Madai Taylor’s Journey
Story by Jim Duncan, photography by Paul Gates
Addressing his congregation in Fort Dodge’s Agape Church Kingdom Dominion Ministries, Madai Taylor stands upright, quoting literally from Holy Scripture. When he creates art, however, he works at ground level, first excavating his media from the earth, then scratching out abstractions on his garage floor. Taylor knows these contradictory postures can be misinterpreted as a conflict between the sacred and profane.
“I do wonder how people embrace the duality of my being a non-subjective artist and a preacher. I even question it myself sometimes,” he says. “Do the two things complement or combat each other? Outsiders can be confused by the abstract works, and religious people sometimes are unable to embrace abstraction at all.”
Even the church, which Taylor founded with his wife, Mia, in 2000, is named after an abstract concept. Agape is a Greek word for the highest form of love. “It’s the love that is not earned, the love that is grace, the mysterious grace of God,” explains Taylor. “People think that love must come from something physical. I believe that love comes from understanding one’s self. When you do that, when you understand who you are, then you are able to receive love because you are able to give it.”
His ministry is not a typical of Iowa. Church services draw about 40 regular members, evenly mixed among African-Americans, Hispanics, and European Americans. Drums, tambourines, keyboard, and piano add an old-fashioned gospel rhythm. “We’re a grassroots church. That means we’re intentionally nondenominational,” says Taylor.
Nondenominationalism is essential to his message. “I am not really religious in the way that most religious people perceive religion. I do not do ritual because I believe it restricts intimacy with the Spirit,” he explains. “No denominational ritual is the true path to salvation, and too many believe it is.”
While Taylor believes ritual restricts an individual’s spirituality, his own daily routine is rather ritualistic. He begins working on his art every day at 5:30 a.m. and continues until 9:30 a.m., when he prays for an hour before going to his church. After a day at his ministry, he works on his art again after dinner.
“I sometimes have a dilemma about which ought to come first, but I recognize that it’s all the same thing — communicating beauty, love, and helpfulness. In the end I want to be a positive contributor. Neither profession is lucrative, so both require sacrifice. But both are parts of my same conviction,” confesses Taylor.
As a professional artist, he’s aware that most marketable religious art is representational, clearly depicting sacred events. Yet Taylor identifies with a more abstract spirituality, one that predates Christianity.
“The abstract expressionists were spiritual people in a nondenominational way, going back to the cave paintings of the Neolithic Age. That’s why I work in abstraction,” he explains. “Abstraction does not need to be complicated. It needs to speak for itself, not to academia. Life itself is abstract. Nothing about it makes perfect sense; even love and peace are mysteries.”
Ironically, this artist’s self-invented method abstracts its medium — from the earth. Over the last quarter century Taylor has exclusively used dirt to make his “paints.” He considers this a metaphor for the unity of spirit between man and nature under God. “Earth has a spiritual quality of all that is human. We are dust and shall return to dust as the Bible teaches. Dirt is also our sustenance. It provides the food we need to live and to grow. I identify with dirt. It has a calming effect on me. It’s tactile. People want to touch my paintings.”
Taylor farms his paint from the land on which he treads — loamy black dirt from local fields, lighter-color dirt from the famous gypsum mines that made Fort Dodge the drywall center of mid-America, and red dirt from the Mississippi Delta of his youth. “Dirt contains rare tones, gradations, and textures that lend themselves to an immense range of possibilities. No other medium lends itself so well toward expressing infinite space and spiritual universes beyond the visible world. Dirt is timeless and of the soul.”
It also soothes this artist on his journeys. It was dirt, he says, that helped him cope with the harsh realities of growing up black in the Delta. “Coming from a very traumatic kind of background, the earth and nature spoke to me,” explains Taylor, sharing memories of himself as a shoeless boy launching from the front porch of his dilapidated home into mud puddles. “I can still feel the thick, soft earth gushing through my toes. Even on hot summer days, when the earth was parched and cracked, I would take a stick and draw in it. I didn’t really know how comforting those memories were until I became an adult.”
After gathering dirt, Taylor sifts it into a fine grain, mixes it with gesso as a bonding agent, and applies it in layers over large sheets of heavy cold-press paper. Before each layer dries completely, he paints reductively — scratching out his vision with twigs, sticks, wires, yard rakes, teaspoons, high-pressure hoses, fingers, and fingernails. He once completed an entire painting with only a rake.
Between layers, Taylor soaks the paper in water overnight. He believes his process emulates agriculture. “Farmers and I both turn over the land and plant in the land. We both hope to create things out of the earth. I am a farmer’s son, though I suppose you would say I’m more like a sharecropper’s son. My father was never allowed to own anything.”
As Taylor developed his process, he came to think of it as a unique form of shorthand, dubbing it “primitive scripture.” Lately it’s becoming a form of sculpture as well. He’s been twisting his paintings into three-dimensional shapes. “That was a natural progression. Even in two-dimensional work, I was painting by removing material, the way a sculptor does with marble.”
Taylor considers it an act of grace that he survived his youth and found his way to Iowa and Fort Dodge.
“Grace to me means many things — beauty, elegance, style, yes. But it also means mercy and unmerited favor,” he says. “It’s a miracle I grew up and am sitting here. There was so much poverty, so much disease there. And racism. I was 10 years old when Martin Luther King was assassinated. It wasn’t a good time there then.”
Taylor came to northwest Iowa to become one of the first nontraditonal scholarship students at Buena Vista University. In his fashion, he has bestowed grace upon his adopted hometown. By using the dirt of gypsum strip mines to create his paintings, he has transformed Fort Dodge’s bland mineral of sheet rock into something of beauty, of the spirit. Taylor believes all journeys are endowed with an abstract spirituality.
“Life is a constant discovery. The closer you get to anything, the more you learn that your previous perceptions were incomplete. And the more abstract it appears. Look at a tree under a microscope. What we think we see is actually blinding us to the truth. All you really can ever do is discover yourself. That’s why I think abstraction will remain relevant throughout time, like the old cave paintings do.”
The artist’s gallery representative believes Taylor will remain relevant, too.
“In an era when some artists try on philosophies of life like Halloween costumes, Madai is the real deal,” says TJ Moberg. “He doesn’t even know how to be disingenuous.”
See a few pieces of Taylor's work here. Explore further at www.MadaiTaylor.com and follow the artist on Twitter (@MadaiTaylorArt). Des Moines’ Moberg Gallery (www.MobergGallery.com) will host a February 2013 exhibition of Taylor’s work.