A City Within a City revisited

Today began like most any other Sunday morning, minus the extra hour of sleep. We pulled into the parking lot with fifteen minutes to spare before service time, got the kids checked in and walked them to their spaces, entered the worship area and received the day’s bulletin, then finally sat down in a couple of seats to unpack my pencils and prepare for the service. As I read over the announcements and verses we’d focus on, I noticed the title for today’s sermon, “A City Within a City.” That’s when it hit me like a runaway train, the reason I draw every service, my purpose in sharing those drawings with you. Two years ago we worked our way through a series we called ‘Planted’. That series was about our calling as a church and as individuals to flourish where we are placed rather than waiting to grow until we’re at te place we want to be. One of those messages was A City Within a City. The details of that first installment of A City Within a City came rushing back to the forefront of my mind after reading the same title this morning. This ability to instantly recall the message from two years previous was the result of that first drawing fulfilling its purpose, art reviving memories retrieving words reliving a message. This is revival. This is why I draw.
A City Within a City revisited

Nehemiah 1:1-11

The details of Nehemiah are not totally unfamiliar to me, so much of today’s springboard passage was nothing new. What did strike me as a profound detail I’d never considered is the timeline. The book of Nehemiah is a personal journal of one man’s mission to rebuild a city and re-establish a kingdom. We are basically reading Nehemiah’s diary. His first entry recounts a moment where he learned of Jerusalem’s demise. Hearing this conjured up such extreme sadness, Nehemiah was literally overcome with mourning for days. That sounds reasonable enough on paper, the destruction of a city is an emotional event that would logically require multiple days to complete the mourning process. The catch is, Jerusalem met its fate hundreds of years before Nehemiah started his ancient blog. Dean really put  this in perspective for us by giving an applicable analogy. Nehemiah’s relationship to Jerusalem’s previous destruction on a timeline is about a relative as we are to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. That’s right folks. President Lincoln has been shot and his prognosis is grim. Please, stop crying now so you can finish reading. I’m sure no one reading this shed a tear, but that is exactly what Nehemiah did, and then some.

Why? What was so devastating to this guy about the ancient state of ruin for this city that it brought a grown man to mourning for days a hundred years later? His love for the community. Nehemiah was not broken over damaged architecture, charred landmarks or disrespected memorials. He was broken for the shattered community.

The question that faced us all this morning was not your typical altar call; ‘Have you been saved?’, ‘Do you need to talk with God?’ Today’s question is two-fold. Do you care enough about your community to mourn over its broken state and your contributions to its brokenness? What are you going to do about it?

Two years ago, A City Within a City encouraged us not only to grow, but to flourish where we are planted. My drawing from that day depicted a city-scape. The jagged horizon of city buildings and smokestacks was contrasted by the rolling lines of trash in the foreground; you realize you are standing in a dump on the outskirts of town. Among the serrated skyline and rolling curves of over-full trash bags and mangled metal, out from a small clearing of dirt, a single flower stretches skyward. Flourish where you’re planted, building a city within a city.

Today we took that call to grow a step further. Grow inside your realm to foster deeper, meaningful community. Through that, nourish your community and those within it. Today’s drawing began as a re-creation of the landscape from 2011 then evolved to contain a new focus. DSCN2863

I kept many details from the original composition; the city skyline, the trash impeding on the foreground, and (of course) the lone flower seeming out of place but blooming anyway.

Now standing central to the page is a stoic figure, overlooking the city and all its inhabitants. Strapped around his waist is a work belt, loaded with a hammer and building supplies. This person is ready to work hard and get dirty in the process. This figure is the church (ekklesia). The church is the city within the city. The city is only as effective as its members.


I embedded a reference to another piece from earlier this year in the lighthouse on the other side of the bay. Along with establishing itself as a city within a city, we are set in place as a city on a hill. A lighthouse is an immediately recognized landmark for a city. Its importance is as evident as its individuality. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.

The question remains. Do you care enough about your community to mourn over its brokenness? What will you do about it?

The church has been content on the sidelines for too long.

It’s game time.

A City on a Hill

A City on a Hill


Newly finished because planting season is here, check out the painting inspired by our series ‘A City on a Hill’ from earlier this spring!

Matthew 5:14-16

I’m pretty sure this is the riskiest painting I’ve ever completed. For starters, I stretched this canvas myself, the first time I’ve built my canvas since high school! Since I’ve been working with upholstered furniture for the last ten years, the art of stretching fabric is very familiar. Next came the risk of different materials and methods. I chose to paint directly on the raw canvas, no Gesso or under-painting.

A common thread in my work is deep symbolism, ‘A City on a Hill’ is no different. Each detail in the painting is meticulously chosen to represent something specific.

North Ridge Church


The first image  created in this piece was the ‘hill’. At first, I was hesitant to use a mountain landscape in a painting I’d call ‘A City on a Hill’ because the reference seemed cliché’ and too easy. In the end, I stuck with the mountains to directly reference the family of believers with whom I worship and serve together; North Ridge Church.


With the ‘hill’ resolved, my next step was to tackle the ‘city’.

A couple of summers ago, I drew during a series we called ‘Planted’ at North Ridge. One particular message focused on how God places us in a specific place with a specific purpose, to build a city within a city. With that in mind, I could have allowed the mountain range to be both the hill and the city, but that interpretation would have been lost to people unfamiliar with that series.

Instead, I chose to incorporate another re-occurring theme in my work, the use of foreign language that literally translates into the word or idea I aim to convey. This time I stretched my use of  linguistics to include Japanese, selecting the symbol that communicates ‘light’. Referencing ‘light’ instead of ‘city’ captures both analogies in the words of Matthew, the city on a hill and the lamp on a pedestal.

These first details; the hill, the city, and the light are all God-designed and God-established entities so I wanted to create them in a way that acknowledged His hand. At the time I was developing this composition I was also starting a vegetable garden from seed; and that’s when the inspiration hit, dirt. Dirt; the original earthen material, one of God’s first creations. Dirt naturally connects our minds with God’s hand in creation so it became the ideal material to use as paint in ‘A City on a Hill’. This was my first attempt at using dirt as paint, so I was nervous from the start. I mixed a saturated paste from leftover potting soil in a plastic dish and used a bamboo brush to apply a thick layer on the canvas. After a couple days drying time, the majority of the dirt held, so I excitedly moved forward with the piece!

I dry-brushed the blue mountain and foggy-looking landscape, then complimented the blue with a red-orange, sunset sky before inspiration struck once again. At this point, I had one step left in the piece as I had it conceived. After seeing the dirt and color as it stood, I felt it was lacking. Bring on risk number three, a white Gesso wash. I often use an ink wash with India ink on mounting board in my work. My hypothesis was that mixing Gesso in the same method would bring similar results on raw canvas. The risk paid off. Using the wash, I dabbed heavy brushes full on the top edge of the canvas frame, allowing the fluid white to stream down the face of the piece and create organic white lines. A “happy accident” (to quote Bob Ross) was that, since the blue mountain had not dried, the white drips pulled some of the blue color into itself. Some drips mixed into a lighter blue, others pulled blue down with it while keeping some of the white hue separate. The result (which I am very happy with) took me to the scripture that inspired my name, James 1:17-18.

Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Heavenly lights who does not change like shifting shadows.

The Gesso wash created a white rim (the heavens) along the top and runs down to infiltrate the dirt and acrylic paint on the canvas, solidifying the dirt and enhancing the flat blue so that it becomes a very interesting focal point int he piece.

One last detail to add, this one the riskiest of all but the one that makes this piece work. Using a serrated steak knife, I stabbed a hole in the top right of the  canvas and sawed at the threads until I exposed a jagged hole. Cutting this hole did not loosen the canvas as much as I expected. The areas I thought I’d have to go back and tighten up remained flat and rigid. The piece was now complete.

As you take in the piece, your eye is drawn to the grossly damaged corner. I image this detail will capture eyes from across the room and make people ask themselves “What is going on there?” or “Did someone vandalize that painting?”. Whatever the question, it is one they can’t escape. Therein lies the point. The frayed cut will capture your eye and refuse to let it free. You must force yourself to look at the rest of the composition instead of its wound.

A city on a hill………..cannot be hidden.