The Art of Taking Away

by Kerry Tankard.

Rob Ryan is best known as an artist who uses paper cuts to transform his pencil drawings into pieces of art, holding word and image together in beauty and fragility.[i] Unlike working with paint, it is not about applying subsequent layers, but about subtraction. It is a meticulous process in which pieces of paper are taken away to reveal a piece of work that is wholly connected. As Rob Ryan has reflected himself:

Compared to painting, where you need tubes of paint, water, oil, brushes, palettes, palette knives, and a canvas, all I needed now to start making pictures was a single sheet of paper, a pencil, an eraser, a scalpel, and a cutting board. Not only that, but so many of the decisions of the past: tone, shade, perspective, colour, chiaroscuro – everything was gone but the shape of the silhouette, in black or white. I immediately felt freer than ever before.[ii]

The work proceeds from an idea that takes a simple form through a pencil on paper. That paper is then cut to reveal the depth of the idea and bring it to vibrant life. A further feature of his work is in observing that “when a paper cut is produced, you end up with less. You start with a blank sheet and by cutting bits away, by making it less, you make it more.”[iii] By making it less, you make it more! The statement may appear counter-intuitive, but I believe it is a crucial re-imagining that needs to be part of our understanding of Church. I would also suggest that it is theologically pertinent to our identity as human beings, where our pursuit of more increasingly diminishes our sense of created self, but I simply want to address the idea in relation to the Church here.

Our understanding of being Church has become increasingly burdened with the things we think are essential to our identity, rather than being the simple and beautiful community we are called to be. Our predisposition is to add more, to justify ourselves to ourselves, to increase our mass because somehow that suggests we are more substantial and meaningful. We layer on paint, rather than submit to the art of taking away. We have buildings we have to run and then we need things in them to make them viable. As Methodists, we act like a church of millions in the UK, rather than the small, dispersed connexional communities we are. We desire to say something about everything, rather than using what words we have in the right place, at the right time, and trusting the voices of others to share in other spaces. In truth, these are just some of the things we convince ourselves we need to do, or be, to justify ourselves to ourselves.

What if we remember we, the Church, begin not in our own intention but by the will of God? What If we imagine we are the pencil drawing on paper, slowly being revealed as more, in each deliberate and careful cut and act of taking away? When we forget where we come from, and God’s vision of who we are to be, we risk disconnecting our identity through either obliterating God’s intention with paint or trying to seize the scalpel and cutting away carelessly. All this causes me to wonder what we need to wilfully, but carefully, cut away to be the less that emerges as more, or rather what we are willing to let God take away to allow the beauty of who we are to emerge.

As Martha was encouraged to forgo the many things and instead consider the few or the one thing that was needed (Luke 10.41-42); as disciples were sent out with the instruction to take nothing for the journey (Luke 9.3); as the vine was pruned for its own fruitfulness (John 15.2); or as the Son emptied himself and assumed our life (Philippians 2.6-8), what are we to do?

What is the less God is seeking to make us, that we might be more like Christ? How might we enjoy God’s art of taking away and will we feel freer than every before?


[i] You can find an introduction to his work here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvUfafedKqo&t=117s.

[ii] Rob Ryan, Op Cit., p.39

[iii] Nichols, Ibid, p.7

10 thoughts on “The Art of Taking Away”

  1. I am a great believer in the art of letting go; it does indeed free us from a lot of unnecessary baggage, physical and emotional, that we burden ourselves with. But I don’t like the phrase ‘the art of taking away.’
    For me ‘letting go’ sounds voluntary, but ‘taking away’ sounds enforced, like confiscation. I don’t think it should be considered an art form to take away that which some believers feel is the essence of their faith ie a church sanctuary, a cross and a Bible.

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  2. Thank you for this, I love Rob’s work, and as someone who works with paint etc.it certainly challenges me. That said I find myself saying over and over , what is it that we do well? Let’s concentrate on one thing…. we aren’t very good at simplicity!

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    1. It’s sad that you should say Methodists aren’t very good at simplicity when you consider the foundations of the faith. John Wesley preached to farm workers and labourers in fields and on street corners, and even when the faith went indoors, so to speak, it was into humble, unadorned chapels, where the working classes could worship and serve the Lord in their own simple ie unsophisticated way.
      What did they do well? They sang from the heart. What could be more heartwarming than a chapel full of Methodists singing Love Divine, all loves excelling? And they excelled at preaching and teaching Christ’s gospel of salvation for all, in a way that folks without a higher education could understand.
      Where did it all go wrong?

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  3. Please can you give the sources of your references? I wanted to look them up but op cut means a work you have already given – but the only one given is the YouTube video, which does not have a p39!!! Thanks

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    1. Dear Jenny, I am sorry, that was an editing mistake on my part – I cut away a little too much. The book is Rob Ryan, I thought about in my head and I felt it in my heart but I made it with my hands. Rizzoli, 2017

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  4. I’ve been thinking about this and find myself wondering, what happens to the bits you cut away? The difficulty we face as church is that the bits that don’t fit the new vision, as it is revealed by the scalpel, need to be nurtured even if it’s only hospice care as they come to the end of their lives. Supporting the discarded offcuts is a responsibility that can’t just be shrugged off, like paper offcuts in the waste paper bin. Yet fulfilling that responsibility takes so much of our energy. That, to me, is the central dilemma of church life at the moment.

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    1. I absolutely agree with the comment from pbwp. It’s extremely sad that the traditionalists in our congregations are seen as ‘discarded offcuts’ and surplus to requirements, after all they have done to keep the churches open and solvent. Disgraceful!

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      1. I don’t think the article is saying anything at all about discarding certain people, it is asking us what it would be right to cut away to reveal the true beauty of what we can be. Parts of our tradition may be what needs keeping – but because it is part of the beauty not simply because it is tradition

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      2. I wasn’t thinking particularly of traditionalists, just of elderly, faithful congregations of whatever conviction – traditional, liberal, progressive – who feel cut adrift and abandoned while church leaders bang on about ‘everyone an evangelist’ and make them feel guilty for not being a growing church.

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