When I received Makoto Fujimura’s Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture, I was wowed by the evident care that had gone into it’s design. It is the loveliest paperback book I’ve ever seen. I expected to find it interesting, perhaps a little challenging, and certainly full of beauty.
But life intervened, first in the form of a traffic collision, then in the form of a layoff from my job. I found myself with more time on my hands than I was accustomed to having, but the last thing I wanted to do was read a collection of meditations by a Japanese-American artist. I read some, found myself foundering, and put it aside. Then, driven by a sense of responsibility to the publisher for sending me a free copy, I tried again. And again. And again.
I found after all my trying that the book was better than I wanted to admit. It isn’t that I don’t like art. It is that I do like logical, well-reasoned argument. I like a straight highway and a car with plenty of horsepower. Instead, I was forced to meander on a country path through unfamiliar landscapes, never knowing quite where I was going or how I was going to get there. It struck me that this was the sort of book my artistic wife would like. I’m not sure she has ever read a book straight through. She reads the beginning, jumps into the middle, skips to the end, backtracks, quits for a week, resumes from a different spot than where she left off, and generally leaves me dumbfounded. If I tried to read like that, my brain would turn to pudding.
(Full disclosure: My wife reminded me that she read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck straight through and enjoyed it immensely. Incontrovertible evidence that she is a better person than I.)
Refractions is a book of meditations. I find that I cannot simply read it; I have to join in the meditation. Some of Fujimura’s insights are penetrating. Much of what he has to say has been shaped by his proximity to the collapse of the Twin Towers. His studio was covered with dust from the Towers. His child was evacuated from school. He sees the gap where the Towers used to form the backdrop for his working life every day, a gap that seems to him more momentous and intense than any of the presences that still fill his life. Living, as I do, in Minnesota, the fall of the Towers was distant, like the wars that have come since. In fact, the war in Afghanistan has been more present to me because my son spent a year and a half there and is slated to return this fall. But the wars are also outgrowths from the gap where the Towers stood. For Fujimura the absence of the Towers signifies all the absences in our lives that make us incomplete or broken. Every return to Ground Zero is a kind of repentance, acknowledging that brokenness and calling for redemption. He believes that art can facilitate the healing required; that is one of its purposes both for the artist who creates something beautiful and meaningful out of the brokenness and for the one who responds to that creation with understanding and empathy.
Fundamentalist Christians may find Fujimura’s Christianity too inclusive. For example, he draws inspiration from Matazo Kayama, who was a Nihonga master. But like those who say, “All truth is God’s truth,” I think Fujimura would say, “All beauty is God’s beauty.” Wherever the creative process is at work, making something beautiful out of broken pieces, God is also at work because God is an artist.