The Red Circle

© Jan L. Richardson  ◊The Painted Prayerbook◊

During Advent I wrote about how sometimes, when insomnia comes to visit, I’ll try to charm it with a volume of poetry. (“Sleeping with Killian”) It’s not that I find poetry so dull that it bores me to sleep. Rather, there’s something about it that beckons my brain to step off its madly spinning hamster wheel and burrow down for the night. With its rhythms, images, and connections that don’t always depend on logic or linear thought, poetry offers a landscape that often lies closer to the dreaming world than to the waking one.

On a recent night, lying wakeful in the wee hours, I turned to Jane Hirshfield to do the insomnia-charming honors. Revisiting her collection The October Palace, I found myself struck by her poem “A Plenitude,” in which she references a story that Vasari tells in The Lives of the Artists. Vasari relates how Pope Benedict IX, in search of someone to create several paintings for St. Peter’s, dispatched an assistant to collect samples from various artists. The candidates included Giotto di Bondone, the Italian painter who was a harbinger of the Renaissance. Of the visit to Giotto, Vasari tells this:

…having gone one morning to Giotto’s shop while the artist was at work, [the courtier] explained the pope’s intentions and how he wanted to evaluate Giotto’s work, finally asking him for a small sketch to send to His Holiness. Giotto, who was a most courteous man, took a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red, pressed his arm to his side to make a compass of it, and with a turn of his hand made a circle so even in its shape and outline that it was a marvel to behold. After he had completed the circle, he said with an impudent grin to the courtier: ‘Here’s your drawing.’ The courtier, thinking he was being ridiculed, replied: ‘Am I to have no other drawing than this one?’ ‘It’s more than sufficient,’ answered Giotto. ‘Send it along with the others and you will see whether or not it will be understood.’ (From The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari, translated by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.)

Giotto got the job.

The image of Giotto’s crimson Ο particularly grabbed me because of a small, abandoned collage that has been lying on my drafting table the past couple of weeks. It began, and finally ended, with a red circle on a gold background. After a long struggle to develop it, I gave up and turned my attention in another direction. A collage artist, however, is reluctant to throw anything away, and I did like that red circle, so I kept it around, hoping it might become the basis for another piece. Now, after reading Hirshfield’s poem and Vasari’s story, I’m thinking maybe I stalled out because I was trying too hard to add to something that was already complete. I’ve become aware that though I’m no Giotto, there’s something very satisfying in the spareness of that circle. It’s sufficient.

Contemplating Hirshfield’s poem, and Vasari’s story, and that red circle, I’ve been reflecting on the amount of time and energy we give to explaining, justifying, or selling who we are. We catalog and calculate our qualities in order to impress others and persuade them to hire us, or love us, or include us in their circle.

There are plenty of situations that call for demonstrations of competence and expertise. Walking into a doctor’s office, a daycare, a church, you want to know that this person is qualified to care for your body, your child, your soul. But in a culture that sometimes pushes us to accumulate credentials and qualifications without developing the character that will sustain our expertise, it can be disarming to encounter someone who bows to simplicity instead of doing backflips to win us over.

One of the clearest glimpses I’ve had of the power of a gesture like Giotto’s came at a gathering of clergy that I attended early in my ministry. The design team had invited a potter to be the artist in residence during our conference and to offer a few words at our opening session. In a room full of clergy who live and minister in a system that has its own complicated culture of credentials and rewards, the potter stood before us, a small piece of pottery cupped in her hands. Gazing into the Ο of her bowl, she began to tell us what she had come to offer. Watching her, listening to her, I had the sense that we were encountering a woman whose life and creative work had worn away the impulse to impress, to prove, to convince. In her years of working with clay, the clay had also worked on her. Shed of pretense, the potter held out to us what she had to give.

It was more than sufficient.

In a culture that bases so much on evaluation and competition, there’s often little room to squeeze around the need to demonstrate and display who we are. Whether we’re selling ourselves for a job, a promotion, a membership, a mate, we live with the pressure to appear polished. That’s not wholly a bad thing. Yet, in the midst of that, is there any place where we might trace a red circle of our own? Is there a gesture, an unadorned offering we can make that arises from the core of who we are? How do we discern where to offer that? Where can we do that with a sense of trust it will be understood? Where might we be called to make that kind of offering, knowing others may not readily understand it, but need it? What support and sustenance will help us do this?

Wishing you a red circle day.

5 Responses to “The Red Circle”

  1. LeeAnn Inman Says:

    Just enough is plenty. Thanks, Jan, for shedding lenten light on plenteous grace. Your red circle makes me think of the Emily Dickinson poem, “There’s a certain slant of light
    Winter afternoons….”

  2. frederica Says:

    Staring at this simple and strong image I can relax.
    It looks like The snake biting its own tail…Uroboros…
    when we “fall” asleep…we are in another land, another country…with a new language …
    thanks for your beautiful experience

  3. John D. Palmer Says:

    As I glanced at the red circle there seemed to be a tuft of hair at the top that reminded me of my boy and I imagined his eyes, his nose, his mouth, the roundness of his cheeks. I really enjoyed the reflection and the Giotto story especially. Do you do portraits?:-)

  4. Sharon Rossnagel Says:

    Dear Jan,

    I’ve been reading your comments on the Red Circle and musing on the word “sufficient”. I have often been critiqued about my art in that it appears incomplete.

    When I see others work, especially if it is complicated and layered, I say to myself, “Maybe I just don’t have enough to say”. When I get to the point of believing a painting is complete others ask when I’m going to finish it. For me it is sufficient. Richard C says that I don’t show my work because I am shy of it. That is only partly true. I don’t work on a piece for very long. I wait until I have a burst of energy to complete my vision in one standing. Even with larger pieces that may take more than one day’s effort, I still work this way. I listen to my inner voice to tell me. This is the same voice that I instill into the canvas or paper before I begin a piece. It comes from within and without. It is the sacred voice I always turn to. That which comforts and nurtures me. Brother Joseph once showed me some large drawings of his that were just circles. Large gestural circles of chalk on paper. He was surprised years later when I told him how much those drawing had meant to me. I thought them beautiful. I thought them sufficient.

    You’ve reminded me that I don’t need others to tell me when a piece is completed. Many times I find myself paralyzed and not able to work. The voices of the culture, the street, the magazines and newspaper stop me. I allow them to be stronger than my own voice, even to myself. How I pray for the fortitude of artists like yourself to still them and allow me to just do the work.

    Thank you for your daily musings and inspirational words.

  5. Lorrie Larsen Strauss Says:

    what a new found treasure

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