We recently interviewed James Ponder about his love for art and beauty. Currently he serves as the President of the Loma Linda Art Association in Loma Linda, California.
Editor – Jim, we are eager to ask you a few questions about some of your artistic pursuits, and how they inform your faith. First off, tell us when you started taking photos that were meant to be an expression of art.
Ponder – I always loved drawing and painting as a child, but when I was 14, discovered the photography of Ansel Adams in the library. One image in particular, “The Black Sun, Tungsten Hills,” captured my eye.* I felt something profound in my spirit, a deep longing to connect with the beauty of the natural world, and knew I wanted to become a photographer.
My first photographs were created with the hope that maybe they would point toward God. Not all my images are created with a desire to showcase His creativity and power. Many are merely attempts to capture the sheer, visual reality of the world, often in an abstracted fashion. I’m not sure my photos have convinced anyone else to believe in God, but some of them remind me that His works are infinitely wonderful.
Two weeks ago, a lenticular cloud on the summit of Mt. San Bernardino brought that lesson vividly home to me. God created the world in beauty and if we allow Him, He is fully capable of doing beautiful things in our lives as well. (Photo is attached)
Editor – Art can have a spiritual element to it without the subject matter being religious. Of course, taking photographs of nature is capturing images of things God has created. The photographer’s skill comes into play as they frame each shot, tweak the focus, light settings, etc. There really is an art to all of that. You have done some research into usages of art in the Old Testament. Briefly tell us about that.
Ponder – As a child, I was always fascinated with art. I loved drawing, painting, reading biographies of great painters and composers, looking at photographs and writing songs. I always thought of the existence of beauty in the natural world as the highest evidence on our gorgeous, blue planet of God’s divinity and creativity.
Unfortunately, as a young adult I encountered a negative undercurrent of thought among some members of the Adventist community who insisted that art, aesthetics and beauty were unworthy of consideration by people whose mission was to evangelize the world for the second coming. They vigorously misapplied the injunction against making graven images to all forms of creative expression except music.
That idea created tons of conflict in my mind. Was it true that God, the master artist, was forbidding people made in His image from exercising the artistic creativity He placed within them? It seemed absurd to me. God is also the master musician, physician, mathematician, and teacher, yet He never forbade us from making music, healing the sick, studying mathematics or teaching others. So why would He single out artists to prevent them from exercising their gifts?
Fortunately, two serendipitous encounters greatly influenced my thinking and theology. The first was the discovery of the book “Not Man Apart: Photographs of the Big Sur Coast.” Edited by David Brower, the book combines photographs of my favorite part of the world with the enigmatic verses of Robinson Jeffers. I loved the photos, but Jeffers’ poem “The Excesses of God,” hit me with the force of a hurricane:
Is it not by his high superfluousness that we know our God?
For to equal a need is animal, vegetable, mineral. But to fling rainbows over the rain and secret rainbows on the domes of deep-sea shells, not even the weeds to multiply without blossom, nor the birds without music.
Look how beautiful are the things He does.
His signature is the beauty of things.
There is more than one version of the poem in circulation and one of them excludes the last two lines, but the one I read includes them. The thought that beauty is the signature of God electrifies my soul!
The second serendipitous encounter occurred in the early 1980s when I heard Richard Davidson, a professor at the Adventist Theological Seminary, deliver a short talk on the aesthetic nature of God as revealed in the Old Testament. His central thesis was that God shines through the Old Testament as Someone who revels in beauty, art, aesthetics and creativity, and encourages people to express their own creative gifts. I felt a profound sense of relief and thanked Davidson profusely afterwards. Like Jeffers’ poem, Davidson’s thought had given me a lifeline and I cherish them both to this day. Come to think of it, “Is it not by His high superfluousness that we know our God?” might be a good tagline to put on my tombstone . . .
Recently, the rediscovery of an Old Testament artist has intensified my conviction that God wants humans to enjoy their creativity and hone their artistic gifts. His name was Bezalel and here is how the English Standard Version of Exodus 31 describes him:
The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”
The biblical narrative goes on to describe how Bezalel and his helper, Oholiab, were to use their creative gifts to glorify the house of God. I firmly believe we are created to do the same thing, to embellish not only houses of worship, but also the entire world through the gifts God has entrusted to us.
In my life, I attempt to praise God through the lens of my camera and the pickups of my electric guitars. In both cases, I make joyful noises to the Lord and thank Him not only for the beauty of His world, but also for liberating me from the legalism of those who would suppress the artistic creativity God gave me to enjoy.
Editor – Very interesting. Because God is the author of all beauty, it shouldn’t surprise us to find that He inspires many of those He created to produce beautiful works of art. I want to switch gears with a final question. You are like many of us in that you don’t produce art as your primary way to earn a living. How do you keep yourself inspired to keep capturing images and producing art, when you don’t have to?
Ponder – A great question deserves a simple answer: I do this because I love doing it! I was born to play guitar, write songs and create photographs. Ask God why He created me this way, I just know that I love photography and guitars. I am gearing up to start selling my work again. I have sold through galleries in Carmel and Santa Barbara in the past, but this time I intend to establish a darkroom and make platinum-palladium images to offer online. It feels good when someone admires my photographs enough to invite them into their home, but even if I never made a dime I would pursue it with just as much passion and determination—perhaps bordering on obsession—that I do today. It feeds my soul and fuels my dreams. It’s like asking why I love chocolate. I just do.
Editor – You’re talking about the unique passions God instills within us. Each person is inspired in different ways—which is why the world is so interesting. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and art. I encourage our readers to take a look at some your work in our online gallery.
ASA Editor, Rich DuBose interviewed James Ponder, who resides in Southern California.