Painting Workshop

In a room off the main entrance lobby of South Metro Vineyard Church in Burnsville, MN, 28 people with a range of artistic inclinations have gathered to make paintings. They attend the English-speaking 40-year old Vineyard church and 7-year old La Viña, the Latin congregation that shares the building. I have organized this workshop as part of a project funded by the Louisville Institute to study “Community Art as Reconciliation” with the goal of exploring how art-making can be a catalyst for reconciliation across linguistic divides.
In 2007, South Metro Vineyard started what would become the largest single-site food shelf in its county. A few years later, Miguel and Rossy Aviles came with a team to plant La Viña through connections made at the food shelf. La Viña meets in the afternoon in the main auditorium. The two congregations continue hold yearly joint services and potlucks, and the senior pastors of both communities work closely together and as part of the same church structure. And yet, language and cultural barriers remain. Intercultural communication is at the center of my own household since I am a Minnesotan of Scandinavian descent married to a Brazilian. I engage in another form of cross-cultural communication as an artist who also works part-time as a pastor, preacher and teacher. A desire to reconcile world of faith with the art world has motivated many of my decisions, including the decision to attend Yale Divinity School to study religion and art. I also have an MFA in sculpture from the University of Minnesota. Because of my training as a “professional” artist schooled in contemporary installation practices, I planned to exert control over the workshops for this project such that they produced conceptually relevant art.
However, as I began my research, it became increasingly clear that a community-based project should, to the fullest extent possible, be community led. But would the community be interested? I hypothesized the distinctive Vineyard practice of receiving images from the Holy Spirit in the mind’s eye might make depicting those images in collage or painting. Could the prayer practices of the Vineyard be a bridge to the reintroduction of art objects as means of mediating an encounter with God? Would this community be willing to take that step, or would the art workshops I was proposing be met with hostility or apathy or both? If this idea of community art as reconciliation was only an imposition of my own ideals, was it even worth doing?
In communicating the project to members of both congregations, I learned that individuals were already engaging in spiritual practices through the arts. I found these existing art-making practices to be much more exciting than anything I might impose based on my own aesthetics and taste. I decided to bracket my training as a fine artist in favor of investigating how art practices function to mediate experiences of God in these communities. I discovered practices of art making that are means of mediating encounters with God. Through these practices, visual artifacts become legitimate vehicles for revelation that give theological agency to underrepresented voices. In what follows, I make use of Ricoeur’s theory of metaphor to argue that art is an event that is not only a legitimate form of theological knowledge but also, as John Wall explicates, has the potential to open us up to the alterity of the other.
So, how did the process of making art in these workshops provide narrative agency as legitimate forms of theological knowledge?
After I first announced the project, one young woman came to me and told me her story of participating in art-making workshop while in a recovery program. She came to the first workshop with quite a bit of fear at the prospect of making art. The facilitator provided materials and a prompt and she began with a particular intention in mind. However, her painting ended up turning into what she called “a mess”. Upon reflection, she sensed that the mess was a metaphor for her life and that God was speaking through the mess of the painting. She added to the painting the words, “God makes beauty out of the mess”.
The process of art-making for this woman was a process of meaning-making through which God spoke. God spoke through an art object that exists independent of her intention as creator. She analyzed its formal and expressive qualities and developed a thesis about its meaning. She interpreted the abstract painting as a “mess”. But it was not just the formal properties of the work that spoke. Her interpretive analysis emerged from a hermeneutical circle that included her experience of making art, the work of art she had made, her understanding of scripture, and her theological grid. Out of this circle emerged the metaphorical meaning of the work. For Paul Ricoeur a metaphor is an event that refers to an original experience but in a way that is ambiguous and thus allows for ongoing interpretation. This event makes it possible to apprehend the world in new ways and imagine new possibilities of transformation. Ricoeur says, ‘A metaphor, in short, tells us something new about reality’ (IT, p. 53). For this woman, the art-making process and her subsequent interpretation of it let her apprehend her existence in a new way. When she initially viewed the painting she had made, it looked like a mess. The image’s connection with any outside, original referent was ambiguous. But engaging in an interpretive process with the event of the painting allowed her to apprehend its meaning and indeed her existence in a new way. Through this fresh, unexpected apprehension she experienced God speaking.
When I announced the project, Sophia, a member of La Viña, also immediately expressed her interest, even recruiting 5 other women to be involved. We sat down to talk about her experience of art, with her husband interpreting. Sophia had no training as an artist. She developed a practice of painting on her own, explaining that she did not learn her practices from anyone, even if they resemble practices I have encountered elsewhere. Sophia explained that she sits in front of a blank canvas and prays, asking God what she should paint. For example, once she sensed God saying to make a painting about faith. She asked how to make a painting of faith, and felt like God said that it should be a painting of a key. She asked, “How does a key relate to the concept of faith?” and immediately sensed that the key of faith opens any door. She painted the image of a key she received from God, even receiving direction about the choice of colors.
God spoke to her through a religious practice and an art object. God spoke through a metaphor. The key is a metaphor for faith. In line with Ricoeur’s definition of metaphor, this metaphor told her something new about reality that she did not know before. Specifically, she did not know how a key could be a metaphor for faith until God gave her the interpretation.
Although Sophia developed the method of painting on her own, there is a precedence for her process of hearing from God through painting. Religious practices inscribe us in larger and smaller communities and are influenced by outside groups as well as local communities. Practices of painting like Sophia's exist in the wider world of charismatic spirituality. For example, Brenda Dukes of Art in the Arc ministries studied art and the prophetic at Bethel church in Redding, CA. She leads workshops in which she guides participants in visualizing Jesus standing in front of them, holding a box. Participants imagine opening the box and see what Jesus wants to give them. Then they draw and paint the things they see in the box.
Noticing the resonances between Brenda Dukes’ practice and Sophia's, I decided to try her exercise in the art workshop held between the English and Spanish services at South Metro Vineyard. From the English-speaking church there were 9 women and 2 children under the age of 12. From La Viña there were 5 women and 6 children. This made 12 participants from La Viña and 11 from SMV. I did not intend to limit this workshop to women, and indeed men participated in all the other art workshops that I do not have the space to discuss today. But the fact that this workshop was made up of women and minors made it a space that attended to and gave voice to the real experiences of women and youth.
To give voice to these practices as they exist in community, I asked Sophia to explain to the group her experience of making art. Then I introduced the visualization exercise. Those in the workshop made drawings of the images that they saw in their boxes. Then they turned their images into paintings. They made art that gave voice to their experiences of divine revelation. This giving-voice was most palpable during the time set aside for testimony at the end of the workshop. Testimony, according to feminist theologians, gives voice to women’s experiences and is vital to realizing their agency as actors and creators. One woman described how she had had in her mind earlier that week an image of Jesus sitting at the end of her bed. When she visualized Jesus holding a box, she saw water and felt like Jesus wanted her to jump into the cool water and enjoy it with him. This description accompanied a painting she had made of rings of ripples of water. Another women made an image of a huge wave with an unexpected meaning. She described it as representing God’s peace that is more powerful than any other force.
Because they understand their theological reflections on their experiences as God-given, divine power validates the agency of these women’s voices. Another woman shared a profound encounter with divine power during the visualization exercise. As soon as she saw Jesus standing before her in her mind’s eye, she felt his pardon and forgiveness. When she opened the box she saw a cross radiating light. She made a painting of that cross and wept when she shared it with the group. Another woman also cried when she described the image she saw of herself in a lush garden basking in the warm rays of sun that represented God’s presence. One boy explained how his painting showed him participating in a worship band in the future and another painted a sunset as a representation of God’s love. The visualization and painting opened them up to an encounter with God and gave voice to their experience of God.
Testimony gives agency to underrepresented voices. In this case, women and kids told testimonies of how God spoke through creativity and metaphor. If creativity gives narrative unity to our lives, then they told stories that are a form of transforming and constructing their lived experience. Not only did God speak to people individually, but sharing their testimonies brought them face to face with the human other.  John Wall argues that the human capacity for creativity and engagement with difference is the basis for the human ability to engage the human other, opening us up to their needs.  Wall’s goal is to reconnect poetics with ethics. For Wall, the goal of our imaginative creativity is to envision an ever more inclusive community. He says, quoted by Heather Walton,
This form of moral creativity…imagines otherness in order to further imagine self and other ever more radically in common. In the image of our Creator who drew chaos into form and light…we are capable of creating moral community amid difference however impossible such a task in fact appears. (2005: 60) – 179
In giving theological meaning to the images that they saw, these women contributed to building a community based in shared experience and theology. The art-making through prayer is a process of finding voice that happens independent other leaders, male or otherwise. But just, equitable community only exists when the other’s voice is not subsumed into the totalizing horizon of those in power, something for which we all must continue to strive.