War on meaning, purpose defied as artist, 16, creates, defends beauty

Joanna Rush smiles in 2011 after winning the duck stamp contest under the direction of Karen Barton, operator of Agape Art Academy in Chattanooga.

In a world of meaninglessness, it’s hard to take an interest in art. In fact, art by its nature contradicts the perspective that is coming to dominate popular culture. If we believe a young Chattanooga artist and her teacher, art mirrors the process of redemption and salvation, bringing order and beauty upon a blank canvas.

That popular outlook among academia and the intelligentsia is post-modernism, which denies the existence of any absolute truth, any transcendent standard, and which insists on competing narratives, including “meta-narratives” cemented into place by power. As I chatted with Mrs. Barton, I raise the specter of the school or theater massacre, and the motivation of despair driving such post-modernists to the brink.

“We need to go back to our father, the creator, and in His creation, of which we are a part,” says Karen Barton of Agape Art Academy in Chattanooga, an art school premised on a biblical perspective. “He gives us the gift of creativity. I was thinking this morning about *** despair and hopelessness, and how art counteracts that.”

She said that hunters and fishermen become experts in their craft, their “art” — the same with chefs and landscapers. Each in his way exercises the genius of his profession, in the spirit of an artist.

“I am hoping to instill that creative process” in her Agape classes, several of which meet in area Hobby Lobby stores.

Art declares that purpose exists

It’s important to hear Mrs. Barton, “a teacher of creative people,” discuss the intersection of Christianity and post-modern despair.

She says drawing and painting can be used for good or evil. She insists her students create “good, wholesome and godly things. And all we have to do is look out there at His creation, to see the beautiful landscapes, to see the beauty in a person’s face. And as I teach the children to see God’s creation more clearly, I can train their hands to recreate that creation.”

Art, in other words, among children and adults in eight-week classes, mimics the act of God a creator.

A good way to invest in self and family

Mrs. Barton urges dads and men in the Chattanooga area to invest in art and the creation of beauty. “If you want to invest in something that you can’t lose — you can lose a gold coin, you can lose on the stock market. But if you give your child, or your wife, some art lessons — what an investment into their purpose, into their integrity, into their fulfillment.”

Standing beside Mrs. Barton is Joanna Rush, a student at Agape for eight years.

Joanna says parents are supportive and giving; their care for her artistic passion have allowed her to testify of God’s grace in unusual ways. “It’s something that I’ve been able to witness to people just from creativity, and showing people that, wow, look at this creation like this dog I painted: our God is such a great creator and all these little hairs, all these individual hairs He has created on this dog — He cares about everyone and has numbered every single one.”

Joanna chats about a painting of a rooster, one from her brush. “I find contentment in God, first of all, and then it makes me have a sense of accomplishment to know that I can recreate His creation and hopefully bring happiness to other people and they can look at it and say, ‘You know, I never really noticed how colorful this picture is. It really brings out the rooster’s feathers. It really shows how creative God can be.’”

The artist declares

Every year Joanna, 16, a homeschooled student, takes part in the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service duck stamp contest. Accuracy is important. A wrong detail changes the kind of duck. “They are all individually different, but we can relate them back to the same creator,” she says.

Accuracy must be followed by presentation. She says that light can change the nature of a painting. A light can change the mood for the viewer.

I ask Joanna what is it in art, in the work of the artist, that might help someone who has no purpose in life, who sees no point in it — how would the arts give that person a scent or a glimpse of the very concept of purpose?

“Well, whenever you are creating something, you are putting effort into conveying some type of emotion — you are trying to make a point about something .Whenever you are done with your artwork, someone else who looks at it will probably see that point, and then you’ll realize that, ‘Hey I made this person realize this certain concept. Wow! Maybe, I can do this for more than just this one person.’” An artist is on a mission to get his vision out into the world. Art is about ideas, not just pictures.

I mention Rembrandt’s painting “Side of Beef Hanging in a Butcher Shop,” suggesting that a look at the Dutchman’s painting gives the viewer a new way of viewing the very thing of the butcher shop, the essence, the truth about such place. Joanna says a picture of a duck bears a certain finality; it is true; it is accurate. She has to pay attention to surroundings, wings, coloration, breed. “Before I realized it, I had learned so much about the subject I am painting.” Painting lets her explore, but lets her declare.

Confronting the question, ‘Who cares?’

The artist is saying, You must care about this duck, or this side of beef in the butcher shop. The artist is saying you must care. Why does the artist compel us to think about a vista or a scene and make it matter? What about the modern question, “Who cares?”

Agape art academy is about creating beautiful things, Mrs. Barton says. “Oh, yeah! I never notice all those different feathers or colors. We keep talking about the duck. But it’s true.” She mentions the Hudson River school of art. What does she say to the man, who demands, “Who cares?”

“The man that says, ‘Who cares?’” she says, considering. “I am concerned for you. I’ve been there myself. I’ve been through those times myself. But you can’t stay there. If you’re saying who cares, you’ve got to get alone with yourself, pray to your creator, and say, ‘What did you put into me? What type of art?’ As I said, maybe it’s being a fisherman, maybe it’s being a chef, maybe it’s being a landscaper. But it’s not being a couch potato that says, ‘Who cares?’ God wants to revive that spirit deep within you so that you do have purpose in something, and you’ve got to ask what it is.”

Art is an inescapable reminder of the concept of purpose. I suggest this proposition is true even for the modern artist who slaps his art on the canvas and gets his F$600,000 stipend — the artist who philosophically is an atheist or nihilist and who wants his art to declare the world to be a product of randomness and chaos. Not even he escapes the template God has built into the world.

Indeed, some artists are revolutionary who want to overturn God’s order. But not even they can entirely escape God’s purpose for art, which shares the claim of purposefulness upon the universe. I know I am stretching my case to the breaking point to make this argument, but it brings the entire effort of artistic creation under God’s sovereignty, even if practiced by people who hate Him.

For even the revolutionary, the atheist and agnostic who is at war with God, is using God’s materials in his productions. Borrowing from the world God made, the revolutionary is using visual means of communications God devised to make his point, trusting people will catch his meaning.

This painting is the winner of the duck stamp contest in 2011, painted by Joanna Rush, a homeschooled girl who is now 16.


Gene Edward Veith’s book, Postmodern Times[;] A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994, 256 pp) is excellent in dealing with postmodernism. I find its sections on deconstruction fascinating. He is also author of State of the Arts[;] From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe (Crossway, 1991) and my favorite, Modern Fascism[;] Liquidating the Judeo-Christian Worldview (Concordia, 1973, 1984).

Art student Joanna Rush, 16, talks about her work with David Tulis as art teacher Karen Barton listens in.

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