‘Spirituality and Culture’ Speech given at Irish Interchurch Conference, Cork, 6 May 2005

I am truly very honoured to be invited to speak here today. I received the booklet of papers from your Working Party, and as a layperson, a parishioner, I have been inspired and heartened to know that this kind of shared dialogue is underway here in Ireland. I also wondered what I could contribute to such a thorough examination of spirituality and culture. I am just a maker, an artist. I express my insights through form, colour, material. But you have brought your gathering here to Cork to take part in our celebration as European City of Culture, and Cork’s theme for this honour is ‘The City of Making’. So I can contribute my personal path as a maker, in what I see as my vocation as an artist, how this path has nourished my faith, and how I have worked to bring my insights as an artist into projects in my local parish—- and how I can envision further alliances between the artistic, creative activity of our culture and the living Church.

As a maker my path is holistic, a unifying dialogue between my inner vision, inspiration, spirit—-and matter, the material reality of my chosen medium. I see it as engagement in a kind of alchemy, transforming or transfiguring basic matter, re-forming it to carry and express meaning. I see this need to make form as a gift, feel it as a hunger, and recognise it reborn over and over year by year in the young students I teach in the College of Art here in Cork.

My own art practise has always been intimately involved with my spiritual journey. My processes are rooted in textiles, binding and twisting together with wire many thousands of small cut units of glass or stone to make flexible ‘fabrics’ or sculptures. This is a very repetitive, meditative process, and I see it as analogous to my inner piecing and binding of insights. It feels and functions for me as a form of prayer, as a conscious enactment of worship. In fact, the painful working of sharp glass and wire often feels also like a kind of penance!

In my childhood in rural Appalachia, in the eastern mountains of the U.S., I was trained in the necessity and virtue of making meaningful objects. To spend time in making something well was to be rewarded with a meaningful object invested with oneself. I hold this connection between goodness, virtue—–and sincere craftsmanship, deep within me, allied to the kind of Aquinas view that beauty and goodness are also intrinsically linked. And I have long sought God through the experience of my senses, through the beauty of His created world, as St. Bonaventure described it, ‘knowing God through His footprints’. I gradually developed a trust in the making of art to help me articulate and advance my awareness of God. I came to understand my vocation as an offering up to God this art process imbued with my childhood sense of the virtue of making.

In 1986 this path brought me to Ireland, into what I hoped would prove a more suitable environment in which to explore a kind of essential Christianity. For many years I struggled to express my relationship with God, my search for a place to belong in my faith, through making artworks in many different materials and methods. In the year 2000 this search led me to be received into the Roman Catholic faith. Since then I have continued my search, but now from the inside, as it were, to explore this sense of belonging, and what it means to be a Catholic. My most recent solo exhibition was in 2002, in Cork’s Fenton Gallery, based on the physicality of spirituality through studies of Christ’s Passion. I witness to my faith in many international exhibitions and through artworks placed in churches as far apart as Helsinki, Finland, and Blanchardstown in Dublin.

I have also been active in contributing my ideas of art making as a language of faith to projects in my local parish in Kinsale, near Cork city. We have had several very successful exhibitions as part of recent Festivals of Faith. In these exhibitions we sought to invite responses from our parish, from other church groups, and the wider community to themes of faith, such as Light Within, or Living Water. This way of ‘inviting a response’ impressed and inspired, and surprised many people. It gave those committed to faith an opportunity to enjoy the virtuous experience of making something to offer up in praise and devotion to express their individual, personal insights. Many wonderful things happened through this. Many participants had never exhibited before. Some collaborated. It was empowering and gratifying for these people. But it also involved many in the community from outside the Church, creative people conscious of an inner spirit but suspicious of institutions. Here was a “safe space” as David Stanley calls it, for these artistic people to come into contact, to open dialogue with a welcoming Church. And then of course it was an enlightening and thought-provoking array of insights for the audience, many surprised by the range of approaches, the devotion, the depth of meaning. We presented these exhibitions as professionally as possible, with proper lighting and advertising, to honour and elevate them in the eyes of the community. In our second show we also included poetry and prose, and again brought together a very wide spread of voices, and of proximity to Church involvement. Overall these projects were certainly faith nourishing to many people on many levels in many ways.

From this experience I feel that there are many like me for whom this making process is a natural, comfortable language of faith. I would suggest that more of this invitation to express through creative means could nourish and promote our faith. Why not have artists–in-residence, or poets or musicians or dancers—in a faith community, to work particularly with adults who rarely have organised, supervised opportunities to express themselves creatively within the Church. In our parish we often have displays of children’s artwork from the local schools, but where is the adult expression? Perhaps these are happening, but in my 20 years in Ireland I have seen and heard about very few in local parishes. Rosemary Lindsay asserts that many have a ‘hunger for tools of spiritual craft’, and here is a ‘craft’ that is active, deeply satisfying to participants and can also operate to open dialogue.

I strongly believe that this ‘dearest freshness’ of Hopkins’s poem that is ‘deep down things’ must be brought up and out into dialogue in the way that creative processes can tap this wellspring of inspiration. This freshness will bring vibrancy, fertility into our worship, our community. I know that there is often a risk perceived in allowing personal expression, and that images can be more difficult to control than words. But I share the thinking of our late Pope John Paul, who said in his 1999 letter to artists,

 Every genuine inspiration, . . . contains some tremor of that ‘breath’ with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning. Overseeing the mysterious laws governing the universe, the divine breath of the Creator Spirit reaches out to human genius and stirs its creative power. He touches it with a kind of inner illumination which brings together the sense of the good and the beautiful, and he awakens energies of mind and heart which enable it to conceive an idea and give it form in a work of art.

We must trust this creative spirit given by God. If this making activity could be grounded in prayer, and mindful of the context of our great Christian artistic heritage, then we should be able to trust its outcomes. The American theologian John Dillenberger says that art can have ‘unintentional consequences’ that can ‘generate new perspectives’. Can the Church open itself to these unintentional effects, to embrace within it new art that challenges, transforms?

We live in an image-laden world. The face that the Church turns to this jaded world should radiate the energy, the glorious light of the living Christ. It should nurture creativity and new forms of art, music, literature, and architecture, instead of relying on the comfort zone of mass-produced reproductions from a golden past. This is my vision as an artist and a Christian: that our Church should ally itself once again with the heights of creative activity, open to the divinity activating itself through the noblest expressions of humanity. This is my prayer as I work in my studio: to be invited, to be involved, to find ways to renew that once intimate and fruitful relationship between a living art and the Church. And I thank God for the potential I see generating through your forum. Thank you for including me.

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