Friday, May 21, 2010

All Art Friday Special Edition

All Art Friday Special Edition
Interview with Artist Harold Sikkema

Last month I had the opportunity to interview artist Harold Sikkema. Harold lives in Ontario, Canada, and recently began exploring possible artistic opportunities with High Calling Blogs (HCB), a network of personal Websites that focus on the intersection of faith and work. Harold and I exchanged a number of wonderful and engaging e-mails about Harold's background and art-making. Harold is not only a gifted visual artist; he can speak computer design and programming languages, too. In addition, he can turn a conversational phrase in a way that helps you understand his philosophy of art and life and see more deeply into his work. Often during our conversations, Harold's responses to my questions prompted more questions, which Harold always graciously answered, sometimes in unexpected ways. 

A selection of questions and answers from my in-depth interview was posted at HCB on April 30, along with a number of images of Harold's fascinating artwork. Please go here to read that introductory post and then come back to read the rest of my interview.

* * * * *

. . . when art is the medium. . . Christians and non-believers
 can relate on a human level that otherwise might not be possible.
~ Harold Sikkema

Maureen Doallas: Harold, you're a recent (2009) honors graduate of McMaster University in Ontario. What did you learn there that you now apply to what you call "creative service"?

Harold Sikkema: McMaster prides itself on being a "research and innovation" school, and for this I'm indirectly thankful. After paying its top scientists to look at stem cells under microscopes,  the university often has very little left for the arts. [M]y and other painters' and sculptors' situation there was one we could only make the best of, and not the most of; but I've discovered that less-than-ideal circumstances come with their own rewards. It is precisely when you have no access to equipment, when you get the "wrong" professors, when parameters are restricted and options narrowed, that you begin to understand how real creativity thrives. The community at McMaster forced me out of my comfort zone, to be resourceful and to connect with others. It was a time to play within the tension of dreaming big while also having to work with what was available. Over time, it's become for me something I'd describe in terms of a slogan: "Live locally; think globally."

MD: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

HS: Initially, I wanted to be a pilot, a dream that my limited budget achieved through building planes out of Legos. In high school, I had engineering ambitions; I took all the requisite science and mathematics courses. I found, however, some deep rewards through my early dabblings in creative service: yearbook production, stage prop design, and mural painting. When I first visited McMaster's art and multimedia spaces, I knew that [art] was where I wanted to pursue my gifts. However, it wasn't until much later that I consciously pursued "being an artist" as something more than a person who makes a living selling beautiful pictures.

One of my break-through pieces, "The Four Seasons", is an elaborate meshing of hand-drawn media with digital photographic texture. On finishing this piece, I realized that I had my own unique method and vision to offer the world. And so it became my ambition to pursue and to cultivate and to share with others the creative service of artistry.

MD: Do you make art every day?

HS: These days I weave my art, which is commissioned by "patrons" whose demands are highly technical and specific, from HTML code and database queries. [Harold, in addition to being a visual artist, designs Websites, troubleshoots computer problems, and creates software.] The last time I held a paintbrush was in the final strokes of November. I miss the tactile media sometimes but for the moment, I think it's important for me to "live locally". I figure that a short hiatus may allow for a buildup of creative juice. . . .

Image: "November"

MD: What makes an artist successful?

HS:  I try to understand success in local terms. It's important to be aware of one's historical and cultural contexts, to learn about others and broaden horizons. Maybe it's even important to be ambitious. . . but if you forget about your own neighbors and family,  then you're not serving as a creative vessel.

I think one of the more successful things I've done is serve as a bridge among communities. I've found it immensely rewarding to see my art facilitate deep conversations between leftist tree-huggers and the conservative-religious. These groups may not see eye to eye on everything but through art they can share in the human language of joy.

MD: I'm curious. How do you think your art facilitates "deep conversations" among those who, on the surface, appear to have little in common? Would you elaborate on that and give me a concrete example?

HS: In my final year at McMaster, I was privileged to be part of a museum show in which the participation of the wider community was much more tangible. In that show, I engaged audiences of many persuasions with [my piece] "Wind, Earthquake, Fire, Whisper". While this long, narrow "tapestry" is a visual reflection on the prophet Elijah's spiritual search for God in the desert, it's also an exploration of artistic tensions—between texture and negative spaces, between nature and culture.

The image resonated really well with [one viewer,] Ben, a particularly philosophical Christian who wondered whether I'd betrayed a Western bias in my arrangement of the elements from left to right—the opposite of the right-to-left composition to which the Hebrew prophet would have been accustomed. The piece also was appreciated by equally thoughtful agnostic visitors with whom I wondered aloud about the connection between the Old Testament God and the four ancient elements of wind, earth, fire, and water.

By far the most memorable conversation that this exhibit sparked was an ongoing e-mail exchange I had with an atheist, "Chuck". [His] view was, "All of the world's major religions are defective. They are the  result of what happens when man tries to control, or even define, spirituality." The conversations we shared were sometimes rough around the edges, challenging, and unresolved. What I found underneath our differences, however, was a common interest in redemption. Chuck's own art was made of recycled materials—in his words, "redeemed from the junk bin of materialism." Even though Chuck continues to live out of the humanist conviction that "there is no God that's going to absolve or forgive you", his ultimate outlook was quite in line with the teachings of my faith: Live well, take responsibility for all your actions, and don't make excuses.

I found that when art is the medium in the middle, Christians and non-believers can relate on a human level that otherwise might not be possible. Graham Todd, my sculpture professor, expressed this quite tangibly when, after reading my final undergraduate term paper, commented, "Although our theology may differ, I think we have developed a mutual respect that I find really refreshing."

Image: "Babel"

During our discussion of his art and specifically his participation in various art exhibitions, Harold told me that his art-show experiences "helped me to understand more deeply the kinds of things that move people" and added that "the stories viewers told continue to inform the direction of my work."

MD: What would be an example, Harold, of those "kinds of things that move people", and how do stories inform your work?

HS: In visiting my art exhibitions and finding hidden gems of detail in my images — bicycles, beads, baby birds — [viewers are] moved to recall their own youthful days of play. I've found that usually, the playful instinct (however repressed) lives on long after youth fades. When [people are] given the opportunity, as through art, to once again let loose and play, [their] resulting smiles are priceless.

Another welcome side-effect of the whimsical in my work is how it makes the art accessible to children. An example: One sunny Saturday a mother from my congregation and her six-year-old visited my show "Visual Theology". Until then, I had thought about my meshing of images as something intuitive and sculptural but when little Alexandra pointed with her finger and softly mouthed the word "fishy", I realized that even my theological explorations might fit within a long tradition of play, one that I had theoretically given up on but had never really abandoned. Ever since, I've been engaging more intentionally in play: making time for it, cultivating it, and learning from it. My advice in this regard is simple: Never, ever stop playing!

Image: "There Is a River" 

Over the course of our interview, it became clear to me that Harold's faith goes hand-in-hand with his art-making. When I asked Harold how his faith imbues or informs his art, which thematically centers on his ideas about language, time, growth, and resurrection, Harold allowed that although he grew up with the understanding that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom", he's always been drawn to questions about the paradoxical — If God is sovereign, am I free? Can mercy and judgment co-exist? — and was unsatisfied with others' efforts to explain those questions away. It wasn't until he was in art school, he said, that he "(re)discovered the joys of paradox" and found that he could capture in his art  "those Sunday sermons" he'd heard as a child, using them to "tell the story of redemption" in his own unique way. He continued:

HS: [M]y perspectives about art and faith have been shaped profoundly by both the memorizing of iconoclastic catechisms and the whimsical "New Age" art forms of Andy Goldsworthy. In the tension between nature and culture lies a twin testament to the redemptive work of Christ, and I operate under the assumption that in Him the postmodern paradox and the modern manifesto have already been reconciled.

MD: What do you mean by "postmodern paradox" and "the modern manifesto"?

HS: For me, . . . the paradigm shift from modern to postmodern is one that affects me in tangible ways. Whether it is for lack of better words or from reading too much Derrida, [I find that] the broad cultural transitions that we in the West have made in the last century through lessons learned in love and war remain very real to me. I don't know that it's at all possible to define these terms but I can tell what I like about each—that ought to give you some idea. I like modernity's ambition to seek ultimate truth and to attempt to gloriously articulate it—in art, in music, in manifestoes and confessions of faith, and in declarations of independence. I also like the postmodern humility that asks, "Who am I to say that it is really so?" and that, in so doing, accommodates. . . the paradoxical views and pre-suppositions of many truths. Somewhere beyond our calculated confidence in machines, progress, and peace, we have discovered a healthy, subtle skepticism about our own fallen capacities. And so it remains only to say: All truth is God's truth.

. . . there remains something about the person of Jesus — the Word made flesh — that is powerfully redemptive. . . In sourcing this power for my art, I've seen how it becomes possible for a weak, withering flower to carry the full weight of an image, and for many disparate and often broken objects to become imbued with a new sense of purpose. . . .

Image: "Rise", From diptych "Fall, Rise"

Harold's Website

Harold's blog

Harold on Twitter

Harold on FaceBook

All images © Harold Sikkema. Used with permission. (Click on to view in larger size.)


Louise Gallagher said...

"the playful instinct (however repressed) lives on long after youth fades." for one so 'young' he's pretty wise!

Thanks Maureen for shining your beautiful light on a fellow Canadian.


Kathleen Overby said...

We live by and with boats surrounding us here on the Puget Sound. Most boats bigger than a dinghy have a depth finder. Maureen, you're my depth finder. A must have in these vast oceans. I love the treasure you found and gave us today. I'm following this fellow. His views have the wisdom of a sage.... and he believes in playing. YAY!

insitu said...

I credit Maureen's high-powered "sonar-beam" questions for penetrating these murky waters; thanks, everyone, for playing along. :) Louise: enjoy the Victoria Day weekend! And -Kathleen- your west-coast world intrigues me.

L.L. Barkat said...

Wonderful interview. A great companion piece to what was posted at HCB! (Remind Sam to link over to this from that post :)

I love Harold's art. So deep, yet whimsical. So glad we met at IAM.

Anonymous said...

very interesting.
i thought that harold is so good with words on his web page that he might have fun at the jam on tuesday night.

that would be cool.

harold and maureen, you played well together and made a great post.


S. Etole said...

the two of you gave us a great interview ... thank you

Unknown said...

Great interview bonus here, Maureen. I've linked this to the original at

For those who haven't yet read it, check it out here.