Art / Work and Rest

The Journey Homeward

Suddenly you know you’re going in the wrong direction.
You look back and remember…
a place of clatter and quiet,
of work and rest,
shouting and listening,
where you can be what God made you to be,
where He whispers what He wants you to become,
where He takes away your emptiness and fills you with Himself.
Then you turn your feet toward home…

~Christy Sawyer

My journey from being a hard driven, work obsessed “vidi-it” to being, as imperfectly as I can understand it, where God wants me to be began about four years ago. I gave pottery lessons to my husband for his 50th birthday. He didn’t need “lessons,” but rather a refresher course. You see, Tim is a potter; he just hadn’t been doing pottery since the 70s. When he came home from his first lesson, I couldn’t believe what I saw…. He had this (excuse the pun) “centered” look about him. I said, “Tim, you might not realize this, but you look more like you than you have in 30 years.” He had this look of completeness or wholeness about him that I just can’t explain to you.

Two years ago I was noodling around and saw a book entitled Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeline L’Engle (she is one of my most favorite authors). I read some of the sample pages on the website and purchased the book. L’Engle calls the creation of art an incarnational experience. She wrote:

What would have happened to Mary (and to all the rest of us) if she had said No to the angel? She was free to do so. But she said, Yes. She was obedient, and the artist, too, must be obedient to the command of the work, knowing that this involves long hours of research, of throwing out a month’s work, of going back to the beginning, or, sometimes, scrapping the whole thing. The artist, like Mary, is free to say No. When a shoddy novel is published the writer is rejecting the obedient response, taking the easy way out. But when the words mean even more than the writer knew they meant, then the writer has been listening. And sometimes when we listen, we are led into places we do not expect, into adventures we do not always understand.

Mary did not always understand. But one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding—that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of—there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing things which we are not yet able to understand.

When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist: Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly than he knew; Rembrandt’s brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend.
When the work takes over, then the artist in enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.

But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer.

I had at one time, listened. I’d had a work come to me and I had, albeit imperfectly, been obedient to it and produced a work far greater than I was able. When had I lost that? Why did I lose it?

Not long after reading this, I was listening to the audio version of the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. If you aren’t familiar with this book, it is a satirical piece about a wise old devil, Screwtape, advising his young nephew, Wormwood, on how to prevent his subject from becoming snared by the Enemy (that is, Christ) and then, once he has failed in that task, how to make the new convert as ineffective as possible. For awhile he coaches his nephew on how to distract the young man with temptations of the old way of life. Once he has gotten him off the path, it is imperative to prevent him from dealing with the sin creeping back into his life. So, Uncle Screwtape teaches Wormwood how to prevent the subject from praying and thereby repenting! He tells him to let this unease build to such a degree that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention so that he will not fall into prayer! Okay, try to imagine John Cleese reading this:

You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayer or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisement in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”

The following Sunday morning I was having a “lie-in” before church, reading the Bible and thinking about these things. Why had I forgotten that extraordinary incarnational thing that happens when I paint? Why was I doing things that mattered little without even the desire to do more? Then I wondered, how long it had been since I’d even felt the intense closeness to God, not that he wasn’t real or present but that I’d been seemingly holding him off at arm’s length. I closed my eyes, sort of rolled over onto my pillow to pray. I started to pray the question: “Lord, have I not felt your closeness in that special way that I used to since I decided to not paint anymore……?” Before the thought was completely formed in my mind the answer came to me in hot, “Holy Spirit tears” streaming down my face, as if God said in no uncertain terms, “Well, yes, of course!! What took you so long to ask?”

Why indeed, had it taken me so long to ask this obvious question and receive the resounding answer? Those answers have taken me almost two years to figure out.

Ten years ago I started to learn video production. It really satisfied my creative energies and also gave me an outlet to serve the local church and missions. I was still painting actively at the time. But, as the video projects came more frequently than the commissions, and as I had a steep learning curve to surmount, I set aside the paint brushes “temporarily.” This is what I told myself and my mother. “Just for now, while I get around this learning curve.” She fussed at me and told me I was sinning against God by not doing what he had created me to do and that I’d be sorry! I think a part of me was glad to be done with it. Painting is hard work! Especially portrait painting! There were no expectations on me as a video producer. And it was fun!

When we moved to St. Charles, eight years ago, it was to a much different world than I had expected. Tim ended up staying on active duty another year instead of attending Covenant. He moved to Wash., DC, and Ben, my youngest, and I stayed here. I was deeply depressed and lonely, not able to find a church that seemed to care, and not having much luck with launching my painting career in St. Louis. Not only that, my whole self-esteem was wrapped up in my painting and since I wasn’t selling, I wasn’t feeling so good about myself. Meanwhile, an amazing thing happened: I got a job. Video Coordinator at Covenant Seminary. That job meant the world to me at a time when the world wasn’t making much sense.

Flash forward now a few years. I never picked up the brushes again but once. As the years rolled by, fear began to take hold. If I had wanted to start again, would I be able to? Every so often I’d make a nod to my mother by saying I was “going to get back to my painting one of these days.” But, inside I really didn’t mean it, didn’t think I needed it, my life was fine, thank you very much!

And then the job stopped being just a job, and it became my life. It developed into a full-time position and I loved it. It became my self-identity. Painting was the last thing on my mind when I picked up that book two years ago.

After that Sunday morning prayer, I told God I was so profoundly sorry for tossing aside the gift he had given me. I saw instantly that that was how he made me so that he would be the most glorified and that I could enjoy him at the same time! What a fool to give up such a gift! I said at that time, and really meant it with all my heart, I am an artist (just like Tim is a potter) who happened to not be painting at the time. And even though I didn’t know how or when, I was going to paint again. And I meant it.

What has happened in my life in the last two years? Wonderful, amazing things. First, Tim enrolled at Lindenwood University to get his Masters of Fine Art degree in Ceramics. As part of a self-guided study program, Tim became the resident potter at the Daniel Boone Home, which is owned by Lindenwood. Here he and I researched and recreated historical redware pottery-making which we demonstrated each weekend. Just imagine a life already stuffed to the limit with work and church, into which I’m trying hard to find the time to begin painting. Now we no longer had weekends. The painting simply didn’t happen, but I knew that it would.

Then we became members of the advisory board of The Foundry Art and Culture Centre in St. Charles. When it opens in May of 2004, The Foundry will be a 33,000 sq. ft. gallery and studio space for exhibits and artists. From the beginning I saw this as my goal, a direction for me to go in, to become a studio artist again. We have seen it converted from a deserted warehouse to a nearly completed center for the arts, and I will have a studio on the riverfront when it opens.

And finally, having received such wonderful response from our historical pottery, Tim has launched a business, Refiner’s Fire LLC. This includes our historical redware pottery, studio classes, and his art pottery. At the end of last year, I agonized over the decision to relinquish my position at Covenant to free up some time to paint. I cut my hours to part-time, hoping this would balance out my life. But, after the Christmas break this year, it became painfully obvious that we’d never be able to make it this year, with the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, if I didn’t assist in the business full-time. That was when Tim and I decided I should leave Covenant Seminary entirely.

That was a painful process: leaving the job and the co-workers that I loved. I had to learn that my identity and self-worth are not in what I do but in who I am. The job at Covenant, as valuable as it is in the kingdom of God, had become an idol. And if I look back, I can see when it began to take on this monstrous proportion in my life. That is when the satisfaction in the job began to wane. This is when the hardware started to fail and work became onerous. Can you imagine why? I think this is because God was not willing to let me find satisfaction in anything other than himself, and in being the person he created me to be.

How does this relate to your life? Many of you are wondering what it is that God has especially created you to do. I’ll tell you this, whatever it is that you are called to do, you have to do it in obedience to the work. You have to balance your life, not go overboard like me, all one thing or the other. Make time in your life to just be. Time to listen. Madeline L’Engle says that work and prayer are alike:

To pray is to listen also, to move through my own chattering to God, to that place where I can be silent and listen to what God may have to say. But, if I pray only when I feel like it, God may not choose to speak. The greatest moments of prayer come in the midst of fumbling and faltering prayer, rather than the odd moment when one decides to try to turn to God.

For those who doubt their gifts, who think that you have to go to school, or have exhibits, or have to have sold many pieces in order to qualify as an artist, I say that you are missing the point (by the way, I haven’t finished college, have only had one exhibit and only a dozen commissions). If God has created you in such a way, then no matter what you do, if you do not make room in your life to express yourself in the way that He has created you, than you will be spurning his gift, dishonoring him, and denying yourself the greatest pleasure you will ever have, that of serving your gift and your Creator, who created you to be exactly who you are.