Attending to Negative Space

I have been meditating for a while on the concept of negative space. In art, positive space represents the center, and the area around is considered negative space. Negative space isn’t bad. Rather, it’s necessary for a balanced composition. Positive space can’t exist without negative space. But what’s interesting to me is negative space goes beyond the margins to fill up its own space.

“Putting attention on negative space somewhat deemphasizes the positive space, it all becomes equally important,” says Chicago artist Maggie Hubbard.

Positive and Negative Space

Positive space is defined by the outline and mass of an object; the negative space is the space surrounding the object. In drawing it is critical for the student to learn to navigate and use negative spaces; the flattened two-dimensional spaces are just as important as the positive space in creating an image. One might say that Japanese faith developed as negative space around the forbidden faith of Christianity…In a culture that honors the hidden, the weak and the unspoken, Christianity became a hidden reality of Japanese culture,” writes Makoto Fujimura.

Fujimura’s assessment of Japanese Christianity being imprinted not in positive space, but in the negative space of Japanese history and culture, is profound. As a bicultural artist and a Christian, Fujimura himself exists in negative space. In his book, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering1, he reflects on the beauty and ambiguity of faith after encountering Shusako Endo’s masterpiece, Silence2. Like Endo, he doesn’t center on a triumphant, conquering faith often associated with Western Christianity. Rather, he focuses on the negative spaces where faith is uncertain, its boundaries and deep mysteries hard to grasp.

I can relate to his experience of faith. Over the years, I find myself in undefined spaces – in negative space – existing outside the lines and spaces that have already been filled in. Negative space is where I exist as an Asian Pacific American woman who cares deeply about faith, work and justice. As a Christian in tech, my faith is integrated with my work and my passion for justice. But I don’t inhabit positive space. I am not at the center of the tech world because that space is dominated by white men. Nor do I occupy positive space in justice circles, for I don’t lobby full time or work for a non-profit. My lack of formal theological education discredits me in the church setting. In tech, justice circles and the church setting, I live in negative space. The blankness of this space can be exciting – full of possibilities, but also daunting. The playbook isn’t written.

Kayaking in the Pacific Ocean

Last summer, my family and I did some kayaking in Australia. Before this, I had never kayaked on my own before, but that time, on vacation, I decided to try. The conditions were not ideal for a first timer. It was from a busy pier (Manly Beach) to an island nearby. My son put me up for a challenge, and so I rowed like my life depended on it. There were moments when I seriously thought the wind and waves were going to take over. I imagined headlines like, “Amateur kayaker fell into shark-infested waters.” But we made it, and my son got to walk around the island, and check out Quarantine Station (the place where they used to keep unwanted immigrants).

We only rented the kayaks for two hours, so it was time to leave and head back to the pier. I left the beach first and was kayaking at my own speed. My family was way behind me because they left a bit later. For a while, it felt like it was just me and the ocean. I could see where I’m supposed to go, but not sure what the waters will be like up ahead. Yet I didn’t care. Instead of having to row for survival, I felt like the wind was helping me out this time, pushing my kayak along with little effort on my part.   It felt like God was saying to me, “When you are the one leading the pack, you set the pace, and you don’t have to worry about what’s behind you. You just move forward toward the place you want to go, the vision you see.”

I didn’t feel alone. The wind pushed me forward. And so I told myself, I need to remember this moment because when I go back to my life, my ministry, I will feel alone.  I’ll need to remember when the wind was with me, and the waves were not against me. I could see where I’m supposed to go, and I just need to keep rowing.

I hesitate to share this story because it sounds so presumptuous. Quite frankly, I have a hard time believing it myself. But this past year, the Spirit has pushed me forward to places I never thought I’d go and do things I’ve never tried before.

I used to think positive space is better, easier, where the action happens. But Endo’s Silence gently points to the beauty of negative space. And as I look for negative space in my life and ministry, I see signs of God everywhere. God’s been there this whole time.

Look for negative space. I may be biased, but I believe God’s creativity shines more brightly here.

Art:
Hubbard, M. (2016), Erica & Ryan’s couch, Acrylic on Wood. Retrieved from https://www.maggiehubbard.net/homes.

References:

1Fujimura, M. (2016), Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press

2Endo, S. (1969). Silence (William Johnston, Trans.). Marlboro, NJ: Taplinger Publishing Company. (Original work published 1966)

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