Carving Mystery Out of Matter
Carving Mystery Out of MatterSarah O'Malley
“I'm interested in the depiction of literal things and not just abstraction because we are physical beings moving through a world of objects, encountering nature and carried in these little bodies. The moments where the most tangible things become tied to the mystical and existential, that is a very profound moment.”
This grounded mysticism ("on earth, as it is in heaven") is also in the heart of author Andrew DeCort, explored in the raw, pain-informed hope of his newest work, Flourishing on the Edge of Faith. The kinship seemed obvious, and as BitterSweet Books grew legs and embraced Flourishing as our first published work, Holly was the natural choice for the book’s artist, responsible for illustrating each of the seven practices “for a new we.”
Holly says excitement then trepidation met this invitation. “When I initially heard of this project, my first thought was, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ And then, a couple of days later, my second thought was, ‘No way. I can't just anchor myself through my art, which is one of the most important and vulnerable things to me, to this person who [is saying and believing] God-knows-what.’” Her involvement felt particularly vulnerable because the book pertains to faith. “I've known Christians to navigate belief in such a regimented way, where you write down exactly what you believe about everything and you work with people whose piece of paper looks 80 to 100 percent the same. I feel that I don't have a piece of paper at all, and I don't know how to articulate the things that I'm sure of, and I don't know if I'm even sure of anything.” She worried she had “written a blank check” to some sort of statement of faith or contract, not knowing if she aligned herself to the heart of the matter. But as she got deeper into the work, following her trust in her friends at BitterSweet, with whom she says she felt safe “aesthetically, ideologically, and spiritually,” and also got to know Andrew, her fears dissipated. “That framework, perhaps predictably, was not to reveal that Andrew and I had pieces of paper that were identical, but for there to be so much room for invitation in his work.”
The human touch of linocut relief printing—hand carving illustrations into a sheet of linoleum before rolling it with paint and pressing it onto paper—attracted Holly to the medium while on a trip to Seattle, visiting her older cousin who is also a visual artist.
“There's something about the physical practice of carving that is so meditative. I just knew right away that the process was something I really enjoyed.”
Holly Harris printing in her studio.
Photos by Sarah O'Malley
“I like how much it looks like my drawings, but also how the linoleum gives it its own little quirks that you can't totally conquer or tame. Having a piece of it that is kind of determined external to myself, I think is really fun.”
BitterSweet’s Creative Director, Obiekwe Okolo, invited Holly to collaborate on Flourishing due to the quality of the process as well as Holly’s instincts as an artist. The pair worked closely, conceiving how best to transfigure the spirit of Andrew’s writing into an accessible but thoughtful illustration.
“I tried to envision what his idea could look like in a way that would resonate with people and not feel cheesy or cliche. For some of them, he really teed us up with an initial idea. Sometimes it was scrapping his original idea altogether and just starting with the prompt.”
Her favorite illustration of the set is one that was conceptualized from scratch: “Deliver us from evil.” She explains, “The whole idea of deliverance from evil, as a concept, is a very familiar prayer and line that we've been instructed to pray. That is a very nice idea that without the rhetoric of Jesus's death on the cross doesn't have much power. Of course, it is better for the evil thing to go away. That feels very intuitive. But when we feel subject to evil, whether that's externally or even from within our own self,... [it’s difficult to know] how to conquer this thing. The theology of Jesus becoming human and fully empathizing with that hurt, but being enough God to defeat it, I think there is a power in that story that continues to be really compelling to me, even when a lot of things about faith feel really murky. So I love the physicality of Jesus and of Jesus' wounds. I think it's the most beautiful and poetic thing about Christianity. Deliverance has come and it was as bloody and as gory as every evil thing that we experience in the human condition.”
If the illustration were merely a wound in a forearm—an image so many happy Christians and ex-Christians and reluctant Christians and tired Christians have seen over and over to the point of becoming visual static—perhaps the beauty could fade into the empty numb of familiarity. But Holly, close to all of those feelings, took the image one step further. As two hands belonging to the same body press into the place pierced by nails, “The wound is bleeding out into a flower.”
Holly says that without the flower, there is no visual cue that suffering does not simply end with despair, but without the wound, the hope does not feel honest. “I wanted this image to be gory and a little bit upsetting. In an early conversation I had with Andrew, he explicitly encouraged me not to shy away from things that might feel really dark, which was really empowering encouragement. That's something that, in my experience, is often lacking from ‘Christian art’: brutal honesty. So I wanted it to be all of those things. But the whole idea of deliverance is that that's not where the story ends. And despair doesn't have the last word. Having the blood blossom into a flower is symbolic of that life, which is hope.”
The time spent with these works, and the repetitive rhythm of printmaking has provided Holly with a personal reflection on what Andrew’s exhortations could mean for her own life. “[Printmaking] is slow and takes a lot of time. Spending so much time with something is a forced confrontation with that content, which is sometimes painful. Sometimes it's things that I created art about to release. And being forced to spend more time with it is where I think you get some really good personal growth that can be painful but necessary.”
“One [Flourishing practice that came to feel this way] was the practice about prophetic imagination, which we depicted visually with the hands holding the pot that is flourishing into an olive tree. Because, again, all of them are so profound and also simple, the simplicity could lend a good church kid to dismiss their fullness because it's too familiar that you could check out. And I think spending so much time with that image appropriately confronted me with the possibility of that idea. What could that actually mean for my life and for the world at large?”
Holly’s sacred handling of Flourishing on the Edge of Faith is a testament to her skill as an artist, but also her intimacy with the book’s audience. Her ability to bridge the chasm between heaven and earth is a testament to her citizenship in the liminal, a place to which so many faith-adjacent souls searching for God belong. “Having my work so closely aligned with this other piece of work, it doesn't so much feel like we're shouting shared doctrine. It feels like this very deep alignment that there is a sacred heart of God and a sacred humanity that matter, and we're going to try like hell to steward our little lives to honor the dignity of those things."
"[Within] the archetype that Andrew has written for, I feel seen, and I feel like my friends are seen. Since living in DC, it has been so on my mind that all of my friends are a particular way, and maybe the church doesn't see them or know them or care about them at all. And so for Andrew to have such ‘Christian credentials’ and to so fully see them and write to them is very meaningful to me. Regardless of whether or not everybody ends up agreeing with him or even embodying the practices he outlines, I think just the mere act of being seen feels very meaningful.”
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Working with Holly on the art for Andrew's books was one of my career's most life-giving creative efforts, and Sarah's words convey precisely why that is.
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo