(Re) Discovering Art within Faith Equip journal 2011
This was an article I wrote in 2011 for Equip and given that I am re-entering a space where faith, art and health collide again, I thought it might be appropriate to reflect on again.
(Re) Discovering Art within Faith
How illness created the space to find a spiritual connection with creativity
Over the past five years my life has gone through quite an upheaval. The year after completing a demanding (physically, mentally, emotionally) theatre degree my husband and I returned to Melbourne with the intention of finding work in our respective fields (my husband – music, myself - theatre). We knew it would be tough; by leaving Sydney we were leaving established professional connections and relationships and almost guaranteed work to be back in the same state as our families. However we firmly believed it was the right decision and we trusted that it would work out, even if it meant a slow re-acquaintance with Melbourne.
Six months later I started to realise something was wrong and nearly six months after that I finally had a diagnoses (albeit an uncommon and unhelpful one, but one nevertheless) of fibromyalgia; a very badly understood and very un-strategically treated condition by medical professionals and the general public alike. I experienced pain that, over a couple of years, spread from my elbows to my neck, upper back, lower back, hips and knees, thankfully stopping before my ankles were reached. In the theatre degree I had done everything from stage managing, lights and props to directing. I was very hands on, very practical and quite used to travelling one handed up and down the scaffold in the theatre with a light in the other hand. Such activity could no longer have been even considered. Instead it was replaced by hours of stillness, with some movement only to ensure stiffness and more pain didn’t set in any more than was inevitable. It was a lifestyle dictated by how much pain I was feeling. Even though I was the one at home and my husband working, if I hung out the washing it was the only thing I did all day because my arms were up in the air for so long and I no longer cooked with pumpkin or other hard vegetables unless I knew Pete would be home in time to cut it up. I got a new car (the criteria; automatic, power steering, comfortable seats which wouldn’t aggravate my hips – all for the cheapest amount possible as I wasn’t working) which I drove only when a lift could not be arranged. However even though I did drive, I never drove anywhere further than 15 minutes away as that was the limit of my concentration, let alone the limit of the pain in my arms and knee from the action of driving.
I don’t tell you all this for sympathy, I tell you this to set the scene for why and how I re-discovered the arts during this time. Having said I did a theatre degree you may think that I was well aware of the arts and to a degree I was. But my relationship with the arts was almost strictly practical; what’s the story and how do we best tell it?
During this new period of my life the arts came to mean something new altogether and my experience of them expanded. I’ve always loved to make things but I’m not a natural ‘painter’ so I never felt I had any legitimate connection to the visual or fine arts. And as much as I had wanted the arts to have an impact on my faith, my previous experience of arts and the church had not been especially encouraging and was very limited and limiting. During this new time though, in quite a significant way, ‘the arts’ saved me. They kept me sane, they gave me life. Because of the pain I often felt like my body was being constantly overstimulated, which required me to change the normal activities of my day and the things we take for granted. One small example is that I stopped listening to music. For a period of nearly three years I don’t think I choose to listen to any music. I needed peace, quiet, stillness. I needed regular but easy changes of pace from sitting, standing, lying, activity, inactivity – all which needed to be carefully monitored and controlled.
What I found in this limiting time of life was a personal exploration of spiritual disciplines, taught, developed and encouraged by a regular supply of books (and personal encouragement and information) from my parents. It was something I could do, when I wanted to, needed to, was able to.
During this time art or creativity became for me a spiritual discipline. Now I can barely untangle creativity from spiritual discipline or practices. I engaged with art as I never had before. It spoke to me in ways it never had before. I had the time and the space to be with art the way I never had before. One example is the painting ‘The Artist’s Wife in the Garden at Skagen’ by Peter Severin Kroyer. I think I got the image from an old cheap calendar somewhere. It is a painting of the artist’s wife, in what I assume is their garden. She reclines on a lounge chair reading with another chair, empty beside her. I sat with this image for hours. She was doing what I was doing. Being, waiting, sometimes reading. I don’t know who the other chair was for in reality, probably for the artist himself, but this chair represented all sorts of things at different times for me. Often placing myself within the image as the woman, the empty chair was waiting for my husband or a friend. The empty chair was waiting for God. Sometimes the empty chair was full of God. Sometimes the woman was God waiting for me to fill the empty chair. This image gave me peace, comfort, hope. I felt that within this image I was able to spend time with God.
It was during this time that I was forced to learn to ‘be’. The understanding that we are ‘be-ings’ not ‘do-ings’ is one we often struggle to live out in practice but all I could do during this time was ‘be’. I had to let go of what I had been and what I thought I would do. I had to find the ability to just be now, to just be in relationship with God. And I found my relationship with God strengthened through creativity and art. Not just through an observation of images but the creative engagement of mandalas, labyrinths, collage, painting, playing, re-discovering the importance of storytelling (weird for someone from theatre I know), even finding the physical connection between myself and art and that it ‘hurt’ me at times. When I was undisciplined and did too much for too long I suffered pain from the creativity, thus I could never rely on ‘inspiration’ as my sole creative instigator. The idea of almost divine inspiration where you work and work till finished was unhealthy, even impossible for me – a lesson which still to this day means I try hard to live a balanced life in all things.
I discovered the soul healing nature of beauty and found that my soul and body almost ached for beauty and then sighed with relief within it. I also found the therapeutic nature of playing with colour, shape and form. My husband says that the love I developed of making jewellery was a form of therapy during this period.
Art and faith became connected in a way no one had ever told me they could be before. This wasn’t about the sometimes cringe worthy idea of using art to bring people into the church building, or of preaching through the arts. Instead this was about engaging with the arts personally, spiritually. This wasn’t about producing art that was for others to see. This was about creating a space for God and myself to communicate, about giving my mind, heart and body space to listen to God in a way I may not be able to at other times. It was about being with God, not necessarily talking to God. It became a place to pray, to think, to meditate, to consider, to reflect, to find my true thoughts, to find God’s thoughts, to be renewed.
With ‘the arts’ within many churches developing today I want to encourage people to find a connection to the arts that is personal, explorative, playful and engaging. To engage in the arts doesn’t always mean putting on a performance or exhibition. It can be a personally engaging act that brings us to a place of space to be. This is quite a different mindset – this is not art that is produced for other people. There are no ‘tangible’ results. No one else may ever see it, but this does not matter. No one else may understand it, but this does not matter. If someone else does see and does benefit from it, this is a bonus for them. This art is not about talent or ability; we all have the ability for this type of art. In fact I could go so far as to say we may all have the talent for this – it’s just that ‘talent’ in this respect has nothing to do with the items produced. Instead the talent is our ability to allow this space to be where we open ourselves up to the thoughts of God. This is a different type of art. This is not visual or performance art, this is creative space to be with God.