The Artful Ashes

blog-2009-ash-wednesday-2Image: Ash Wednesday © Jan Richardson

Readings for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17;
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

When I received the invitation to do the artwork for Peter Storey’s book Listening at Golgotha, a series of reflections on the Seven Last Words of Jesus (featured in Friday’s post), it came as a lovely bit of synchronicity. His editor, who had been the editor for my first book, wasn’t aware that Peter and I were acquainted, having crossed paths on a few occasions when he was visiting the U.S. from his native South Africa. The catch was that the artwork had to be in black and white. With my having worked primarily in paper collage, black and white was not exactly my first language, artistically speaking. I so wanted to work on Peter’s book that I told the editor yes. Then I set about to figure out what kind of black and white medium I could manage.

I tried doing collages in black and white, but made little headway. After several other experiments, I picked up a piece of charcoal. And fell in love.

Beginning to work with charcoal was like learning a new language, with the delights and challenges that come in such a process of discovery. Most of my early sketches were a mess. I could sense that a style was stirring, but in the beginning stages it appeared so raw and unformed that I began to despair of having anything ready in time for Peter’s book.

On the verge of calling the editor to do an embarrassing backing-out dance (an awkward jig that I try hard to avoid), I instead called my artist friend Peg to ask if she could either collaborate with me or counsel me on the project. Peg told me to bring her all the sketches I’d done: the good, the bad, and the ugly. To my eye they were mostly bad and ugly. But Peg took the smudgy, ashy papers, spread them out, and pondered them. In a fashion that struck me as being something like lectio divina, she followed their tangled lines until she began to perceive something that had the beginnings of coherence and form. Moving through what I had perceived as chaos, Peg showed me what she saw, and she offered suggestions on how to pursue and develop the path that had been obscure to me. Not only did this help make it possible to complete the project, but it also began to open creative doors within and beyond me in ways I never would have imagined.

In large part, what I came to love about working in charcoal was the dramatic contrast it offered to my colorful, often intricate collage work. Where collage involves a process of accumulation and addition as the papers are layered together, charcoal invites me to an opposite experience. When I do a charcoal drawing, my goal is to find the fewest number of lines necessary to convey the scene. It is a medium of subtraction, involving little more than a piece of blank paper, a stick of charcoal, and an eraser to smudge and then smooth away all that is extraneous. What remains on the page—the dark, ashen lines—is spare, stark, sufficient.

For every artist, one of the most crucial habits to develop is staying open to what shows up. In the process of cultivating a unique vision, with all the consuming focus that involves, we have to learn, at the same time, how to keep an eye open for the creative surprises and invitations that can lead us to new pathways or deepen existing ones. If I stay too attached to a favorite medium or familiar technique, I risk shutting myself off to possibilities that can take me to whole new places in my work and in my own soul.

Taking up a new medium, entering a different way of working, diving or tiptoeing into a new approach: all this can be complex, unsettling, disorienting, discombobulating. Launching into the unknown and untried confronts us with what is undeveloped within us. It compels us to see where we are not adept, where we lack skill, where we possess little gracefulness. Yet what may seem like inadequacy—as I felt in my early attempts with charcoal—becomes fantastic fodder for the creative process, and for life. Allowing ourselves to be present to the messiness provides an amazing way to sort through what is essential and to clear a path through the chaos. To borrow the words of the writer of the Psalm 51, the psalm for Ash Wednesday, it creates a clean heart within us.

Ash Wednesday beckons us to cross over the threshold into a season that’s all about working through the chaos to discover what is essential. The ashes that lead us into this season remind us where we have come from. They beckon us to consider what is most basic to us, what is elemental, what survives after all that is extraneous is burned away. With its images of ashes and wilderness, Lent challenges us to reflect on what we have filled our lives with, and to see if there are habits, practices, possessions, and ways of being that have accumulated, encroached, invaded, accreted, layer upon layer, becoming a pattern of chaos that threatens to insulate us and dull us to the presence of God.

Each of the scripture texts for this day invites us to ponder the practices that we have given ourselves to, and the practices to which God calls us, both individually and in community. The prophet, the psalmist, the apostle, and Jesus himself all urge us, in these readings, to pay attention to the rhythms of our lives so that we may discern which rhythms draw us closer to God and which ones pull us away.

Where do these sacred texts find you as we cross into the season of Lent? What is the state of your heart? What has taken up residence there over the past weeks, months, years? Are there habits and ways of being that you are so invested in, so attached to, that it has become difficult to discern new directions in which God might be inviting you to move? Who can help you ponder the patterns present in your life—the good, the bad, the ugly—and help you see where new life is stirring, and where a new path might be opening? What are the most basic, elemental, crucial things in your life, and how might God be challenging you to give your attention to them in this season?

The gospel for Ash Wednesday tells us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. On this day, and throughout the coming days, may we see clearly where our treasure lies, and have hearts clear and open enough to recognize the surprising forms that such treasure can take. On this day of ashes, blessings to you.

[For last year’s reflection on Ash Wednesday, visit Ash Wednesday, Almost.]

[To use the “Ash Wednesday” image, please visit this page at Your use of the Jan Richardson Images site helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

9 Responses to “The Artful Ashes”

  1. Roberta Says:

    Jan, Jan, Jan… you have any idea how much God has gifted you? and how you honor that gift by sharing it with the rest of us?

    thank you… the wake of my father’s death this month I feel drawn to consider what the essentials truly are in my life during this upcoming Lenten season.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Roberta, Roberta, Roberta…thank you! How lovely.

      I wish you much peace, clarity, comfort, and whatever else you need in the wake of your father’s death and as you journey through Lent. May the coming days have much sustenance to offer. Thank you again.

  2. Sunrise Sister Says:

    I have been contemplating a “taking on” during the Season of Lent this year. Uncertain of making the commitment to myself and to God, a bit of reticence, maybe not up to the task. My morning prayer with writer, John Baillie, my morning reading from Thomas Merton, the scripture that my mind selected from the readings and the message I found there, AS WELL as your post have all been nothing but encouragement and permission for me to “proceed.” I’ll let you know one day how it all turns out:)

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Many thanks, Sunrise Sister. I’m always intrigued when an idea or theme surfaces in a variety of places in my life—that often seems to be how invitations to a new path, or a deeper one, come my way. Am working to keep my eyes open to notice when it happens! Whatever you feel drawn to take on in this season, I hope the coming days will offer some good stretching and much grace. Would be happy to hear how it turns out!

  3. phyllis Says:

    As always you’ve sparked my imagination and soul with your descriptive writing and minimalist artwork, Jan. So little, yet so much! I’ve been in the OT in my daily readings about sacrifices, altars, tabernacle which brings me to the NT of sacrifices of praise and aromas and fragrances. Now, considering Ash Wednesday and the burning up of old patterns, things hindering me or things I’m holding on to are wonderful and terrible to consider, knowing discernment of change is often difficult. Pray that I can throw off the layers that are heavy and not be lulled to inactivity, or indifference during this season of Lent. Your story of charcoal discovery was quite inspiring and challenging as well. Yea, Peg!

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Oh, Phyllis, such good images you offer, here in your words as well as in your gorgeous artwork. Thank you. Know you’re in my prayers this Ash Wednesday and in the season to come. Blessings as you work with the layers; may the heavy ones be transformed into something beautiful. Hm, a tabernacle, perhaps…

  4. lucy Says:

    “Ash Wednesday beckons us to cross over the threshold into a season that’s all about working through the chaos to discover what is essential.”

    these words named for me exactly what i have been feeling recently. it is a sense of glorious chaos, but it feels increasingly important for me to discover what is essential in the midst. thank you!

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Thanks much, Lucy! Yes—your phrase “glorious chaos” resonated for me. A good phrase for the tumult that I sometimes do need, for that’s often where the creativity comes from. Seems to be part of my ongoing work to be present to the chaos, to not try to impose too much order on it or stifle/suppress the gifts it has, while at the same time finding a path through it. And working to be clear about what chaos is glorious and necessary, and what chaos is depleting, damaging, soul-draining, and needs to be left behind. Thanks so much for stopping by and for your thoughtfulness. Lenten blessings to you!

  5. Susan Says:

    After reading through the gospel texts for Lent, the Worship Committee which I chair came up with the theme “Lent: Through The Chaos” for the season this year. Your reflections on chaos, and those of some of the other respondents, strike a chord as I tiptoe into the theme. Thank you for your words and artwork. Some of your concepts may find their way into liturgies that I will be writing. I look forward to having you as one of my companions on the chaotic path of Lent. Blessings on your own journey.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *