Outsider art

Viewing someone from a room away evokes melancholy.

This is the premise I am putting to my son as we, along with my daughter, wander through the Frick museum in Pittsburgh looking at Impressionist art.

Nathan loves to paint in his free time, and has been working on a series of pieces capturing living rooms, where we see a figure from some distance. We are talking about it because of this painting by Félix Vallotton, which takes the same removed approach.


I say that having a wall between us and the subject intrinsically elicits a kind of sadness. It infers a disconnection. Accentuates loneliness. Awakens empathy.


To illustrate this, I snap a photo of my daughter after she wanders into an adjoining room. But as I look at the photo, I’m not so sure of my premise. There is more of a quiet loveliness than loneliness to this scene. But maybe that’s the dad in me talking.


This self-portrait by Nathan shows him reading in his own apartment. Here, too, I may be too close to see if my statement is true.

But I know this: looking in from the outside can be painful. It is in the nature of human groups for the members to forget what it feels like to be on the periphery, to remember how hard it is to find a way in. Many churches struggle with this. I once led a group of elders through a discussion of the difference between being a friendly church (“Hi! Nice to have you here!”) and a welcoming church (“Would you like to join our family for lunch today?”). It was a hard sell.

Even Old Testament Israel struggled with this. God had to instruct them:

“Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” Exodus 23:9

Maybe the problem is that not enough of us have experienced being an outsider. Or we haven’t fully understood our excluded status before Christ’s saving work was applied in our lives. Or perhaps we just have short memories.

We all need to remember what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.

Jesus, you were the ultimate outsider. You came to your own and your own did not receive you. Forgive us for all the times we have overlooked the people on the periphery for the sake of our own comfort. Open our eyes to see them and open our hearts to welcome them.


Bruce Van Patter

As a freelance illustrator, graphic recorder, and author, Bruce is on a lifelong journey to delight in the handiwork of the Creator. And he’s always ready for fellow travelers.

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