Art as Soul's Sanctuary: The Making of a Leading

The stuff of the world is there to be made into images that become for us tabernacles of spirituality and containers of mystery. If we don’t allow soul its place in our lives, we are forced to encounter these mysteries in fetishes and symptoms, which in a sense are pathological art forms.

The point of art is not simply to express ourselves, but to create an external, concrete form in which the soul of our lives can be evoked and contained. Art is not about the expression of talent or the making of pretty things. It is about the preservation and containment of soul. It is about arresting life and making it available for contemplation. Art captures the eternal in the everyday, and it is the eternal that feeds the soul.
—Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul

Openings through Art

Last week John flew from California to Philadelphia to do art with me. He heard about doing simple art as prayer for healing. We painted and prayed. At the end of the day, he said he had done deep spiritual work through this process. I am grateful to God for the possibility of using me as a vessel to help others find their prayers for healing that come from a deep place below the words. Since January of 1999, I have felt led and am now living into the form that leading may take.

Second Grade Art

I never did art until over 40. I learned in second grade that there were those who had talent in art and those who did not, and I was one of the latter. I tried to draw the flower just like the teacher told us to but I could not do it right. So I focused on the academic world. Now I paint flowers that do not look anything like the one I failed at drawing in second grade.

A Black Brick in My Chest

Before I came to Pendle Hill in 1996, I felt like I had a black brick in my chest. I could not breathe at times. I knew the feeling was about not living up to my potential, but I had no idea what was needed. After I enrolled in a class called "Explorations in Clay," I remember telling someone about that black brick and referring to it as a clay brick. Each time I made a pot that term, I felt as though a piece of clay had been pinched off from it. The sensation of the brick disappeared by the end of my seventh art class.

Judge on the Shelf

When I began the first clay class, I was crippled by fear. I knew I could not do anything related to art and had no idea what I was doing there. At a deep level, I also knew I was right where I belonged. During one of the first classes, my teacher, Sally Palmer, told us to make our judges, then put the judge on the shelf. We could consult the judge if we needed to but if possible we were to let them sit on the shelf while we did our work.

Sally’s Method

Sally never gave us anything but positive feedback about our work. She seemed to value any expression of what came from our soul’s work. Our work was not compared to anyone else’s nor to any other external standard of perfection. The task was to find what was inside of us and know that what is there is a unique and beautiful creation of God. If it seemed ugly, it was probably not finished; sometimes she encouraged us to work more on those pieces. Isn’t that a wonderful meta-phor for our lives? When we have ugliness in our lives, it may just mean that we are unfinished and have more work to do.

This art work was also "play." Having permission to play in this way was so liberating! Play opened and lightened our hearts, allowing deeper exploration.

Play connects us to the divine child—our sense of awe and wonder.
—Angeles Arrien

Dragons

On one occasion, Sally asked us to make a dragon. This assignment sent me back to second grade when a teacher had asked me to make something and I had no idea how. I didn’t know how to create a dragon. I realized I had never paid any attention to dragons and had no idea what the concept even meant to me. Fire-breathing dragons seemed like an evil and threatening concept. I not only didn’t know how to make one but I didn’t want to think about dragons. I left class, went to my room, and sobbed with feelings of inadequacy.

During the second year, we had the same assignment. After the first year, I started paying attention to dragons and found beautiful Chinese ones that were not evil but creative creatures.

So I made dragons. Actually, I made a herd of fire-breathing dragons. My dragons came to symbolize courage to go forth powerfully in my leadings.

Energy of Spirit Flows Through

One of the most powerful exercises in that first "Explorations in Clay" class involved Sally asking us to write for seven minutes about God, Love, or any concept of a higher Power in our lives. A poem came from the writing. We were then to hold the clay and let occur whatever was to happen. My hands formed an image. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that I was not finished at the end of the assignment. I had to keep going with another ball of clay as she talked.

When class was over, I looked at the figure and it was very clear to me that it was a pair of angel wings enfolding a head in despair. It was a very closed figure. The second figure was very open, as if Spirit energy were being invited in. This assignment was the greatest experience I had ever had of feeling spiritual energy flowing through me and creating. The creation was not planned or directed by me; I did not have the skill to plan and execute the form as it came.

This experience left me with a prayer that God would work through me in that way all of my life.

Paste Paper Queen

In the spring of 1997, I was first introduced to "paste papers." The medium (a cooked paste with acrylic paint to color it) suited me. In clay class I had needed to make not just a couple of pots but a couple hundred pots. Likewise, I had to make hundreds of paste paper paintings, and I am still making them. Once the creation energy was freed, the paintings poured forth. I was named "Paste Paper Queen."

Stories of Mystical Experience with Paintings

During my second year at Pendle Hill, I collected the stories of other people’s mystical experiences of God. As I collected the stories, the paste papers came forth even more. Words from the stories came to be associated with the art. The color and depth suited the subject matter; the inexpensive cost suited my budget.

Festival Week

At the end of each term at Pendle Hill, we had art shows in the studio. One at a time, the students showed their creations and had a chance to talk about their work. For me, this was a place where a part of me that had never seen the light of day could shine forth, safely. There was no criticism of each other’s work, only appreciation. A creative flower blossomed inside of me in that safe environment.

Ugly to Acceptable to Beautiful

At the beginning of the first class at Pendle Hill, I had been unable to tolerate looking at my own creations. They just looked too ugly to me. After only one term of constant validation, having it explained that this creation energy is God’s work, and that I am just the vessel, I came to view it as very insulting to God not to accept my work that I was given to do. In accepting myself as a vessel for God’s work, I can now see the work as beautiful co-creations with my Creator.

Books, Poetry, and Color

I took a wonderful class in bookmaking with Paulus Behrenson. From the paste papers as raw materials coming from the depths of us, we made beautiful journal books. In that class, other people’s poetry came to be associated with the paintings. In making books, we took the soul’s raw material and massaged it into products that were acceptable to send out to the world. An important metaphor for my life emerged.

Painting as Meditation

I took a class called "Painting as Meditation" from Sister Helen David Brancato, three times. Like Sally, Sister Helen never judged my work according to external standards. She said that as we work with the paint, the material of our unconscious comes forth. And it did; she helped us to find the images and bring them forward.

Body Prayer

O humans, learn to dance! Otherwise the angels in Heaven will not know what to do with you.
—St. Augustine

I became aware of the relationship between movement, worship, and art in the "Creativity and Spirit" class at Pendle Hill. In the summer of 1997, I took a class on mysticism at the Friends General Conference Gathering with Marcelle Martin. This was my first introduction to movement as "body prayer." I learned a beautiful one with the words: "Thank you, praise you, and bless me to go out to the world in your service."

Movement of the body in worshipful dance, movement of color on the paper, and movement of the Spirit in our stories; they go together.

Art Shows: Moving Out into the World

The Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts gave me a small grant to get six of my paintings framed. The stipulation was that I must show them. My first show was at the FGC Gathering in 1999. As I sat waiting for my presentation about the art to begin, I was in awe of God’s work in my life. If someone had suggested even six months earlier that I would be doing an art show at the Gathering, I would have been quite sure that they were mistaken.

I also showed some of the pieces at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Then I was invited to do an interest group at Baltimore Yearly Meeting. I asked the participants to write about a painting that spoke to them, and several beautiful poems resulted. Others were relating to my paintings; I was awed, again!

I wonder: How can we teach our children the lessons I learned through art as taught by Sally Palmer? How can we teach our children and encourage other adults to express their deepest spirituality and provide them with safe places to do so?

Glitter in the Gray: Art with Women in Prison

Since those beginnings, I have had the opportunity of facilitating openings in others using art. My first program was during the spring of 1998. Janeal Ravndal and I taught art to women at the Dela-ware County Prison, with the help of many people at Pendle Hill to cut and sew (since we were not allowed to bring scissors or needles).

During this program, an inmate named Maria took paint and poured it onto the paper, lots of colors all at once. With her hands she moved the paint round and round and back and forth, obviously totally absorbed and delighted with the freedom she was feeling. Predictably, she soon had a paper covered with brown that got disparaging remarks from the others about what it looked like, and holes began to appear in the paper. They even whispered that Maria was "slightly retarded." Her product will probably not be seen in an art gallery but the incredibly beautiful image of Maria being delighted and feeling freedom while incarcerated is permanently on display in the gallery of my mind.

Another woman, Katrina, never painted a picture before and looked in awe and obvious longing at the samples I provided. With minimal encouragement and direction to set aside her fears and judges and just do it, a gorgeous picture soon emerged. The look of awe and obvious pleasure at her creation is another beautiful image on display in my personal inner gallery.

Mary, Susan, Kate, Carmen, Kim, and at least a hundred more had children they missed. They made books, cards, picture frames, and other special creations to send to their children to connect in sweet poetry and other lovely ways.

Glitter was the highlight for them. Paper, glue, glitter, and they were so very happy. Looking around at the gray walls with no sunlight or earth available to them, the colors and reflections of the glitter pleased them. To touch it, look at it, pour it generously, spill it, sweep it—actually any contact with the color brought smiles from souls being fed.

The Listening Center

Since that initial class at the women’s prison, I have been blessed to facilitate many others doing paste papers and simple art projects as prayer and healing. Most recently, I felt a leading to open a place where people can come to listen to God, self, and others through art, movement, and telling our stories. Springfield (Pa.) Meeting provided me the space, Media (Pa.) Meeting gave a minute of support, and Chester Quarter appointed an oversight committee. I offer classes and open the space to others who have passions and leadings that fit with mine. We have had classes in dance, art with families, art and healing, drum circle, and more. In recent months, as a prayer of transformation for our world, we have been making beautiful handmade papers from newspaper articles related to war. Can you join us in that prayer?

In his Journal, John Woolman described his prayers with Native Americans. Chief Papunchang said, "I love to feel where words come from." Art and movement take me to a place of connection with God in that place from where the words come; a place of sanctuary for the soul.

When are we gonna paint, drum, and dance?

Jennifer Elam

Jennifer Elam, a member of Berea (Ky.) Meeting and a sojourning member of Media (Pa.) Meeting, is a licensed psychologist who has studied Quaker spirituality as well as the lives of Christian contemplatives and mystics. Her calling to listen to the stories of others resulted in a book, Dancing with God through the Storm: Mysticism and Mental Illness, which can be ordered from [email protected]