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A Vocabulary of Delight

The Persistent Optimism of Wayne Thiebaud

Published on:
October 8, 2020
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3 min.
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The somnolent hum of the slide projector filled the darkened lecture hall of my undergraduate modern art history class. Click: the dense splashes of Jackson Pollock. Click: the spare color-scapes of Mark Rothko. Click: the layered collages of Robert Rauchemberg. Another click and suddenly the screen was filled with cakes: beautiful, abundant, thick-frosted cakes. It was like a surprise party had just showed up in the modern art wing. I was delighted. 

The image of the cakes, painted by Wayne Thiebaud, became a sort of theme and touchstone for me in my final undergraduate years. They were difficult years academically and personally. My parents were in a debilitating car accident. The beautiful five-year-old, whom I had babysat since she was an infant, was tragically killed in a playground accident. Compounded by the loss of several significant relationships, those years exacted a heavy emotional toll.

And yet, there were the cakes, tilted in postcard format on my dresser. “We’re still here,” they said. Still beautiful, still full of delicious potential, resplendent. Such a beacon of delight were the cakes that we enlisted my grandmother to replicate the spread for my graduation party. I have to say, when mouth-watering abundance is needed, a farm wife is the person for the job. My mom and grandmother had our dining room table looking like an explosion at a French petit-four factory. 

Part of curating a healthy mental balance for me involves the counterweight of joy—an appetite for delight that is bolstered by Thiebaud’s works.

Wayne Thiebaud will turn one hundred years old in November. The work of his prolific career has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Hirschorn Museum, and Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, among many others, and collected worldwide. One of the reasons I believe Thiebaud’s work both endures and resonates is its persistent optimism. 

The lavish cheerfulness of the cakes is part of a healthy spiritual diet for me. Even under normal circumstances, I tend towards worry and anxiety and the Covid pandemic has thrust us all into uncharted depths of uncertainty. One thing that I’m beginning to re-learn in this crisis is the importance of not only our physical habits, but our mental habits as well. Part of curating a healthy mental balance for me involves the counterweight of joy—an appetite for delight that is bolstered by Thiebaud’s works. 

Grace Sufficient 

In classical Greek, the word charis describes the quality of something that delights. Charis is often translated as grace. The apostle Paul appropriated this Greek word charis and used it in new ways to convey theological concepts. From Paul we hear that it’s by grace that we are saved, and it’s by grace that this salvation is not of our own doing. This grace as described by Paul is abundant, glorious, surpassing. I love that Paul used a word about delight to explain God’s work in the world and in our lives. It’s God’s delight to save and to care for us. 

My tribute to Thiebaud’s confectionery and God’s delight-infused grace is not an advocacy of the saccharine in our spirituality. In desperately grave times like these, empty sentimentality and fluffy theology quickly disappear like cotton-candy on the tongue. In contrast to one of the best-known pop art works, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), in which the objects float on a white background, Thiebaud’s painted objects are not without context or gravity. Though often sweets, each object is grounded by a shadow, and in many of his paintings, like Four Cupcakes (1971), the shadows carry as much weight and color as the objects themselves. 

I love that Paul used a word about delight to explain God’s work in the world and in our lives. It’s God’s delight to save and to care for us.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul gives a shadow weight and color. It’s a shadow that follows him; a “thorn in the flesh.” After his plea to the Lord to remove this thorn, Paul tells us that the Lord responded: “My grace is sufficient.” Thiebaud’s work, in my reading, acknowledges what Paul knew: that we can’t paint life without shadows, but that even within the shadows we can still find grace—sufficient grace. A thickly-rendered grace that’s not only delightful in the sweets but is sufficient in the shadows. 

Grace Abundant

Over the course of his eight-decade career, Thiebaud has painted things other than sweets—pinball machines, gumball machines, shoes, toys, people, animals, city-scapes. But of all these subjects, it’s the sweets that I personally find the most profound. And part of their profundity is their sheer abundance. Thiebaud painted these sweets in different forms, in different ways, over and over again, year after year.

Thiebaud's cakes and Psalm 30 are a reminder of an optimism that does not minimize or erase the shadows, but offers for them the promise of joy.

As autumn approaches, we continue to be surprised by what a strange and difficult year it has been. We sorrow for the persistent injustices around us and carry a heartache for all that’s broken. It is, for many, a long night of weeping. But like the prolific pastels of Thiebaud’s cakes, Psalm 30:5 offers a reminder for those who weep. The ESV translates the second half of the verse this way: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Thiebaud's cakes and Psalm 30 are a reminder of an optimism that does not minimize or erase the shadows, but offers for them the promise of joy.

Because while we weep, a table has been set. A feast has been prepared. And I imagine—much to my delight—there just might be cake for breakfast.

Amy Hetletvedt
Amy Hetletvedt is an architect, preservationist, and educator.

Cover image by Deva Williamson.

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