, so much, as a visual reminder of the hard won faith that this family had so lovingly been passing down from generation to generation. And who could say no to that?
So… some four months after I first met Nolan, his request became an adventure that I needed more than I realized. You see, life’s hectic pace had been getting the best of me and my soul had been craving the paint spattered clothes and saw dusty hair of my old artist self. Nolan’s request had given me purpose and an excuse to make time for her again.
I decided to do the painting on a salvaged old farm door I had serendipitously been gifted by a family member just a month earlier. Based on Nolan’s story, it seemed like a perfect canvas. It just needed some brushing and scraping and sanding… all things that I love to do. I’m funny like that.
Once the surface was ready, I layered the weathered planks of wood with grey paint and dark stain. I left a blank spot where the star would glow, then began building that up with layers and layers of yellow, silver and white paint.
What eventually appeared after several evenings and many blissful hours of drawing, painting, lettering, fabric cutting and modge podging, was a bright, glowing star in a dark night sky. The hand lettered text below it is an excerpt from the Charles Dicken’s story and reads “… and the star opening, showed him a great world of light.”
Now let’s be clear. I really love how this whole project turned out. But not because I think it’s a great painting with good technical skill and amazing technique. Not at all. Because it doesn’t have those things and that’s not the point. I love it because of the wind-ey road it helped me travel and the layers of meaning it inspired me to see.
When the painting was finally done in late October, I drove it out to Nolan’s farm in Lake Lillian to deliver it in person. I hadn’t seen him since June, so it was nice to reconnect.
Here’s the message I received on Facebook a week or so after I delivered the painting:
Hi Betsy – I took the painting into my Mom’s to show her and left it there for Sunday for the family to see. I think there was a reason you felt the need to work on this when you did. Sunday was all saints day at church and also my Dad and Mom’s anniversary-1st one since he died on February 29th. We knew it would be hard for my Mom so a number of the kids where there to share the day with her. The painting was an incredible inspiration and focus point to retell the story of doing this sermon and the message as well as the story and gift that you had given to me in the form of this painting. The timing of this all was so very important to my Mom. We had a great dinner with conversations of their wedding day and stories of their life together. Every one had the chance to read thru the story and sermon and our Pastor and his wife were there to share it as well and were so taken by it all that they suggested that the painting be brought to church during advent to share how this all has come about and the relationships and interactions that bring god’s message to people in such amazing ways. (The story by the way came from William Bennet’s Book of Virtues.) My Mom seems very content to have this sitting at her house for now and she suggested it could stay there till our family Christmas gathering in December. I think she finds great comfort in this painting and how you have captured the vision of this story. I’ll look forward to hearing from you and thank you for listening and sharing your many gifts with all of us – Nolan
It was an honor. And so much fun.