An interview by Cameron Anderson with artist Kari Dunham
CIVA: Kari, you and I are Facebook friends (friends in real life, too) and so I have been watching you post images of paintings on Facebook throughout the Lenten season. Please tell the CIVA community how this project got started?
Kari: I find myself in a time of waiting right now in certain facets of my life, and this project was birthed out of that—being present with waiting, present with solitude. These paintings are marking time, and they are also calling out beauty where you might not expect it—in the extremely ordinary. Additionally, I have long been an admirer of Patty Wickman’s work, and she did a 40 Days piece, so I got inspiration for the idea from her.
CIVA: Intending to produce a small painting each day for 40 days seems like a tall order. What challenges have you faced along the way? I am guessing there have also been some surprises. Is that true? If so, what have they been?
Kari: Yes, I suppose it does seem like a tall order. The challenges have been mostly pragmatic—I teach at three different schools and spend a lot of time driving on the freeways—so often the paintings don’t happen until late at night, but even though I’m tired from the day I make it a priority to paint. Another challenge has been being okay with the amount of painting that I get done in the course of an hour, or two or three. I could continue working on many of the paintings for longer periods of time, but one of the constructs that I set for myself was to finish each painting within the course of that day.
Yes, there have been surprises—like my tendency to oscillate between the more minimalist object on a white ground and the more rendered interior space. But again, that’s also related to the amount of time that I have to paint on a particular day. The day I painted the paperclip, for example, had been a really long day, so I was searching for something small to paint. Ironically, I have had many people comment on how much they like the paperclip.
CIVA: What you are describing is a particular studio practice that you have elected to pursue, at times one that is quite demanding and not a little inconvenient. In what ways is this making of paintings also a spiritual practice for you?
Kari: Another surprise has been how the project has affected other people. I have been using social media consistently (partly as a way to keep myself accountable) on this project, and it has been a real blessing to hear how the paintings are resonating with others. One friend in Portland even texted me a photo of an arrangement of flowers that she had created—she said that my paintings had inspired her to clear off her desk and make a special place for flowers in her family’s home. Also, my friend Alison Stigora who is an amazing artist also ran with the idea, so the fact that we have been doing parallel 40 day projects has been an encouragement and source of inspiration for both of us.
In Kathleen Norris’ book, The Cloister Walk, she talks about the discipline of listening. “The monastic discipline of listening aims to still body and soul so that the words of a reading may sink in. Such silence tends to open a person, and opening oneself to a prophet as anguished as Jeremiah is painful.” I would suggest that the discipline of seeing (and making) also stills the body so that attentiveness to image may sink in. And yes, such silence tends to open a person, and opening oneself (in my case) to solitude, waiting, and even loneliness is painful.
But there is a building of an ebenezer that is happening too—like a pile of rocks built on top of each other, these paintings are being laid one at a time and invite me to remember God’s presence and faithfulness. I live with these paintings. They are hung on my wall, and since I live in a tiny one room guest house, they are quite literally on the forefront of my mind. I have been listening to the Prayer of Saint Patrick a lot lately, and these paintings are that prayer:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
And the orchid has taken on a particularly symbolic meaning. I have painted it four times now, marking its growth. I don’t think I have ever anticipated the blooming of a flower so much. I suppose that is because I see myself as the orchid.
Kari Dunham has been a CIVA member since 2011. She is a painter and adjunct art professor at Biola, Concordia, and Azusa Pacific Universities in Southern California.
Titles for Works
Forty Days, Forty Sacraments, gouache on clay board panel, 5 x 7 inches