Blessed Are the Artists

“Drawing worship” in 2017.

Art Camp, An Intergenerational Gathering of Artists

I came as an open vessel, found myself held, stretched, and overflowing by this experience, personally and spiritually. I left inspired.  — 2017 Art Camper

Artists must take their daydreams very seriously. So when some friends and I wondered what it would be like to be artists-in-residence at our beloved Quaker summer camp, we lost no time in doubting that this could be a transformative experience for artists of faith. We hungered for the wholeness we would feel by acknowledging the links between our art practices and our spiritual practices. We also knew that at Friends Camp, as campers and then as staff, we had already experienced a taste of this wholeness. We started Art Camp believing that by living by Quaker testimonies, as we had at camp with creative folk of all ages while making art and sharing the diversity of our faiths, we might have a chance to feed our hunger.

After nearly four years of experimentation, Art Camp exists as two distinct programs for artists over age 18. Early in September, there is a weekend gathering for a large, diverse group of artists, coming together for fellowship, relationship-building, and artistic and spiritual transformation. Artists come from as far as Indiana and Georgia and as near as just down the road in China, Maine. They are photographers, dancers, painters, knitters, potters, writers, sculptors, teachers, Quakers, Quaker-curious, and spiritual in too many ways to count. A team of staff leads programming, exploring ways to cross and connect arts with faith and worship, as well as ways to connect with each other.

The second program occurs during the month of September when a small group of artists-in-residence live and work at camp, committed to delving deep into the questions Art Camp poses through group experimentation and creating individual bodies of work. On a typical day at Art Camp, you might walk through a handmade labyrinth in silent worship, listen to a fellow artist showing the work they’ve made that year, and have a picnic after a dip in China Lake. In “Threshing 101,” you could learn a new way to prayerfully record ideas and later, teach someone to throw a pot on a kick wheel. After dinner, you could watch the sun set in the vespers field, participate in a group drawing-worship experiment, and then sing some campfire songs before retiring to your bunk. Like a day at any summer camp, it seems to last a century and reap innumerable gifts.

What do we do when our meetings are aging and youth don’t seem to stay?

Like a work of art itself, Art Camp has shown us the way it has needed to move; allowed us to fail beautifully at times; and most of all opened new ways we never expected, new gifts we could never have imagined. The most remarkable ones for me were new ways to be Quaker: new ways to worship and pray and to serve my community as a young adult Friend. In 2017, Art Camp’s participants ranged in age from 24 to 62, and the artists that led it were no older than 26. Those four days proved to me the value of building artistic and spiritual relationships over multiple generations and showed me a new gift I had never expected of Art Camp: the power of truly transformational intergenerational community. As a young adult Friend committed to the well-being of the Quaker community, this has been a crucial lesson not just for Art Camp but for every aspect of Quaker life. What do we do when our meetings are aging and youth don’t seem to stay? What does it mean when so many of my peers under 30 don’t have any spiritual mentors who are older than them? Where is this life we speak of, the life we hunger for? I see new life in the leadership of all young Friends, and new Friends pointing toward an intergenerational community that feeds all of us.

The experimental nature of Art Camp has shown me how experiment and play throughout the wider Quaker world can renew our love of this faith, and light a way forward. A perfect example of this was the happy mistake of communication that resulted in a new look at the old process: threshing. When threshing was brought to the table as a way to begin corporate discernment during the Art Camp planning process, it was accidentally combined with the art materials sitting on the table. Thus was created a way to visually thresh: throwing thoughts, drawings, found objects, colors, and words onto paper, prior to discernment. The process gradually found its way into handmade books called “threshes,” which were passed around from artist to artist who marked up one another’s work and borrowed phrases and imagery until a visual threshing session emerged. More than that, a common visual language grew out of the little volumes over days of sharing. Might we call it discernment? It became clear that no one artist’s voice rang clear; instead, the collaborative effort was what spoke the most truth.

What are we missing when we don’t worship with all of our senses?

At Art Camp, we work to create a place where the collaborative effort might become the voice of God. We create ways to worship and make art so that we might not know which one is which. One night an artist covered the entire floor of Aviary Hall, where Friends Campers usually worship, with white paper and gave us charcoal on long sticks to walk with. We meandered silently except for the scratching and hissing of charcoal on paper, making lines thin and thick, dots, scribbles, circles, and swaths of black smudged by our footprints. We danced with each other’s mark making and added to each other’s unspoken ministry, creating a work that was too big for one person to comprehend all at once. Another artist led a contact improvisation workshop called “The Underscore,” which from a Quaker point of view looked a lot like meeting for worship only with no words, just moving our bodies however we were led. One morning the group held meeting for worship as usual but with the addition of a lump of clay in each person’s hand. They were free to mold and squish and sculpt until they felt it was ready to be released and set in the center for all to view.

Creative Friends and spiritual folk are everywhere, but are we recognizing the interconnectedness of our art and faith? What are we missing when we don’t worship with all of our senses? And what does it mean for the Quaker community when its members start experimenting with art and worship? Art Camp will keep trying to answer these questions as it gears up for its fourth year at Friends Camp this Labor Day weekend. The answers are diverse and numerous as more and more artists from all walks of life choose to join the community each September. We’re able to see only a fraction of the gifts that result from their experiences when so much of what is wonderful about Art Camp is what we bring home to our communities. We could not do it without the faith others have instilled in this project, the faith of the artists that attend and their readiness to work magic on each other, the faith of those from Friends Camp who host us, and faith from the Quaker bodies that fund this work. From this breadth of support and community, we’ll keep working in the service of the Spirit, wherever it leads us.

Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is a visual artist, youth worker, and attender of Portland (Maine) Meeting. She currently works as the interim Young Friends Coordinator for New England Yearly Meeting and was a long-time staff member at Friends Camp. She is called to work at the intersection of art and faith.

3 thoughts on “Blessed Are the Artists

  1. How can I sign up? I,m a retired art teacher interested in art and spirituality but having a hard time finding other like-minded folks.

  2. I just ache to participate in such a gathering! The part about creating something bigger than the individual especially speaks to me. As I grow older I find myself less and less interested in personal achievement and far more interested in being part of a larger whole. How wonderful to seek this through art of every kind.

    I notice that you haven’t mentioned music in your camp. Any chance you might include it in some form?

    In recent years I have recognized that I am a musician. Playing in a group is such a magical and spiritual experience. There’s no need for ego; sometimes one may play a part that stands out or a solo, but, while personally satisfying, it’s aim is to contribute to the group and the world that needs us so. “May it be a sweet sweet sound in your ear….”

    Thank you for writing about this. It made me so happy.

    And I love the part about a lump of clay at meeting for worship.

  3. i am in tune with the previous comment. The term “artists” is often used, narrowly, to refer only to visual arts. Auditory arts are important too, for example: poetry, story-telling, instrumental music, and song.

    During my career as a speech-language pathologist, I was fascinated by studies that compared how the brain processes language to how the brain processes music. For right-handed people who are not well-versed in music, language and music tend to be processed – i.e. analyzed -in different hemispheres of the brain. However, there is evidence from brain imagery and EEG studies that the brains of trained right-handed musicians process music in the same brain hemisphere as they process language – usually the left hemisphere.

    In other words, for accomplished musicians, music becomes a language, as far as the brain is concerned.

    Most such studies focus on right-handed people, because brain localization for language in lefties can be quite variable.

    I was once a counselor in a summertime program for children, called “Sports-Arts Olympics.” The idea was to celebrate and explore both physical activity and artistic pursuits. Occasionally, among the adult staff, I had to be an advocate for music even in that setting – but the kids “got it.” Fortunately, the whole program was structured to emphasize collaboration, and not competition; and music is a good medium for collaboration. For example, I happen to love improvising harmonies to someone else’s melody line.

    I can attest to the comment about the possibility of playing music in a group as a spiritual experience.
    That experience of spirituality can extend to many forms of creating music in a group.
    At its best, a group music experience can feel to me like Quaker worship in a “gathered meeting.”

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