Author: Stephen Holmgren

I have been an Episcopal priest for thirty eight years, having served in parishes and in academia. My interests include art and theology, liturgy and spirituality, and I love to go sailing whenever I can.

The Beauty of the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs



Here, I offer something most personal. Below are some pages from a project I prepared for and then sent to my beloved, in the autumn of 1977 (© Stephen Holmgren 2023), about 45 years ago. She was someone who I very much hoped might in the future be my betrothed. She was and is, Martha, to whom I sent this booklet in the autumn of 1977. Designed and composed in a pension in Florence, Italy, assisted by access to a manual typewriter at St James, the local Episcopal / Anglican parish in Florence, I prepared this multipage document, and sent it to Martha who was pursuing a study year in Taipei. Amazingly, it got there through international mail, and equally amazing is the fact that we still have the physical original of the little  booklet today. (God is good / all the time)

Of course, like all proponents of eternal love and affection, I have fallen short of living into the ideal. But, I still believe in it! Those of us who have entered into this particular covenant can admit this. Why? Because in the covenantal reality of Judaism, and then within Christianity, what we do, and perhaps more importantly what we have failed to do, is not the real issue. The real thing is the the One who grasps us, holds us, and saves us, always. And, the One who holds us together.

More Early Graphic Design

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An ink and water color design for the cover of a small pamphlet


Above, an additional cover design for a small pamphlet

Below, I share the top third of a number of designs for tri-folded office or home stationary, suitable for insertion in a business size envelope. When the whole page is unfolded, a blank area occupies the lower two thirds of the page, allowing space for either typing or hand writing.

Obviously, Frank Lloyd Wright has loomed large in my aesthetic formation as an aspirant to architectural and graphic design. The designs I share here are just short of fifty years old.

I have learned much from FL Wright and his work, and while enduringly appreciative of his vision I am not blind to the problems and challenges that his self-confidence sometimes led him to encounter. My favorite (perhaps anecdotal) FLW quote: “I am, by my own admission, the world’s greatest architect!”

And my favorite FLW story involves Johnson Company scion, ‘Hib’ Johnson. He commissioned Wright to design the now world-famous SC Johnson Company headquarters and research facility in Racine, Wisconsin, in the latter 1930’s. At the same time, Hib also commissioned Wright to design a grand residence for himself, later known as Wingspread. Apparently, one evening, with Mr. Johnson hosting a formal dinner party, the roof began to leak (a not-unknown aspect of some challenging Wright designs). Johnson took to the phone and called Wright, complaining that water was dripping on his head at the dining table. FLW cooly replied by saying, “Well, Hib, move your chair!”

Yet, I have an abiding sense that FL Wright’s now somewhat dated, but totally relevant, sensitivity to what he called organic design principles still has much to teach us. As much as I admire the modernist work of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and so many others, I am so grateful for what I have learned from and through engagement with the life, work, writings, and designs of Frank Lloyd Wright.


The designs presented here are copyrighted (© Stephen Holmgren 2023).




The Beauty of Psalm 139

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Frank Lloyd Wright is known primarily for the huge scope of his architectural work, and perhaps secondarily for the furnishings he designed for his buildings, which include everything from furniture to lamps to tableware. Less well-known are Wright’s graphic designs which were materialized in tapestries, wall panels, carpets, and in stained glass windows.

Just as I was strongly influenced by Wright’s architectural work when I aspired to follow him into the practice of his vocation, my design vision was just as impacted by his graphic work. In my case, this influence was not manifest in plans for such things as tapestries or windows, but in designs for paper products such as cards and stationary, and for handmade pamphlets. Among these were one featuring text from Psalm 139 (:1-17), and another text from the Song of Songs.

Above and below are some images of the little Psalm 139 pamphlet I created in the autumn of 1977 using a circle template, a rapidograph pen, an old-fashioned typewriter, and charcoal paper, along with a binding of stranded thread.



The above images are copyright, © Stephen Holmgren 2023. This post is based on a little pamphlet featuring Psalm 139:1-17, which I made while staying at the Pension Colorado in central Florence during the fall semester of 1977 while on a study abroad program through St Olaf College, in my sophomore year. I also acknowledge the probable influence of Alexander Calder’s mobiles.

Beauty in Parallel Revisited


Perhaps the only thing more memorable than driving over the Golden Gate Bridge may be to pass under it on an ocean-going ship. I was lucky enough to have that experience five times before I was a teenager.

Many of us assume the name for this bridge is related to its warm color. But the name comes from the ocean straight over which it stands, and not from the Gold Rush. Rather than mimicking gold, the bridge’s official color—“International Orange”—was chosen to contrast with fog. A story is told about when that color was first applied. Painters dabbed splotches of it on the heads of curious seagulls. Pretty soon, Bay Area birdwatchers reported a new bird species, which was called the California Red-Headed seagull!

Until 1964, the Golden Gate Bridge had the longest main span in the world. Yet, its basic design isn’t unique. We know this from other suspension bridges, which are found all over the world. Bridges of this kind have two main towers, steadied in place by their suspension cables, which are anchored in the ground. From their anchor points, these substantial cables ascend to the top of the towers, and then gently descend again to the center of the bridge. From that low point, they again soar up, to the top of the opposite tower. The slightly arched roadway across is literally suspended from these main cables, by small support cables that hang from them. Here, in the beauty of this simple design, we find a helpful spiritual and liturgical metaphor.

Reflect for a moment about two significant Sundays in the church year. One is the last Sunday after Epiphany, or Transfiguration Sunday, which we observed 10 days ago. The other is Easter Day, which lies ahead. Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday before this season of Lent, and Easter Day is the first Sunday after Lent. Both Sundays are as important with regard to our identity as they are to that of Jesus. For in his Transfiguration and in his Resurrection, Jesus does not simply reveal who he really is. He also reveals the fulfillment of our vocation to be fully human, in him.

Imagine these two Sundays on the Church calendar as being like the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Transfiguration Sunday, coming just before Lent, is like the south tower of the Golden Gate bridge, on the busy urban, San Francisco, side of the straight. And, Easter Sunday is like the north tower of that bridge, on the less familiar and historically rural side of that navigational channel. The season of Lent stretches between these two Sundays like the main span of that bridge, taking us from what we think we know to that which may yet to be disclosed to us.

Here is the crucial part ~ every year we need to make this liturgical crossing, from our sharing in the vision of the Transfiguration, to our participation in the joy of Easter Resurrection. And like the great towers of a suspension bridge, Transfiguration Sunday and Easter Sunday uphold us all the way across our Lenten journey over what sometimes may seem like dark, cold, and turbulent waters around us.


This posting is a revised version of a post I first published in 2017, and is based on my recent homily for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, which explores the parallel between the revelation of glory that we see in the Transfiguration, and the glory we see in the Resurrection (click here for a link to it).

The Beauty of ‘Nothing’ (as we observe Ash Wednesday)



This past Sunday, using the metaphor of the twin towers of a suspension bridge, I invited our local congregation to explore a pairing of two Sundays in the calendar, Transfiguration Sunday and Easter Sunday. These are the interrelated Sundays immediately before and after Lent. Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent present us with a similar opportunity. Here, we can explore the relationship between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. With this second comparison between liturgical days, instead of noticing a parallel, we can observe an evident paradox.

On Easter Sunday, we face an unusual challenge. We must take the finding of an absence, and discern within it a presence. Something that was known, seen and touched, became as if it was nothing. And so, we are challenged to see how an empty tomb could at the same time be full of meaning. Even though Mary Magdalene and the disciples found nothing in the tomb, they came away with the conviction that something profound was there.

Consider, then, this remarkable contrast. In the metaphors at the heart of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we observe inverse phenomena. What would Ash Wednesday be without ashes? Ashes constitute a biblical image with a long and vivid history. And our tactile liturgical use of this common material plays a central role in our services on the first day of Lent. Yet, this liturgical presence of ashes is meant to represent an absence. A dish full of ashes in my hand represents something larger, which is empty. Something (the sign of the cross) is marked with ash on parishioners’ foreheads, and it symbolizes the starkness of nothing, or, literally, no thing.

So, the Sunday of joyful resurrection presence provides the reverse of the Wednesday of regrettable absence. Though it wouldn’t sound as good, Ash Wednesday could instead be called, “Absence Wednesday,” “Empty Wednesday,” or “Nothing Wednesday.” This is because the ashes at the heart of the liturgy for this day symbolize an absence, an emptiness, or a ‘nothing.’ I don’t mean that the ashes are empty of meaning. It’s just that what they represent is literally nothing. Ashes represent nothing of value, nothing of worth. And that is what makes them special! We put ashes on our foreheads to remind us that, on our own and relying on ourselves, we are nothing of value, nothing of worth. No matter how hard we try, we don’t give meaning and value to ourselves. Only God does that.

Our lives can sometimes feel like they are full of “nothings,” as if all that we do only amounts to ashes or dust. All too quickly, we forget that dust and ashes are the building blocks of God’s creation of human beings. They are the building blocks of God’s Kingdom. When we think about something we have done, and are tempted to say, “O, it’s really nothing at all,” let’s remember what God can do with ‘nothing’.


This posting is a slightly altered republication of a post from March 2017. It is based on a homily for Ash Wednesday that I have frequently offered, the most recent text of which can be found by clicking here.

The Beauty of FL Wright’s Influence

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The Solar Radicycle (1969 ~), second iteration, south facing, with a studio on the north side


As I have shared before, I once aspired to become an architect, a vocation toward which I may still be temperamentally disposed, though way too late to consider as a second career. Here, I want to take another risk. Having previously shared a drawing from my exploration of shell forms, from when in my youth I sought to develop as an artist, I would like to offer a glimpse of my very early architectural aspirations.

The drawings I feature above and below very obviously reflect the impact upon me by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The plan above, which I titled the Solar Radicycle, is one that I first conceived in late middle school or in early high school, but then later elaborated. With its reliance upon circular patterns, it is clearly influenced both in name and design by Wright’s second Herbert and Katherine Jacobs house (1944), the 1950 Wilber C. Pearce house, and related designs (the David Wright house, among them).

While in eighth and ninth grade I memorized FLW construction design and building facts in the way that some of my peers memorized baseball card details. Among such were significant aspects of Wright’s remarkable achievement with the columns of the Johnson Wax company building (Racine, WI), and the unexpected and astonishing test-endurance of those structural features.

I have searched in vain for my colored study drawings from the 1970’s of the exterior elevation for the Solar Radicycle plan, showing the proposed domed roof over the central living area. Yet, the isometric drawing of the building (below) may help give an idea of its intended eventual shape.

An isometric view of the Solar Radicycle plan (not showing roofs)

The word ‘solar’ explains itself; the suffix ‘cycle’ implies something circular; and the prefix ‘radi’ comes from the common words radical and radish, and implies ‘of the root.’ Naively, I had the hope to build this house somewhere in rural Vermont or New Hampshire upon my graduation from high school in Massachusetts. Obviously, I was a romantic dreamer. And, of course, it did not happen. But I had thought through a number of key details, neglecting those of financing. Here I was a true follower of Frank Lloyd Wright!

The first iteration of the above design was more simple, with a focus upon the central living, kitchen and dining areas. The first or inner ring of the design depicted above will reflect this. The second, outer ring of structure in the plan, reflects the later iteration, involving a re-conceived master bedroom location, along with the addition of a den, and also a large studio.

I envisioned the walls as being embedded in surrounding earth berms, and using either local stone and or limestone for the vertical structure. I thought that the roofs, both the T-shaped slabs over the bedroom wings and studio, as well as a large dome over the living area – and small domes (or possibly sky-lights) over the  kitchen and restrooms – might be cast in pre-stressed concrete. Here again, I may have been too slavishly an FLW follower in not fully considering the roof-leak potential for those roof slabs and the seams between them, especially in New England winters and springs. I might have had a beautiful house, if I could have pulled it off, while yet having to deal with raindrops seeping down and falling onto the side bedrooms.

I am proud of the overall design, but fully acknowledge how this was an adolescent flight of fantasy! Below are a couple of representative examples – among many – of very obviously FL Wright-influenced designs for houses and plans for other structures that I produced in the mid to latter 1970s, just out of high school, while contemplating a vocation in architecture.

To this day, the possibility of what my original plan might have been hovers at the edge of my mind. In God’s Providence, architecture was not to be my professional vocation, though I am so glad for all that my interest in it has brought to me.


Among a huge abundance of books about FLW, a very helpful guide is The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Guide (color photo illustrated), by William Allin Storrer, which includes locations maps for all the buildings included.

Mardi Gras!

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The season has arrived, along with its festivities: the parades, good food and drinks, and parties in the streets. In these weeks between the feast of the Epiphany (always the first day after the 12th Day of Christmas), and the day before Ash Wednesday, a good bit of south Louisiana and nearby areas of the Gulf Coast (such as Mobile, AL) celebrate this happy carnival season of Mardi Gras.

The French words, Mardi Gras, literally mean ‘Fat Tuesday,’ the culminating day of these weeks of fun. But Mardi Gras as a title tends to be applied to the course of several weeks during which the parades occur, but also when formal balls and other social events are scheduled. And though these events are enjoyed and appreciated by folks who live in and around places like New Orleans, the schools close for a long weekend and many head off for skiing vacations out West. While the Crescent City, its streets, and hotels, are filled with visitors from equally distant places, often from the North.

Three main colors associated with Mardi Gras are much evident in float and parade costumes, home and business decorations, and especially in the profusion of plastic beads seen and thrown everywhere. They are gold, green, and purple. I am convinced that the source of these three colors derives from the broader, church-based, liturgical observances during and on either side of these weeks. Traditionally, on the feast of the Epiphany, inaugurating this season, liturgical churches such as Roman Catholic and Episcopal use gold for vestments and altar coverings. This seems likely due to the symbolism of the gold gift(s) presented to the newborn King upon the visit of the Magi (or ‘Wise Men’).

On most Sundays following the Epiphany during these weeks, the traditional color for vestments and altar fabrics is green, perhaps because these Sundays are usually described as occurring during “Ordinary Time,” the same practice that happens during summer Sundays. The third color, purple, I think derives from the traditional color for Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, which directly follow Mardi Gras.

Not so long ago the radio waves were filled songs like, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” songs evoking images of Christmas lights and trees, and snowy landscapes. Though surely to a different tune, and accompanied by very different imagery, the same words could well be sung here now in south Louisiana!

PS: I should have included King Cakes in the first published version of this blog.

During this Mardi Gras season, King Cakes are ubiquitous, especially in workplaces and offices, in teachers’ lounges and similar contexts, and at so many party gatherings. Note the presence of the frosting and beads in the three colors noted above, as well as the gold coins. Most commonly, these cakes have baked into them a little baby, of course symbolic of the one the Epiphany Magi came to worship, who would be proclaimed as King.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Landscape Artists with Vision

Surrounded Islands in Biscayne Bay, ‘wrapped,’ 1983


Having in prior posts featured an introduction to three landscape artists beginning with Andres Amador, today I would like to focus on the earlier work by a couple who gained recognition through the unexpected character of their joint projects.

“Christo and Jeanne-Claude described the myriad elements that brought the projects to fruition as integral to the artwork itself, and said their projects contained no deeper meaning than their immediate aesthetic impact; their purpose being simply for joy, beauty, and new ways of seeing the familiar.” [Wikipedia]

I am grateful for Wikipedia’s succinct summary of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s shared-aim for their joint work, and especially for that phrase, “their projects contained no deeper meaning than their immediate aesthetic impact…” Modern art in its many forms has been subject to much misunderstanding, as viewers have often looked within it for ‘meaning’ and ‘a higher purpose’ where none has been intended. I have previously featured the work of Alexander Calder and look forward to presenting the work of other 20th century (and later) artists, who have offered us the sheer beauty of non-representative paintings and sculptures.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s collaborative work has long struck me as epitomizing this approach to the exploration of beauty. They risked appearing to have trivialized their engagement with the natural world as well as with well-known works of architecture. But they also helped us see familiar and unfamiliar things in different ways, and with new appreciation.

Most significant was their consistent effort to make their projects not only self-funded, but as ecologically sensitive as possible, with their subsequent donation or recycled use of art installation materials. In my view, they did not seek to alter the landscapes or structures with which they worked in more than a very temporary way. And certainly not in any way that would compromise those beautiful places, but instead to enhance our regard for them.

I offer the photos below with appreciation for the simple joy that these prior installations may have brought to those who were able to be present at them, and for the beauty of the preserved digital images we still have of them. I wish I could have seen one myself, in context!

Valley Curtain, Colorado, 1972

Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, CA, reported as 24 miles long, 1976

Christo on Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy, 2016, after Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009

Hundreds if not thousands walked on the floating causeway to the island

Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris, ‘wrapped,’ 1985

The Arc-de-Triomphe in Paris, ‘wrapped,’ 2021

Andres Amador: Earthscape Artist

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Above we see a drone-based digital image of a pattern that a contemporary artist has inscribed upon the sand of a beach. He is also an academically trained scientist, who has employed his gifts in a particularly sensitive way.

Now, why are some or all of those details important? Because we see here the abilities of Andres Amador, someone whose public art work may lead us to wonder about how this artist could have accomplished all this. Not only in the image above, those presented below, as well as those widely available now on the internet.

Well, what would it take for you or me to be able physically to produce such an image upon the sand on a seaside beach? To my surprise, it is only geological timing (the tides); an appropriate location in relation to that matter of the tides; and then only a couple of simple tools. These would include some common and small garden rakes, and perhaps also – in relation to the circular-based patterns – a metal or wooden spike, a long rope, and some kind of carving or scraping tool at the end of that rope. The invention of the small drone with a camera has also been of help.

But, clearly, it takes more than physical circumstances, geography, and available tools. It also takes a scientifically trained sensibility as well as a developed intuitive creativity. What Andres Amador has accomplished and still produces is not in any way simple. And yet, he provides frequent teaching sessions, open to all, inviting others to do what he does. Insight about this is provided by a short but compelling video produced some years ago by KQED San Francisco (see link below). I think that one way to summarize a principal theme in his work is that he seeks to see things “whole,” which for some folks is related to seeing what is “holy.”

In that video, Amador describes two reference points, or two sorts of impulses within him, as sources for his earthscape art. “The two main directions that I go with, in the art, are the geometric, which is very precise… So, it’s all about perfection.” Pattern can be imposed upon the ‘blank canvas’ of nature.

“The other side of it,” he says, “is the organic art, the art the feels like it is emerging from the location… the art that is telling me what to do next.” Pattern may therefore be in some sense received.

I find these two insights to be spiritually and theologically significant. We are able to impose pattern upon our lives, and often attempt to do this within the social world around us. At the same time, we may discern and receive pattern for our lives from within, whether from a divine or from a natural source, or through the gifts of others. Impose, and receive; both are important for our search to become whole.

God bless your continuing work, Andres, and especially for helping us perceive beauty in a fuller way.


Here is a link to the compelling KQED Andres Amador short video :


Epiphany-Sensitive Landscape Artists

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Andres Amador

Christo, after the death of his wife, Jeanne-Claude

On the Sundays following the feast of the Epiphany (January 6), the western Church historically has focussed on God’s self-disclosure through nature. We find this theme expressed in the Epiphany Day Gospel featuring the visit of the Magi, or Wise Men, from the East. They followed the appearance of a star in the sky to find our Savior at his birthplace. Note how this contrasts with stories about guidance provided by the messages of angels, whether in dreams or as on occasions of personal divine revelation.

One of my favorite examples of this theme can be found in some verses by the Anglican priest, theologian, and poet, John Keble, for a Sunday in this Epiphany-tide:

When souls of highest birth
Waste their impassioned might on dreams of earth,
He opens Nature’s book,
And on His glorious Gospel bids them look,
Till, by such chords as rule the choirs above,
Their lawless cries are tuned to hymns of perfect love.

In my next two posts on this blog I will feature the landscape-based artwork of Andres Amador, as well as that of Christo and his late wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude. Amador is known for his ephemeral raked sand projects, and Christo with Jeanne-Claude are remembered mainly for their draped or wrapped fabric installations. Though the work of these three has taken very different forms, they have demonstrated a common and notable commitment to environmental sensitivity despite the fact that their projects have involved only temporary alterations of various landscapes or structures.

Among agnostic, secular, and even atheistic artists, many seem to recognize the power of the sublime in Nature. But also notice how even the pious John Keble – with his high sense of the authority of Scripture – was willing to describe the natural world around us as God’s “Glorious Gospel,” and as “Nature’s book,” written by the divine Author of Creation.

I have no basis for evaluating whether there is any theological grounding for Amador’s, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s world-views. Partly because such is not suggested nor asked for. Yet, I find the work of these three artists not only aesthetically pleasing, but also as theologically significant.

Why? Because God is either everywhere present in reality, however we conceive of it, and whether we are conscious of it, or God is not. I am convinced of the ‘yes’ answer. And so, for me, God is surely the source of the Beauty everywhere present in the cosmos. For traditional believers, there is no place where God is not.

Beauty can be found in this observation itself. There may be a transcendent source for the abundant beauty we enjoy in the world, and in people around us. But if there is, it does not require us to acknowledge it. The beauty we find everywhere – God’s beauty, I say – stands for itself. Remarkable!


Once again, I wish to credit my friend and former colleague, the Rev. Ralph McMichael, Ph.D., for his succinct and helpful delineation of ways of understanding the relation between nature and grace, in his teaching and writing. In this regard, his essay, significant to me within the book he edited, Creation and Liturgy: Studies in Honor of H. Boone Porter, continues to be very helpful. He is also the author of The Eucharistic Faith, a first volume of a new Eucharist-based systematic theology.