Wednesday, 14 July 2021

5 Lessons I learnt from an Artist to Navigate through Chaos


By Aje Pelser


Marc Chagall lived through two world wars, survived persecution as a Jew, was exiled and experienced the Bolshevik revolution with his wife and daughter.

While meditating on the visions I have seen of angels ministering to people in our church, I wondered how to visually capture the images. I was drawn to a book on Chagall. Studying art history has opened up the story behind the works, and revealed the context of the artist’s life. I learnt five things about navigating through chaos using your gifts and talents through a complex network of valuable connections.

1.       He loved his wife and family.

Perhaps his greatest early struggle was for recognition as an artist, to show his family and his in-laws that he could take care of his beloved Bella. He loved her dearly and she became the subject of his greatest works including his wedding gift: “The Birthday” where he portrays himself swooping through the air to kiss his elegant wife. She often wrote letters to patrons on his behalf while he worked prodigiously at his painting or his etchings and later his murals and even stained glass windows that he produced for numerous churches, the United Nations and the Israeli Parliament. Bella would even criticize his paintings and make sure it is ready! Her parents were jewellery store owners, who lost everything during the revolution. Her faith in her artist’s husband paid off much better than what they had planned for her.

2.       He kept working no matter what.

He kept on working no matter the political upheaval, social unrest, or even the global depression that hampered great artists like Picasso who struggled to sell paintings from 190-34. During the Russian revolution of 1917, he moved to Moscow with millions of other Jews and helped to decorate the backdrops the Jewish Theatre. He used curtains as canvas and even painted on the actor’s clothes. Marc was such an integral part of the theatre, that they nicknamed it ”Chagall’s Box.” During the revolution, they starved and faced cold winters, but kept producing set designs for the theatre. I believe that the creativity of the artists helped to keep their spirits up during the most difficult circumstances. Later, when Chagall had some success as an artists, he accommodated his Jewish Theatre friends in Paris, just before the Second World War. It’s a wonderful coming full circle with his friends and you can see them feasting together on a warm Parisian afternoon in the garden together.

3.       He valued networking on various levels, always corresponding faithfully with partners and friends across cultural and economic divides.

Which teaches us another lesson – remember your partners and friends when it is well with you. It is a blessing to reconnect and orbit around to reconnect on another level. I have a few people in my life that have basically seen me grow up in ministry and in life. They comment on what I am doing from time to time and visit me and the church. When they make a comment about something, it comes a long way. It takes into account your past, your development and your future potential. Value these people and if need be, be open to hear their criticisms too, without taking it too personally. Chagall made use of various networks in his life and knew how to assimilate his family into different cultures wherever they moved, be it Berlin, Paris or New York. His artists network opened up contacts with dealers who commissioned his works, supplied his basic necessities while he was building a name as an artist. He also made friends in different disciplines like poets who often wrote about his poetic artworks as well. He wisely honoured his Jewish roots, yet made friends with Christians just as easily and ended up painting images of Jesus on the cross in many of his famous works. Later, Solomon Guggenheim helped the Chagall’s to flee war-torn Europe when France was invaded and Anti-Semitism was at its height.


4.       Don’t be scared to try something new.

Chagall had to learn the art of etching into copper plates and then proceeded to produced etchings for the Bible and other historical works that connected him back to his Jewish roots. The ability to take what you have and reinvent it is what is required to navigate through chaotic events and from one season in life to another. Chagall saw his friends and family homes looted and nationalized during the communist revolution. He changed his way of working and re-envisioned his artwork to establish an art school and inspire another generation of artists, most of whom were orphaned by the violent attacks. There are pictures of him with his young avant-garde pupils, who despite looking gaunt and hungry, have a sense of purpose restored and they often chanted his name as he came into class!


5.       He kept making his own mark through different art movements

When Chagall was in Paris in 1910, the cubists were a strong influence. But later, he went his own direction and kept using bright colours and symbolic imagery to tell his story of his village and his childhood, even though it had been destroyed. His dream-like paintings have become a great source of joy, inspiration and reminder of suffering, yet with an omnipresent violin player – sometimes even the goat plays a violin in his paintings! The tragi-comical images help you keep your ‘L’chaim to life!” I am so thankful that I have finally rediscovered Chagall and his monumental body of works. I really believe our church building will serve to inspire many with all our creative ingredients, and that people will come from around the world to see our artworks, experience our meetings with beautiful prophetic worship and dance, performing arts and acting prophecy. That out library will be a resource for many and that the atmosphere of Christ’s love and joy in believing will represent a little bit of His kingdom on earth. Thanks Marc!







  1. Without artistes this world will be sad place. Artistes beautify the world and also captures their epoch to preserve it for generations to come. To be open to learn from other artists show meekness or teachability that is a valuable asset in life according to the great Master Teacher, Jesus Christ. The way Aje assimilated knowledge by studying Chagal's life and art provides others with life skills that carry us through such a time as this. Thanks for sharing Aje. Dad

  2. Thanks Dad! Chagall’s wide range of artistry and overcoming spirit reminds me a lot of you and Mom!


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