Work of the People

Back in May of this year, I received word that a grant proposal I had submitted on behalf of my church had been accepted. In broad strokes, the purpose of our project is to bring more visual art into our spiritual lives, and specifically into our corporate worship. This is work that had, in fact, already been underway for several years, but the grant is affording us space, resources, outside guest speakers and adult education opportunities, and an explicit focus on the artistry of the Bible in a program we’re calling God’s Creative Story.

Our first visual arts project was a liturgical banner to mark the season of Ordinary Time and to solicit the congregation’s participation in creating visual art. I’ll go back and say more about that project at some point, but first I want to reflect on the project we most recently completed. During the month of October, our pastor is preaching on the theme of Covenant, so our Liturgical Arts Group has created an installation to evoke that theme. This work was installed in our sanctuary the week after a sermon on Noah and just a few days before the Atlanta Pride Celebration. The actual construction of the piece took about six hours of walking a spool of ordinary sewing thread to and from the sides of the chancel and attaching it to cup hooks anchored at differing angles to the window sills. This process required a minimum of three people, with both church members and church staff stepping in for shifts of ferrying the thread back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth again. There were lessons in hope, trust, and patience to be learned as we began, failed forward, and began again, finally falling into a rhythm that worked for all of us. And even before the actual work began, there had been time for our weekly gathering of artisans to find inspiration in the work of Gabriel Dawe, and to consider the symbol of the rainbow and its relationship to Creator and Word and Spirit in our church and in our lives. We saw connections between this project and another we had participated in under the auspices of the NDPC Craftivists where we created 300 Friendship Bracelet Kits to be given away at Atlanta Pride events.

The original name for our grant program was The Work of the People in Word and Image. That proved to be too much of a mouthful, lacking in the warm ease of God’s Creative Story. But what I’ve been contemplating of late is the joy, the “rightness,” the sense of sacred calling that I feel to do the creative work of the people, to be a creator in community. Doing the work of the people as one of those people myself keeps me focused on the greater good and the higher purpose of glorifying God. “Glorifying God” is not a oft-used phrase for me or those in my circles, but I was reminded of it today as I recalled my Presbyterian Confirmation experience from back in the Seventies, when I affirmed to the best of my preteen ability that my chief end was to “glorify and enjoy God forever.” Making art together, particularly making art to deepen and enrich the worship experience together, side by side with my church friends and family, is people’s work that is glorious indeed.

Be Very Careful

IMG_7896 (1)Just over a year ago, I surprised myself by creating some art that I did not understand. Although I’ve always been a maker and a crafter, the collages I created – three little compositions using words snipped from church bulletins pasted strategically over the mouth, the ears, the eyes of media shots of Donald Trump – felt important to me, but puzzled me as well. Why had I created them? I wasn’t sure, and I wrote about that confusion on a blog post here.

Earlier this month, I looked at those pieces again just before coming across a call for entries for a local art gallery preparing a show of works on paper. It seemed serendipitous, and I hurried to frame the pieces as a triptych and submit them to the gallery. Almost as an afterthought, I also entered one of the meditative mandalas that I craft from church bulletins, designs drawn around a centering word of truth and power and framed with paper pulp and metal leaf collage.

I was first delighted, and then rather surprised, when I received notice that both my pieces had been accepted to the show, really thinking only about the triptych. I went to the opening with excitement, curiosity, and just a bit of anxiety – how would my trio of Trump collages be received? How would it present in the context of a group invitational collection? Would the polarizing image of Trump stand out, or would it be moderate, even timid or naive, compared to other works?

To make a long story short, I still don’t know. I don’t know because the piece was not on display. The curator’s assistant assured me it had absolutely nothing to do with content, only with size and space constraints and “how colors look together.” As she was handing the piece back to me, she and her colleague were earnestly telling me about a previous show that was full of “homoerotic” images as proof of their own open-mindedness, but said nothing about my piece specifically. I did see find my mandala piece on display, grouped with an abstract composition of textures and shapes, and on closer inspection, I saw that the show as a whole, while full of skill and beauty, had little to no content of controversy.

What I do know is that the piece felt more, not less, important to me because of its exclusion from that show. With a bit of sly rebelliousness, I posed for a photo in front of the show poster with my name appearing prominently near my shoulder, and my artwork in my hands. That action caught the attention of one of the gallery’s hosts, who stepped closer, probably wondering why framed art was in someone’s hands instead of on the wall. Even before I finished explaining that I’d just picked it up because “y’all decided not to include it in the show,” she was shaking her head and saying, “We have to be careful, we have to be very careful.” I loved her for her honesty.

I love the art I created, too, for its mystery and its power. As a trio of images, I titled it Triune Koan, and I’ll be submitting it to another show I learned about that sounds like a better match for difficult, disconcerting, disrupting expressions. As for my other piece – the one hanging sweetly, comfortably, pleasingly among 99 other works on paper – perhaps we need to be “very careful” with that piece too. Why? Because its title, and the word at its center, is Shalom.

When Contemplative Crafting gets pushed aside

Jan19blog2I’ve been hanging out with me for long enough now to know this about myself: I overwhelm myself time and time again. I bite off more than I can chew. I love divergent thinking, creative possibility, big plans, and potential projects. Saying yes is something I do, not because I need assertiveness training or courage in the face of disappointing others, but because I am so often swept up in the rush of enthusiasm that comes with a new idea. It’s my own self that I can’t bear to disappoint when something novel holds the promise of wonderful opportunities ahead.

When it is time to rein the ideas back in, to gather the herd, to nurture the new-planted seeds (apparently, pastoral metaphors abound here), to follow through and do the work that brings those wonderful opportunities to pass – well, that is frankly just not my strength. I won’t say I can’t do it, but it is the hard part of the process for me, the part that calls for discipline, perseverance, and focus that is sometimes hard for me to call up in myself.

But here’s what helps: naming it, like I’m doing here. Talking about it, like I remember to do sometimes with my closest confidantes. And making, especially making. The process of working with materials that can be crafted into something new gives me the chance to connect the content of my head and my heart, my thoughts and my emotions. When it really works, using my hands to fold and fit, to cut and paste and paint, to shape and mold, the chaos of too many perfectly good ideas settles into a calmer stream of consciousness.

Jan2019blog1For almost three years now, I have been leading a weekly class called Create and Connect in a place that is wondrous to me: my local county jail. With men and women who are dealing with their own versions of overwhelm, I spend an hour guiding process art experiences. The participants’ responses are consistently positive and appreciative. They report feeling more relaxed, less stressed, and more hopeful after just 45 minutes or so of art-making, consistent with recent research out of Drexel University.

The sessions for the classes are eight weeks long, followed by a two-week break. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve realized an interesting pattern in my own psyche regarding this schedule. When I am participating in these expressive arts experiences twice a week, with as many as five classes in a day, the overwhelm that I am prone to is held at bay. It is during this break time, when I do not “practice what I preach” regarding making as a helpful and healing process toward wholeness, that I tend to let the enormity of my commitments get the better of me.

This afternoon, I am hired to provide a Contemplative Crafting workshop to a group of friends celebrating a birthday. Together, we will transform paper ephemera – book pages, church bulletins, legal documents, personal correspondence – into ornaments and flowers, little decorations and adornments. They will carry away these pretty objects to do with them whatever they might, but our shared goals will prioritize the process, seeing these products more simply as souvenirs, memories of the experience.

While this workshop will be a service to others, as are the classes I lead in quite different contexts, I know that I will also be giving a great gift to myself. I will again have the chance I’ve been missing to create contemplative calm and connection in my own self, through the mindful making that soothes my psyche. And I am confident, because I know too that this is how God made me, that I will find further relief from the overwhelm that has already loosened since the start of this confessional post. May it be so – amen and amen!

Pain and Gratitude

C66A8B1B-E287-4CCC-AB56-719913BA1DA0I will be reflecting for months on this past weekend at The Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC, where my husband and I joined four thousand others for a few days of conversation and community around spirit, justice, music, and art. We’re still soaking up the beauty and energy of Asheville today and taking a field trip to Penland School of Crafts this afternoon, so for now I’m just posting some links here and photos of notes (if you’re interested, I’ve linked each photo to the website of the featured speaker, too), but I will say that it’s been a rich and full time away from home and routine to live into both/and realities – simultaneous grief for the world and hope for it, fear and love, pain and gratitude – that has refueled my passion for both contemplation and creative action in God’s glorious and great creation. More to come!

To see a World in a Grain of Sand*

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This is me, a couple of weeks ago at Emory University’s Tibet Week. I loved trying my hand at this: using a brass chak-pur to lay down a sand mandala. The really amazing work was done by the visiting monks as an act of prayer and meditation. Both my beginner’s efforts and their experienced ones ended up in the same place: let loose into running water, where the belief is that the lovingkindness and compassion imbued into every grain of sand will travel from creek to stream to river to sea and thus throughout creation – may it be so!

*To see a World in a Grain of Sand is the lovely first line of William Blake’s timeless poem, Auguries of Innocence. Give it a read and see if you don’t come away with a reminder that Everything is connected to Everything.

 

Co-creating with Creation

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I’m on my way home today from the 2018 Theopoetics Conference. The image above is from the workshop that I co-facilitated with Darci Jaret of Park Avenue Baptist Church and Art in the Image.

Theopoetics is a new word for many and an exhilarating idea for me. In our closing session this morning, we talked around breakfast tables about better language than “conference” and “session” for describing the spaces we made together at this event. During this weekend at the charmingly New England-y Walker Center for Ecumenical Exchange, we explored the ways that art and religion find one another in this world – considering both in their broadest contexts and, simultaneously, their most personal and particular implications. We rejoiced in Friday’s opening presentation by The Sanctuaries DC as a *true* opening – a yielding of our hearts and bodies and most vulnerable selves to the truths of others and of our own souls. We remembered with wonderment the power and courage of each participant’s willingness to be that – a full participant – and marveled that we never saw crossed arms or other shields-up postures. We remarked that even in the minority of sessions where there were trappings of academia – typed handouts or notes or slides on a screen – we were taken beyond the role of passive receiver to active, whole-hearted listener and embodied listener. We suggested that the weekend would be better described as a gathering, and the time we spent in community together more precisely named as a conversation.

There were amazing people at this gathering, and I am ridiculously pleased to say that three of the 75-ish attendees were there because I encouraged them to attend, just based on how cool the opportunity looked when I happened upon it online pretty much by chance. I’d be proud to be responsible for many more ARC event attendees. My next steps will be to build upon the art piece that Darci and I began, and to help with a June event in Atlanta at Centerform (details to follow). And especially, to keep learning, pondering and passing along ideas about theopoetics.

My favorite of the concept’s developing definitions? Co-creating with Creation. Selah and ashe and amen.

Busted by my Enneagram type

 

So, because I’m such a consumer and glutton and grabber (Type 7 if you’re wondering), I was really getting into Enneagram a couple of months ago until something else shiny caught my eye. Before I was distracted away, I signed up for this EnneaThought for the Day, and I do still read these and occasionally even pay attention to them. Here’s what I received in an email today:

What would it be like to let go of your acquisitiveness and express your higher qualities of gratitude and joy today? 

 Just as I read to the end of the sentence, an answer came right out – like literally, I think I spoke it aloud. It was: I would write a blog post. And with that, here comes the gratitude and joy:

I am grateful for my opportunities to teach and do and make art, to think about how we are created to create, to be meeting new people and making new friends who are living into this creative exchange with Creator/Source/Something Bigger than Ourselves /Love/God.

I am grateful for the sources of income that are allowing me to move in this space, my work and my husband’s work and the little windfalls and opportunities that come our way that keep the bills paid and the refrigerator stocked.

I am grateful for the wise ones, the old friends, the friends of longest standing, the family and forebears who have been in my life from before I knew anything, and who have loved me and love me still through my step forward/step back journey through this one wild and precious life.

I am grateful for my children, my two beautiful sons, who have taught me over and over how to love fiercely and let go fearlessly, and are surely, truly, teaching me that lesson even now.

This morning I attended Park Avenue Baptist Church, where Brandon Maxwell preached, on this first Sunday of Black History Month, about orthodoxy and heresy and white supremacy and strange fruit and above all the power of justice and mercy and love to be bigger than the barriers we as humankind face to living in God’s way. The joy was deep and abiding in his words and in that place, deeper even than the pain and the hurt and the anger and the injustice that is a part of the shared American history that has brought us to this day. The joy was bedrock, it was eternal, it was everlasting and everlasting, and its glints and flashes shine every day in my life when I only have eyes to see.

Letting go of my acquisitiveness? Just now, that meant not picking up a book, not slipping into the kitchen for a snack, not clicking over to social media, not casting about for something else to take on. It meant stopping to acknowledge and appreciate the rich and full present reality of my life. Blessed Be, Thank you Jesus, So be it, and Amen!

 

Trump and Tikkun Olam

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Contemplative crafting: thinking and listening, pondering and praying, replying to Creation with creation, making stuff and making meaning – that’s the practice I am trying to develop and sustain.

But now I’ve done this – these pieces of … art? –  and I don’t understand what it means. I want to be able to explain it, but right now the work is coming from beyond a place of my knowing. I do know it has something to do with the fact that Trump is small and the God of my understanding is great. I know it has to do with the truth that love is greater than hate, or fear, or indifference. I know that it involves my wrestling with the fact – and for me it is a fact – that we are all, without exception, BELOVED children of God. Even Trump? What can that mean? I can not understand. I am repulsed and fascinated by the ugliness in his expressions, by his twisted face, by the evil gleam in his eye and the meanness on his lips. I can’t bear to look and I can’t look away, and I don’t know if the slathering on of love and welcome and blessing and peace makes any sense at all but I feel called – compelled – to do it. I do this as I remember the liturgy at my church and the calls to action there and in my community, as I listen to the no-good news and to podcasts about prayer and pain and peace. I slip back and forth on these snowy indoor days between snipping, assembling, gluing, rearranging and Google searches: Does God love Trump? Does God hate Trump? I ponder anew: Who is God? Who am I? What tiniest bit of Tikkun olam can I offer to this hurting world with my art and my prayers? I have questions, not answers, and for now, I only follow the compulsion to clip another word from the page – love, welcome, grace – and place it on the very source of all those words are not.

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a heart full of neart

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A bit of crafting created during last weekend’s Celtic Christianity seminar with Carl McColman

This Irish word – neart – is an odd, misspelled-looking little word for a beautiful and expansive concept. It is the idea of the spiritual energy of all living things, of the creative power of God. The ancient Celts asked God to strengthen them with the neart, and it has occurred to more than one person that “May the Force be with you,” might be an appropriate shorthand for wishing that another be blessed and made bold with their personal claim of neart.

I’ve learned this word, and others too, along with stories, poems, and prayers of the earliest Irish peoples in a weekend seminar on Celtic Christianity, presented by the engaging and wise Carl McColman. I’ve returned home reminded that God is not elsewhere, but is in my very breath, my very body, and surely in the breath and body of every atom of this earth and of this universe – how mystical is that?! And beyond that sheer euphoria, what does that mean for living a life?

A few weeks ago, I joined a group of friends from my progressive church to watch a movie, one that would not have been a likely choice for viewing save for the fact that several scenes were filmed in our real-life sanctuary and some of our own congregation members appeared as extras in the worship scenes. The movie is Miracles from Heaven, and it tells the true story of a mom whose faith is tried, trampled, and ultimately restored as her daughter suffers through a rare incurable illness. Like many in our small audience, I came to the viewing with skepticism about the theology of the film, and there were indeed a few scenes that expressed beliefs different than my own. But overall, the story was well-told, well-acted, and well-representative of one family’s experience of making sense of the realities of this life. It was one line popularly attributed to Einstein in an impassioned speech by the mom of the story that has stayed with me since I heard it. That idea is this:

 “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.

The idea of seeing miracles everywhere, of seeing God’s presence in all places, is older than Einstein (who according to researchers likely never made that specific statement as such, but never mind) and older even than the life of Jesus; Celtic peoples converted to Christianity from a history of seeing gods in all things to seeing God in all things.

Seeing God in all things, sensing miracles everywhere, being strengthened by the creative power of God – that creates a heart full of neart. So may it be for all God’s people – AMEN!

Selling is hard, but eating is good

I’ll be selling my work at a few events this fall – On Saturday, November 11, I’ll be at the Park Avenue Baptist Church Artist Market. A few weeks later, on Saturday, December 2, I’ll be at the North Decatur Presbyterian Church Alternative Gift Fair (link coming soon).

One of my newfound heroes, the late craft artist Paulus Berensohn, speaks so beautifully about creative practice and the challenges around selling one’s work in this beautiful video. He does begin, however, by saying that at one point he sold enough work at a single show to “buy the farm,” and he means that quite literally – I don’t have a farm to buy, but there are bills to pay and meals to eat, so this is how it has to go, at least for now. I dream of a day where I pick up a few 10K grants here and there that allow me to make for the sheer act of creation – someday!

I am delighted with these pieces and the stories they tell. On the back of each piece, I post this note:

STORIES

They are lovely little artworks, possibly perfect gifts for newlyweds, new homeowners, or friends who offer their hospitality. Mostly I’m centering the mandala around the word welcome, but I’ve also used, peace, love, sanctuary, and other words that appear in these bulletins. If you’d like to request a specific word or set of colors, or just get more information about making a purchase, just email me at ellengadberry [at] gmail.com