I used to paint and draw all the time as a child. I thought about majoring in art as a college student, but I went to an institution that did not have any applied arts courses in the curriculum. I had gone to college on a scholarship that I could not duplicate elsewhere, so I settled for a number of art history classes and gave up any formal pursuit of art. However, when I had my children, I rediscovered art. More accurately, I did not rediscover it so much as I fell in love anew. For, I found in working with my children a tremendous liberation. It did not matter if it was “good” or not, had the “right” form or not, used the medium “correctly” or not, or said something “properly.” I learned all over again that people could have hearts for heads; skies could rain jellybeans; and skin could be blue just because you like it that way.
Doing art with my children opened up my courage to recognize creative expression as a sacramental act. Both when it is done for overtly sacred purposes as well as when it is done for more secular ones, art of all media can be an outpouring of the spirit into the material world that allows one to say to another: here I am, this is what I have felt, did you see this, I’ve been there too. Once freed from norms about how something ought to be used or made or discussed or interpreted, art has the potential to become revelatory, both of the human and also of the divine (or, perhaps better, of the human as divine).
Prompted by my recent course in sacraments and liturgy, I have been considering sacred making – that of others, that of a community, and that which I myself produce. One of my insights recently about my own art is that in some sense it has always been self-portraiture. Though it tended, at least historically, to ping pong between classically sacred imagery (crucifixes, madonnas, prayerful figures) and sensual female forms, it was all some effort on my part to say something about myself, about my desire to connect with God, and often about my loneliness in not achieving that connection in the manner in which I thought the connection was supposed to feel. For example, this image captures loosely but effectively the angst I felt as a teenager:
With this insight, I have been reviewing the kinds of images I had made over the years and was surprised to find so many that seemed to dwell in a place of spiritual pain. The fact of the pain was not so surprising to me as was the realization that these images all reflect a kind of spiritual strangulation I had or have felt in the religious narratives that organized my faith from childhood. Here are but three examples: a curious juxtaposition of faceless Mary and Eve; a self reaching out to itself choking in utero; a supplicant kneeling under the burden.
In light of this discovery, I challenged myself to endeavor making a self-portrait that was delivered of spiritual pain. I wanted to discover how I could visually represent my own interior light, the god within, the imago dei. I wanted to discover equanimity and creativity loosed from its bindings. I have to admit that I felt a little nervous, perhaps a little blasphemous, perhaps even like I was engaging in some kind of sorcery, when I came up with this:
It was a strange sacramental act for me that felt like a birth of sorts. I’m not sure that it means anything, but I know I will ask my students to try it. For, I found something stunningly liberating about re-imaging, re-narratizing, and retraining my sense of the divine. My children had interesting reactions. The youngest said, “Who’s in her mind? Is it me?” The oldest asked what was on her head. When I replied, “What do you imagine it to be?” He said, “It is her mind, and she is thinking about eternity.” My mother said, “She is free!”
To the end of re-imaging, I was at last compelled most recently to create an image of Black Jesus, who has lingered in my mind since I met him in February (see my post So Said Black Jesus). I wanted to honor that experience by rendering a beautiful, iconographic type image of Jesus in this light. As I was doing so, my children looked on in wonder, both learning and teaching beyond their years. The youngest said, “Jesus has light skin, doesn’t he?” I answered, “Couldn’t he be anything?” The oldest, after a moment of thought, said, “Oh, I see. Even though they tell us he’s white, he isn’t really, right? He’s whatever you look like.” To which the youngest said, “ Well, I think he’s beautiful (pause) because you made him. And, He’s golden, and that makes him second only to God.”
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.