Thursday, February 11, 2016

Art-Making as a Spiritual Practice

Two of my mother's art journals
The editor of Everyday Spiritual Practice, Scott W. Alexander, defines an everyday spiritual practice as “any activity or attitude in which you can regularly and intentionally engage, and which significantly deepens the quality of your relationship with the miracle of life both within and beyond you” (5).  When our activity is intentional, regular, and deep, when we are committed to making it a recurring and significant part of our lives, then, Alexander writes, it achieves the level of “spiritual practice.” 

In this same book, Julie-Ann Silberman writes of her artwork as her daily spiritual practice.  “My goal,” she says, “is not to create masterpieces, but to get more closely in touch with my interior spiritual life” (255). 

Silberman describes how her art practice developed out of a need to grieve over her father’s death beyond words she could speak to her friends; she had images in her mind that better reflected her emotions.  She developed her practice out of chalk and oil pastels on canvas.

In a similar way, my mother, Anne Landrum, developed a spiritual practice of art journaling while serving as the primary care-giver for her husband for three years after he experienced a massive stroke in 2010.  Her “art language” was collage, which she found more accessible than drawing, and helped her to realize, “I could illustrate things I couldn’t put into words.”
For example, several of her journal pages reflect her experiences of an intense lack of sleep, as she was on-call for her bed-bound husband’s needs through the night.  She created one page filled with images of people sleeping, and for her, it expressed her intense desire for sleep without sounding like she was complaining. 
Her pages allowed her to celebrate the good days, and calmed her down on the rough ones.  Since she was spending so much time in her house anyway, without as much housework and cooking to attend to anymore, she found that her journaling offered her quality quiet-time.
“I didn’t have to think about the outcome,” she explained.  “The jumbled pictures matched my jumbled mind, and when I cut pictures, they didn’t have to make sense.”
Alexander points out in his introduction that our spiritual practices may shift and change over the years according to our circumstances (6), and that has been the case for my mother.  Two years after her husband’s death, my mother has moved to a new state to live near one of her daughters and two of her grandchildren, and she has the freedom to visit her other daughter and grandchildren now that she is not so tied to home because of care-giving. 
Now, when she sits down to create art journal pages, she says the process feels more “forced”:  “I feel there’s nothing I can put on the paper that’s going to make me feel any better than I already do.” She feels as though her pages no longer tell a story about herself, and that with no more “angst” to release, she can “come up with stuff and make it pretty,” but the practice doesn’t talk to her anymore.

Cutting out various images from magazines and decorative papers allowed my mother to create pages that brought about order from chaos—with the symbolic act on the page helping her escape the powerlessness to do so in her real life.  “Now, there’s no chaos,” she says.  “I don’t know how to make more order now.”  
If art journaling was a process of coping for her, now she says she has begun a process of learning—especially through reading and Bible study.  She also enjoys the new trend in coloring books for grown-ups.  Where, before, the process of choosing colors for the designs would have driven her crazy, she says, now she enjoys the act of selecting colors and staying within the lines.  “It’s a different thing, because I’m in a different mood.”
When art is used as a spiritual practice, like my mother’s art journal pages, it is not necessarily intended for public display. Our art-making, in its service to our spirit, isn’t about display, sharing, or selling.  This makes more sense when we equate art-making with practices like prayer or scripture study.  The value in these practices is found in the doing, and as Silberman points out, no one expects us to share these disciplines in a public way (258).  When people find out we make art, they may want to see it, and may wonder why we “bother” to do it if we aren’t planning to show it or to sell it.

I faced that attitude from my own self: did it make sense to purchase so many art materials and dedicate a whole room to my projects if it wasn’t going to bring some practical result: income? publication? some way in which other people have the opportunity to validate my work?  

Silberman reminds us of a truth we may have to spend some time convincing ourselves of: “Creativity is about the process, not the outcome, especially when it is being used as a spiritual discipline.  Creativity is about the experience, the identifying and releasing of feelings and core responses to the world around us” (258). Whether we want the world to be privy to those feelings and responses is a question we can consider later, when we can determine if we are resilient enough to continue with our practice no matter how other may respond to it.

Each person who desires to pursue art-making as a spiritual practice has a wide variety of materials and approaches to choose from.  Through personal interests and trial and error, each individual can consider what will most effectively fulfill his or her spiritual goals:

Found materials
Digital art
Spray paint
Art journaling

As people made in the image of God, we are creative beings; we carry some element of God’s creative power within us.  Engaging in art as a spiritual practice is a path to getting back in touch with this personal characteristic that has been with us all along; it’s just been misplaced in the shuffle of life, perhaps buried under different concerns.

How might you explore the possibilities of art-making as a spiritual practice this year?

Many thanks to my mother, Anne Landrum, for opening her personal journals to me, and allowing me to share images from them with you, my blog readers.
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