“Art is the language of the soul.” With these words, one of my lifelong friends exhorted me as I wrestled for years with an insatiable need to express myself visually. For decades I tried to suppress this language, feeling it could not urgently or adequately address the evils I witnessed in the world. It felt too slow and clumsy to reverse urgent emergencies such as poverty or abandonment. But it was a language that swelled within my being and refused to be silenced. Aristotle said, “A soul never thinks without a picture.” My own soul craved color, texture, pattern and images; and no matter how fast I trotted around the world or how passionately I tried to speak in other ways, it was a soul-whisper that would not be denied.
At times when I surrendered to my native “tongue,” images hounded me fast and furious. Somehow this truth, expressed by Jody Thomae in her book God’s Creative Gift: Unleashing the Artist in You, pursued my heart like a siren song, “Symbolic and artistic expression and movement allow us to see the unseen, to somehow break through the boundary between earth and heaven and see God…” (page 98). I longed to see God, especially in the dark corners of suffering I stumbled upon in the world.
In 2002, I volunteered for three weeks in the Mother Teresa Home for Abandoned Children in Huruma (a section of Nairobi – “Huruma” means “mercy” in Swahili). Just one year prior, my husband and I claimed our precious son from one of its cribs and fell head over heels in love. Returning to the orphanage, hearing the echo of unanswered babies’ cries in the same under-staffed ward that was his home for the first 14 months of his life, witnessing children sick and suffering as he once was when he nearly lost his life to tuberculosis, undid me.
I returned home, overwhelmed with experiential insight into my son’s trauma and that of the babies I left behind. As I held him close, I simply could not integrate my experience half a world away with our seemingly safe and plentiful American life. And yet gazing into his luminous brown eyes, I could never forget.
A couple months after my return, news from a friend in Nairobi plunged me into deeper internal turmoil. She reported that measles swept through the baby ward, killing some of the healthiest babies. She did not tell me exactly how many perished.
Grief overflowed into creating art; representations emerged on paper of seven babies leaving this world for another. After I finished the piece, I learned from my friend that seven babies died. In the perspective of eternity, the babies were snatched away from an abandoned existence on this earth to unimaginable love. But as I reflect on this work of art that so unexpectedly appeared as an accurate memorial, I wonder if God simply wanted me to know that He also weeps over the cruelty of their short, unjust experience here.
This strange and prophetic process of creating both frightened and filled me with wonder. Years later, as I reflect on this experience, I resonate with Jody Thomae when she writes, “God does and will ask us to bear the burdens of others, and in the case of artistic ministry that burden of bearing is done through our role as priest and prophet communicating through symbolic artistic expression.” (God’s Creative Gift: Unleashing the Artist in You, page 115)
Recently, an image labored in my soul for some time before its appointed hour of birth. Shortly after applying the first strokes of paint, two significant events concurred. I launched into the chapter entitled “Give Me a Sign: Symbolic Action and the Artist as Prophet” in Jody’s book. And we learned of a funding shortage for the orphan home that my family and I were part of founding in Kenya. In this convergence, I fasted and prayed; and I painted. In a way that words are completely inadequate to express, Whatever it Takes expressed my heart’s yearning for provision for these children; and, I humbly believe, it also became a prophetic expression of the amazing generosity that flows from other friends of Sanctuary of Hope as they learn of the financial crisis.
I still don’t fully understand why God calls me to paint; but in the painting, I see.
P.S. For any creative soul, I highly recommend Jody Thomae‘s book God’s Creative Gift: Unleashing the Artist in You. Through the magic of blogging, I “met” Jody first in her blog and then enjoyed the privilege of a face-to-face lunch when she visited my home-town for a conference. Her book has become a map for my own journey of trying to understand what it means to be an artist who loves Jesus and the world He has made.