Prayer and the Creative Process

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“View from Stephanart Studio” DS

 

The one thing I’ve learned is to always keep moving. Never let it all drop. Always be doing something for your project, even if it’s printing it out and crossing out words and writing in other words, or writing a plan. Stay in motion. Give it something.

Contemporary writer Alex Leslie

An unfinished painting stands facing the wall in the Stephanart Studio. The artist has not painted for months now. Her fear has been that in her angst to continue the work she will ruin it. Her work was interrupted by life and she lost the vision for its completion.

It had stood central on the easel for weeks while the sketchbook drawing was enlarged and redone on the 36” x 24” canvas. The foreground and background were thinly painted in. Three telephone poles had been erected in the image and Easter colours chosen for their completion but never applied. Their starkness in the landscape mirrored the artist’s wilderness experience of late.

Just now, in the middle of the night, after all this time technical ideas came to its creator. Shapes and colours floated through her dream. An inner excitement drew her to record it here. She will go out to the studio, unlock the door, and restore the work’s place on the easel.

The day before, the artist had received a visit from a colleague who had prayed for her to forgive a past hurt and for creative work to continue. An oppression has lifted. Inspiration is this odd, this ad hoc. The work stops, the work starts again – so frustratingly simple, so complex and profound. Who is this great God who calls and equips us to create, to forgive, to live inside the real work of art that is this world? Who is she that her work can be disrupted by her inner life, by her outer life? Why was her call answered so quickly when others are not?

Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous [person] availeth much.

Book of James

 

Performance Art

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“Resting in the Beauty” DS

Today, again, it comes to me that facilitating is a form of performance art. It was especially obvious to me last month as local teacher from Emily Carr University; Jeanne Krabbendam enlivened us at the Ferry Building Gallery with her banter. Her accent, so Dutch, alone brings a smile of delight to my eyes. Her inclusion in discussions welcomes participants’ eager responses to her useful material. We had a popcorn critique of two abstract paintings as follows:

The Elements of Art –

Shape

Size

Line

Direction

Texture

Colour

Value

And Principles of Design –

Balance

Harmony

Gradation

Alternation

Contrast

Dominance

Unity

The morning started well for me when we chatted at length as she walked by my chair.  As if I was her peer she shared with me her challenges of the recent art tours she led to her birth land. As a facilitator myself I identified with many aspects of group dynamics to be managed. As I listened with restrained awe to her readiness to offer painting and gallery visits from small boat tours again, I too knew the love of introducing people to the beauty and meaning of making and viewing art.

Her appearance exuded her taste. Short textured dark brown hair with a shock of mahogany above dark green spectacles – contrasting colours, and bright raspberry lipstick below darkened eyes kept the focus on what she was saying. On her tiny frame, a thin-striped black and white tunic topped black leggings and boots. Yet it was her happy playful eyes that attracted others to her pedagogy. She lives what she verbalizes. She lives an art life (as if you could distinguish to the two). Her life and her art flow seamlessly into one another. This is what attracts and keeps her followers: joie de vivre.

Although it is more blessed to give than to receive, there are exceptions. Although I could have led the group discussion myself, it was refreshing to receive a different style of leadership from someone whose platform and practice differs markedly from mine. I was not only receiving her take on how to view paintings but I absorbed and reflected her passion for teaching.

And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.

 Book of Psalms

 

Blunderings

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“Dark and Light” iPhone Photo DS

At Rivendell I was at my most friendly. I had come out of my solitary cell to see and talk with people. I smiled during silent ‘chapel’ time. I introduced myself to strangers in the hall and on the sidewalk. Breakfast lunch and dinner became a time for chatting and the treasure of getting to know strangers. I even talked poetry with a group from the States.

Most returned my friendliness. Others smiled and retreated to their rooms. One made me know with a look that I was not part of her group and how dare I take up her time when she was here to get to know them better. One woman closed the kitchen door and actually faced me down telling me that I was too loud. After my shock had abated, I apologized saying that I did not realize that.

I had assuaged my feelings of isolation there with some rich conversations. I was getting caught up on my reading. The day before I left, I read the ‘personal retreat’ page in the manual on the desk. I had not taken the time to read the binder as I had been at Rivendell three times before, but never on a personal retreat. It was then that I read that silence was a virtue as some, on the third floor, were there on silent retreat.

Uggh, I had embarrassed myself again. I blushed in private. In breaking my silence I had violated theirs. I became quiet. I returned home quiet.

How often have I been out of step with my peers? I have continued on aware of some difference with people but unknowing of the reason? This is why I need an all-knowing God for guidance daily to recover from my blunderings.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

Book of First Corinthians

Discouragement

36” x 24” Acrylic on Canvas

“Drips” detail DS

When I feel discouraged over low art sales or lack of registration for the Shellseeker Art + Soul Workshops my mind goes to an intimate space deep in the heart of BC Women’s Hospital. When a new department was being opened I donated several art pieces for it.

Opening night, artists were invited to view their work in place. Two of my drip paintings were hanging in a small darkened room with a couple of modern couches and chairs. It was explained by the tour guide that this was where parents were told that their babies were not going to make it. I looked at the pale pink, blue and green drips over the pastoral landscapes with sheep, a female figure, a key, and felt a profound sense of peace. I had felt comforted in my own time of grief by creating these paintings touched with gold, green and yellow. Now they silently would comfort others.

These paintings in this space form the pinnacle of my career. They are my way of being in the world, my authentic self. One cannot work to achieve this. It is pure gift.

 

 Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.

Book of Second Corinthians

15 Year Anniversary of 9/11

The black square in the 9/11 Memorial seemed to be bottomless. As I watched a documentary program this afternoon on the history channel about the events at the Twin Towers 15 years ago, tears came to my eyes. In this very room, watching the same TV in shock I struggled to take in the horror of the scene that day and its implications for them and for us.

We went elsewhere to fight. It was a given. Other countries were the sites of war, not the U.S. and Canada – especially not Canada. A loved one was in a hotel in Ottawa, having travelled from Vancouver there a few days before on business. My prayers went back and forth for her and for the victims and families of those struck by the attack – and for the firefighters and our leaders. Who knew if they would strike Canada next?

In June of 2014, in New York City on an art tour with the Ferry Building Gallery, I had seen the flowing water pour down that black square, into the very middle of the earth it seemed. I have never been so silent.

I almost did not make the effort to go there. I do not like to visit the sites of tragedies. An art history class about war memorials piqued my curiosity to see the sculpture in person. It was so big and so noisy with water rushing as if to cleanse and heal the land.

Today, as I watch the black square within the square, another tragic black square comes to mind. The “Black Square” 1913 of Russian artist Kasimir Malevich hung in an exhibition in a strange position in the room. It was in an upper corner near the ceiling. Gallery visitors at that time were well aware that this was where the holy icons of Jesus Christ were located in a Russian Orthodox home. One of the things this empty black icon came to mean was that God is dead.

The deep empty hole of a black square in NYC ‘s National 9/11 Memorial and the” Black Square” of Moscow’s First World War era, are they the same? Is God now considered dead? Could he not have intervened to prevent WWI and 9/11 or has human freedom meant freedom to do evil again in history? I think of this Proverb:

Do no violence to the place where the righteous live;
 for though they fall seven times, they will rise again;
 but the wicked are overthrown by calamity.

NYC rose again, Russia has gained strength, the Resurrection happened – such tragedy, paradox and mystery co-exist as does hope. All of these events drastically changed so many lives as well as history itself. Is the square really empty or like the ‘colour’ black, does it actually contains all the colours?

 

Failure: the Doorway to Success?

Photo of Iona and Labyrinth under new ownership 2015

Photo of Iona and Labyrinth under new ownership 2015 DS

Government programs fail to deliver; countries fail to provide for their citizens; ghost towns form. Movements fail or decline, new ways emerge. Countries like Syria are struggling for survival. The Yukon was the sight of failed gold mining. Planes fall out of the sky (Malaysia Airlines, EgyptAir, Indian Air Force), again.

Wars are lost. Boundaries are changed. Peoples are displaced.

There are failures on a global scale to protect air, water, and land. Species have become extinct. Some failures may just be the natural ebb and flow of existence.

The iconic Iona Building at UBC had to be sold although the theological college still exists apart from that grand space. I think of the Highland Clearances of Scotland (to make room for sheep), to be a failure, as well as the Potato Famine of Ireland. The wildfire of Fort McMurray is a failure of sorts but the town will be rebuilt. I hope.

We fail to rehabilitate, to resuscitate, to reinstate, to collaborate, to meditate. We are unsuccessful in love, in business, in losing weight, in baking a gourmet cake. I do/am.

Friendships are lost. Cars are crashed. Our bodies are injured or break down with disease. Mine does.

Everyday failure is real. It is not the end of the world though it may seem like it at the time. Failure may be a chance for change, or just sorrow to be endured.

How would Mother Teresa have measured success, or Picasso, or Matisse who created from his bed, or Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.…? (How do I – by mission statement?)

Sometimes our failures catch up with us. We stand in need of forgiveness. The making of amends, as in AA, can rebuild relationship success.

Success can be illusive or inconclusive. It can be fleeting or misleading. True success in life – who can define it?

I just received 2 ‘declines’ from an art jury. I have received many of these over the years. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I say. Do I take their refusal as permanent – or as fleeting?

Is it them or me, their judging or my creating? I have never actually kept track of my declines or failures. I change goals. My work has been exhibited in over 70 shows.

A Business of Art course instructor once told us that some artists have commercial success and some critical success. Juries love my work. Yet the fact remains, that I have a high ratio of donated paintings versus those I have sold. By which criteria do I judge my own work?

Much of what I create, I will admit, does not fit well in a living room above a couch. It is too raw for that. The colours are anything but subdued. The techniques are immediate, layered, direct and even messy. My style does not have the requisite consistency. But there is an internal rhythm. In my latest jury submission of 33 paintings (one for every year of the life of Christ) each has a cross or stripe pattern.

The truly difficult thing is that the work has to be created, the materials purchased, the time set aside. Years of work needs to be framed before one applies. One has to get the paintings onto a gallery wall so viewers can consider buying them. One has to have the space to store unsold paintings. New paintings have to be imagined and realized for the next jury, to fit the next art space requirements.

How, I think now, can any artist really keep going to achieve success? There are so many barriers, so much competition, so many people who ignore art totally.

It seems to me that each artist must define success differently. Each artist must hone and redefine the definition to fit the circumstances, must see benefits where they seem invisible.

Creating art is similar to being a mother. Our paintings incubate and are born. Success, I realize now, is to have children leave home ready to meet the world and to have paintings leave the studio to find their niche. My children and my paintings are offered to the world as the best of me. Adult children forever at home or paintings lying dusty in the studio are the true failures. But success often calls just when we are ready to give up.

In the meantime, children may struggle, paintings gather dust, but independence is close and my oeuvre is being built for that day not too far away.

How can one achieve success when accolades come for just the opportunity to show? What can assuage the echoing sting of ending an exhibition with few sales? How can one go on year after year financing one’s own – what – ego? When the paintings pile up in the studio why do I apply to more juries? This art-making refuses to die. It becomes like a form of addiction. That first flow of colour off the paintbrush at 7 years old had me hooked. As with all addiction there is grief.

My paintings need a home and I want money for them. There, I have said it. Maybe after I am dead, success will come in memorial. Perhaps it is my children, my estate that will benefit from my collection. I have now got it: my legacy will be my success. My part is to enjoy the process of creating.

One thing about achieving a degree of success is that one asks what do I do next? Where can I go? When can I say, it is enough? For now, I decide I will rest with gratitude.

I know that if I get that show for my 33 paintings my desires have not changed. I want people to attend the opening. I want a decent write up in the reviews. I do not want to carry those cumbersome paintings out of the gallery, into my vehicle, and back to my studio only to begin over again next week. I am tired. I need success now and I need studio space. My body feels broken. My mind and spirit carry it trailing behind like the tin cans tied to a wedding car.

Jesus’ death on the cross: failure it appeared.  Was his goal to live three score and ten years? The Resurrection 3 days later proved the success of his mission.

When I think of failure and success after all this, I ponder two questions:

  1. What do I want?
  2. How will I know when I get there?

As I wait to see how sales have gone at my latest exhibition, I receive a message that my painting “VanDusen Gardens” has been chosen by the art committee at Lions Gate Hospital for their permanent collection in ‘The Healing Power of Art Program’. It will hang with the greats – Molly Bobak, Sylvia Tait, Gordon Smith… Am I there yet?

 

VanDusen at home

“VanDusen Gardens” Acrylic on Canvas, 32″ x 48″, Deborah Stephan

After Rivendell

 

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“Walking the Labyrinth, Rivendell” DS

Contemplative prayer is about waiting. It is an interior kind of waiting that is practiced on the outside too on a regular basis. This kind of waiting – like Godot perhaps – makes way for other more specific types of prayer. Contemplative prayer acts as a spiritual default position.

This attitude in prayer I experience mostly in contemplative knitting or collage. The rhythmic movement of my hands keeps the rest of my body at rest. Often I start with just repeating the Jesus Prayer brought back to us by eastern Orthodox Christians. Sometimes I will just mention a name of a loved one or situation as a way to petition for God’s specific help. Other times I just let my mind wander and then have a sentence or two that I read out loud – a poem or verse.

Once in a while I have the opportunity to pray as I walk a labyrinth. I did this recently at Rivendell. The switchbacks in the path of the Chartres style walk comfort me. They echo my life and edify my prayers. Sometimes when I walk away from the direction of the centre, I find that I was actually quite close but could not see it. As I walk to toward the centre, and an answer is right before me, the path turns away again. It leads me to return home to trust that I am being led no matter what I see.

Since my decision to live a contemplative style of being in the world, I study and practice the habits of the early church, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and the ancient monasteries. My relationship with a loving God through Christ is the foundation of my existence. The Spirit works in the background of my life with practices of faith and creativity. In this way I prepare for the future, whatever may come.

Such was the virtue of the land of Rivendell that soon all fear and anxiety was lifted from their minds. The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present. Health and hope grew strong in them and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal, and in every word and song.

Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”