Learning to Be a New Kind of Artist: A Week at the “Art as a Spiritual Connection” Summer Camp

Praxis, Writings

We’re sitting in the sanctuary of All Saints Church, in a circle of dim light.  It’s morning and we’ve finished doing yoga and put the mats away, and now Fabricia is talking.  There is a theme for this first day, as there will be for most of the days of the camp – connection and community.  How do we set our egos and need for attention aside, and become truly attentive to the people around us?  Artists are famous for their temperaments, their fragile egos.  The permission to even engage in art is hard won, the talents that can make a person an artist are extolled as individual and unique.  Most people observe and understand the world without feeling a compelling need for expression, but for artists the world isn’t quite real unless its been filtered through their imaginations.  As I listen to Fabricia, I feel a touch of fear and a great deal of wonder.  Is it really possible to make art in a community, art that surrenders individual vision to an interpersonal ethic?  Art that imitates the self-sacrificing love of Christ?  The first thing we need to learn, Fab tells us, is that an artist who loves is an artist who gives away her best work to other people.

There are thirteen of us sitting on the sanctuary carpet, nine girls and four adults.  I’m here with my daughter, who has just finished fifth grade.  On this first morning we’re shy of each other.  Some of us know each other, but we’re not a community yet.  We move from the sanctuary to the social hall, which has been transformed into our studio for the week.  Fab gathers us around her and shows us how to make prints with an array of wooden stamps that she’s constructed and collected.  There are trays with colored printer’s ink laid out at eight tables, and we take white or black pieces of paper, roll the ink onto the stamps, and print patterns, moving from table to table, color to color, building up images.  We are aware of each other’s movements, we often have to stop and wait for someone to finish with the color we need, but our primary focus is on our own work, the vibrant, stamped images on the page.  We make multiple prints, setting them out to dry and cleaning the stamps with baby wipes, which we also set-out to dry.  These look like tie-dyes, with myriad colors smeared across them.  When we have finished with this hour of print-making, Fab provides the object lesson.  We will pick our two favorite prints, she tells us.  One of them we will give away, and one of them we will display in the art show at the end of the week.  The print we give away will be cut into 2” x 2” squares, distributed throughout the community, and used to make mosaics at the end of the week.  An artist who loves, she reminds us, is an artist who gives away her best work to other people.

It’s early afternoon on the next day, and we’re in the sanctuary again.  We’ve spent the morning creating designs of the tree of life and then cutting them into linoleum blocks.  We will print these designs onto the tie-dyed baby wipes from the day before, because in Fab’s artistic process nothing is lost and any object can be transformed into art.  Now we are singing, and Brianna is leading us.  The day before she taught us to sing in a round, and then asked us to improvise within our parts.  Today she’s spread us throughout the church, and as we sing we move from our separate places to form a circle around a candle that’s set in the center of the carpet.  Some of the children have followed the sound of their own voices into wild disharmonies, and Brianna calls us all back to the center, to the simplicity of the song.  We have to listen to each other, she tells us.  If we each pursue our own melodies, the music’s beauty is lost.  This balance between individuality and community, between improvisation and harmony, is hard for all of us.  But singing together gives us a chance to practice it.

Fab tells me that we are engaging in spiritual direction through art, that art is a means of attaining wisdom, and not an end in itself.  We are all talented, smart, and clever.  But are we wise?  I am the only man in the group, and I find myself wondering about the kind of wisdom that Fab is extolling.  Much of it is other-directed, founded on the idea that wisdom comes from surrendering some part of oneself for the good of a community.  A large part of me agrees with this, and I am enjoying the way that we practice this idea as we make art.  But I also have a strong distrust of communities.  I’ve felt manipulated by communities in the past.  Worse, I’ve felt that many of the communities I’ve been a part of have had little interest in me as an artist, or, if interested, have wanted me to use my talents to further some community goal that’s based in needs and traditions that I don’t share.  I’ve rarely experienced a community that simply rejoiced in the gifts and talents of its members, and was willing to be shaped by those gifts and talents.  Is this distrust a male attitude, part of my socialization since boyhood?  Or is it a cultural attitude that effects both genders?

I think about this on the third day, as we paint portraits.  The lesson this morning is about Jesus as the Soul Friend.  If we are to love one another, Fab tells us, we must first learn to love ourselves.  She breaks us into pairs and tells us that we should paint our own portrait, and then the portrait of a friend.  She’s taken photographs of us, and we work from them, staring into our own faces and then the faces of our partners.  I find it easier to paint my partner, and I wonder if this is because I’m less invested in her face than I am in my own.  I squander time and thought on my portrait, trying to bring out my own sense of who I am.  I decorate her portrait with tiny clay mosaic tiles that I made earlier in the week, prettifying it.  I want to honor her, but she doesn’t present a question to me in the way that my own portrait does.  I’ve made three self-portraits in my lifetime and in a way this is the hardest.  I’m not permitting myself the same ironic detachment that I usually bring to the effort.  I’m trying to love myself through daubs of paint, and wondering why I look dour, sulky, a little defensive.  I keep working, slowly painting over these expressions, until a pleasant face emerges.  This is the face I’d like to present to the world, the wise face offered for community consumption.  But under it lies the individual face, the first portrait that I put on the canvas, the wary face.  I wonder which face Jesus loves best, and I suppose that Jesus loves both equally, the selves that give gladly to the good of a community and the selves that seek isolation and have difficulty trusting.  But which self do I love more?

On Thursday we stand opposite each other at a table where Fab has placed a large, square canvas with concentric circles painted on it.  We have squeeze bottles of colored sand standing ready.  We join hands and pray together for a moment.  Then she takes a bottle and makes a pattern of white sand on the canvas.  I add to her pattern with blue sand.  We go back and forth, changing each other’s work, making a mandala that spirals out from the center of the canvas to its edges.  When the design feels finish, we look at each other and nod.  We begin to smear it with our hands, rake it with our fingers, making new patterns as the lines of color are blended together.  This is a movement of trust and surrender.  We’re interested in the process of making the mandalas, not in the mandalas themselves.  At this point in the week we’ve become so sure of each other within the community that our thoughts can go outwards.  I find myself meditating on an old friend whom I’ve become estranged from.  He’s written to me earlier in the week, and I’ve been wondering how to respond.  As we make and unmake the mandala, it becomes clear to me that I have to let go of the hurt I feel because of the estrangement.  I phrase and rephrase how I’ll respond to him.  When we’re done with the mandalas, I slip off and write a message to him.  And I realize that I trust this small community of artists.  Our work together has pushed my concerns beyond myself, and beyond our little circle of thirteen, out into the wider world.  Anyone can make art, Fab says, whether they’re an artist or not.  And any artist can learn to make art with a new spirit and a new ethic, art that frees those who practice it and moves them beyond the narrow concerns of self, moves them towards something that feels preciously close to a state of grace.

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