Too busy doing to document…

… and so, I’ve fallen behind posting, and to be honest, on the contemplative part of the whole equation. It’s mid-July and its already been a summer chock-full of amazing experiences. In August, I will spend some time reflecting and recording in writing my thoughts on the art-making I’ve led and participated in these past months. Please check back then! In the meantime, here are a few photo highlights above of the past couple of months… details and explanations to follow. And: click the links below to earlier posts – there are a lot!

New Year Happy

A happy collage I made this week

It’s always lovely, isn’t it, when you receive appreciation and recognition for just being yourself. Recently I have been given some truly generous compliments about my teaching presence, and the fact of the matter is, guiding a group with spirited joy and earnest enthusiasm is just – me. It’s what truly makes me happy. Sure, it’s a skill that I have leaned into and honed with practice and experience, but it’s also something that’s been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember. Literally, I’ve been showing, sharing, encouraging ever since I sat my baby brothers down to play school when I was just beyond toddlerhood myself. Before I was out of elementary school, I was gathering kids on my parents’ back deck in the summers for crafts and cookies, and I’ve continued a vocational life that has always had me in and around the classroom, most happily when I’ve been co-creating with learners. Teaching visual arts, language arts, appreciation of great literature and ideas, craft arts, the art of knowing oneself – that’s where I get to be my self at my best, where I get to be a hawker for happiness, a salesperson for self-expression, self-appreciation, and self-awareness. Even the decade I spent as a literal salesperson was, for me, less about the financial bottom line and much more about selling with heartfelt enthusiasm the how-to and the why of the process the educational software I was offering allowed for (More reading! More exposure to the art of great books! More ways to access the deepest joys of life!) Truly though, once that decade was behind me, I was able to return a more direct connection to teaching, making, learning, inspiring – just being me, and it has made my spirit sing.

So I’ve just read with the deepest delight about a kindred spirit, in a book that is itself its own sort of extraordinary magic. Make Meatballs Sing; The Life and Art of Corita Kent by Matthew Burgess and illustrated by Kara Kramer is as bursting with joy, color, and creativity as I feel when life is at its very best, and I am doing what I love. Like Corita, I want to share strong and elemental expressions of hope and joy, clear and compassionate calls for justice and peace, and happy and humorous messages of living with…everyone!

I look forward to those opportunities in the year ahead. I am taking on more responsibility for programming and development at Paint Love, I am continuing my work with children and their teachers at First Congregational Church of Pasadena, serving in lay leadership capacities at North Decatur Presbyterian Church, and I have just become a member of IEATA, an organization that supports expressive arts facilitators like me. Happy New Year!

We become better at what we practice

… and because I haven’t practiced using this blog space in so long, I never remember how to “do it right” when I get about this far on the way to publishing a new post. Thus, the several I’ve started over the past year have never seen the light of an Internet day. Today though – ta da! Nothing fancy, but something in these waning days of 2021.

I did just come across a beautiful reflection on living by the liturgical calendar, something that brings a sense of joy and balance to my life. Read more here.

More of my own thoughts soon…

Hope – 2020 Edition

It was a gift of an opportunity to facilitate an Advent Retreat today with two other wise women – Marlene Pomeroy, Co-pastor of First Pasadena UCC, and Anne Cohen, a retired pastor and member of that congregation and an experienced Soul Collage facilitator.

For my part, I shared some ideas about hope, including this thoughtful poem by the Brazilian theologian and educator Rebem Alves:

What is Hope?

It is a presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks.

It is a hunch
that the overwhelming brutality of facts
that oppress and repress is not the last word.

It is a suspicion
that reality is more complex
than realism wants us to believe
and that the frontiers of the possible
are not determined by the limits of the actual
and that in a miraculous and unexpected way

life is preparing the creative events
which will open the way to freedom and resurrection

The two, suffering and hope, live from each other.

Suffering without hope
produces resentment and despair,

hope without suffering
creates illusions, naiveté́, and drunkenness…

Let us plant dates
even though those who plant them will never eat them.

We must live by the love of what we will never see.

This is the secret discipline.

It is a refusal to let the creative act
be dissolved in immediate sense experience
and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren.

Such disciplined love
is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints
the courage to die for the future they envisaged.

They make their own bodies
the seed of their highest hope.

―Rubem A. Alves, Tomorrow’s Child, 1972.

We also considered American author and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr‘s statement on hope:

The theological virtue of hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution, and still be content and even happy because our Satisfaction is now at another level, and our Source is beyond ourselves.

With these thoughts in mind, we brainstormed on our own ideas about hope and specifically on these questions:

What do you hope for?

What gives you hope?

Then, we practiced a variant of lectio divina developed by Sybil MacBeth, author of Praying in Color. To do this, we reflected on Emily Dickinson’s well-loved poem, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers.” If you’d like to learn more about the praying in color practice with Sybil MacBeth, she guides a Lectio Divina session on YouTube here.

After sharing our resulting drawings and doodles, we closed my portion of the day’s workshops with a very brief reference to the Advent Wreath supplies that will be available for drive-thru pickup at FCC on Saturday, November 28. Here are a few links to how-to videos:

Tissue paper stained-glass candle holders – Note that this video uses Mod Podge; we are substituting Elmer’s Glue, and we are working with Advent purples and pinks.

DIY Advent Wreath – This is just one of hundreds of tutorials; let these inspire you to create your own unique interpretation!

How to Cut a Star with ONE CUT from a Square – We didn’t get to this technique in our session together; it’s just a fun way to create sweet and simple signs of hope to scatter around your Advent wreath, string for your Christmas tree, or label your gift packages – a new life for repurposed paper.

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a timely article on self care that suggested creating rituals and adopting practices to “reinvigorate our souls.” Today was a rich opportunity for us to do that in Beloved Community – thank you! Blessings to you and yours.

Quid est veritas?

A note to friends after a virtual gathering and conversation that was layered with lament and hope:

I attend a weekly mandala group (now on Zoom, of course) where this week’s prompt was Naomi Shihab Nye reading her soul-stirring poem, Kindness – click to hear.

Thanks everybody for last night’s conversation. The movie itself, the welcome presence of our less-frequent attendees, the format of Zoom, these pandemic days we’re living in – all those factors came together to make the ideas we shared late into the evening especially…important. And complex. Complex, just like these days indeed, when at best we are all trying to wrap our heads around legitimate “both/and” truths and at worst we are bombarded with conflicting information in the guise of truth that makes truth seem like an impossible attainment and even an outdated idea.

This heir to Martin Luther King Jr. is speaking truth to power and teaching me why and how to move beyond thoughts and prayers. Click to learn more.

What do I mean by “both/and” truths? Simply, that life shows us over and over, when we have eyes to see, that things can be both good and bad – for things, plug in these ideas: government, “kids these days,” family, friends and other humans, technology, free speech, social distancing, time to slow down…mystery.

We talked last night about how the media is no longer (and really, was it ever?) a reliable source for truth, either as a hunter/gatherer or a distributor of it. So where do we find truth? A question as old as humanity, and one that I know we all have our answers to. Click the images for three places where Truth has found me this week. This last one especially, which I just heard this morning, seemed particularly relevant to our conversation about young adults and how they are experiencing this world. I’m going to have more to say about this artist and her art, and I know many others will too. Listen carefully to the profound words of her songs and let them speak for themselves, then listen to her NPR interview. If you can, hold off on viewing her photo and her other videos until you have really heard *her* unique voice (In the brief interview, she speaks of the “both/and” of her family legacy…)

Blessings on Truth’s search for you, today and always.

Love, Ellen

God’s Creativity, and Ours

What is creativity? I asked some friends the other night. There were great answers:

Thanks to my friend Asher who gave me these awesome black and white markers – enough for a BIG construction using this limited palette and recycled cardboard – just prototyping/noodling around here, but I sense an exciting liturgical arts piece coming soon… love this dreamy part of the creative process…

Doing old things in a new way.

Making something out of nothing.

Seeing possibility.

In our group, we also remembered the definition given in the book we’re working through together:

Creativity is a tool for navigating through everyday experiences to find the sacred in each God-given moment. 

In these pandemic days of early 2020, creativity is no less present or pervasive than it ever has been or will be in God’s eternity, and in the midst of fear and uncertainty, there are also joys and delights to be found in the creative invention that comes from necessitykind blessings and songs for hand washing, bold uses of social technologies to keep us connected, and emails from friends and colleagues that are extra thoughtful and intentional. There is even, if we can muster up enough “all is one” non-dual perspective for it, some true WONDER – dare I say, even excitement – about what’s coming next. Yes, it could be the end of the world as we know it, and that is a hard and heavy truth: we could grieve the loss of loved ones, life’s pleasures, or both… AND— as a friend said last night, with the bright light of hope in her eyes and in her prayer: God is doing new things! (These song lyrics came immediately to mind.) I delight in believing this even while it is so far beyond my dreams or understanding – a Love that big is exhilarating, in much, much more than just a kittens and rainbows way!

In our time together, my friends and I painted mandalas, and although I had not intended it, one observer saw in my abstract composition a womb. I was reminded of an amazing Ted talk that references the tomb and the womb, and then a favorite Meister Eckart quote, possibly paraphrased from his original words but now cited often to say:

What does God do all day long? God gives birth. From all eternity God lies on a maternity bed giving birth.

In these days, I put my faith in God’s eternally fertile creativity —AND— in our own, and my hope in new life ahead that is GOOD because God is with us in it. Amen and amen.

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!