Makoto Fujimura "Art & Faith: A Theology of Making" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share these podcasts and our free, daily meditations with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and the teachings of Henri Nouwen, and we can remind each listener that they’re a beloved child of God.
Now, let me introduce you to my guest today. Today, I have the privilege of speaking with internationally renowned artist, writer, and cultural leader, Makoto Fujimura. Makoto Fujimura’s art exhibits in New York City and in Asia have been featured in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and other leading publications. Makoto is the founder of the International Arts Movement and of the Fujimura Institute, and he’s co-founder of the Kintsugi Academy.
Makoto Fujimura, welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then.
Makoto Fujimura: It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Karen Pascal: I’m delighted. I’ve so enjoyed your books, Silence and Beauty, Culture and Care, and Art and Faith. They are packed with wisdom and insights about the arts and the role of the artist in our world, and they are deeply inspiring, and they’re a call to Christians.
But I confess, and I’m telling you this right away: I felt a little bit like, and I don’t know whether you remember, an old film called Educating Rita. Somehow, I felt you are taking me to a deep place and educating me freshly on the arts, and I have really loved that. Makoto, why does the church need artists?
Makoto Fujimura: Well, the church needs artists because we worship a God who is an artist. Who is the artist. I make the case in my Art and Faith book – The Theology of Making is the subtitle – that God is the only true artist, who created out of ex nihilo, and continues to create through us and into this reality that’s vast and open. So, to me, art is not just a profession, you know? It is about making. And we are created to be creative.
Karen Pascal: It’s in us. It’s a gift, isn’t it? It’s a fabulous gift. Now, in your book, Art and Faith, you speak of Lazarus culture. What is Lazarus culture?
Makoto Fujimura: Well, it’s based on John 11. I spend three or four chapters on John 11, two words: “Jesus wept.” And that’s been critical, actually, for the whole book, to think through that lens, a pinhole, going from creation to new creation. And the emphasis being the invitation of this creator God to us, to the feast to come. So, we are partakers. And not only that, God is inviting us to co-create in some way. And Lazarus culture is when you look at John 11 and John 12. The first paragraph in John 12 is Lazarus, after having been resurrected, reclining at the table with Jesus. And meanwhile, the most-wanted hunt is on him, because he’s causing such a havoc among Jewish authorities and, I suppose, the entire world.
What happened with his resurrection, that Jesus had resurrected Lazarus: This news is spreading fast. And he’s the person that authorities want to hunt down and put an end to this story. And yet, Lazarus is reclining at the table.
You know, I always say that if you had just come back from being dead, there’s nothing that can scare you. As long you’re with Jesus, you’re going to be okay. And I argue that we know as Christians today more than what Lazarus knew then, in that this resurrection, which was not permanent in Lazarus’s case, after Jesus’ resurrection is now a permanent reality for us. So therefore, we should be just as chill with Lazarus being able to be confident that Jesus will not only take care of us to the end, but there’s new creation coming. And Jesus’ own resurrection has proved that there is something much, much more that we can anticipate in new creation than we had realized.
Karen Pascal: You have a rich, passionate love for Jesus. Where did that start? Was that what you were born into? What came along in your life to make this real? I’m curious.
Makoto Fujimura: I did not grow up in a Christian family. My father is a renowned scientist. My mother is an educator. But I found out later that [on] my mother’s side, there were generations of Christians in Japan, which is, I suppose, a little unusual. But I didn’t know about any of that. When I was in my twenties. I went on this search as an artist to see if there was anything that would allow me to see the world differently. Now, the reality is I had already experienced what the Spirit was doing through my creativity and my art. I felt this charge, this charge that came through me when I was painting. As young as, I remember being three or four and experiencing that. And I just assumed that everybody experiences this, you know, when you paint or when you make, something comes through you.
And that was really for me to realize that this gift of art was not mine. It came through me. I was a vehicle. But then, I discovered, perhaps in middle school, that not everybody has this experience, and people make fun of you if you talk about it. So, that was really a realization that I was made a little different, and experienced God personally, even not knowing who was the person giving me or who was the force behind this. And I discovered in Jesus’ voice exactly what I was experiencing in my studio, in my twenties. And there was no looking back then, because now I had a name to what I was experiencing already, viscerally.
Karen Pascal: Well, you have provided incredible leadership in the church, envisioning how and why the arts are so needed, and where they fit. And I really value that. I appreciate that so much.
I looked, too, to find where does your world overlap a little bit with Henri Nouwen. And certainly, there’s so many places that I can see. The theme of mercy is a common theme between the two of you, and addressing, too, the issues of trauma. There’s just so many things.
Can I ask you: Have you found Henri someone who helped or gave words for you and inspired you?
Makoto Fujimura: Yeah. After 9-11. . . I’m a survivor of 9-11; I was trapped underneath the towers when the first tower fell, in the subway. And my church did a study of Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son book, with Rembrandt on the cover. And that was very formative. I had read that book before, but to do so after this trauma, dealing with the crisis at hand and literally living facing Ground Zero every day, and reading Henri Nouwen. It was very much. . . what I experienced spiritually during that time is attached to his voice. So, I’m grateful for many, many of the books. That refers to The Wounded Healer, and so much of what he had put forth in the world in terms of generosity and mercy. And because of my wife’s ministry, called Embers International – we rescue multi-generational families from the scourge of human trafficking in India – and I often thought about Henri Nouwen’s approach to mercy, as you noted. And we have discussed that at length, as well. So, in many angles, we’re influenced by his writings.
Karen Pascal: It was interesting to me, and I certainly found that throughout your books, I know that you and Henri would’ve been friends. There’s no doubt about it to me.
Makoto Fujimura: I would’ve loved that.
Karen Pascal: How he was fed by art, how he entered into it and how important it was in his life. It’s interesting that The Return of the Prodigal Son was actually written at one of his lowest points, at a point of real crisis in his life. And in a sense, he just dwelt with that work of art, really sat there and let it feed him and let it speak to him.
Similarly, I finding in reading your work and loving it, has been the impact of Vincent Van Gogh. And there again, Henri so fed from Vincent. Apparently, [Henri] at one point was hoping to do a play, and then it was going to be a film, because he just so valued what he was hearing from Vincent Van Gogh, what he was receiving. He was a kindred spirit. And I sense, you know, that’s why I say I could just picture the two of you having a feast together.
We will someday, right?
That’s absolutely right. That’s absolutely right.
In Art and Faith, you speak of Christ’s tears in the cultural river. Tell us a little bit about what that’s about.
Makoto Fujimura: Right. In John 11:35, two words, “Jesus wept,” has been such a central place for me, especially having gone through 9-11. And my art tends to be energy towards victims of so many tragedies of our time, including the Columbine mass shooting that happened in 1999, to 3-11, the 2011 tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan, to, of course, pandemic time, more recently. And so, I am trying to really reflect on those realities that we go through, and yet trying to point to the feast that is to come, that God is inviting us to, even through those dark times.
And art has been a path to literally depict “Jesus wept.” At least internally for me, I am pretending or assuming that Jesus’ tears are still with us, physically. Jesus wept on this side of eternity. So, I imagine his tears being multiplied like fishes and the loaves, into the air in Palestine where so many tears have been shed since then, including now. And we can remember that Jesus’ tears are still with us, in our tears. And so, I paint with Jesus’ tears. I always say, because of that, my work is water-based.
So, it’s a traditional Japanese way of painting, which is to mix pulverized minerals with animal-hide glue, and then mix it with water. And you do over a hundred, to sometimes up to 200 layers, before you begin to paint, so it’s kind of this slow process. It is part of the slow art movement, I guess. And I have been really mindful. Every stroke is prayer. Every time I put down a sheet of gold or silver or whatever the materials I’m using, I’m reminded of Jesus’ tears.
Karen Pascal: We are living through such a time of division, of wars, of tragedies just in our faces right now. Do you think art has a capacity to transcend the political?
Makoto Fujimura: Absolutely. In fact, you look at the history of civilization, and if you removed all the works, let’s say directly affected by wars, really frontlines of wars, you would lose 80% of art and literature. You would not have Hemingway, you would not have J.D. Salinger, you would not have J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. These people were directly impacted by frontline experiences. T.S. Elliot. And then you look back into time. Fra Angelico painted during the Black Plague. Michelangelo. Shakespeare came out, you know, when a theater couldn’t be built inside of London then because of the Black Plague.
So, these artists responded by creating beauty and creating transcendent, enduring ways to talk about their time. And so, for me, it’s our responsibility today as artists to be able to capture something beyond the vista of trauma, and to look straight into the heart of darkness, I suppose, and see that this is not the end, but only perhaps a beginning of something new.
Now, easier said than done. You know, we all struggle every day to simply survive, and to have hope. That’s why artists are needed today, because of what violence can destroy or take away. In the days when we are grieving what’s happening in Israel and Gaza, this darkness that began with a music festival – you know, it’s not by accident that the terror strikes at the heart of creativity and imagination and young people celebrating life.
And today, we can look at the future with this renewed sense, this desperate sense that we need music to come back. We need the arts. We need to be able to celebrate, and it’s going to have to be earned through patiently navigating every day, you know? And it’s a stewardship of imagination. As I write in one of my books, “we swim in the ecosystem of imagined actions.” So, if we let fear and anxiety take over us, and if we create only through our darkness, let’s say, or vengeance, worse yet, we cannot create the future.
Artists are the ones that, despite what they see, they are somehow able to rise above the darkness and create into the future. And therefore, they’re helping us to train our imagination to create the future together.
And so, we need those stories that are enduring, that go through the darkness [to] begin, as Dante says, “the way up is down.” We have to go through darkness to earn the right to perhaps imagine the future. But at the same time, we need artists and poets and musicians and creators to help us lead into that process of not just recovery, but envisioning a world that ought to be, that arises out of our darkness.
Karen Pascal: What would you want to say to the church, to the schools of theology, to the seminaries? What would you want to say to them? Because I agree with you completely. But speak a prophetic word to them, because if we lose the artists, we lose that possibility of divine in a very special way.
Makoto Fujimura: I had the privilege of spending 30 minutes with Pope Francis, with my wife and two sisters, who brought us there last November. And he kept on saying this. He said, “You are the creators of good and the beautiful.” And he came up to me as we were leaving and said, “I know that the world of darkness pushes back against you as you create beauty. But don’t stop; keep going.”
And I have told those exact words to many, many artists since then. They may be religious; they may not be. But all of them have tears in their eyes when they hear that. We need to hear that today. And we need artists, and we need to tell them what Pope Francis told me, that your creating goodness and beauty really matters. Mercy and beauty can reshape the lives of not just us, but generations to come.
And so, that’s why the church needs to lead in stewarding of imagination, rather than being afraid of perhaps artists creating transgressive works. Well, they’re only doing that because there’s no guidance to steward their imagination, to move beyond the transgressive. And many times, beauty is kind of transgressive, because we don’t see it in the world around us – and especially when you’re traumatized, right? So, in our brokenness, we can only see brokenness, and we might repeat the cycle of violence. But artists are the ones that perhaps courageously step into that and say, “No, no, there’s something beautiful in this brokenness, and we can create something new out of it.”
Karen Pascal: I’d love you to share a little bit about kintsugi. Is that how you say it? Can you share about that? Because I know you started an institute, and I know you’re teaching it. Tell us what that’s all about.
Makoto Fujimura: Yeah. Kintsugi is just one of many Japanese ways that we found very helpful, and especially in traumatized times. And we brought a Korean bowl that was broken and mended in Japan in the 17th, 18th century, by a kintsugi master, who was a urushi master, a Japan lacquer master, who will oftentimes hold onto the fragments for sometimes several generations. But he or she will behold the fragments for a long time. And the reason you do that is to honor the brokenness; you don’t fix it right away. You behold the brokenness, look at the fragments. And it is said that when you look at the fragments of what is broken, and you see that one fragment is as whole, as beautiful in itself, then the work can begin. Because the work is not just to restore it to the original state, but using Japan lacquer and gold, you highlight and create a new kind of design out of the fragmentation. You amplify the fragmentation to the degree that the kintsugi bowl is more valuable than even the original, because of the gold and time invested in recreating it, and creating something more valuable, new, out of the fragments.
And so, I have used this metaphor even theologically, because of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance. He is not only a glorified human being, he’s a wounded, glorified human being. His wounds and scars are still with him, and it is through his wounds we are healed. And therefore, our wounds and our brokenness – without glorifying what happened to us or the brokenness we experience in life – somehow is part of this, you know? In God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. So, we are able to carry this work as part of new creation. And that changes everything. If this is understood and embraced in the church today, as Henri Nouwen would understand, that the brokenness is an entry for us to celebrate community together, because we are broken together.
And the master kintsugi designer is looking at the pieces, right? And seeing what we cannot see, which is each one of us brings a unique piece, a fragment, that God looks at and says, “This is beautiful. This is complete. Now let’s see what happens when I put this piece with this piece.”
And this mosaic that is built is Christ’s broken body, right? Not just restored, but made new into new creation. And that’s what the church ought to look like to the world, this enigmatic, beautiful mosaic of fragmentation and gold, right? And so, that vision to me is another way to train our imagination, to not get stuck in the brokenness, or try to move away from it, as if nothing ever happened. That’s what typically happens is in the western world, you know? We forget that brokenness can be a beginning of something. We say, “Well, we’re just going to fix it,” or we buy something new to replace it, right? But the Japanese have understood that there’s some sacred dimension to broken realities, and through those fissures of life, we can discover something new.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because the power of a testimony is in that brokenness, isn’t it? The people that really move our hearts are telling stories about, “Somehow, God showed up in my need. God made himself real to me.” And I find that that’s what we have to remember, that we have that story to tell.
It’s interesting now, the times that we’re living in, even sort of post-COVID, the reality of so many saying, “Well, I’m not religious; I’m spiritual,” and the kind of “nons” – clicking that. And I think it’s a moment where we have to come with freshness. And I find the vulnerability that Henri has in his writing is some of that freshness. I find the great honesty, but also the openness that you bring to what the arts need to speak. We need them for the health of what’s going on, for us to communicate.
Makoto Fujimura: The spirit has never stopped communicating. It’s just, where do we look for that abundance and fruitfulness? And the church has been a source of beauty, and yet, not in recent times, right? We’ve struggled to be the exemplar of creativity and imagination of our time, and we are afraid of creativity and technology. That’s the image that the younger generation sees.
So, there’s no interest in going back to a time when there was no iPhone or ChatGPT, and they see a work by Vincent Van Gogh or Rembrandt, and they say, “This is absolutely amazing. This man, who had nothing, painted with what he had, basically, but dedicated his life to creating beauty in his trauma, in his darkness.”
And the Spirit still speaks, right? The Spirit continues to speak through Starry Night, and so many other parables that Vincent painted. And so, it’s all there. We may find people going to museums and theater and music rather than to churches and synagogues, but that doesn’t mean that the Spirit has stopped speaking. And nature certainly is crying out to us, right?
So, we need to pay attention to those voices. And perhaps artists can tell us where we need to go as a church, to understand how the language of the 21st century can become this new voice into culture, a prophetic voice, a voice that can give us renewed imagination and hope. And I really believe that the artists have the potential.
Again, we have to do our work to help artists understand their responsibility and stewardship. But the church is God’s artwork, his masterpiece. We are broken and yet made perfect in Christ, and that is a remarkable reality that I think, in the days to come, we have the opportunity to showcase.
Karen Pascal: I love how in your books you talk about artists as “border-stalkers.” There’s a word for it that I don’t think I can pronounce for that. I thought that was so good. I thought you kind of give them permission to not be in the center, but to be bringing to us fresh lands, fresh visions. Tell us just a little bit about that.
Makoto Fujimura: Well, I compare artists to honeybees. You know, honeybees are critical for nature. Without honeybees, we can’t really exist, really. But honeybees are border-stalkers. The worker bees go out . . . they’re built for this, right? And what do they look for? They look for beauty, and by doing so, when they find beauty, they pollinate the very beautiful right into fruitfulness. And then, they bring back honey, you know? And yet the world sees honeybees as dangerous, because they sting. Now, honeybees don’t want to sting, because they will die if they sting. It’s just their only source of protection. But, you know, we’re learning how important honeybees are to the ecosystem. And I say the same thing about artists being absolutely necessary for the ecosystem to thrive, the ecosystem culture to thrive.
And we need to let churches. . . If church is to become one of the great sources of beauty, they need to have worker bees – artist types – go out to find beauty, and then, because they’ll return, you know? But we often cage them inside, afraid that once teenage sheep, teenage bees go out, they will face danger. Well, it is dangerous. It is true. But the whole ecosystem is built around this way that we have border-stalkers within our communities, and they’re meant to be sent out. And because unless they do, they cannot bring back honey. They cannot bring back this information or nourishment in our ecosystem that is out there. And it’s only when you come back that you can communicate to each other, right?
So, the tribal reality, the center at the heart of the church, is also critical. So, both are needed. But this reality that artists often, like myself, feel, is that if we are simply inside the tribal zones, we cannot create into the world. And oftentimes, I always advise artists to not be alone out there, because it is dangerous. Go in twos, threes, go in groups, if you need to go, and develop this keen ear for the good shepherd, right? Because we can get lost, and we need to know where to go back. And that’s also part of what I have tried to do with younger artists, is to help them discern culture. If you are looking for beauty, creating beauty, then they have a responsibility to bring that beauty back to the tribe and explain it, because it’s like a foreign language that’s hard to explain where these beautiful flowers are and what they look like, because nobody has seen them, right? So, we have to be able to have this ability to translate and communicate that as well.
Karen Pascal: You wrote a book called Culture Care. And I think that’s a very vital book. What part do we play in that? We as believers, not just the artists, but culture care: Why is that important?
Makoto Fujimura: Right. So, we have been mired in culture wars, and the culture war metaphor is to see culture as a battleground, right? To defend what we must defend. And that’s understandable, because we all see each other by culture now. But what if we change the metaphor to seeing culture as an ecosystem to take care of, or a garden to steward and grow fruitful, beautiful tomatoes. And if the goal is fruitfulness, then winning and losing is not the main issue. The goal is fruitfulness. So, whoever is growing the best tomatoes, we should learn from, right? It doesn’t matter what they believe in terms of political ideology. If they’re growing good tomatoes, we want to know how that’s done, right? And so, taste and see that God is good. Well, if somebody is fruitful, then we need to learn from that person. That person may be an atheist, and we may not have alignment, but by learning from them about the good gifts that God has given them, and that we can appreciate as Christians, we can tell somebody who may not know, who is not cognizant of God’s grace and God’s presence in that fruitfulness, that we are so grateful for you because you have given us abundance and feast, a reminder that God is abundant in this violent time. And I think future generations, we have to think about the soil, a toxic soil that we are creating through fighting culture wars. And no one wins culture wars, by the way. Every time you win, you lose. By demonizing the other side, we are shrinking our own territories, so we end up defending smaller and smaller turf. Meanwhile, the poison we have sewn into the ground is seeping into our own ground. You can’t stop that. So, everything is decimated, by trying to save our own turf. So, it’s not effective. It’s not the way to create the future. So, the way to win culture war is to care, is to love your enemies, is to do good to those who persecute you. And these are the words of Jesus, right? The Great Gardener, post-resurrection Gardener. We need to return to understanding that the soil culture needs to be tended, to be amended, so for the next generation, when they sow seeds that it will grow into abundance.
Karen Pascal: What comes to mind to me right now is that, more than ever, we need to speak up with voices that believe what Jesus said. Like to love your enemies. We have to believe it. We have to believe it and live it, and practice it as our own. If we can’t bring love out into the world, who will? It’s so needed. It’s needed more than ever.
Another little bit that you wrote about the arts is there’s two kinds of economies: gift economy and more of a monetary economy.
Makoto Fujimura: Transactional economy.
Karen Pascal: Maybe just take that part a little bit. How would you describe that?
Makoto Fujimura: So, we live in transactional reality – universe, really. And we assume that’s the only way that we can survive. We survive by taking away things or creating things that people want, and that in turn gives us power. But that’s not the only way that the world works, fortunately. A poet was writing in a little desk, in Amherst, without having any transactional benefit, right? Emily Dickinson never really made a living out of her poems. She was a gardener, and she created, she baked things to give away to people with her poems. And we wonder what happened to those poems. But today, Emily Dickinson is the greatest American poet, has sold more books than any other poet, alive or dead.
So, what happened there? So, there’s a unique way that gift economy pours into the transactional economy. Same thing with Vincent Van Gogh, right? Nobody wanted his paintings when he was alive, but now, because of the luminosity of this generative power of his imagination, we are literally benefiting. And now it’s rather transactional to go see Vincent Van Gogh at the MoMA, or these immersive experiences. But we forget that it’s actually flipped; it’s not the gift economy becoming reality in the transactional reality. It’s the other way. It’s gift economy giving transactional economy a chance to stay true to the ideals of capitalism, of free economy. And so, we don’t understand the power of beauty.
We, and the church, need to understand, because the gospel is about giving away love, right? The gospel is based on gift economy. We do not seek to have this transactional give-and-take. And Henri Nouwen wrote about this beautifully, when he wrote about generosity, right? It’s the most powerful thing, because people are not expecting us to give away things or to love people. And by giving away, actually, we are the ones creating this reverse paradigm in which the transactional reality has powered us to do, gift economy is able to bring something more valuable and more enduring into communities and into our lives. And so, artists are the harbingers of the gift economy, of bringing beauty, which doesn’t seem like it’s going to make any money, right, initially, but it turns out to be the most important.
Karen Pascal: Well, I am so grateful you take time to chat with me. I really want our audience to know you and to know your wonderful writing. You’ve written Culture Care, you’ve written Art and Faith, and you’ve written Silence and Beauty. Wonderful books. But more important, I want them to see your artwork. So, we will put all sorts of links that will help people find, and let their hearts be nurtured. You’re a voice of encouragement, a voice to the border-stalkers of the world. And a voice that calls the church forward to say, “We need the arts, we need the artists. We need to encourage them.” We need to see the Van Goghs and the Makotos and all of them, and just say, “God, thank you for this. Thank you for this vision.”
I have one little side question. You lost a lot of paintings during that dreadful flood.
Makoto Fujimura: Yes, Sandy.
Karen Pascal: What was that like? I mean, that must have been . . .You know, I hear of artists that go through floods, but that’s a whole body of work. How did that impact you?
Makoto Fujimura: Well, you know, what was miraculous is that my whole set of paintings that I did for the Holy Gospels project, a book that I gave to Pope Francis – I just finished that series, and we were just about to exhibit it when the flood happened. And they were miraculously saved. They were right by the window where the burst of water came through, but because they were right by it, they were not affected. It was a miracle. I lost over 50 works, and of course, it’s sad to say goodbye to those. But more than that, I identified with people who have lost valuable things in fires, or these moments in life [where] life doesn’t make sense.
And I also felt, as an artist, this is a way that despite . . . you gain something by losing, right? You begin to think about things differently. And I have done a series, called Walking on Water, which came out after that 3-11 disaster in Japan. It compounded that. But, it’s really about how do we walk on water when the world is underwater? And that kind of meditation, I am grateful that I can create again, into the future. And of course, those works I will never get back. But that has begun something new, as well.
Karen Pascal: What a great question: How do we walk on water? I do believe you’re doing that, my friend. I really do. In the midst of a world that feels like it’s going under, I’m grateful for the witness that you are. Thank you for this.
Makoto Fujimura: Thank you so much. Bye.
Karen Pascal: I want to thank all of you for listening to our conversation today. You will find links in the show notes of this podcast to Makoto Fujimura’s books, and various things we refer to in our conversation. If you’d like to watch this interview, you can see it on our YouTube channel.
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