Small, ink on watercolour paper, 8.5 cm x 8.5cm This piece done while I was immersed in my series A Complex Grief is a response to an historical image of a refugee child. During WW2, so many children bore the brunt of WW2 that in a PBS documentary about children and war, I heard a phrase that has haunted me ever since. “In WW2 the face of the front line became the face of a child.”
So it’s Mardi Gras today. A very subdued one due to pandemic. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, which marks the time of fasting and contemplation in preparation for Easter. Emmaus Community, AbbeyChurch and St Matthias ( of Chapel Gallery fame ) have made a booklet of reflections and prayers by community members to accompany this time of year. I am thankful to have contributed a reflection and the cover images. I was asked also to suggest a title. I chose to combine two words found in a brainstorming list from the clergy into a simple phrase: Spring in Winter. It sounds sort of unexpected, miraculous like the blossoms here in Victoria that bloom in early February. It is magical. It is a play on words- is it spring or is it a spring? A spring that emerges from the dark, the deep underground. Flowing water, not ice or snow, emerging just like the blossoms from the dark and the deep of the body of the tree and then are let go and transform into fruit. Spring in winter….we are weary, but perhaps, by tapping into that life beneath the surface of our circumstances, we too might feel something blossom and flow within us.
“We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see….” – Richard Louv.
How do we reclaim our intimacy with creation? How might we open our eyes and minds in a way that allows the revelation of God through creation into our souls?
In this workshop Matt Humphrey (of Wild Church Victoria, A Rocha Canada and the Emmaus Community) introduces us to different ways we pay attention known as ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’. Because our society has emphasized the analytic mode, he’ll suggest that we have become fragmented in ourselves and in our relationship with God’s creation – and that we need to repair this divide and rediscover an approach to attention which takes in “the whole.”
Cornelia van Voorst introduces us to science that shows how improving the ways we see the world through art helps heal attention and lead us into embodied mindfulness. Geared to those who might not identify as artists, simple, practical exercises train our eyes to understand the world so that our relationship with creation is enriched and restored.
Cornelia van Voorst is a visual artist and theopoetic practitioner based at The Abbey Church in Victoria British Columbia. As well as exhibiting as a contemporary artist, she practices photography and sketching as a means of cultivating connection with the world around her.
The Art Of Paying Attention- Opening Our Eyes (was) a free online workshop facilitated by Matt Humphrey and Cornelia van Voorst Co-hosted by Wild Church Victoria, A Rocha Canada and the Emmaus Community (Victoria) Email email@example.com for more info or with questions.
How do artists keep in touch during lockdown? How do we keep our spirits up? Over 60 artists in Victoria BC, Canada answered these questions with the project ‘Postcards From the Pandemic.’ The project was intiated and facilitated by BOXCARSIX and included 60 artists and produced over 900 postcards. The cards were exhibited at The Fifty Fifty Arts Collective. Here is a note from one of the organisers: Wow! What a fantastic project, successful show and fundraiser. We raised over $3000 for local Victoria charities – Victoria Women’s Transition House, Our Place, and the Mustard Seed, as well as happily supporting the fifty fifty arts collective gallery with the sale of our postcards.We wish to send out a huge thank you to the 60 artists involved for your generosity, playfulness, imagination and commitment to our project. We are humbled by the scale of participation, and delighted by the creativity imbued in each card. This project has been a testament to the possibilities of collaboration, and we are very proud to have initiated it. There are still many cards remaining, and it is our sincere hope that we will be able to find another venue to continue to share this body of work in the future! Here are a few of my favourites that I worked on with artists Amber MacGregor, Heather Barr, Amber Morrison Fox, Trish Shwart, and Meghan Krauss. (photos of the gallery collection are by Jill Ehlert.)
abstracted images from photos of roses in my neighbourhood for the BOXCARSIX Postcard Project
For the last number of weeks, I have participated in an initiative by a local contemporary artist collective BOXCARSIX in their Post Card Project. It was conceived as a means for members to be in touch with each other and continue making art together during the time of lock-down.
Each artist would begin a card, and then send it to another who would add to the image and then pass that on until it was felt a small artwork had been completed. Eventually other artists joined in. It took me a while to get going as I wasn’t sure what to send out to other artists to work with, but then realised I wanted to extend the ideas in the “…Persistence of Love….” work I had just finished.
So I took my postcard sized paper and drew the images of the roses from my neighbourhood onto them. I was delighted to see the effect of abstraction and was happy not only to be sharing my theme with other artists, but to perhaps have discovered a way forward for new work.
Here are some of the “starters” I sent out back in April, it has been fun to see the transformation of these over the last weeks. Some artists enhanced the rose theme, some transformed the starters in ways that I could not have imagined.
Since British Columbia has opened up we’ve had news to finish up by June as it looks like there is going to be a show of all the cards this summer! Stay tuned.
I am very glad and grateful that four of my pieces from A Complex Grief are included in Victoria Arts Council’s magazine ‘Until 5‘ which engages with the theme of memory. Here is an excerpt from the foreword: “In the following pages, there is a surprising array of interpretations to the theme of Memory. Some artists are ruminating on geographic memories (both pleasurable and painful) while others look to the memory of objects through social and personal histories. Memory becomes tangible through stories, poems, and other artworks both lived and imagined here; these memories become touchstones for past atrocities while signaling the wellspring of hope for future possibilities.”
For me ‘memory’ is a timely theme. I am familiar with the personal effect of history’s generational wounds. These are often active below the surface and never fully called into the open even though they affect the present profoundly. Today, through the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as enormous turmoil, there is tremendous change being released through the breaking open of deep wounds and long memories. Wounds that are hidden come to the surface to heal, that is what I have learned and that is what I hope is happening in our world today.
The foreword for ‘Until 5’ includes a call for us to work for a more compassionate future in this time of upheaval: Here in Victoria, this past Sunday nearly 10,000 citizens took to Centennial Square to protest in solidarity with the global Black Lives Matter movement in support of anti-racist actions. The killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police officers will have ramifications. Already that city has taken steps towards disbanding their police force in order to invest in community-based public safety programs. This will have ripple effects around the world. What has become crystal clear is that Canada is not immune from our own histories of injustice and so we must remember going forward, together, that we can be better and we must be better. While we are thrilled you’re taking the time to read this very special issue of UNTIL… we also urge our non-BIPOC readers to take stock of how you are addressing the various ways we all contribute to the ongoing racial and social inequalities in our own neighbourhoods and City, and more importantly what measures can be taken to address this systemic problem. Take time to educate yourself on these racial inequalities by listening to those who face them. Speak up when you see it happening, in the workplace or on the street. And if possible, donate to one of the many organizations helping to fuel the Black Lives Matter movement. Remember, all lives cannot matter until Black Lives Matter.
I take courage from an idea by Gandhi, which I paraphrase:
Love must exist, it must be powerful – otherwise how is it that human beings survive even with all the awful things we perpetrate upon the world? Gandhi points out that history is full of news of trouble, hurt and catastrophe, but it neglects to speak of the persistence of love that occurs in our everyday. This love manifests in acts of forgiveness, of compassion, courage, kindness, patience, gentleness- often found in domestic life, family, and friendship- that are taken for granted and go without remark, yet keep our world alive and intact.
When I was working with material that eventually became the exhibition, The Other Side of War, I would often say, “I just want to make art about flowers.” After that exhibition, I began learning about the German Resistance and realised how much the motif of the rose featured in that story: from the name of the resistance group “The White Rose” to the Rosenstrasse protests. For me the rose became the antidote to the swastika. It spoke to me about love being the antidote to violence. I realised that I had the idea I needed to fulfill my desire to make work about flowers.
By using portraits of roses from my everyday life and neighbourhood, I incorporated into the the story of resistance, my own endurance beyond childhood violence that had its origin in my German father’s experience of the Second World War. It is an underlying compassion that enables recovery and allows me to recognise the moments of beauty and love that are embedded in the difficulty of my family’s story.
The series is called Meditations on the Persistence of Love in a Time of Disaster. Three of the large panels were shown in the exhibition History as Personal Memory ( February 2018.). The first six were made between November 2017- February 2018. The second set of six between December, 2019 and mid-March 2020. It felt fitting to me that they were completed in the first weeks of our worldwide lock- down for Covid 19. Since then, we’ve had the wisdom of Gandhi being lived out in front of our eyes.
We are seeing in the midst of fear and uncertainty, small everyday acts of compassion and kindness in quiet and intimate moments between friends, family and strangers. We see all around us -most visibly and noisily expressed through childlike hearts in windows and the banging of domestic pots- the recognition of essential workers and others who keep our world going. In these small persistent acts we are bearing witness to the presence of love that gives hope and courage in this dark time of pandemic.
Images: These large drawings are covered with the presence of roses, made with resist materials such as wax, china pencil and glue, that maintain a sense of presence despite dense layers of ink and darkness.
( to be titled ) Ink, paint, matt medium, ( detail ) 2020
my last piece in the series, just before I took it down off the wall. ( to be titled ) Ink, wax, matt medium, 2020
(to be titled) Ink, wax, paint, matt medium, china pencil (detail) 2020
(to be titled) Ink, wax, paint, matt medium, china pencil, 2020
Only in Time Can the Moment Where the Rain Beats, ink, pencil glue, 2018 (Detail)
“Cup” was made with conte and acrylic paint in 2010, and digitally edited in 2020. This image was published in the Emmaus Community’s booklet of meditations for the season of Lent. Here is my reflection:
As I considered the scriptures for today’s reading, an early artwork of mine came to mind. What does it depict?
Might it be hands holding a cup of communion; or hands seeking to support a wound? Do we see wings speaking peace to grief? Perhaps it is an intimate detail of Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane. The image may be all of these things, just as it resonates with these words from each of the scriptures today:
“Listen to me, Lord….” “Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.” “But I trust in you, Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hands” “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
(the readings are for March 11th; Jer 18:18-20; Ps 31:1-5, 13-16; Mt 20:17-28)
Unless one is an artist, it is easy to dismiss art as either a luxury or past-time. Rarely do we hear art being described as essential. But science is showing that art is a valuable tool for developing empathy and attention.
I was thankful to be asked to provide a workshop ‘Art and Empathy’ for the ‘We Together‘ Conference for the Anglican Dioceses of Islands and Inlets in Nanaimo BC, Canada.
Most participants did not identify themselves as artists.
In this workshop I shared a short talk and provided three exercises.
The first was an introduction to the practice of contour drawing as a form of mindfulness. This is a simple method to encourage hand and eye co-ordination which allows us to look deeply and develops empathy with the natural world around us.
The next had participants pair up and draw, however arbitrarily a description of something that they really love. Then partners were told about that activity by describing the drawings. This allowed story telling with the aid of an object which alleviated the pressure of one on one encounter and encouraged empathy with the ‘other’ without losing a sense of one’s own self.
The last activity was using collage to find relationship with random selection of images and textures. This was a direct use of the creative act which is about pulling apart and putting back together. It is also a means of ‘listening’ and exercising empathy to ourselves without passing judgment or demanding explanation.
By the end of the workshop there was a wonderful atmosphere of busyness, connection and joy.
I am very grateful to the Diocese of Islands and Inlets for the opportunity to share the every day benefits of the visual arts.
( update: In November, I adapted the talk I gave with this workshop and the related sermon I presented at the Abbey Church into an article for the Diocesan Post which can be found here.)
the juxtaposition of images and objects used for contour drawing and collage
the absorption of creative work
Nanaimo waterfront a few steps away from the conference at St Paul Anglican Church
When I was a new Christian in my late teens, I attended a youth group meeting and the study imagined the human race having to leave earth and create a new world on another planet. We brainstormed what professions would be necessary to begin again and I listened as lots of suggestions were made. After the list was quite long, the facilitator asked, is there anything else before we move on, and I asked “What about artists?” The response was laughter “What do we need them for? What use are they?”
Since then I have spent my life asking that question, and
have come to believe that the arts are an antidote for our highly polarized, image saturated, screen dominated society; are important for everyone and ought to part of our everyday life- not just in a gallery or museum, concert hall, or practiced by those who are talented.
Today we talk about empathy, diversity, creativity, intelligence, resilience and mindfulness as being essential for restoring our personal, societal and environmental health; we go to workshops and courses that are supposed to teach us these skills; yet the methods humans have evolved to practice and give expression to these skills – the arts – are still considered optional.
When we practice the arts, we are using our analytical and emotional facilities, our imaginative and practical, our intellectual and our instinctual. The arts explicitly utilise the creative process. No other human activity can teach us about creativity better than the arts, and when our minds process creativity through the arts, it is not just intellectually comprehended but also emotionally – it impacts our whole mind in such a way that we are then able to apply creative thinking in practical ways to every area of our lives.
Stanford Neuroscientist David Eagleman and composer Anthony Brandt are coauthors of the book The Runaway Species. They explain that what makes us human is exactly that we are able to be creative. Because of the development of our frontal lobe we can imaginatively stand back from time and space, take what already exists, bend it, break it and then blend it together in an original manner.
This is exactly the process that we see in Genesis chapter one: God is hovering over what is yet unformed. God separates: light from dark, land from sea, night from day, animal from vegetable… and it is in the relationship between those separations that all the diversity of life is established.
What this story teaches us is that death occurs when polarity ceases to be the method by which we are creative and extremes are no longer functioning as a means to inspire relationship, and instead become independent from the diversity that connects them.
The arts thrive in, and cultivate diversity. The arts teach us to keep our minds and society open and engaged with finding connections with what is different, perhaps even strange so that unity in diversity is possible. Peace is cultivated not by eliminating difference but by appreciating it. A society that rejects the arts has stopped seeing diversity as a positive, looks at the ‘other’ as someone to be feared, and perceives what is different as an aberration.
It was this closed mindset that was responsible for the bodily and cultural damages that European colonial expansion perpetrated upon the peoples of the ‘New World’ which in reality, was not new at all but a thriving land with its own peoples and cultures. It is no co-incidence that the era of colonization was the same that oversaw the demonization and desecration of sacred arts all over Europe, and that Columbus was set sailing across the ocean blue by the monarchy that instituted the Spanish Inquisition. European settlement of the New World was birthed by an anti diversity, anti art version of religion combined with mercenary power and greed.
It is this very combination that is dominating and closing in on our world today. A near sighted, rigid mindset is challenging the well being of our environment, the rights of first nations, of refugees, of the LGBTQ2 community, of women, of the sciences and of the arts, and cultivates racism, polarization and extremism in our civil discourse. It despises the poor and distorts the gift of wealth into a greed that refuses to see the creation as an entity to be cherished, let alone acknowledging it as the revelation of God.
In our everyday discussions on social media about the Anthropocene, I often see the idea that the changes in our climate today are natural, the logic being that somehow, if we humans are part of nature, then our influence on the climate ought to be seen as another page in the history of the earth. I believe the opposite is true- that it is the denial of ourselves as being part of nature that has resulted in what is causing harm to the world.
Yet for thousands of years Western Christian society was dependent upon the arts, and considered nature (the creation) as the ‘other Bible.’ The early church fathers described Jesus as the Good, the True and the Beautiful, but – as Jaroslav Pelikan points out in his book Jesus through the Centuries: His Place in History and Culture- since the Reformation, Jesus as the Beautiful has been edited out of our theological and cultural understanding of the divine, so much so that today we are seeing the end result demonstrated in our society’s callousness toward the creation.
from Psalm 19 we hear:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
While all of the arts are vitally important, the visual arts have particular relevance for our relationship with creation. The language of nature is comprehended through texture, colour, shape, form, tone, size, space, rhythm, movement- and this is also the language by which we understand visual art. When we learn visual language we are using our mother tongue, we are children in conversation with the creation and the creator.
I am pleased to have learned that scientists have been discovering that the visual arts are vital for our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with creation.
One study shares that a regular visual arts practice builds significantly more connections in a critical part of the brain called the default mode network, which is associated with a variety of functions, such as reflecting on one’s emotional state, empathy, and imagining the future. Not only was this important part of the brain strengthened by producing art, but the participants also became better able to cope with stress.
Another shares that visual arts training can cause dramatic changes in the brain, including strengthening of the “attention network,” a series of regions linked to general intelligence,” and evidence is growing that skills built practicing the arts can cross into other mental domains.
Science shares that those born with innate artistic ability literally perceive the world more accurately than non-artists, yet the ridiculously encouraging thing is that a simple practice of drawing enables even those who are not artists develop their ability to visually comprehend the world.
We take for granted that when we want to learn more about creation it is science that teaches us best, yet it is easy to forget that it was the gift of observing life through drawing that allowed us to develop the sciences.
In a study from Australia which introduced students to using drawing in order to explore and justify their understandings in science, it was found that not only were they were more able to recognize, colour, texture and form, they were more motivated to learn; they learned to reason creatively, in a way distinct from, but complementary to reasoning through argumentation (talk about what the world needs now!) And students found learning enjoyable. Russell Tyler, science educator at Deakin University in Waurn Ponds, Australia put it this way: “We can have students exercising their creativity and imagination in order to learn the canonical knowledge of science. There is no need for it to be transmitted to students as dead knowledge.”
Consider the lilies of the field, Jesus says. What is it that he is wishing for us to consider? Does he want us to take samples and label each part, their stamens, their pistils, their petals, break down the chemistry of their fragrance?
It is not their beauty he wants us to take note of? Consider the beauty of these lilies, consider the glory of the stars (even better now that science has given us the Hubble Space Telescope) let them remind you that life is so much more than what you eat or what you drink or what you wear; God knows you need these things…but seek first the kingdom and all these shall be added to you. The arts remind us that there is more to life than being “useful, than simply surviving.” The arts are us, they are literally the manifestation of human beings as the image of God, of being co-creators.
Without vision it is not only the people who perish. Today our minds, emotions, society and environment have fallen apart because we have sacrificed personal creativity to consumerism and our vision co-opted to the advertising and entertainment industry. Many of us are wondering how it is we are going to survive. But a new world is dawning, whether we like it or not. The question is will it bring forth life or destruction.
If we are to help a new world overcome the damages of a materialistic, commercial and colonial culture, the arts -particularly the visual arts- absolutely need to teach us to envision our world anew. God created the world not from nothing – from the beginning we -and everything we know- were there in the darkness waiting to be called forth.
Even this darkness in which we are living today has the promise of light.
….’and it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘that I will pour forth my spirit on all human kind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young shall see visions, and your old shall dream dreams”
Even with all the awfulness we have allowed, we are still God’s children and we still have a tremendous amount of raw material with which to work healing into our world. Human beings are wired to be creative beings participating in the growth of the world, not the destruction of it. To restore our world we need only to return to who we are. Come let us dream and envision. We are God’s little children, we are creators. Our world is not over yet.
This talk was given at the Abbey Church Victoria BC, Canada on the 29th September 2019 the podcast can be found here.