The Devoted Artist: Art as a Spiritual Practice

The Devoted Artist: Art as a Spiritual Practice

December 14, 2014

Recently, while speaking to a group of close friends in advance of our latest move, I mentioned how much I appreciated them taking an interest in my artistic process over the previous year: asking questions, attending my hosted events, helping with their time. I thanked them for not viewing my work as a commodity, something to be utilized solely for church purposes, yet also recognizing my art making as more than a vocation. I told them that being an artist had become a deeply spiritual journey for me.

A few days later, I received an email from one of my friends from the gathering, a photographer. She told me she had been struck by my last comment, in part because she realized this was not how she saw her own creative work. It got me thinking: when did I start to view my art this way?

My career began as a freelance illustrator. I worked for a variety of clients in those early years, creating portraits for magazines and conceptual illustrations to accompany written articles. I was also a new Christian. My initial worship experiences came through low-church, larger Evangelical settings. It was a personally informative time, but aside from video screens, these places were generally devoid of color and aesthetics. Reverence was given primarily to words, and there was an inherent distrust of anything visual.

As an artist, I was viewed bemusingly; no one was quite sure what to do with me, and I was equally confused about how to offer my gifts, if at all. This pattern continued for years.

Over time, I began to grow increasingly restless in my creative process and expression of worship. Both felt routine. My art felt quotidian and technical. There was no mystery in the way I was seeking God. A fissure existed between the two worlds. I sensed they were supposed to overlap and work in concert somehow, and that doing so would help to resolve the angst I felt about concurrently being an artist and a person of faith.

Almost in an act of desperation, my family moved to Germany to be part of a small community of locals who had become disenchanted with traditional church life. For over a year, we lived under the same roof with them in former nuns’ quarters. Just outside was the rolling German countryside and the sprawling Black Forest.

I walked along the endless dirt trails under Norway Spruce, Beech and white pine trees, attempting to revivify my creative eye. I began to respond to patterns I found outside by highlighting them with color. Shapes on tree bark, puddles on a trail, a meandering line on a hillside.

After years of drawing and painting in a studio with perfect control, working on-site in the natural elements felt somewhat absurd, but strangely exhilarating. I began to explore ideas that had collected dust in my journal: interpreting music through ink block prints, deconstructing photos and painting the shapes on walls, experimenting with video. None of it paid anything, and it was wonderful.

We moved back to the States, and for the next two years, my work became less conventional, less commodifiable and more abstract. I took risks. And in doing so I realized, almost suddenly, that creating this work was now synonymous with my devotion.

There was no longer a separation. In giving up control and embracing uncertainty, I had learned how to discover the mystery that had so sorely been lacking in both my art and my worship.

Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, in his book Homo Ludens, discusses the importance of “play” as an essential element of culture and society. He writes, “Among the general characteristics of play we reckoned tension and uncertainty. There is always the question: ‘will it come off?’ To dare, to take risks, to bear uncertainty, to endure tension—these are the essence of the play spirit.”

Still, I often forget to “play.” I think about creating work that will fulfill a purpose or fit a market or validate my identity in God. I am tempted to separate things into black and white instead of pondering the grey.

But in the grey is where my journey finds its course, where seemingly disparate roads find communion.


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