Friends in college would immediately identify me as an artist. I created visual art until 2010, then drifted from it without class assignments and trajectory. At this same time God guided me toward professional ministry, a path that has been filled with consolations. As I lived into this, I found vitality in studying theology and the wells of its richness. This study and living theology became the new way I identified myself and was identified by others. Usually around wintertime, I experienced a very convincing urge to continue formal study, which would catch me in a confusing circle of discernment. Each time, I was excited and convicted of the nudge for a short while, but as I immersed myself in the thought of further education, something held me back and it would wear away.
Over these years, friends who knew the artist in me would remind me of that specific characteristic and ask, “Have you been making art?” It always felt like a let-down when I said no. I had accepted that creating visual art was an identity reserved for younger me, with no life left in it.
Around Thanksgiving 2019, my parents and I visited a museum which features astounding paintings of landscapes I have visited and loved in the Intermountain West. I reveled in the artworks, observing the talent, attention, and craft that elevated the visual of these landscapes beyond a professional photograph. As I stood in awe of these pieces, my internal instinct expressed a confident desire: “I want to try to do that.” My soul was at peace at this time. I stood confident in this instinct, as if it were shown to me with no uncertainty.
A month later, I made the wild decision to bring a 24”x 36” canvas I’d had in storage to my parents’ house for Christmas break, which had a corner in the basement where I could set up a basic studio. I had a vision of painting the Grand Tetons, based on my photos. I hoped to capture a spiritual experience I had there a few summers back. As I sketched out the mountain peaks, I worked slowly to honor the real scene. I left Christmas break excited with plans to keep going.
The guilt and annoyance I previously experienced when my friends asked if I had been painting pivoted to an annoyance when my life was too fast-paced and busy, and left no time to paint. Teaching and commitments took over my life. The painting got tucked away. I needed time, slowness, and silence.
As the world was jolted by the pandemic, I knew I needed stability, and to do something with my hands. With a new way of teaching, I was able to live into a rather monastic rhythm, and included studio time with the Tetons each day. Sketching moved to base painting, filling in mountain gray and the snow, shadowing the array of details that mountains are famous for. As I tuned into these specific details of the Tetons, everything else seemed to melt away. I was filled with joy and peace.
These days, I try to paint or create on the weekends. As I neared the final step of the Teton piece this past January, I radiated as I was immersed in developing the foreground trees. As I was painting, I realized there was no longer the usual midwinter urge to pursue another degree, no thoughts wandering off into the future about who I could be. As I painted the trees, I rejoiced that I was living into the present moment, enacting a charism given to me, and cooperating with God in growing that gift.
It has been a grace to create beauty for its own sake and respond to a year that has been decidedly un-beautiful. The world needs beauty. It also needs slowness and silence. Creating or engaging in beauty tends to move us beyond ourselves and open us to greater spiritual listening, no matter the given talent, no matter the perceived ability, and in every artistic form: dance, music, poetry, or visual art. With the nudge of the Spirit, and your yes, maybe beauty could become part of your discernment and your pilgrimage too.
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Images courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.