Kreg Yingst had set himself a task: He would make one block print for each of the psalms.
“I thought I was gonna knock it out in a year,” he said.
He did not knock it out in a year. Some of the images came to him easily, but some were a struggle. The project dragged.
And that was perfect.
“I had to wrestle with it. It became my daily prayer. If nothing came, I had to sit on it, and that would be the one prayer I would pray. If a visual didn’t come, I would read it tomorrow,” he said.
He compares the process to meleté, the intense word-based meditative prayer of the Desert Fathers. Many of them were illiterate, so they would go to their abbot, receive some lines of Scripture and immerse themselves in them all day to “pray without ceasing” in their cells, perhaps in song. This slow, repetitious meditation would purify their hearts and allow the words to take root.
More than two years later, Yingst’s prints that grew from these words became a book, “The Psalms in 150 Block Prints” ($35.95).
Yingst, 63, was heavily influenced by the black-and-white graphic woodcuts of German artist Frans Masereel and American Lynd Ward, whose wordless novels are considered a precursor to the modern graphic novel. Yingst’s deft, striking compositions, which often incorporate text, are sometimes exuberant, sometimes mystical and often jarring.
As an artist who shares his work on Instagram as he makes it, Yingst has had the disconcerting experience of knowing his most heartfelt pieces will probably be social media “duds.”
“We all want to be happy, and we all want sunshine. It’s the sweet aroma of prayer that everybody likes,” he laughed.
But the psalms also carry a lot of darkness, struggle and fear. He chose not to skip over those verses.
“When the rainy days come, how do I deal with it? Because I can’t escape it. That’s what the psalmists were doing. They always came back to [saying to God], ‘You’re still here. You’re my rock, my foundation,’” he said.
At the same time, he learned that some of the more fearsome psalms — the ones begging God to crush our enemies, and the ones that speak of dashing babies against rocks, are not what they first may seem.
“I need to understand this is a spiritual language. I can’t let this bitterness take root in me but cut it off while it’s still a baby. I started reading the psalms that way,” he said.
He discovered that they’re not so much inveighing against an enemy that’s some literal group of people but against whatever darkness every human will encounter.
One especially dark moment was the school shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012. Yingst had two young daughters and couldn’t come to terms with the horror and loss those parents were enduring. So for his New Year’s resolution, he decided to carve one prayer a week for the entire year. Those images became a self-published book, “Light from Darkness: Portraits and Prayers” ($29.95), and he donated the proceeds to orphanages. Sandy Hook parents had lost their children, so he wanted to help children who had lost parents.
“It was reactionary. I wanted to throw light. At least, this will bring a little light,” he said.
Woodcuts and linoleum prints are particularly suited to that goal.
“With the block print, and with linoleum or woodcuts, you have that black square, and every time I make a mark, every time I make a gouge, I’m carving light out of darkness,” he said.
If you know of (or are) a Catholic or Catholic-friendly artist you think should be featured, please drop me a line! simchafisher at gmail dot com. I’m not excellent about responding, but I always check out every suggestion.