cross sculpture by Scotty Utz

Cross Connections – Liturgical Art Merges with Metallurgical Art

In Blog by Scotty Utz

Making log furniture was just a side hustle.  My day job was as an assistant house parent at a boy’s ranch in north Georgia; the official gig was set up through my seminary as a yearlong internship. Chainsawing through hickory and oak trees, I kept seeing crosses in the leftovers.  They were pesky and taxed my attention.  As they persisted, I would reach over and set them aside and tell them to wait while I tried to keep working on something that would pay.  These bits of what should have been scrap would sit there and distract me.   The pile would grow till I couldn’t stand it.  Finally, I would go over and cut them out with my chainsaw so they would leave me alone.  No way of knowing how many crosses I carved that year.  This odd compulsion became kind of comical and I had a hard time explaining why I did it.  It’s become clear that it is my subconscious’ way of calming a buildup of existential angst.  After a summer of Greek that fronted a year of intro classes and backed up against another summer of Hebrew, I needed to step away from academia and out of New Jersey where I was in graduate school.  My head was spinning, my heart exposed, my identity scrambled.  I needed time to integrate all the ideas I had been soaking up.  I needed physical work.

It still raises my heart rate, remembering the first time that pounding vibration pushed me back as I shoved everything I had into the back of that hammer drill.  It was the first cross sculpture I ever worked on and the first time my dad let me use that shiny metal clad hammer drill with the two black handles.  It must have weighed half as much as I did.  I was elated.  There was a crane picking up the two story precast concrete structures and I was down in this pit with the dust and chips of concrete flying.   A sense of panic was in the air as a concrete truck rumbled with a wet mix churning inside.  There were so many people around with so much heavy equipment and my dad was so cheap and we needed these holes in the foundation for the rebar before the sculpture could be placed.  In all the confusion my dad must not have remembered that this is one of the toys on the “Scotty is not old enough to use this tool yet” list.  Why I got to jump in on the hammer drill that day I don’t know, I remember other people being down in the trough too and it was exhausting work. But here I was in this chasm just in front of the entrance to the First Presbyterian church of Sarasota Florida, shirtless, the sun baking concrete dust and sweat all over my body.  I must have looked even whiter than normal, like I was preparing for my initiation into an ancient Celtic tribe.

Years later, in high school, I helped my dad put together the ceramic pieces of the crucifix he made for Incarnation Catholic Church. It was relatively clean and boring work, no hammer drill required.  While I generally liked helping my dad on his crosses I didn’t care for them as pieces of art. I much preferred his illustrations and nudes. I wondered why he didn’t make these crosses more even and square like all the “normal” crosses around. Ironically, most of the crosses I am drawn to construct now continue to be an outgrowth of the two crosses my father made.

After dedicating over a year to intensive investigation into my faith, I felt tired and angsty.  I had troubling questions about Christology, atonement, the Trinity and how the faith of my youth was stitched together. So it was on this year long internship that I found the balm of Gilead for me was carving crosses. Thinking about bible passages, thinking about theological implications I would carve and carve and carve. There was something soothing about letting my hands just go with the wood grain on a sculpture related to yet totally separate from the didactic analysis constructing logic trees in my head. It was kind of like a nervous tick. I gave crosses to everyone I knew just to get rid of them. For some reason it felt wrong to burn them, like I did with most of the scrap pieces of wood. Sometimes, I just took these carved crosses back to the woods and left them for their own resurrection. My father’s crosses started to make more sense to me. As my internship, a year of wrangling kids at a Christian boys ranch in north Georgia, came to a close I went back to seminary with renewed energy and spirit.

In a class on Mystics with Paul Rorem he offered us an opportunity to do an art piece for our midterm exam. I jumped on this chance and carved a set of crosses that faced each other which were inspired by the seraphim on the arc of the covenant, who’s wings cover the holy space. It is in this negative space surrounding the images and under the images that is in the emptiness, the negation of what we positively know, in which we may catch a glimpse of YHWH. Perhaps this is where the long tradition of voided crosses started; in these crosses it is the negative space where something special happens. These crosses were carved from the remains of a hundreds year old tree whose three foot center had rotted out leaving only a few inches of solid wood and the bark. Each of the two crosses were shaped through a lens of resurrection. The image strives to invoke images of Christ as a mother hen collecting in her chicks, the uplifting praise and power of the Pentecost and the wide arms of Christ’s acceptance of all. The image of the cross does not, from every angle look at all like a cross; the rough exterior and shape symbolize the hardship many Christians face in understanding the Cross at all. The image is also reminiscent of Francis of Assisi, who indwelled Jesus and embraced lady poverty and simplicity as a path to love all of Creation.  Both of the crosses in this pair contain the cataphatic, (via positiva) and the apophatic (via negativa) representing that knowledge of God is accepted on the one side and rejected on the other.  In keeping with tradition, the bark side represents the darkness of the apophatic while the side showing the rough rotting wood represents the layers of intricacies in knowledge.  One of the crosses represents the cataphatic, shows the Augustinian mystical path: from the exterior to the interior and then through to transcendence or union with God.  This motion corresponds to the three fold way.  The apophatic reminds us of the cleft in the mountain Moses stood in while God passed by.  The darkness and deep crevasses invite us into the cloud of unknowing.  This was a launching into something new, a place where the professor in me could work alongside the craftsman in me and be content laboring shoulder to shoulder.

Studying the theology of Paul Tillich with, Dr. Mark Taylor has stayed with me through the years too.  There are those theologians who take a subjective view of atonement saying that what really matters is what happened then and there on the cross in Jerusalem at Jesus’s crucifixion.  Other’s claim an objective view of atonement with the idea that the magic happens when people see and are moved by what happened back at the crucifixion.  Tillich straddles the two claiming yes something important happened back on the cross and, equally as true, something important happens when we are transformed by Jesus’ story.  This overly simplified portrayal of a topic that spills out of many books.  And yet this thread of theology keeps working me over.  It kept digging around just under the surface like a mole’s tunnel in my mind.  Can art be more well suited to find a foothold here than text?  I have a mockett of a sculpture I have not gotten around to fabricating that seeks to offer up meditation on this subjective/objective prism for seeing at-one-ment.

It’s been over 20 years since Dr. Rorham invited me into a tumultuous dynamic of academia, artwork and spirituality. The itch of existential angst that got me moving down this path in my 20’s remains a consistent traveling buddy.  Whenever I feel particularly stressed I still compulsively go back to making crosses.  In times of ease I am free to dip in and out of the stream of symbolism.  Sometimes we forget that for the first 300ish years of Christianity the cross was seldom used as a symbol of our faith.  There is a long history of the cross as symbol.  It can bring up all sorts of emotions and feelings for Christians and non-Christians alike. Integrating theological concepts into the very simple construct of two lines crossing has a long history. The artist in me strives to play a part in seeing the cross anew in this place, under these circumstances, in our time while standing gently on the shoulders of all who have made it possible for us to be here.