Since arriving in the United States as a foreign student, I have had many unexpected shifts in my life. I originally came to this country in 2000 to become a research biologist, and I spent my first five years here in graduate programs in Tennessee studying fruit-fly and mouse brains in mental illness research. I learned there, however, that my dream to be a research biologist—a dream that I had had since I was six—was only an illusion. It had been a product of my father’s imposed desire and my ambition and effort to emulate and please him. Eventually, I left Tennessee and came to Richmond, Indiana, to study at Earlham School of Religion. Without any clear idea of where I was headed, I was trying to pursue a new life.
It was a time of great confusion, remorse, and worry. I never imagined I would regret my life and think that I had wasted 30 years pursuing something that was not mine. On top of it all, I was again dependent on my parents’ finances. The overwhelming noise of concerns and regrets occupied my mind so much that I hardly recognized the breathing life around me. For the first time, I completely lost confidence in myself and in my life. I felt that I was caged in a small paper box, tightly crouching and barely breathing, trying not to destroy the box I was living in. Although I knew that life as a science researcher was not the place I belonged anymore, I hadn’t figured out what my next destination would be.
During this time, I worked with clay as a medium to express my emotions and thoughts. Working with clay helped me to pour out my anxiety and fear with no restraint. Without this work, I would have been engulfed by emotions and thoughts, and perhaps eventually lost my mind. Working with clay kept me from thinking or worrying about other people’s opinions. The time was just for me: giving all my attention to my inner voice, embracing the expressed thoughts and emotions, and empathizing and sympathizing with myself.
The clay’s texture—cool, still, and soft—helped me to speak my mind to it as if it were my best friend. The first time I grabbed cold, fresh clay, I experienced my body heat and other unclean energy being absorbed by it. It was a pure, cleansing experience. Touching the clay with my bare hands made me feel grounded in the bottom of the earth where it had come from. Working with clay was the time when I could center myself and heal my wounds in the purity of the earth.
One day in mid-April, I went to my basement studio and began to work with clay. I took a small blob in my hands, and it was cool, fresh, and soft as usual. I tried to express my honest feelings and to cleanse my clotted mind. The thought lingering in me at this time was a broken heart. So with a pebble-sized, slightly flattened oval blob of clay, I tried to shape the two half-pieces of a broken heart. I pressed my right thumb hard into the clay and began to create the imagined half portion of the broken heart, making several strokes to inscribe a curve on the right, lower side of the heart.
I sensed, however, that something in me resisted following my original idea. Although I tried to carve a half portion of a broken heart, my attempts constantly failed. I wanted to have a good-looking broken heart to reflect my heart’s condition perfectly! Yet the shape I imagined wasn’t able to be expressed in clay. Instead, I noticed that the form hinted at something different: it looked more like a leaf of a small sprout.
Without having any clear understanding, I decided to follow where my thumbs led. After I finished making a right leaf successfully, I continued to shape a left leaf. Since I had to use my clumsy left thumb to carve the lower side of a leaf, I felt challenged to make a good shape, and I also had to be careful not to smash the right leaf I had just sculpted. Although my eyes followed the move and direction of my hands, my mind still doubted whether I could really carve a sprout that would satisfy me. Since I hadn’t originally tried to imagine a sprout in my mind, however, my desire was low and I put little care and effort into mastering it.
Surprisingly, it really became a sprout with two baby leaves! I also noticed an unusual glow emanating from the piece; even the clay’s color had changed from dark brown to beige. After completing the final touch, I stared at the piece for quite a while. What does this mean? Why a sprout? Is there any connection between a broken heart and a sprout?
I tried to put these two ideas together—my sense of brokenness and the unexpected image of a spring sprout. I tried several possible explanations for this new revelation, but nothing made sense to me. Was I wanting a plant? But my house was surrounded by plants; I saw plants all the time! Did I crave sprouts for dinner? But I hate them because they upset my stomach. The sprout is a symbol of freshness and light, but I knew my state was not even remotely near the condition of freshness. If I could open my mind and soul, they would reveal total darkness with a rotten, sour smell.
After spending some time trying to solve this mysterious puzzle, I slowly began to realize that this sculpture was not made by my psyche, even though it was made by my hands. It came from outside of me, and my hands listened, followed, and expressed it in clay. Who then was it that spoke to my hands and the clay? There was no one except me in this basement … then… God?
As if somebody had shouted in my ear to wake me up, I suddenly realized that this leading had come from the Divine. The infused Spirit of God poured Its love and wisdom into my heart and body, just as many early Friends spoke of the Holy Spirit’s movement in their lives. Then the Spirit illuminated the piece, instead of my turning it into a lighter color.
Through this process, I felt God teaching me that a new beginning occurs only through a person’s brokenness. The sprout symbolized the new beginning—a fresh start. It seemed as though the moment I put my heart into the clay, God had taken the shape and carried it into a new form, giving me reason to have faith in my chosen path: studying in seminary. God must have listened to my groaning heart and graciously transformed it into a new message that I needed to hear.
As I recall this event and my life journey, I sense a connection between my creative work and my spiritual journey. The sprout that I created indicated a new me. Although I might be as weak and fragile as a sprout, I was not facing closed doors in my life. Instead, I was entering into a new life with hope and vision; I was not lost in the middle of nowhere but was walking onto a new, guided, yet unknown path. It was natural to feel fear, to lack confidence, and to be dependent on my parents’ support at that time, since I was as small and powerless as a sprout that required support and protection from a gardener. My life was not approaching the end; instead it had just opened.
God had been speaking to me, yet I hadn’t heard because I was distracted by my own fear, anger, disappointment, and sadness. Since I had to give my full attention to the movement of my hands during the creative process—pouring out my heart and emptying my mind—I stopped thinking about those other things. God chose the time when my mind was quiet, still, and attentive to communicate with me through my hands: to enlighten and provide me with the faith that I needed to carry into my present life.
In the eighteenth century, many Friends were Quietists, emptying their minds and hearts to make themselves like a hollow tube for the Spirit to speak through. In vocal ministry during unprogrammed worship, the person who was moved by God spoke only as the Spirit led. My experience in working with clay is exactly like this; it is a form of vocal ministry in which God inscribes the message. Even though my mind resisted it, the message was so strong that it eventually came through my hands and expressed itself in clay.
It is through art that the artist’s self is discovered—especially the hidden, suppressed, and wounded self that is waiting to be born anew. Art is spiritual formation in this sense because it enables the process of discovering and becoming more ourselves within God. Art is an attempt to be present and share the discovery of an artist’s personhood, which was born and will continue to be born as life goes on.