The Koi by the Garbage Cans

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I am a retired Episcopal priest, a long time friend and former colleague of Joani Peacock’s, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Over the last two months I have been photographing the public artwork that graces our beautiful city and sharing one work each day on Facebook. My hope was that in these strange, anxious days the art would brighten the lives of my friends.

I discovered an unexpected gift in this work. — the wide-ranging reactions and opinions of those who saw the pieces. There is a rich collection of sculpture created in iron, concrete, wood, bronze, PVC pipe, white marble, and black basalt.  There are murals that range in size from about a foot square to over eight stories tall.  Paint was applied by roller, brush, and rattle can. All are original and unique. And so are the comments I received:

“Maybe it is not art, but it’s fun. I love this piece. It makes me happy.”

“Art is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone will have their own interpretation.”

“I don’t know what the artist got for painting that, but he should have got life.”—Fred Flintstone.

“I love street art. I look at it in much the same way I look (listen) at music. I doubt the artist had me in mind when they created their piece, I just want to enjoy it for what it is.”

“Art is the physical manifestation of the human imagination.”

“How delightful! It makes me want to sing or at least hum a tune.”

My favorite piece is the one above. It is two beautifully rendered koi fish swirling and swimming together painted on a board fence above the artist’s garbage cans. It is the  smallest artwork I have discovered and is in a most unlikely place. Why would anyone do this? To put in the time on this gorgeous, detailed painting and put it above stinking refuse? Was it to remind his or her teenagers not to ‘carp’ about taking out the trash? Or something more? 

Online comments about the painting included the following:

“I don’t know, it loses a little something with the garbage can and all.”

“Garbage can adds a nice touch.”

“Odd place to display a piece of art methinks.”

I smiled when I first saw the fish. They held a promise for me in the middle of this pandemic. The turning fish reminded me of a line from a poem entitled “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” by William Butler Yeats(1865-1939). In the poem “Crazy Jane”, an earthy, street-wise woman, responds to a self-righteous, moralizing bishop’s reprimand about her lifestyle with the following words:

“But love has pitched his mansion in

The place of excrement

For nothing can be sole or whole

That has not been rent.”

She may be a crazy old woman, but she speaks a truth the sanctimonious “prince of the church” has not grasped. Purity and goodness come out of imperfection—and nothing can be whole that hasn’t been broken first. It is a truth she has lived and he has not. 

So, I love the promise that these fish hold, especially as I await Advent in this plague year where everything around us seems to be rent. Nothing can be whole that hasn’t been broken, even God. Our faith proclaims this truth and we seek to live it. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” says John 1:14. God’s first “mansion” was a stable, a “place of excrement’.  

I remember a heated theological argument I had in my twenties with a member of the Unification Church. A young man was selling carnations door to door on a bitterly cold night. I asked him why he did this for his God — the Rev. Sun Myung Moon — an overfed man who lived in a mansion in New York. He responded: “You say you are a Christian. Do you really believe if God was to come among us that he would be born in a stable with the animals and manure?”  I said “yes.” He said, “You’re crazy!” as he strode away into the darkness.

He was right, it is a crazy idea. And I know Crazy Jane is right — God, who is love, is with us in the midst of whatever unavoidably rends our lives. And God suffers with us, and for us, in our own Good Fridays.  Yet we are people of hope, resurrection people. We know Easter is coming. We know this through the lives of those we meet at the stable and journey with us to the empty tomb. We all have seen the Risen One through them on the internet and  through zoom and in physically-distanced worship. Covid 19 will not win because God’s love has already won.

Knowing this, we await the coming of  Advent, my favorite season, always full of promise. We light candles in the darkness of the darkest time of the year. What good and fresh wholeness will come out of this broken year of 2020? What new thing will God do for the Church, for us, and for the world?

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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