Contemplating "Friends in the Arts" has drawn me into thinking about Quakers and creativity, and how this vital force has been manifest in my life. Although I have been a Friend since birth, and have worked in the arts for many years, I often debate the nature of my artistic roots and life and ask where Spirit is leading my creative self.
My mother’s father was a watercolor artist and a doctor. My grandmother, who was also my poetry-reading kindergarten teacher, reveled in language and books. They both came from Ohio Conservative Quaker families.
Books, stories, poetry, music, dance, drama, and visual arts were all important in my early schooling at The Alexander School in Media, Pennsylvania, from 1949 to 1956. It was a small, private school with some connection to Quakers—and where Grandma Kirk taught. I have many vivid memories of our activities there, from minuets to maypoles, from floor loom weaving to storefront Halloween window painting.
My siblings and I had more arts opportunities than my parents seemed to have had. I remember my mother talking about how dance music had come on the horizon during her years at Westtown School (she graduated in 1933) enough for girls to be allowed to dance together in the Girls’ Parlor, reflecting the big cultural shift among Quakers that Friends history documents. My mother went on to become a trained teacher and a parent, and in both roles she used many arts.
My father was a truck driver/salesman whose artistic spirit was expressed in part-time florist work. Our daily encounters with the arts were all rather home-grown, country activities or influences, often woven into woodworking, quilt-making, bread-baking, or community folk dancing. We didn’t go to many museums or theaters, concerts or festivals, and I suspect I had no concept of an artistic career as a viable route to earning a living.
By my high school years at Westtown, 1958-62, I, like my mother and grandmother, reveled in language, loving my English teachers. I even had a crush on Master Chuck Kruger, a young teacher who gave me the gift of really comprehending King Lear (still my favorite Shakespeare play) and was my advisor for a special 11th-grade poetry project. However, I neither thought of myself as a writer or an artist, nor considered how those roles meshed with being a Quaker. I don’t think I ever thought my creativity might be an aspect of my spirituality. Still, I longed to see my poems published, and I recall feeling spiritually inspired as I read the speech I had carefully composed for graduation. I quoted Archibald MacLeish, "Oh when you’re young and the words to your tongue, like the birds to Saint Francis, with darting, with dances—Wait you say, wait! There’s still time, it’s not late!" Reading those lines many years later, I think I was conscious then of at least a potential life as a writer.
In my college years I studied history and literature, hung out with various drama groups, sang church and folk music, and continued to write poetry. Subsequently, I set out to travel to India, working in Kerala as a volunteer teacher and writer-of-sorts from 1967 to 1969. I absorbed a marvelous variety of folk arts and even tried my hand at providing —more than "teaching"—visual arts classes. The young school children there had very formal lessons prior to my arrival, but I believed they should express themselves more freely. My passion for this work included begging friends in the States to send us art paper, and making homemade crayons from recycled candle wax and pot soot, turmeric, and the colored powders used for forehead decoration.
I married an Englishman midway through that South Indian sojourn, and we returned to the West to live, first in England, and by 1973, in Canada. I became absorbed in my early career development as a primary teacher, studied drama informally, and enjoyed lots of traditional folk music with my husband and an ardent folk community. After we emigrated, I began the works of art who are my two children—Evalyn was born in 1973. I typed away at various freelance writing projects but had stopped writing poetry.
Throughout all these travels, I attended meeting for worship. By 1978, when I transferred my membership to Toronto Meeting, I was welcomed with a copy of Frederick J. Nicholson’s Quakers and the Arts, published by Friends Home Service Committee in London. The cover of this slim volume shows a beautiful sculpture of a circle of "worshiping Quakers"; I confess I never got any further inside than to admire that image. My meeting understood that I was struggling with issues of creativity and generativity, both in terms of work and family life (my son and second child Richard had been born six months earlier). However, there was precious little time for any reading beyond breastfeeding manuals and children’s books.
Had I taken the time to read Nicholson’s useful survey, I might have become more conscious of the undergirdings of my creativity. Regardless, weekly meeting for worship did punctuate my work and play. By the late 1980s, I had shaped a part-time performance career for myself and had been heavily involved in a folk arts organization in Toronto for over a decade. Not only was I dancing and singing, I had also begun crafting poems again, plus had written a large reference book for children, teachers, and families called Let’s Celebrate Canada’s Special Days.
Now, 15 years later, I have created two more books and held various writing, performing, and teaching jobs. I continue to dance, sing—and write poetry! In the artist-in-education world where I earn much of my bread and butter, I have taken on the label "celebrator" as the best shortcut to artistic self-description.
I am more certain now about how my Quaker being interfaces with my artist/celebrator identity, and leading retreats on the theme of "celebrating our spiritual journeys" in the past few months has helped me think about my roots and the various "routes" I have mentioned.
One pivotal contribution to my self-awareness as an artist since 1994 has been Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. A Toronto Friend first showed me this handsome, enticingly laid out book. Right away I was struck by the introduction, in which the author writes, "Creativity is, to my eye, a spiritual experience. It does not matter which way you think of it, creativity leading to spirituality, or spirituality leading to creativity. In fact, I do not make a distinction between the two." I liked the 12-week format and was taken by the delicious sidebar quotes—for example (just one of dozens—this one from Norma Jean Harris): "Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes it visible." Overall, I was enormously excited—it’s true, I thought, as I read Cameron’s words, "Creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back to God!"
Cameron’s single page of basic principles confirmed and enlarged my understanding of living as an artist. Immediately, I bought my own copy and read and reread it, underlining passages, filling the margins with comments. To me, the principles she expounds parallel Quaker concepts of that of God in each of us, yet push me to use and develop that Spirit in a sense I had not previously grasped. Gradually I am learning, in her words, "to think of receiving God’s good as being an act of worship." With her encouragement, I am more fully able to consider myself an artist.
In the intervening years, I have met many people, including numbers of Friends, who have also found Cameron’s book to be very powerful. I learned that more than a million copies—in 12 languages—have been sold, and that study groups based on the book have sprung up around the world. I know of several writing circles that formed around The Artist’s Way, one at Cambridge Meeting. A visual artist from Toronto Meeting had his "artist’s prayer," composed as suggested in The Artist’s Way, read at his funeral. Surely these examples are only the tip of a Cameron iceberg—in just a decade, this book "for anyone interested in practicing the art of creative living" has had enormous impact on how we think about ourselves and our spiritual lives.
For any not familiar with Cameron’s work, let me set out some of her fundamentals. Her conviction is that "creativity is our true nature" and that "art is born in expansion," helping us sense abundance. She describes two main tools, the first of which she calls "morning pages." This requires daily writing for about a half hour, first thing, about anything on our minds or hiding in our hearts. "The morning pages are a spiritual practice, a spiritual chiropractic . . . they realign our values. . . . symbolize a willingness to speak to and hear God. The morning pages point the way to reality: this is how you’re feeling, what do you make of that? And what we make of that is often art."
Her second tool is to treat oneself to a regular "artist’s date": a "solitary play-date for oneself, for our senses and our dreams"; "a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist." "More than anything else, experiment with solitude," she advises.
This reference to solitude points to one of many connections between Julia Cameron’s thinking and Quaker thought. She repeatedly mentions her inner sense of direction or guidance; she just doesn’t call it her "Inner Light." She says morning pages help us listen, and she insists we need to listen quietly—for what she calls her "marching orders."
Eight years after beginning that practice, my daily writing continues to help me hear Spirit. I might not write much on Sundays when I have a chance to center in worship with Friends, but on many solitary mornings my writing centers me in ways my prayers may not. I rejoice in the myriad ways in which The Artist’s Way helps me reclaim my creative self and re-recognize "the abundant life." Sometimes I wonder what fuller artistic lives my parents might have experienced, had Julia Cameron shared her view of spirituality with them!