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THINKING

Why Art Matters: A Conversation with Roberta Ahmanson - Part 2

This is the second part of an extended conversation with Image’s editor in chief, James K.A. Smith. The first part can be read here.

Image from "Otherwise/Revival" installation at Bridge Projects, Los Angeles.

James K.A. Smith: Tell me about the art you live with. What surrounds you in your home? How does it change the way you dwell in the world?

Roberta Ahmanson: I can’t imagine not living with art. I didn’t grow up surrounded by it. I did get to design my own bedroom—lavender walls, furniture, curtains and bedspread. It was my only pastel period. And I designed all kinds of clothes for my paper dolls, endless combinations of color and pattern. I also rearranged the furniture and the pictures in our home: framed photographs of Bryce Canyon and Colorado mountains taken by my father, some prints of trains and the Iowa State Capitol. In college I bought posters of Matisse’s famous blue figure and a winsome Rembrandt portrait.

A woman once told me about a refugee camp in Africa where the inhabitants were given bolts of brightly patterned cloth. The women used it not only for clothing but also to decorate the make-shift dwellings where they lived. They turned the camp into a flowering of color. Living with art.

For most of us, living with art isn’t quite so dramatic. But we all live with art. We live in a built environment designed by someone with more than utility in mind. When we close the door and enter our own space, we fill it with furniture and objects that we not only use but that bring us joy. A throw on a sofa that brings the bit of color we knew we had to have. A print found at a gallery or a flea market on a Saturday afternoon that ended with a good dinner and a glass of wine. That’s living with art.

Each of these works—from colorful African cloth to a print on our wall or a painting in an art museum that haunts our memory—was created by a human being, often with the aid of other human beings, living out their own creation in the image of God. God created the universe. He created me. He created you. He created each person whose hands and mind worked together to bring these objects that give us such joy into being. These works of art tell the deep story of creation, of hope, now and after death. As Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote, they are talismans of the deep truth of the universe. There is a God, a creator, and all life responds in creating. I am but dust, but works of art remind me that God created me out of that dust beyond my wildest dreams.

On dark days, days when life doesn’t seem right, we can look at the gifts of art around us. For me it might be the Maja Lisa Engelhardt painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel. For you, something else. I am reminded of the Truth. Darkness doesn’t win. I am humbled. I am thankful. I find the courage to grab hold of the deeper story and go on. Art does this for all of us.


Jacob Wrestling the Angel, 1993

Maja Lisa Engelhardt

Acrylic on paper mounted to canvas, 45.75" x 38.5"