Events have become more extreme than this extreme image

On The Cross — An image the author withheld for years as too extreme. © Gerald Grow

Making art can open you to the world in unexpected ways.

When I retired in 2009, I started making colorful, mystical abstract photographs and happily immersed myself in the images that led to my e-book, “Dancing with a Camera in the Presence of Light.”

Creating these images opened me to a creative, spontaneous, intuitive state that I craved like spring water. Whole other dimensions of mind peeked out, relaxed, and began to play — both to be playful, and to make a kind of music of the world.

The kind of abstract photographs I was making. © Gerald Grow

While I was working on these images, an idea came to me for making a different kind of image. By then, I had developed an appreciation for intuitive ideas, so I listened to it with care. But I respectfully told this idea that I was not the right person to make this image. I explained that I do not make controversial art, and I am not qualified to produce socially conscious work. I respectfully asked it to go to someone else.

But the idea persisted. Every day, it was back — insistent. Every time I started to work on one of my images, it just stood there, in between.

I set aside a few days to work up the image, for the sole purpose of getting it out of my mind.

This way, I produced the first version of “On the Cross.”

When that was done, I wrapped it in cloth, set it on a shelf, and did not look at it again for four years. I thought I was finished with it.

But, in 2017, it started coming back to mind, insistent in a quieter but more pervasive way. Now, clearly, it wanted to be finished and exhibited. Finally, it persuaded me, and I finished it.

I was apprehensive.

This is a violent image about violence, a sexual image about sexual issues, a painful image about suffering and rage, an image about struggle, defeat, destruction, refusal— an image that shouts about women’s issues, but echoes a deep tension between society and the individual, between love and death, that every human abides with, and which reminds us of a staggering history of intolerance, persecution, and torture, and yet it is not implausible to be reminded that after another such pain comes birth, and it is the gift of women to endure this. — All in an image that came out of the air, out of the Zeitgeist, through the antennas of the mind that art opens in us. — And all in the juxtaposition of three pictures: my photograph of fire, a constructed cross, and a vulva contorted from a medical illustration, plus three literal, glittering jewels. (In the completed image, they are actual cubic zirconia stud earrings.)

I didn’t know if people were ready for this. — I didn’t know if I was ready.

“On the Cross” got accepted into one exhibit, where I was tactfully persuaded to substitute something else before the opening, to avoid offending the sponsors. A year later, it hung in another exhibit, where I eavesdropped on college men mansplaining it to their dates, and had an Orthodox Christian show me how it illustrates Christ’s Descent into Hell. — Part of the beauty of art is that it can have different meanings to different people.

In the interim, “On the Cross” — all 16 by 20 inches of it — hung in a quiet corner of my 10-foot-wide wall of images in the little gallery I share with seven lively women whose happiness helped me stay afloat after my wife died. (See “Home Birth, Home Death.”)

During a recent open house, a tall young man stood before “On the Cross” and said, “That’s really relevant now, isn’t it?” — This surprised me, but he was right. The anti-abortion laws of 2021 once again set fire to the conflict between a vision of women’s rights and a vision of religious conviction, and this lit up remnants of a struggle that goes back to the beginning of history.

Everyone else seems to be better informed on this than I am. My investment in the issue is constrained by the fact of being a man. And I don’t want to stand between anyone and the light.

But the image sought me out. It asked to be made. It would not go away. I gave myself over to making it.

And here it is — “On the Cross.”

Gerald Grow is a retired journalism professor, cartoonist, and photographer. More at longleaf.net.