Thumbprint in the Clay:
Divine Marks of Beauty, Order and Grace
Paperback: IVP Books, 2016
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Reviewed by Crystal Hurd
J.R.R. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, posited that creating art involves a process called “sub-creation.” Tolkien writes in “On Fairy-Stories” the origin of “sub-creation”:
The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength: but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind. The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) ‘the inner consistency of reality,’ is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation.
The Creator endows His children with the talent and inspiration, and thus the art is “sub-created.” It’s a beautiful concept, and one that makes a lot of sense. Many spiritual artists attest to this attraction, this inherent compulsion to create. Art created for God or with the influence of God should acknowledge a debt to a higher power, and thus aspire to be its absolute best.
Contemporary poet Luci Shaw illuminates this very theme in her newest work, Thumbprints in the Clay: Divine Marks of Beauty, Order and Grace. Derived from the image of a potter, the book argues that artwork ultimately bears the fingerprints of the artist. Christian art is shaped like the ultimate Creator. Shaw recalls a story explaining how famed artist Leonardo da Vinci didn’t always sign his paintings; sometimes da Vinci left a thumbprint in the wet paint. This would provide definite proof that he was the true artist. A good facsimile may attempt to copy his signature, but no one can copy his thumbprint. This fact is the leading image of this work, exploring artistic ingenuity while incorporating the deepest echoes of a Creator.
Shaw’s discussion of beauty is phenomenal. It seems to be an abstract notion, defying definition and logic, but those called to create art make a habit of chasing beauty. Shaw writes, “The pursuit of beauty has been seen as a somewhat controversial or frivolous option, and an undomesticated one at that, because beauty can neither be controlled nor programmed. As Eugene Peterson has said, ‘[Beauty] works out of the unconscious, is not practical, cannot be quantified, is not efficient, and cannot be ‘used’ for very long without corrupting either the art or the artist” (53). Creating and introducing beauty is a worth pursuit, according to Shaw: “’Beauty will save the world,’ proclaimed Fyodor Dostoevsky, as if God’s primary device for healing and restoration is an appreciation of the beautiful, the wholeness of God” (55). Furthermore, Shaw describes how the act of creation is both a joyful and agonizing process. We need inspiration, encouragement, and approval as artists. Creating something good into a world that suffocates beauty and light can be a daunting experience: “I watch for beauty in the experience of what we might aptly call glory – the appearance of something of such supreme worth that it begins to make sense of all the breakage, the heartache and distress of our world. I find it intriguing that the Hebrew word for glory embraces the idea of weight, heaviess, volume, worth” (41).
What I found most important of this work is Shaw’s encouragement for Christian artists. Much like Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, Shaw’s work examines the motivation and purposes for creating good art and offers invaluable advice for those who are wrestling with artistic inspiration. Artists strive to create a product worthwhile, something beautiful, but what is beauty? Shaw writes, “Here’s my own take, my personal attempt to define my perception of the beautiful: its’ an echo of the true, the angle of light on an object that reveals it for what it is, intrinsically, in a kind of naked integrity. It’s a perception that involves both seer and the seen. It takes us as partners in revelation to bring beauty into view” (40). Beauty then, is redemptive in nature, Shaw argues. It is God’s anodyne, an experience which draws us closer to the source of Love, while soothing the ache created by a wicked world. Through God-breathed art, God reveals himself in unique and substantial ways. Shaw urges artists to continue this pursuit of excellence as an avenue for worship, even when we encounter artistically dry seasons: “…if God has blessed you with a gift, exercising your gift as a trust given you by God is the way to please him. I’d been writing assiduously out of this sense of responsibility, all the while feeling spiritually dry and apathetic, unsatisfied because though much of what I was doing was supposed to be for God work and was in service to God’s people, I’d felt a disconnect, a lack of feeling that I was in touch with God himself” (43).
Striving to make quality art is a monumental task. Artists are plagued with self-doubt, wrestle with time constraints, and sometimes even a lack of encouragement. Shaw shares her own story of missionary parents who wanted their daughter to enter Christian ministry. However, the education classes that Shaw took as a student at Wheaton steered her away from her true desire, to write. Shaw asks, “How are we to interpret the light that we are given?” (51). She writes that desire is a requirement. Desire drives our longing into action. We should answer the call to art with enthusiasm and determination: “Our passivity, our reluctance to take risks may well frustrate God’s desire for us and deny his offer of guidance and preservation” (81). Shaw urges artists to accept the grey areas of faith; she believes that God is not distraught by our doubt. All seeking Christians experience seasons of doubt. She pushes artists past these inquiries. In fact, Shaw writes that artists should be bold in their message: “Our art, in writing or graphic visual imagery, may well need to be offensive in the sense of shocking. Harsh. Stark. Jesus’ indictment of empty, pharisaical religiosity was like a blow to the pit of the stomach of the religious leaders of the day. It was voiced in comparisons that likened those legalistic leaders to whitewashed temobs full of decaying bodies” (119).
In addition to Shaw’s marvelous prose, several poems are interposed within the chapters. These poems are sometimes preceded by the stories that inspired them, or touch on a theme illuminated in the chapter. Her nonfiction is enjoyable, oscillating playfully between reflection and biography, peppering the manuscript with stories and illustrations highlighting how art and faith blend seamlessly. Like so many other Shaw works, this book is an inspiration to artists. I would highly recommend it for anyone who aspires to create. Shaw highlights the importance of the process and the product, underpinned by faith and written with divine inspiration.