Alexandra Barylski on Makoto Fujimura
Making begins in love. Where there is love, there is abundance. Even in suffering. And Makoto Fujimura understands that there is always suffering. But he sees, too, that beauty and new life are possible despite unspeakable pain and trauma, making Art + Faith a study in “small resurrections.”
Fujimura’s theology of making is a generous and regenerative vision where all things can be made new no matter how broken they’ve become. But believing in this New Creation requires faith, and that is something all artists can teach us. For Fujimura, all artists are people of faith no matter what their personal belief because all artists bear witness to the New. “All art, music, and poetry…invoke the New,” writes Fujimura, and all artists “must have some sense of hope or it would not be possible to create into a future.”
In a moment when so many people, especially young people, are afraid and uncertain for their future and feel only fear, it is refreshing to be reminded that the creating spirit is a life-giving spirit, one that has the power to transform us. This is the ancient Spirit of Poetry—poeisis— conceiving, making, restoring. But Fujimura knows, too, the ways in which culture (especially Christian culture) has often abandoned the Spirit of Poetry for a repair manual.
“Can one be inspired by rows of prepared canned meals?” asks Alice B. Toklas, who published her famous cookbook after her life partner, poet Gertrude Stein, passed away. “Never. One must get nearer to creation to be able to create, even in the kitchen.” There is nothing wrong with canned soup, which I’m happy to eat as a meal or add to one. You can survive on canned soup, but you can’t live on it. Canned soup is not the solution to every experience of hunger. And when we suffer, we are so hungry. Hungry for acceptance, for meaning, for beauty, and for kindness that doesn’t attempt to explain pain but simply acknowledges that it is there.
In the presence of great suffering, we often come up short. We offer canned soup consolations, a quick-fix for the wounded person, who may even be our own self. Fujimura’s theology of making is one of immense sensitivity because it never attempts to dismiss the pain that pierces our daily lives, nor does it attempt to solve it. But it does offer a vision of transforming it. In Fujimura’s theology, the Artist is one who has learned to suffer well, which is to say, the Artist no longer experiences the harrowing of life as bitter darkness because they have transformed it into light and made an offering. That act of changing the bitter to sweet is an act of love, of true poetry, of inspiration. It is an act of piety. “We are all poetic beings,” writes Fujimura. Though it is true so much tempts us to forget we are all poets.
Maybe that’s why I keep returning to Fujimura’s description of Mary of Bethany. I need the reminder of the woman who poured a bottle of perfume worth a year’s wages onto Christ’s feet and washed them with her hair. Piety. Poetry. Love. Extravagance—Mary anointing her savior, silently and lavishly, before he would suffer the cross.
Loss is always with us. We all live through many tragedies, as Fujimura knows well. Yet it is how we choose to live through them that speaks, not only to our own soul, but those around us. “Do not let anger overtake you in despair,” but learn to “lament deeply” for the losses: COVID, school shootings, natural disasters, a global mental health crisis—yes, loss is always with us. But so is the scent of hope.
In the story, love moves Mary to sit silently with a man who holds the weight of the world on his heart and to meet that burden with extravagance. In the story, all the men closest to Jesus were outraged by “the intimacy” of the moment, scandalized that Mary used perfume only meant for a bride to bestow on her bridegroom. Love moves her to create an offering of oil and her own hair. The men chatter among themselves: couldn’t the money have been spent better on something that seemed so much more practical?
Poetry is always a scandal to prose.
What seems like a waste is, in that story, the most needful act of love and devotion, as Fujimura points out. Too often, we try to prescribe answers to those who are in despair. We aim at the practical when there is no such solution. When we encounter a broken life, whether it be another’s or our own, the first response should not be to see that life as a problem to solve but as a sacred mystery to sit with. Our culture is immature in the face of suffering because most of us have never learned to process our own wounds.
The beauty of Fujimura’s Art + Faith is in its gentleness, a reminder that learning to see and to create teaches us how to think and feel properly about our own hurt. And thus the hurt of others. Fujimura recounts stories of two destroyed studios, and he shares two different reactions from two different artists. One artist could never recover from the loss, losing touch with their creativity in bitterness. This is the most natural human response, as Fujimura notes himself. But, another artist claimed the destruction was the best thing for his art, making him “more compassionate, more creative.”
When we suffer, we seek love—not solutions. We want to know if we will feel life inside of us again, or if this darkness is all there is. We want to know that there is abundance, that there is more than we need because in our pain we need so much and already fear we will lose the little we may yet have.
To create is to say that we are doing more than surviving. To create is miraculous because life is a miracle. Small resurrections are the work of artists, the work of poetry: a life-giving offering in words or paint or dance or song so that our sorrow-laden hearts might feel the sweet breeze of human connection and hope again in living.
Alexandra Barylski is a poet and the Executive Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books. You can learn more about her here.