Gardner, Robert M.
What I Know About Heaven
Faculty Mentor: Robert Marshall, Visual Arts
King David the Psalmist, Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth, Abraham on his journey to
Egypt—These illustrious men hold something in common with most of humanity; for they, like
many unnamed, have found solace and inspiration in the twinkling of a distant star or the
majestic swell of billowing clouds in the sunset. I am among them.
I was once startled by the view of a coming storm on the horizon. Heaven was about to inundate
the poor, helpless earth with a barrage of watery darts, and all around were scampering for
shelter. Yet strangely, that very same celestial assault was providing the means for survival—
This thought struck me. The relationship between heaven and earth is never static, and in all of
its changing moods, it is almost always just as subtle and complex. Having been raised in a
predominantly religious atmosphere, my mind naturally found a parallel in my relationship with
God. Like the earth, I have sometimes felt beaten by the pelting rain of circumstance only to
later discover that I could not have survived without it. These four paintings are an exploration
of that delicate connection between heaven and earth and, more particularly, my own connection
The initial idea was to create a series of five of these paintings, each with an upper canvas
depicting a sky and a lower canvas with a still life of objects that addressed the metaphorical
significance of the sky pictured above them. However, as the paintings progressed, several
significant changes needed to be made to the original concept.
First, the gallery in which they are currently being exhibited has but four walls. The idea of
crowding two of these images onto one wall caused some conflict with the effect I desired to
create within that space. I wanted each painting to have plenty of breathing room so as to avoid
the distraction of having too much information to take in all at once. I wanted viewers to feel
invited to sit and contemplate each piece. Thus, five pieces turned into four. This change was
fortuitous both for the gallery space and because of the time required to complete each image.
Second, soon after beginning the second still life of the four, I spoke with my advisor and a few
other professors about the ideas for the remaining paintings. I noticed that the greater degree to
which I planned the exact meaning of each piece, the less interested they became. To them, a
person will derive their own meaning from a work of art regardless of the artist’s intent. Once
completed, it takes on a life of its own, and by carefully forcing it to mean one certain thing, I
was preventing the painting from meaning even greater things—things I had not even
considered, things which could only exist in the minds of others.
I reflected on their comments and realized that many of my most moving experiences with
paintings came as a result of a personal interaction with them, not some inordinately specific,
extremely literal, predetermined message. A painting like that becomes a book or a sign-post,
not a painting. I therefore determined to stick to only one object which I would repeat in each
still life—cloth.1 The result was that this single object became an all new metaphor, one created
solely for the current visual dialogue.
Third. As the paintings progressed, I, along with several others, noticed that my plans for those
paintings which were to be paired also backfired. Those which I had originally put together in
my mind looked better when paired with other paintings. This confused me for a time since I
was still thinking quite literally about the ideological, not visual, relationships between the
pieces. Each still life, though reduced to one item, was still meant to convey a specific meaning.
Luckily, the faculty came to the rescue again. Their advice reminded me of something that
Wassily Kandinsky, an Abstract Expressionist painter of the early 20th century, had said. He had
looked forward to the day when paintings would express a meaning that was too subtle for
words. Here I was, still trying to force a literal meaning on the piece—one which could be read
as if it were words on a page. Yet, by so doing, I was again preventing the paintings from
reaching their full potency both in meaning and as paintings.
The idea had been to explore the changing moods of a delicate relationship: heaven and earth,
the divine and man, God and me. Regardless of the images on the bottom or the time of day on
top, that relationship would exist in my paintings, but in a manner that was unpredicted and
unplanned. This discovery taught me something about that relationship. Though unplanned, the
pairing of previously sundered paintings made better paintings. Perhaps the unplanned phases of
my connection with God have also been those which made me a better person.
I have been told that change is inevitable. I can only be glad that, for me, those which occurred
in this process have taught me unpredictable things and helped me to see better than I had before.
In the effort to explore the subtleties of my personal relationship with God, I have found it to
more intimate and more delicate than I had previously supposed. Just as, with the paint, a few
minor shifts in color or composition can destroy or enhance the fragile interplay between the two
canvases, so, too, can similarly minute changes in my connection with Heavenly Father have a
parallel effect. Also, the process led me from overtly spectacular and literal images to more
ambiguous and subtle imagery. The better paintings and most cherished experiences came when
the sky was more routine in nature and the still life more straightforward in content.
The cloth would naturally change in color and configuration from painting to painting.