Category: 99 Names Project Background


 

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The last knot was tied on Watchful (Ar-Raqib).  A lot of string was used on the last couple pieces because I had to make big loops to give room for my hands, then slowly “cinch” the string until the last pieces were seated correctly.  And I jabbed the back of my hands on the points a few times – whine, whine.

This is the greater stellated dodecahedron.  The sculptures for the Names of this second set, 26-50, have been emerging as reflections of pollen and stars, and this seems fitting.  Pollen spores help propagate life and stars guide and provide light, both nourishing growth.  This Name refers to the concept that the Creator is constantly viewing His creations, steadily vigilant, and supremely aware.  When I first remember hearing this in Sunday School I was in Kindergarten, and was so horrified that God was busy watching me all the time I refused to take a bath for a week, and even threw fits about changing my clothes!  My parents finally were able to pry from me why I was so mortified, and were able to explain that God is keeping His “eye” on me because He loves me, and this eternal awareness is not “spying”.

Viewing is normally felt to be a passive vocation, but the implication for this Name is that God’s sight is somehow an active awareness of all we do and are, not seeing individual actions out of context but seeing all we are as a complete creature.  This sight is expansive and penetrating.

On the human side, this Name reminds me of astrolabes and sailing.  Muslims are taught to metaphorically keep their hearts towards Mecca and Christians are taught to keep their faces towards the place of worship – not so each of us sidle around oddly as we try to do our daily activities, but to keep a place in our heart for our awareness of God’s place in our lives.  Keeping watch, so to speak, over the direction of our thoughts and all we do.

Moroccan Astrolabe From Wikimedia

Moroccan Astrolabe
From Wikimedia Commons

Ancient sailors and travelers used the stars to navigate their way across the world, and for early pioneers in North America the Big Dipper and Polaris were particularly important.  For some American religions this constellation became a beloved symbol for Christ and His teachings (one of my favorite songs, “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd”, is a reference to this same constellation in respect to the Underground Railroad).

Big Dipper and Polaris on the LDS Christian Salt Lake Temple Image from Simerg.com

Big Dipper and Polaris on the LDS Christian Salt Lake Temple
Image from Simerg.com

Sailors and travelers kept constant watch of the stars to steady their direction and navigate through life.  The metaphor applies to our lives as an overarching, steady and subtle awareness that success in life comes through watchfulness, responsibility, of our own actions and how they coincide/support Divine Will for our own well-being.  We are, all of us, created to be magnificent creatures; our watchfulness of our own actions can help us as we listen to the “still small voice”, ever present in the background but so very quiet, which guides and directs us to fulfill our intended purpose.

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How much does the Creator comprehend?  I’m pretty sure it’s much, much more than we can ever imagine.  The fact that He can see something in each of us worth saving is, for me, truly remarkable.  And a trait for which I am truly grateful.

The exterior side of each of the pieces is etched with designs echoing cloud images from several medieval-era depictions of the Miraj, the Night Journey during which Mohamed was able to see the vastness of Heaven.  And the interior of each piece is based on ceramics and tile designs evoking the abundance of growth in Paradise.

As the whole thing is moved around, shadows and light play on and through the shapes so at times we can see the lines inside, or they’re occluded by the clouds, and different forms are revealed on the surface.  I was thinking that many times our own vision is clouded by our preconceptions, prejudices, and misunderstandings so we are unable to see the interior of someone, and  new facets are constantly revealed as we shift our own vision.  I cannot begin to understand how much God truly sees, but I do know I have a long way to go before I can appreciate the hearts of even those I know.

There are three aspects to the Celestial Garden which make it resonate as a beautiful symbol of hope.

There is something about planting and tending a vegetable plant, then eating the crop you raised yourself.  The process allows us to play an active, inside role in the cycle of life.

There is the knowledge that all of us, and every thing in the universe, are vitally and inextricably connected.

The garden is also a metaphor for abundance and fecundity in the Celestial realm.  Mortal life is temporary and fleeting, but life in Paradise is lush and vibrant.  In Islam this imagery is especially significant considering the area in which the Revelation was received.

The Arabian peninsula is one of the largest inhabited areas on the planet in which no significant natural bodies of water survive all year round, and the extreme rarity of life-giving oases were tangible miracles of Providence.  Lush and succulent plants, cool flowing water, and similar vibrant imagery helped propound the concept that Paradise is a world of beauty and abundance, profoundly removed from the everyday, ordinary life of the desert-dwelling nomad.

Poets described the growth of these preternatural Platonic gardens and artists showed it – the mosaic scenes of the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus are imaginal windows into wonderful vistas of the eternal oases in Heaven.  The Dome of the Rock – built as a reverent shelter for a stone spiritual significant to all the Children of the Book – holds stylized vines and flowers, celebrating vibrant growth.  Plates and carpets, homes and mosques, were decorated with the delicate, intricate, colorful designs of fantastic plants, trees, and flowers.

As we move towards the hot and sticky parts of summer, it is a wonderful image to hold in one’s heart.

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Images of Umayyad Mosque of Damascus and Dome of the Rock courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Two of my favorite artists, Minerva Teichert and Alberto Giacometti, share something wonderful in common.  Their work shows evidence of their process – the paintings they make show the careful layering of lines as they find shapes, refine them, and gain confidence as their respective creations emerge.  In showing the process, the viewer gets a glimpse into their minds and this becomes a tangible part of appreciation for the painting.  In effect, we the viewer are also helping make the painting alongside these artists.  I love that idea.

The viewer does help make the painting (sculpture, thing, whatever).  Every time we experience the creation of someone else, we take part in its completion – because whatever it is, that creation has been completed only once it gets inside our heads.  Maybe “completed” isn’t the right term, more “closer to completion”.  The work matures and becomes closer to its ultimate aim when we have it in our heads, participating and grappling with it on the level of our inmost selves.

There are pillars of art, the factors which not only make art “art”, but which also make art worthwhile, and one of these is the connection with audience.  A work is never truly complete until that connection is made, and sometimes the audience may very well be only the artist herself, and many times the audience produces a work different (and hopefully bigger) than the work intended by the artist, changing as the audience changes but still having a deep and resonant effect.  I imagine the original audience for Michelangelo’s Pieta “completed” the work in a different manner than today’s audiences do, but the impact is still incredibly powerful.

By connecting with the audience, the artist is able to hold a conversation of sorts.  Art is a communication of many vocabularies, in a language outside of language, but when a viewer allows the artist’s work to impact him or her, and hold it in the mind, the conversation becomes a real thing deeper than words.

Of course this has little to do with these process photos – I just thought it would be fun to show the different stages of one drawing (kind of like with Merciful).

One of my volunteering “gigs” is as a pastoral volunteer for art transportation.  That sounds really, really odd but if you look hard enough, you can find fun ways to volunteer in almost any field.  A minister friend of mine is also a gallery director for a private religious school, and twice a year he taps me (his interfaith minister friend) to travel and pick up or deliver works of art for various religious exhibits.  On each of these excursions (we call them “Pastoral Volunteer Inspired Beauty Retrievals” – technically that’s what they are, but saying that when someone asks our business makes us sound important) we visit the small towns and landmarks we drive through, check out the antiques shops (we’re both sculptors and you find lots of cool stuff), and sample the local cuisine.  On one such trip we checked out the incredible Colorado River.  The dock we visited was smack dab in the middle of a desert wasteland – you turn off the highway, drive through dried out and dead tunnels of rock, then suddenly you turn a corner and life opens around you.  It was astounding.  The river brought growth, greenery, and animals to what otherwise is a starkly majestic wasteland.  I had been thinking about As-Salam for a while trying to find just the right metaphor, and here it was – I went upstream of the little park area and waded into the current to take a sample; after the trip I alchemically prepared the small amount of water and the sculpture seemed to design itself.

When Mohammed received the revelations which became the Qur’an, the Arabian Peninsula was one of the largest inhabited areas in the world without natural bodies of water which lasted the entire year.  Bereft of much of the plant and animal life plentiful in much of the rest of the world, Mohammed communicated the richness and vibrancy of Paradise through imagery he felt his listeners could appreciate – lush and succulent growth, the tinkling sounds of a babbling brook, the cool relief of an eternally plentiful spring.  And these images still mark a great deal of what we see in Islamic art today – endless and vibrant plant forms, and rich hues of blues and greens.  When I saw how much an effect the Colorado River had on the desert in its immediate vicinity, those symbolic representations of Paradise rushed into my consciousness.

The Name itself, As-Salam, is also interesting to me for a couple reasons.  Hebrew and Arabic are languages very closely linked, and we hear the echo of the traditional Hebrew benediction, Shalom, in this Name for Deity.  The most common translation is “Peace”, and the Arabic variant is also part of a traditional benediction, “ah salam a-laikum” (I can’t write Arabic – yet – so this is as close as I can get phonetically).  An imam friend translated this to me as “may the Peace of the Lord and His blessings be upon you”; interestingly, this is also the most common benediction among the laity of many churches I’ve visited.  As part of a worshipful life, the faithful seem to enjoy pronouncing peace on each other – regardless of their path of faith or language they speak.  How cool is that?

As I was considering these things, the design of a sort of battery (with radiating fins like Sustainer) came.  We use hydro-electric power quite a bit today, but long before this was a matter of course for most of the modern world, the power of Peace was recognized in many religions and among many thinkers (Mother Theresa, the Dali Lama, and Mohandas Ghandi are recent heroes which come to mind).  Peace is a real power, perhaps not for light bulbs and microwave ovens, but it has changed the entire world many, many times.  Holding sacred peace in the heart helps people through the most horrendous experiences and horrific circumstances, and committing to peace has rebuilt families and neighborhoods all over the world.

The designs etched into the glass panels are interlocking rings on one side of each fin, and an expanding star on the other, all growing out from the tiny vial of water from the Colorado.  These things came to mind as I was thinking about Jesus teaching the woman at the well in the New Testament, and I believe are fitting.  The Living Water from Deity is an odd thing – the more it is given away, the more it grows inside the giver.  The peace this Names refers to is the same; the more we give and radiate peace to those around us, the more this peace we’re giving away grows inside ourselves.  I think that is pretty amazing.

This sculpture is now part of the permanent collection of the Mall Area Religious Council – an organization in the Mall of America area committed only to building friendships and peace among people of all faiths, languages, and beliefs.  Their only excuse for being is to find ways to show how much they like each other – what a wonderful motivation.

Holiness brings to mind purity, commitment, and devotion.  From a human perspective, I appreciate how these qualities are expressed – but how are these qualities shown from a Divine perspective?

In 99 Names traditions, the awareness is that these are not really names as we perceive the word.  They are traits or features of the Divine, called Names because that’s a relatively simple term.   The Creator is the ultimate Source of whatever the specific trait is and is seen through all the permutations of that trait and its associations; by calling to mind the trait, dedicating ourselves to its perfect expression (or as close to perfect as we can get), and allowing the trait to fill our minds – somehow we are elevated.  The infinite expansion of God’s mind is still far away, but we can get to a point where we can appreciate and open ourselves to the unfolding of that trait.  A tiny window is made, and we can begin to see.  As in Plato’s allegory of the cave, we are blinded at first and can only see shadows and reflections, but then we can see more – and the trait becomes part of our fabric.

With the trait of Holiness and Purity, I thought of these ideas as well as the concept that the Creator is the Originator of holiness and all its attendant permutations.  The whole universe was created with the single-minded intent, devotion, and commitment to our ultimate well-being, by a Being of infinite capacity.  How do we approach this?  With words, it’s impossible – every word spoken hides all the others, and can bring us further from ultimate understanding.  This is true, I imagine, for every made thing.  But doing something without the limit of speaking (poetry, music, meditation, etc.), asking/calling for something beyond the capacity of the doer (Divine inspiration), can open the doors for an expanding awareness; it’s still not entirely adequate, but it’s better.

This is a reflection on the process of approaching – the layers of our experience give space to doorways for the path, and the occlusion our awareness lays over the Truth is part of the process of understanding.  We are limited and temporal beings, but however inadequate we feel ourselves to be, the purity of our intent as we continue the journey – that’s what gives place for a union with the Divine.

 

Appreciation of the Infinite, I believe, is closest approximated by the open-ended process – because, quite simply, if it could be completely understood by a specific, limited act It would no longer be infinite.  The open-ended process with a goal but no conclusion, the long life lived with intent and desire to commune with the Divine for example, becomes a simile itself for our comprehension of the limitless expanse of the Divine.  As the Buddhists say, The journey is the destination.

This Name has been represented in English by “The Ruler”, “The King”, and “The Absolute Ruler”.  I believe the idea behind this Name is a reminder that, regardless of how powerful an earthly ruler may be, the Creator is always greater.  I’m reminded of the sonnet “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley – the accomplishments of an all-powerful ruler is reduced to dust and something less than a ghost.  However great a king, conqueror, or emperor is, the one thing they cannot avoid is the reality that time passes, something which will never affect an Eternal Being.

The title means “Self-Ruling One,” which I though fit better than the other approximations because they all depend on our temporal perspective.  The Divine Throne is represented by a suspended amber orb, actually a polished citrine sphere.  Thrones usually are structures of incredible workmanship encrusted with gold and jewels, designed to over-awe whomever approaches – what could be greater, I thought, than using our sun to represent God’s throne?  Something so amazing we can’t even look at it directly?  Tying the citrine in the center of the piece symbolizes the sun, and the panels covered with stylized images of clouds represent the sky.

Also, I was considering how we approach the Ultimate Ruler – is it through leagues of self-important bureaucrats and secretaries, as seems to be the case with so many leaders in our history?  No.  God is the greatest and most powerful Ruler of all, yet there is no endless system of bureaucracy to wade through in our approach – we visit with the most powerful Being in the universe whenever we offer a heartfelt prayer.  The veils between ourselves and the Eternal are ones we weave ourselves through lack of understanding, pride, or an unwillingness to do the right thing.  The veils in the sculpture are flimsy and transparent, just like the ones we erect (regardless of how substantial we think they are), and all are anchored only to the ground.  Just as the barriers we perceive between ourselves and the Eternal Presence are never made by Him – all who approach the Divine with a pure heart and real intent, are welcomed warmly into His presence.  The Greatest King in the universe is always eager for an honest word from any of His subjects.

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Alpha Omega Arts News just published this week a wonderful review of The 99 Names Project and the book documenting the first 25 sculptures in the series.

“Engaging, profound and authentic, the book:  “99 Names: 1 to 25” is a richly documented artistic journey of a Christian’s exploration of the names of God from the Holy Qur’an.  …Kosorok has produced a new expression of the inner beliefs and spiritual sensibilities at the heart of Islam that has few parallels in contemporary art.  What emerges from his stained glass works is Islamic art shaped from the hands of a Christian.”

From INSPIRE ME! Artist-of-Month Andrew Kosorok Returns With “99 Names of God Project”, Alpha Omega Arts News

Be sure and read the rest of this great review, written by Ernest Disney-Britton, Editor of Alpha Omega Arts News and Director of Grant Services at Arts Council of Indianapolis.  And check out my new favorite artist, Anila Qayyum Agha, particularly her profoundly beautiful Intersections, at Alpha Omega Arts News here.

Thank you for such a wonderful review!

Thank you for supporting the 99 Names Project

There have been a number of documentaries in the last several years exploring standards of beauty around the world.  Regardless of the technological level of the people studied or their connections with the rest of the world, researchers found that people responded most favorably to human features with Golden Section proportions – the same proportions we see all the time in classical Greek and Roman sculpture.

It is also interesting that the same proportions used for sacred architecture keep showing up all around the world.  I wonder why this is, and I’ve heard lots of theories (the Atlantean Diospora is one of the coolest).  However, I think the answer is a little more basic.

Human beings are hardwired to appreciate beauty.  I’m not talking about manufactured expectations of beauty like the elongated forms so popular in the fashion industry, I’m talking about the gut-level reaction most of us get when we see something like Yosemite or Yellowstone for the first time, or Michelangelo’s Pieta.  When Sultan Mehmed II first stepped foot into the Hagia Sophia, he reportedly was so impacted by its beauty he commanded his soldiers to protect it from looters – and this beautiful Christian church has influenced sacred Muslim architecture ever since.

This sculpture is based on the use of the Golden Ratio brought into 3D, with a dried pomegranate suspended in the center.  The colors blue and green with the overlapping patterns of leaves and flowers are indicative of Paradise, and the pomegranate has been used to represent the fruit of knowledge in many ancient cultures.  The intersecting planes are cut with holes so we can see all the way – but as we shift our perspective the view changes, some things are revealed and others hidden.  And the structure is tied with hemp as a recognition of the role books have in the process of sharing and learning, and in particular the Qur’an.  Knowledge is vital to us as human beings, but knowledge without the guiding structure and awareness of beauty is a sad and desperate thing.

When we see something truly beautiful and we find ourselves resonating to it, I believe this was put into us as a guide – not only to find those things which lead us to become better individuals, but help us to appreciate the Source of all beauty, the Creator.  God can literally do anything He wants, and He chose to make us so we enjoy beauty.

How cool is that?

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27, Al-Basir, The Seer of All

31, Al-Khabir, The All-Aware

43, Ar-Raqib, The Watchful One

These three Names carry ideas which harmonize with each other, and they feel as if each responds or alludes to the others.  Using the inadequate metaphor of mortal perception, these teach the concept that the consciousness of the Divine envelops and includes everything.

The octahedron, or Platonic solid symbolizing air, seemed appropriate as a starting point.  Air (in contemporary terms this can be understood as the gaseous state of matter) changes shape to reflect the volume of whatever container it’s placed in, expands to fill the container, and entirely surrounds whatever object is placed within its volume.  Our consciousness is usually aware of three dimensions of perception, but God‘s perception is limitless, so I looked for shapes suggesting something of this idea.

On Korthalsaltes.com there are paper models for many, many different regular and irregular solids, and I found a compound of five octahedra.  This felt appropriate for a number of reasons.  Each face of each octahedron in the compound is a triangle, a symbol of unity (the unity, for example, of the three alchemical principals – Philosophical Salt/the material world, Philosophical Sulfur/the underworld, and Philosophical Mercury/the spiritual realm); although each full face is occluded by sharing space with other forms, the full face of each octahedron is still there “under” everything else.  Each octahedra has eight faces, suggesting the eight sides of an octagon needed to bridge the temporal cube of earth-bound structure with the limitless dome of the heavenly vault.  And in this form there are five octahedra – a reference to both the five extremities of the human form extending into space, and the five Pillars of Faith.

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