Cosmic Flowers of Hope – An AI Art Series

AI Art, Thoughts and Essays

Imagine the art world as a sea, and text-to-art technologies as the storm thrashing that sea. Cutting-edge art generators can transform a text prompt into a work of art. One major player, DALLE 2, takes only about twenty seconds for a generation.

Reactions to these technologies range from the delighted expectation of an art revolution to fear of apocalyptic disruption. When I first heard about text-to-art generators, my immediate response was consuming fear. As someone who based a large part of my identity on my artistic talents, I felt like DALLE and the like had stolen a part of me. I wanted nothing to do with art generators – until my God showed me they are nothing to fear.

Now I am excited to have a way to experiment with digital art that does not require expensive software and an abundance of skill and time. To be clear, these generators are not insta-art. They cannot read your mind and then spit out an exact match to what you envision. The process requires several generations and edits to the text prompt and the resulting images (in my experience). Still, when it comes to the artistic process, this technology is liberating.

Recently, I was granted an invitation to participate in DALLE 2’s expanded beta stage. Below is the fruit of my experimentation so far. In this art series, life and beauty blossom in the limitless expanse of the universe (symbolic of my own journey with art-generating technology).

Enjoy!

Nature & the Nature of Hope

Photography, Thoughts and Essays

Can you imagine a desert as a place of life? The work of photographer Guy Tal captures the surprising vibrancy of Utah’s badlands. His landscapes are visions of desert wonders. He has lived and worked in the Utah wilderness for over two decades, and his identity is interlaced with the environment he loves. In his artist statement, he uses religious terms such as “temple” and “sanctuary” to describe his relationship with the land. Perhaps he has formed a subconscious spirituality based on the environment that has shaped him. And this worldview seems to have led to a place of dark expectation.

Tal expresses his lack of hope for the wilderness’ future in a recent blog post. His essay is a beautiful, but sobering read. In it, Tal laments the changes reshaping Utah’s desert. Once reliable creeks are drying up; plant life is struggling, and animals are perishing. Society is divorced from nature, and humanity is too selfish to care. What gives meaning to him is dying. Thus, Tal embraces fate. He tries to accept the degradation of the land he knows so well. He concludes all he can do is live fully today while taking solace in the fact that he tried. He expects that future generations will only know a shadow of the wilderness that has inspired his art and given his life meaning.

I am a landscape photographer, and Tal’s essay has me pondering my relationship to the land I love. Western Montana is also changing. Population growth is exploding, and not all new arrivals care about conserving Montana’s environment. More foot traffic means quicker erosion of Montana’s trail systems. A greater number of people litter or carelessly harm wild places (e.g., using trees for target practice).

Yet, to me, nature has always been a mirror of Someone greater. I believe there will be a time when God renews and restores creation.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

Romans 8:18-22

Even if the mountains crumble and the lakes dry up, I can walk in hope.

Does this mean I don’t care about conserving the wilderness I call home here and now? Not at all. Rather, my hope strengthens my love for God’s natural world and spurs me to action.

Do you have hope? If so, what is the source of your hope? I would love to hear your story if you care to share.

Bannack: The Living Ghost Town

Bannack, Montana

Something yellow and timeless glittered in Grasshopper Creek. The discovery put fire in miners’ hearts, and Montana’s first gold rush began in 1862. Bannack burst to life and peaked at 5,000 people.

History

Gold fever and a population explosion created an ideal environment for crime. Bannack was a frontier town, and there was no established judicial system. Road agents (bandits) flourished. In fact, Bannack’s sheriff, Henry Plummer, was said to secretly lead a gang. Residents formed vigilante groups. The vigilantes of Bannack crossed into infamy when they hanged Henry Plummer. Vigilantes regularly hung their victims without the benefit of a trial.

Unlike most boom towns, Bannack survived for a century. The town went through repeated booms and busts. Improved mining technology, like dredging, was used to wrest more gold from Grasshopper Creek. As the town matured, its lawless character faded. More families made their homes in Bannack, and a church and a brick courthouse (later turned into a hotel) were built.

Yet dreams of gold died in the dust. Bannack declined after World War II, and became a ghost town. Several former residents and various groups concerned with preserving history worked to save Bannack. Eventually, Montana turned the site into a state park.

Bannack State Park: Living History

Today, Bannack is a living ghost town. Homes and businesses from all periods of Bannack’s history are well-preserved. To step into Bannack’s houses is to step into the inner worlds of the people who once lived there. Bannack is a portal back into time. Places I had learned about in history classes came to life as I explored the town.

Landscape

Bannack is located in a rain shadow – the land is essentially a desert. The lush banks of Grasshopper Creek offer the only reprieve from sagebrush wilderness. The spirit of the Old West is alive and well in this landscape.

I love the photos I took during my Bannack trip, but nothing compares to experiencing the sights yourself. If you find yourself in Big Sky Country – and you have a streak of history buff in you – make sure visit Bannack!

References

Surreal Waterfall

AI Art

Recently I have taken an interest in evolving my photography into more surreal artworks. I am not a digital painter, but cutting edge, computer art generators have given me a new way to experiment with my images. The starting image for the piece above was one of my own photographs. There is a mysterious quality to it that I find intriguing, yet off-putting.

While I am enjoying the ability to be unexpectedly and spontaneously creative, I do find the lack of control with such art tools frustrating. You never know what exactly you are going to get. I also do not believe it is possible for computer-generated art to surpass what God’s art: nature. There is something magical about being present in nature, capturing it as it is with photography. Nature photography will thus probably always be my first love when it comes to artistic expression.

What do you think? Do you enjoy more surreal, even fantastical, art pieces? Or maybe do you prefer the straightforward beauty of nature?

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park

Early in June I went camping with friends in Grand Teton National Park. We hiked past Jenny Lake and up to Hidden Falls (pictures below). We also had the chance to drive through Yellowstone, where we stopped by Lower Falls in Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. I had the pleasure of photographing these beautiful landscapes between rainstorms. From lupines to sunflowers, the wild flowers are in bloom. The forest is unusually verdant thanks to ample rainfall.

We left Yellowstone on Sunday night, June 12th, a few hours before the historic floods that closed the park. I am awed and grateful that God delivered us from what would have been a disastrous situation.

Painting of a purple iris created by Tressa Mancini in collaboration with AI.

AI Art: Iris of Promise

AI Art, Thoughts and Essays

AI art generators are sending ripples through the art world. Some fear this technology, while others embrace it. I was terrified of it. I wrote a long post decrying it during a moment when I was caught up in fear and depression. I deleted that article. Instead, I want to tell a story of personal victory.

On Friday (06/03/22), God said to me during a time of prayer, “Do not fear! Your skills in writing and design are not in vain! Do not fear computer tools but embrace them.” I then promptly forget about this.

Saturday, June 4th, rolls around. I find myself on Night Cafe, an AI art generating service. With the Lord’s help, I worked up the courage to experiment with the technology I feared. The featured image in this post – the purple iris – is the result of my experimentation. I was pleasantly surprised!

Today (06/05/22) I opened my prayer journal to see the above quote. I had done what He said, and God walked through my fears with me! I was telling one of my pastors about this, and she asked me what color the iris was. When I said it was purple, she said that purple irises symbolically mean the promise of God. She had a bouquet of irises at her wedding for this reason (more on the symbolism of irises in Christianity here).

This led to a moment of awe for me – I was reverently astonished at how God worked in my life. I took a risk and stepped into my fear, and God helped me through it. In the end, He showed me a new form of beauty and gave me a memorial [the art piece] of His faithfulness and His promises.

Speaking of awe, this was the subject of my lead pastor’s sermon Sunday night. Fear narrows one’s focus to the object of one’s fear, which leads to a downward spiral of negative emotions (as exemplified by my fear of art generating AI). But, according to Phycological Science, awe combined with spirituality has the opposite effect. “By making us less focused on the self and more in tune with the present moment, awe may ultimately boost our own individual well-being…The link between awe and spirituality may, at least in part, be explained by an ‘upward spiral’ of positive emotion that ultimately boosts well-being.” Not only did I get to experience yet again God’s care and Him working out all things in my life, but He also showed me a new weapon to combat my fears with: awe of Him.

“For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” -Psalm 100:5

May the Lord bless you, and deliver you from all your fears!

When Ice and Fire Meet (Fiction)

Fiction

Below is a brief experiment of mine in surrealist, fantasy fiction. I suppose it has more literary leanings than genre fiction. If abstract and strange stories are your thing, then enjoy!

I breathe out, and streams of ice pour into space. A few stars, red and ancient, fall. I pull back my hair. A few planets part as my hair sweeps through.  Two moons crash together, turning to dust. By my own power, I stand, for there’s nothing to stand on. I glow white against the dark. I ran my hands through the void. There’s nothing. 

I sink to sit in nothing. I smooth out a skirt made of airy nothing. The fabric drifts and flows before settling around my legs like a dead thing. I again braid the measureless miles of my hair. To think, I wished for this! When everything crashed in, this isolation saved me. Or so I thought. If only the silence would break. If something would just move.

My world cracks. A hand, black as my surroundings, reaches in. Embers fly through the rip in my reality. I should move away, but I reach for this light! A Soul pokes his head through. His fire eyes take me in. I know him. He – the reason I made this void to hide in. I stretch out my hand. Ice flows from my fingers. A cold curtain surrounds me. This is what I want. 

Flames lick at my ice walls. I strengthen what I’ve built – yet he breaks through, and reaches in, taking my hand. His touch burns. He closes his eyes tight; I know my ice hurts him as his fire burns me. Then he looks at me. I see the past again: when his sword ran me through and when my dagger pierced his heart. And the old world bled with us. 

We float. He reaches for my other hand but stops short. He searches my face. Forgive me, his eyes say. Maybe, if it’s not too late, we can start again. There’s nothing to lose, for what are we now but the ghosts of gods? We did it to ourselves in our final battle.

I take his other hand, and he pulls me from my void. I enter somewhere new. It’s cold, and there’s no sound. But there are living stars – more than I count. A young galaxy stretches before us. This – a new universe, made from the ashes of the old? He pulls me close, and I wrap my arms around him.

 ©2022

Hope and an Eternal Perspective

Anxiety & Depression

When it comes to mental health issues and recovery, hope is key. And hope only helps if hope comes from a reliable source that does not fail even when the storms of life hit. The source of one’s hope determines the durability of one’s hope. Hence one of the benefits of faith is an eternal perspective, from which sustaining hope can be drawn.

I have written before about how depression is one of my ongoing battles. Something that makes this struggle worse is when I research about and obsess on the dismal state of the world. Of course, focusing on this reinforces a sense of hopelessness. To make progress, I go back to the baseline of eternal hope that my faith (Christianity) offers. The idea of the renewal of all things, and a restoration of creation to a perfect state, in which there is justice and the ability to live a beautiful, eternal life – this is hope.

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Depression Storms

Anxiety & Depression

Originally posted on My Depression Hope 8/31/21. I am doing much better and no longer feel this way to this degree. I am dismantling the Depression Hope blog and reposting its content here (as I explain here) in the hopes that this will help others with similar struggles.

I struggle with depression, and sometimes I ruminate on ending my life. Some days, the idea of freedom from the emotional stress and storm that is depression is so very appealing. Sometimes I am afraid of the harm I may do to myself. It is frightening to move beyond the safeguard that basic survival instincts should provide, yet often that is exactly what I do. The future becomes a blank, and I, in my dark moments, cannot see the true cost of giving up my future. All I can see is the potential to be free from the pain. All it would take is for me to have a bit more courage to complete the task.

In moments like these, my faith seems to hibernate. God is good, and He is my Lord. I know that. Yet I shut out this reality. I compartmentalize my faith. Instead of turning to God for healing and strength, I retreat deeper into myself, deeper into the dark ocean that is depression. I get lost on those stormy seas. I can’t find my way back.

Yet I have one comfort, even in my “midnight of the soul” moments: Psalm 121:7 NLT.

“The Lord keeps you from all harm and watches over your life.”

How precious the truth of this verse. My Lord watches over my life and keeps me from all harm, even the harm that I am sometimes tempted to inflict upon myself. I am not alone in this war of depression – the Lord is watching over my life. He protects me, even from myself. He doesn’t cringe and turn away from me with my mental health struggles. He protects me and helps me. I know He will continue to keep me from harm, especially when my own strength runs out.

Interview with the Artist

Photography

I had my first interview about my photography thanks to Mark with Naturalist Weekly – see it below! Thanks Mark for the opportunity! It was a pleasure working with you!

Naturalist Weekly

Several years ago, I was taking a morning hike up Spruce Peak in Stowe, Vermont. When I reached the summit of the mountain, I turned around to admire my accomplishment. What I noticed when I looked back towards town was how the clouds had settled into the valley covering everything with a softness that only nature can provide. There was something in that moment that provided me with a sense of peace and wonder. It was something that, if I was a photographer, I probably would have wanted to capture.

However, I am not a photographer. Unless you count my dog photos. But as much fun as these are for me, these photographs don’t necessarily capture the same sense of awe and wonder like a great vista or an expansive landscape. That is probably why I was drawn towards the work of Tressa Mancini

Tressa Mancini is a photographer from…

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Healing: Isolating From the World’s Concerns

Anxiety & Depression

Isolating from the people we love and the passions and values that drive us during a depression episode is a not the best choice. Yet isolating from the world and its concerns can be healing.

For Christmas weekend I chose to isolate from the world. I focused exclusively on God, my family, and the pursuits that matter to me. Usually my anxiety compels me to stay aware of current affairs, so not satisfying the urge to look was quite difficult. Yet I didn’t give in. It was a battle to force myself to focus on what was the most valuable use of my time.

Not looking at the news – not devoting all my mental energy to what ails the world and my country – helped me in an unexpected way. I was struggling with an oncoming depressive episode – the gas was poured so to speak. All I had to do was light the fire by giving into my anxiety. However, for the first time in a long time, that did not happen.

Yes, it is important to stay aware of what is going on. However, there is a balance to be sought. I daresay what we value most and what drives us on should take up ninety-nine percent of our time. It gives less fuel to anxiety and depression, and it is far less time wasted on things we cannot change.

“Fix Your Eyes on Jesus,” Said the Well-meaning Christian

Thoughts and Essays

I have struggled with depression for years, and one piece of advice I often receive from well-meaning Christians is to “fix your eyes on Jesus.” Okay, thought I, how does that help me? Fixing my eyes on Jesus does not make the depression – the emotional agony – go away. In my mind, fixing my eyes on Jesus equated to looking at a stained-glass window at church. Yes, the window is a work of art, and maybe Jesus looks beautiful in it. But how does that help me on a practical level? It never made sense. It was so frustrating! 

Yet God showed me the missing half the story – the part where it helps me. Fixing my eyes on Jesus (instead of my depression and pain) is not a one-way act. It is a two-way exchange. For once I fix my thoughts and my heart on Jesus, He empowers me to deal with my depression. He strengthens me in my moment of need to get through the dark valley. “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” -Ephesians 3:16

“16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” -Ephesians 3:16-19

Through God-given faith, I am strengthened to face my present hardship: mental illness. He roots me in His love, and He becomes my Source of Strength to keep going – to heal. Then, together with the love and support of like-minded believers, I am enveloped in more of His love. The depth and reality of His love overwhelm the dark lies of depression. The cycle repeats, leading to greater healing and spiritual maturity. 

Fixing my gaze on Jesus is not just an empty platitude. To set my heart and thoughts on Jesus is to prime myself to receive His strengthening and to remind myself of His love that consumes all darkness. Amen.