The Wrench of Grace

A long-distance artistic collaboration among three friends—a poet, a painter, and a musical composer—culminated at Laity Lodge in a retreat that celebrated the ordinary saints all around us.

Ordinary Saints, a collaborative art project featuring the work of painter Bruce Herman, poet Malcolm Guite, and composer J.A.C. Redford, had its performative debut October 26-28 here at Laity Lodge’s Cody Center.

The exhibit and companion concert was conceived as a Laity Lodge retreat rather than a standalone performance, and each detail of the weekend offered a fresh look at some facet of the Imago Dei—the image of God found in every created face.

Across a series of twenty intimate and extraordinary oil portraits, painter and Gordon College fine arts educator Bruce Herman explored the theme for years. His luminous paintings, still on display at the Cody Center until the end of the spring, reveal vibrant images of his family and friends. The exhibit was curated by San Antonio artist Joshua Welker.

Bruce’s detailed work interplays with gold and silver leaf and swashes of color, and at the Cody Center gallery they also interplayed with sonnets penned by Malcolm and musical compositions by J.A.C. (“Jac”). The three friends worked to explore these rich themes in poems and music that respond to the portraits.

The culmination of the three-day retreat was the Saturday night concert: Jac’s compositions had their debut, performed by Bethany Ring, soprano; Amber Salladin, alto and piano; Nathan Williams, clarinet; and Steuart Pincombe, cello. The music was interspersed with sonnets read by Malcolm, all surrounded by the images of Bruce’s Ordinary Saints.

“One of the reasons our age is divided is that it hasn’t had a real encounter with beauty. Such an encounter would undo us and abolish our categories.”

Malcolm Guite

With Jac living in California, Malcolm in Cambridge, U.K., and Bruce in Massachusetts, perhaps it seems surprising that the first public manifestation of the project would emerge in a remote Canyon deep in the Hill Country of Texas. But a closer look reveals a startling synchronicity between the project and the place.

The Lodge was built upon Howard Butt Jr.’s conviction of the high calling of the laity—the ordinary people of God—in all their common offices and occupations. And the experience of venturing here, of being here, offers a quiet and somewhat mysterious means of rediscovering a sense of the sacred that is all around us … not just here in the Frio River Canyon, but back in those ordinary places that define our day-to-day.

Wendell Berry has written, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Sacred spaces, sacred faces … maybe they’re both closer than we think. “Gaze on this painting, let it gaze on you,” Malcolm begins one of his poems … “what will you allow yourself to see?”

Ordinary Saints

The ordinary saints, the ones we know,
Our too-familiar family and friends,
When shall we see them? Who can truly show
Whilst still rough-hewn, the God who shapes our ends?
Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold
That is and always was our common ground,
Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold
To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound
From which the light we never noticed fell
Into our lives? Remember how we turned
To look at them, and they looked back?
Unready for the wrench and reach of grace.
But one day we will see them face to face.

—Malcolm Guite

Article by Paul Soupiset.

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