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Mastery & the Practice of Joy: An Interview with Russ Ramsey

Recently, I had the pleasure of asking Russ Ramsey a few questions about his new book Rembrandt Is In the Wind, the story of how he came to love visual art, and the interaction of that love with his faith and ministry as a pastor. Read on for some beautiful responses from Russ.

When and how did your love of the visual arts and art history begin? Share that origin story with us.

In high school, I had the good fortune of having an art teacher who loved art. She wanted us to love it, too. So she introduced us not only to great works of art but, more importantly, to the people who created them. She broke out the old projector and filmstrips so we could tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water from our classroom in Tipton, Indiana. She impressed upon us the role of math and dimension by taking us on the trip that is M. C. Escher. She broke our hearts with the sad and beautiful story of Vincent van Gogh by making us watch the wonderful Technicolor Kirk Douglass film from the 60s, Lust for Life, which is based on Irving Stone’s book by the same name—a great place to start with van Gogh.

Every year she took us to the Indianapolis Art Museum. There I learned how exhausting art can be. She’d turn us loose for the afternoon, and I’d meander from room to room trying to look at everything—you know, to get my money’s worth. But I’ll never forget the first time I walked into the room with the van Goghs after I had learned about his story. His canvases struck me in such a way that I had to sit down and just look. In fact, I spent most of my time in that room that day, just looking at van Gogh. That day with van Gogh shaped the way I would approach art thereafter.

If you had to choose just one visual artist from all of history to call your favorite, who would it be and why? What unique contribution did this artist make, and why does it resonate with you so deeply?

The harder we work at something, the more we are able and free to enjoy it. Rembrandt knew this too. Russ Ramsey

At this point in my life I would have to say Rembrandt. There was a time when it was most definitely Vincent van Gogh, but it’s Rembrandt now. I think a big part of this comes with age. When Vincent died, he was eleven years younger than I am now. Rembrandt lived into his late 60’s, and the arc of his life shaped his art. I’m trying to pay attention to that. I’m currently researching Rembrandt’s life story, and it’s really making me tender toward him in ways I haven’t felt before. Rembrandt was regarded by his own peers as a master, second only to Dürer in all of Europe at the time. And now, many of us might ask, “Who’s Dürer?” But we all know Rembrandt. He was an absolute genius, an artistic prodigy, and a man who had to navigate the fame his talents brought along with the suffering he came to know in the second half of his life in particular. I am drawn to the stories as much as the paintings.

How has your understanding shifted over the years regarding the convergence of faith and pastoral ministry with deep engagement in art? Are there any ways in which your mind has changed or your imagination has expanded?

Art and ministry have always been linked in my mind—since the very beginning. My sense of call to ministry came after I developed a love for art, so I went into my vocation with an appreciation for the power of art.

Over the years, I have come to believe more deeply in the importance of regularly engaging with things that move us to awe and wonder. So much of our early adult years can be spent trying to nail things to the floor (theological, relational, philosophical, spiritual, or otherwise) that simply cannot be wrangled in that way. Engaging with beauty and wonder pries our grip off of our felt need to lock things in so we can control them.

What are a few examples of scriptural themes and theological insights that have taken on new depth for you as you’ve seen them represented in visual art?

Scripture talks a lot about how in this world we will have trouble, and how when we’re young we’ll tend to think we’ve got things under control only to discover later that control is an illusion. I love paying attention to how an artist develops over time. I care as much about the body of work as I do for any individual piece of it. Since I’ve got Rembrandt on my mind a lot right now, let’s use him as an example. In his younger work, he flexed for the viewer, showing off his technical abilities, which were unmatched. To think a man in his mid-twenties painted The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is hard to get my mind around. As impressive as it is, however, it’s not that intimate. But later, he paints the same scene again, only this time he is an old man, approaching death. He has suffered. He has lost a wife, three children, his fortune, and reputation. This version is intimate, warm, and simple. In his early painting, he wanted to show us what he could do, but in the later version, it’s as though all the old man wants to do is hold Jesus. Those two paintings come together to tell the story of one man, and how youthful self-assurance gives way humility and dependence—and often by way of suffering.


Between 1665 and 1669

In your epilogue you say, “the world is short on masters, and consequently, it’s a world short on joy, too.” What do you mean by that?

For Rembrandt to become who he was, he had to train his hands to paint as he alone was made to paint. But in doing that, he had to learn the fundamentals. He had to practice. This means he must have started somewhere. It’s hard to imagine, but there had to have existed some pretty terrible Rembrandts at some point—early charcoal works hung on the wall and loved only by his mother.

What’s not hard to imagine is a solitary figure in a lamp-lit room mixing his oils, preening his brushes, thinking and painting and thinking and painting. Practicing.

Later he would say to young artists, “Try to put well in practice what you already know; and in so doing, you will in good time, discover the hidden things which you now inquire about. Practice what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know.”

The mastery of something leads to a greater enjoyment of it. Singers, musicians, painters, writers, athletes, and artists of all stripes know this. The harder we work at something, the more we are able and free to enjoy it. Rembrandt knew this too.


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