“We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see….” – Richard Louv.
About two years ago I sought out the Ven. Alastair Singh-McCollum to talk about a crossroads I had reached. I had been struggling with a message that art was optional, that there were better things I could do to serve the Kingdom of God. That message did not match my conviction that art was essential to being human, to being who I am. Yet I wondered, “What good is being an artist in a broken world?” Although I had served the church through childcare, sound person, Sunday School teacher, hospitality, cooking, cleaning, and missional outreach, I wondered how I might serve church with the best gift I had: my artistic intelligence and vision. Through my talks with Alastair, I felt my questions were understood. I was grateful to hear that he too had been speaking about the need to listen to artistic voices.
Alastair invited me to take on the role of “Artist Advocate.” The title reflects an intention to explore what it means to have an artistic voice in conversation with theological ideas and religious practices. Through writing and conversation, my hope is to examine how artistic gifts enhance our spiritual experience in our personal and collective lives in church, and in our wider community.
This past season of Lent, I was invited to share some writing on the St John the Divine blog. During the Lenten School of Prayer, I taught Contemplative Intercession, and Art and Prayer. As well, I joined the online Lenten Book Study. These experiences of sharing with, and being amongst, St John folk made me feel welcome.
In this post I would like to explain a little of how I have personally come to understand the gift of the Visual Arts. I believe the Visual Arts have a special role to play in serving Vision, Beauty, Nature, and the Child.
Why should we bother with visual art at all? We are already saturated with images. Yet our Vision needs more than image. The world needs to be experienced in all its variety and richness, not just reproduced in pixels. Practices such as drawing, painting and sculpture, challenge, heal and train our vision so that when we look at the world around us, we might be moved and changed by it. Whole vision is a gateway to all our senses. Shakespeare wrote that our eyes are the windows to our souls. Art deepens our vision so we might also see the soul of the world.
Beauty is how goodness and truth find form and have more than just a theoretical or moralistic presence in our lives. Art serves a broken world by helping us find beauty not only in the put together, but also in the pulled apart. Yet our ability to recognise beauty has been compromised by commercial images. I imagine Beauty as a nourishing beast, but in our society, like the bison of the prairies, its body has been abandoned while its skin is hung before our eyes to hide the greed that wants to feed off us. While called consumers, we are the ones being consumed. Art helps us recognise beauty beyond commercialism.
By connecting us deeply to Nature, creative vision enables us to recognise that we are more than just consumers, and that our environment is not just a backdrop to human activity, or a utility to be exploited. Art helps heal the rift between humans and the creation. If God chose to communicate love and life through the language of nature, doesn’t it make sense that God’s children need to understand it? Creation speaks without words, and we listen to Nature through our senses of touch, taste, smell, and hearing. The Visual Arts awaken our visual senses to the presence of the earth and all living things.
Children are awake to the aliveness of nature. They are sensate, open to the world, expressive, emotional, curious, and unaware of time; they look with wonder upon even the most ordinary things. Children are what artists need to be in practice. In a child’s mind just as in an artist’s mind, a stick becomes a person, a shooting star, a horse, a wand. Both children and artists combine random elements of their everyday and process life through creativity and imagination.
All of us are born with creative minds. It is just that many of us have been taught to leave creativity behind. If we gave the arts as much priority as we give our more utilitarian activities, perhaps we might retrieve the innate childlike gifts and wonder we have within us. Creativity at heart is play. Indeed, one way to describe the Arts is: the conscious cultivation of the gifts of the child into our adult and collective life. I can’t help but feel that that this might be a way to understand what Jesus meant when he said: “Let the little children come unto me…be as one of these.”
These ideas have helped me feel confident that art does bring good to a broken world. I am hopeful of the role art might have in our every day lives and church community, one that is life giving and healing; joy bringing and renewing.
The result of a 30 minute sketching session in Beacon Hill Park. Drawing helps us pay attention and become open to the beauty of nature.