Visual Artists and the Spiritual Life:
A Conversation

by Suzanne Fowler Palmer

In October 2004, Art Editor Suzanne Fowler Palmer interviewed the six artists whose works are featured in this issue. Since a meeting wasn't possible at the time, Suzanne emailed a series of questions to each artist, asking how art and spirituality intersect in his or her life and work. An edited and abridged version of this conversation appeared in our print edition (and in the downloadable PDF file). The complete interview, with some editing, follows below.

Sandra Bowden
Olivia Kuser
Gloria Lamson
Michael Mallard
Michael Markowitz
Christen Mattix

Part, 2004. By Christen Mattix. Oil on canvas, 16" x 24".

Cradled, 2001. By Christen Mattix. Oil on panel, 48" x 72".

What is the relationship of your spiritual life to your work as an artist? Did one grow out of or lead to the other? Is making art part of your spiritual practice, or are the two one and the same?

Christen Mattix: My spiritual and artistic life are an organic whole. Painting and prayer are complementary activities...One without the other is never sufficient. Sometimes my painting is miles ahead of me-knows much more than I do and knows where I am going.

Sandra Bowden: I think the relationship of my art to my faith is seamless. After I realized there was an important intersection between art and faith, they became inseparable. I don't think of spiritual practice, I think of living my life in relation to God and in praise of God. Each thing that I do is part of that living in all aspects the Christian life. I don't imagine my spiritual life separate from the rest of life. There seems to be no defining distinction.

Olivia Kuser: My spiritual life, by which I mean my relationship with God in private prayer and corporate worship, is the underpinning of everything I do. It is the source. It is no more and no less important to my artmaking than to any other aspect of my life. I don't think of my artmaking as a spiritual practice particularly. I do think of my artmaking as a response to God's gifts to me, as a working out of my vocation. I do feel called to be an artist. What I've noticed is that the struggles I have in the studio are mirrored in other areas of my life. The same things come up everywhere and in everything. The studio is neither a refuge nor a theater.

Gloria Lamson: I think my spiritual life is my life. I define art as a conscious, interactive process between awareness and form, which serves greater life. My private intention as an artist is create and support work that serves the evolution of consciousness, which I relate to as spiritual development. My history: As a kid on Sunday my mom wanted the family to go to church and my dad wanted to go skiing…his logic was that we'd be closer to god in the mountains because of the higher elevation and all. I sided with my dad because I thought it was a good idea and besides it felt like there could be some truth in his argument, but I didn't think it had to do with altitude. In my mind god and love were tied up together…and I loved being outside in the mountains. …I felt alive there and I associate love with a sense of aliveness. I think it interesting that my artwork returned me to being outdoors with nature.

I did not consciously link art and spiritual work until the late 70's when I started taking meditation and healing classes at The Washington Physic Institute (WPI) of The Church of Divine Man (CDM). I wanted to learn techniques to work with my energy so that I could devote myself to my artwork with greater clarity and stronger vision. At that time, I was exploring getting a masters in Art Therapy but instead decided to pursue an extended spiritual training and became a minister and then a teacher. During this period, it felt important for me to stop doing art, to let go of my dependence upon making "things" in order to feel good about my life and myself. I was learning to work with life itself, as the essential creative project. It was during my 7 years working with and for this church that I began identifying my spiritual practice as something very similar and in line with my art practice. But there was no support within the church for that, nor did I have any particular framework to understand the insight.

Art is a way to give form to what is formless, touch what can't be touched, and say what can't be said. After a number of years not making art, I once again wanted to step into that stream. I realized I liked my life much better when I was creating art. I liked the dialogue it provided within me and with others and how doing the work helped me re-create my life as part of the process.

I began making one of a kind, handbound photographic books and painting (which began by wanting to make a book cover). I continued working in this vein for about 7 years until I reached a point of not wanting to make art because it just seemed like adding more stuff to the world and I thought there was already too much "stuff" in the world.

In 1994 I began facilitating creative process groups and writing, with the intention of writing for an audience, where as before I had always written for myself. After going through a divorce and mid life revaluation, I found and decided to go to graduate school in the Arts and Consciousness Program at John F. Kennedy University. This program helped me find my own way of integrating art and spiritual practice.

Michael Mallard: My spiritual life as a Christian informs everything I do-I hope. When I make art I am often thinking about what God is teaching me day by day. Some of those thoughts 'come out' in images, marks, methods, metaphor or otherwise. I guess the aspect of my spiritual journey that I make most evident in my work is struggle and the knowing the unknown. Some days I pray in my studio, but I don't consider it a ritual. If you can consider procrastination a ritual, I practice it.

Michael Markowitz: I've had spiritual feelings since I was a small boy and I've always not let them steer towards any kind of organized religion. There's something about the rigid structures of mass religions that does not appeal to me. I don't think that the spiritual is easily reducible to structure and to language. This parallels my art . I intuitively move in a direction that's not about the literal, that's not about trying to emulate objective so-called "reality" as most people perceive it, but allowing the form of the image to evolve out of what is powerful enough to push the process through me.

Time and Tides, 2000. By Gloria Lamson. Installation series, Hawaii: Elemental interaction, beneath water, survey tape to hole in stone.
The Island Project, 1998. By Gloria Lamson. Installation series, Southeast Alaska: Seaweed hand in scratched doorway.
Interactions in Time and Place, 2000. By Gloria Lamson. Installation series, Wyoming: Elemental interaction, floating stones on broken ice.

Does your art make use of religious imagery or symbolism?

Christen Mattix: I use imagery that is universal, derived from ordinary experiences and the body. Sometimes, my imagery references Bible verses but this is never intentional. For example, with my bird paintings, I did not set out to illustrate the sermon on the mount passage about the fallen sparrow. While walking around, I found a dead sparrow, a dead robin, and a dead finch, so I painted them. It actually irritates me when Christian viewers limit their interpretation of my work by seeing it solely as an illustration ofscripture.

Sandra Bowden: Yes, my work uses some religious imagery and symbolism. Sometimes it is more visible than others but it is infused with Christian and Judaic symbol or content.

Olivia Kuser: No, not overtly.

Gloria Lamson: I often use somewhat universal symbols such as lines, circles, crosses, spirals, squares, and triangles. I am interested in mythical frameworks, metaphoric forms and spiritual meanings and implications in my work.

Michael Mallard: Early on in my work (as a teen) I decided not to let Christian imagery dominate my work. Though I made reference to it in ways, I didn't want to make work that appeared to have 'a little bit of Jesus smeared on'. Later, I did a painting called The Darkness of Excessive Light. This work has a big blue cross right in the middle with bird house hole in it. I changed my mind with this painting and just let 'what came out' be.

Michael Markowitz: [regarding his Angel series] And that idea that every angel is terrifying almost seems like an anti-spiritual statement, but what I think [Rilke] is talking about is that the truth embodied in what an angel represents, that kind of spiritual purity manifest into the material is something that threatens us, our sense of self and our identity, our sense of place, how understanding in the world is not based on that kind of pure truth. It's based on something that is a corrupted version of that - even in the best of us - and that coming face-to-face with that kind of truth threatens the very sense of things and I like that. The forms that exist in this world are not the spiritual fixed. In fact, often they are hollow shells that the spiritual has maybe visited and left or that never even was a part of. We become obsessed with those forms and forget about the substance. And so the Angel series was a different process for me, but it came from what my process of drawing is, which is not to start with a fixed idea, certainly not to just try and copy whatever I've seen, but to get what's strong enough to push through me and manifest in a series of marks that are not about anything I want to do, they're not about control, they're about response, they're about reaction to something beyond me.

When I interact with the page, it's the same kind of reactive dance because again, it's not figuring out what I want to do, it's looking at the possibilities as they present themselves and play upon my unconscious, upon my aesthetics. They are not the ideas I have about aesthetics, but my gut response of the moment and this allows me to go really different places a million different times. It makes drawing exciting for me and it makes living exciting for me. And when I've allowed it to happen in my drawing, it always produces the best drawings. When I allow it to happen in my life, the sense of not insisting on what I want, or retreating out of my own fear, the same thing. The best moments of my life, the best experiences, the best insights come from that space. So the angels embody that idea. I just start-I get in that quiet place and (inaudible) feels right at the moment and I start making marks. Then I wait sometimes a week quietly and sometimes in silence and sometimes very still, just waiting for something in the marks I've made, how to respond to the music and a state that's not about intention and suddenly an image starts to come up. I nurture it to a place where it feels like it's right.

Do This in Remembrance of Me, 1980. By Sandra Bowden. Collagraph mixed media, 16" x 24". Collection Vatican Museum of Contemporary Religious Art.

Tel Megiddo, 1983. By Sandra Bowden. Collagraph, 30" x 22".

Illuminations III, 1990. By Sandra Bowden. Acrylic mixed media, 10" x 10". "This piece contains allusions to illumination as one of many ways of recording the Word, but it also suggests stone surfaces."

How does your conception of God or spirit show up in the making of your art, the process itself?

Christen Mattix: People have commented that my brushstrokes are reverent. I'm not conscious of it, in fact, I try not to think about anything when I am painting as it blocks the flow. I hope a sense of genuine wonder or love is revealed in the way I paint.

Sandra Bowden: My love of theology has certainly impacted my work and I view God as all-knowing, divine, and most of all, One who communicates with us. This is why I have been so interested in the Bible and text. The Bible is one the most important ways of our God communicating with us. Prayer and meditation would be others, but the Bible is the one constant, historically and personally.

Gloria Lamson: The most profound source of spiritual reality surfacing in my work is when I experience what I think of as Grace-a kind of simple joy, where my mind has become still, and I feel very and simply present, where there is no question, no thought except it is good. It comes when I lose myself in the work that I find myself in this spiritual dimension. I think of art as a doorway through duality into this land of unity, where there is an experience of "what is" as love and beauty.

Sometimes I use the act of creating as a form of meditation, which brings me more fully in the present, integrating inner and outer awareness. Sometimes, I consciously use artwork to reconcile some pair of opposites I'm experiencing in my life.

Michael Mallard: I compare the process of art making more to living life than to revealing God. God reveals himself in life-everything from breathing in and out to studying nano technology. Likewise making art is just another thing we humans engage in seeking to know more of who we are in relationship to God.

Michael Markowitz: I think the world's in such a sad place because there's so much arrogance about people who are telling us all what God is. Osama bin Laden is telling that God wants jihad and just kill Americans, etc., and George Bush, God wants him to invade Iraq, and I think the angels must weep when they look down at all the blood and mayhem that's done in the name of God. I think it's an enormous arrogance to assume that we can make God an art image, because that's what we're doing. We're projecting out of our own egos and I think it's really knocked up the world. That's not a good word to use in an interview, but it's just how I feel and I didn't feel like editing it. I think it has really messed up the world enormously and I think it's made history a sea of blood and sadness. I think a little humility about the fact that whatever God is it's greater than any of us and he, she, it can speak through each of us if we got out of the way and let it, but to define what God is, I think often is exactly what gets in the way. If you define anything, you limit it, the nature of identification, it's limitation.

The tendency to personify God is just so human. I do it and in my prayer thoughts there's such a tendency to talk to God as if it was a person. But in other moments you think God is everything. I think that what God is ultimately is beyond my little consciousness to fully comprehend. So I think more than anything, it's a sense of trusting that whatever God is, whatever spirituality it is, it works through us best when we don't try and define it and thereby limit it and limit our relation to it, but in fact let it define it's relation to us by being in a more open space. My experience with art is the laboratory in which I get to experiment with this and when I get out of the way and allow myself to become something else is when the magic happens. When I try and control things is when, at best, I wind up stroking my ego for a while, but it's not magic and it's not helpful, and it doesn't last. And when I look at that drawing three years later, it's empty. There's something exhilarating about that other experience. There's something frightening about letting go of what you know and have accomplished to get to that place to really let it happen.It's great too because it's a challenge every time you do it. It's not like you master this technique and you do it forever, and you make lots of money and it's all done. It's a challenge to keep overcoming your egos, insecurities, to want to manifest the structures that it's created or attached to. It's a hit and miss thing too. It's hard to catch it all the time. And then other times you break through, it's just amazing.

Detail of Angel, 2002-2003. By Michael Markowitz. Charcoal, pastel, and pigment on paper, 48" x 52".
Spit, 1994, by Olivia Kuser. Etching on panel, 24" x 30".

Most artists have a deep need for solitude and or isolation yet there exists a need for community and audience. How does this apply in your case? Are you affiliated with any art organizations? Does a religious community answer your need for affiliation? If you are not a part of a religious community, what sort of community do you seek?

Christen Mattix: A certain amount of isolation and loneliness is necessary. Emptiness is clarity of vision. 

Sandra Bowden: I, of course, work alone, and cherish the quite and solitude of the studio. In fact, I am not sure if I could really produce in a workshop with others. But this solitude is possible because of wonderful family relationships. Relationships are the foundation upon which all of life's work is made possible, at least from my perspective. I appear to be this independent, self contained person, but without the home base of family, I think I would shrink and find myself much less productive.

I have been part of Christians in Visual Arts for 25 years and cannot imagine my life as an artist without this organization. It has given me deep friendships that share both my faith values and my love of art. From its publications and conferences I have benefited from the intellectual and cultural stimulations, and the spiritual sharing has given strength and depth to my understanding my place as an artist.

Olivia Kuser: Finding the balance between solitude and community is a continual problem. Never solved, always under construction. When you get out of art school you suddenly have no easy art community available-and no automatic way to share your work. I am fortunate to have had a studio in the same group site, the Hunters Point Shipyard, for twenty years. It was my third studio after getting out of school. It's the largest studio community in the West, with over 400 studios. If I have a technical question, there's someone down the hall or in the next building who can probably help me. I have many artist friends now who once had studios down the hall from me, so my art community extends beyond the current studio inhabitants.

San Francisco also has a long-standing Open Studio program, which I've participated in off and on for as long as I've been at Hunters Point. Being in a group building means that I'll get 2,000 people through my studio on a fall Open Studio weekend. Every gallery but one that represented my work found me through Open Studio, so it's been great in that way as well. In addition, I belong to a weekly drawing group, separate from my Hunters Point community-well, there's one overlapping person. We draw from the model once a week, in the evening at one of our member's studios (the guy with the biggest studio).

In the last year or so, I've also gotten several artist residencies. These are often in rural or remote areas, far from ordinary life, in which the artists (writers, composers and visual artists) live and work for a month. The residencies gave me the perfect balance between solitude and community as you work all day alone in your studio, then come together in the evening to eat and socialize. That's my art community. I am also a member of a church community which has a lot of artists as members, but interestingly I think of them first as "church" friends, secondly as "artist" friends. Much, but not all, of my art community doesn't know about my religious life and I'm uncomfortable with what I see as the conflation of art and spirituality in my church community. So there's a funny split there.

Gloria Lamson: I question how much solitude and isolation my work and I really need. I know that my work grows out of focused quiet and out of connecting to the world within and around me. Perhaps I will be able to do this around other people someday, but right now I need to be alone …particularly to begin new work. Art seems to grow out a dialogue inside me, I need to listen. I need to have time where I can attend to this conversation; sometimes being alone facilitates it, sometimes being with others helps.

My community and audience are patched together wherever I find people, activities and things, which feel mutually supportive. I am involved with several local and state artist organizations. The Arts and Consciousness Program and the friends I have made there continue to be an important source of extended community for me. I am a part of numerous communities which feel mutually supportive the sangha, the gym, individuals, local and distant spiritual and artist companions.

Michael Mallard: I am an active member of a local church. Though my need for solitude is great, I also need community. We need each other-human to human. As an artist I consider myself a 'missionary of the arts' to non-art receptive Christians and vice versa to the art community (missionary of Christianity to non-Christian artists). I'm not an evangelist, I only want to able to introduce/discuss with both groups. (On organizations, see the other set of Q&A)

I found out about CIVA in 1983 and I have been involved since. CIVA serves a very important purpose for artists who are Christians. Christians who are artists feel 'twice removed'. Christianity and the Church don't have much use for practicing contemporary artists, and the art world is skeptical of any artwork produced by a believer. Because of this, many Christian artists struggle for understanding and community. CIVA connects a diversity of like-minded artists and assembles them through a conference held every other year. Connecting through CIVA provides community and helps build bridges to both worlds.

Michael Markowitz: I run a drawing studio. It's one of the larger private drawing studios in the bay area and I've been doing it for 12 years. I teach, and I run groups without instruction, which is when I do the better part of my drawing and so I get a great deal of socialization five to eight times a week Something like a hundred people come here every week. there is a sense of community around this place that satisfies my need for that. The tendency for isolation or solitude, you know, has been kind of a challenge for me because for a good deal of my life I had trouble being alone. And in the last ten years, I've learned to really appreciate my solitude and what can happen. This angel series was in part a way to address that and force the issue because, unlike all my other work it's not with a model. It was me working alone and I had trouble doing that. Working alone is not my forte. I like the sense of working in a group even if there wasn't that much talking going on. I certainly love the interaction of teaching. I absolutely adore that. I love teaching as much as I love God. So working alone has been a challenge up until recently. The more I've done it the more I like it.

What makes a work of visual art authentically spiritual vs. glib, insubstantial, superficial, and sentimental? Is this quality (ies) any different from what makes good art, period?

Christen Mattix: I think an authentic work of art would have to be spiritual and a spiritual work of art, authentic, because humans are intrinsically spiritual beings. It makes me think of this quote by John Donohue: "Wholesomeness is holiness. To be holy is to be natural." 

Sandra Bowden: All the principles of good art apply to any quality work, but to add spiritual authenticity to a work is a more vague concept, but I believe it is a real component of strong art. Good art illuminates, not just illustrates, it points to a truth that others only partially see or only momentarily grasp.

Olivia Kuser: There are as many different kinds of art as there are art makers. People are different so their motivations for art making are different. The longer I've worked the less judgmental I've become about what I see. I think I'm grateful that people are still soldiering on even if their work doesn't attract me. I am often surprised by the art that does and does not speak to me-I am always looking for the work that will pull me further down my own path, and sometimes I've found that it comes from odd places, from work that I might have at first thought was very intellectual or only fashionable. I think I have a fair amount of trust in the process of making art. It's time consuming and not very financially rewarding so you have to want to do it very much in order to do it at all. I guess I trust that want. I love to look at student work or the work of beginning artists. Perhaps because that want is more naked in their work.

Gloria Lamson: I think "spiritual art" is both very cultural defined and also personally defined. I don't think that there is some universally recognized spiritual art which can be recognized in any culture. This question is big …

Michael Mallard: I don't know if I can discern or authenticate spirituality in art. I can look at the work and interpret its 'face value' from my point of view. Learning more about the artist's intentions, processes and concept can expand my interpretation. Further investigation based on collective consensus (art world and other) of the work also contributes to my understanding. Yes, there are standards of quality in craftsmanship and content. In really strong art, one serves the other and vice versa. Both factor into my assessment of good work. In addition, I think that every creative endeavor bears a mark of God's grace.

The sentimental/superficial only feeds the masses' appetite for objects that provide brief emotional connection. This type of work lacks substance that will sustain intellectual scrutiny and insight into life.

Michael Markowitz: I teach drawing to explore the creative process and to me the creative process is equitable with living in an authentic plane or spiritual life. I think that creativity is not about learning how to do what you want. It's not about making objects and developing a style to make them so they come out "good" and satisfying to your standards of what that means. To me, creativity is about surrendering something larger than yourself and allowing yourself to come into contact with, a communion with something outside yourself and to make that connection and let that compel you to do something you wouldn't do without that interaction. It's not about exercising control over what you come into contact with. It's more, almost a state of surrender, or at least a state of collaboration. And so it's not about doing what you want because you can't even know what that is if it really is built out of a state of connecting with something and having it connected with.

I think this other thing, which is often confused with art is really a process of craft and it doesn't interest me at all. In fact I think they conflict with each other. No great instrument plays itself. You are played by forces larger than yourself. There is a philosopher, professor over at Berkeley who made a comment that I really liked: He said that we're meant to conduct great forces into and out of the world. And I think that's what really great art is. I think the rest of it is-I don't know what the rest-I think it's often craft. I think it's often ego-stroking, and I think really great art is about inspiration. It's about opening up to a state of letting yourself being inspired.

Is it a challenge for you professionally to identify yourself as a spiritual person or artist? Does it narrow the way your work is perceived by secular audiences?

Christen Mattix: Yes. I don't know if I'm just chicken or if it is right for me to keep my Christian identity private. I want the work to speak for itself. One reason I'm glad to be a painter is that I can communicate the sacred without using words to people who would otherwise have their defenses up.

Sandra Bowden: My art has never allowed me to hide because of its evident inclusion of scripture or reference to the Bible. The work has always included biblical text and in most cases, Hebrew Scriptures. I have found ways to share that insight and interest without a sense of 'preaching', but with honesty and integrity.

Olivia Kuser: I worked for years before I could say "I am an artist". The word just stuck in my craw. I used to dodge it by saying "I make paintings" or "I am a painter" which was even more devious because I also painted houses for a living. People react strongly to the word "artist" and I couldn't handle it. Now I think it was just my insecurity about my vocation. Good thing I warmed up on the word "artist" because it's even harder to say "I am a Christian". I certainly never say and don't think of myself as a "Christian artist". But I can and do say "I am an artist and I am a practicing Christian."

Gloria Lamson: I do not try to identify myself as a spiritual person. If someone is open and interested I'm glad to identify myself and talk about it. However, I spent years trying to "own" being a minister and relate to people on that level. However I don't feel the need to air my spiritual beliefs and feel that it sometimes can even work against what my intention. I guess I feel my life should speak for itself…though not for me to know if it does. I have no question in thinking of myself as a "spiritual" person-to me, it is what we all are- essentially.

It's taken me years to able to tell people I was an artist, without thinking I am telling them anything more than the fact of what I do. Now, I think of it as a fact, I make art, and that makes me an artist, not good, bad, or indifferent.

I practice art and meditation and I study the dharma, I live as honestly, authentically, consciously and compassionately as I can… these are all a part of my spiritual practice.

Michael Mallard: I do think being a Christian and an artist sets the stage for biased perception by the secular world. The contemporary art scene considers itself open to all voices, yet the Christian voice is not widely accepted unless the work masks Christian content. This poses professional challenges, but I am afraid that many artists who are Christians would unfortunately identify it as a struggle rather than a challenge.

How much does religious art of the past influence the work you do now?

Christen Mattix: Everything I do is influenced by religious art of the past. It always amazes me how my work tends to cycle through the church calendar-nativity, death, and resurrection are reoccurring themes. I am also powerfully gripped by artists such as Vermeer who was not overtly religious but very, very spiritual in his use of light and shadow, the sense of mystery and his attention to the holy ordinary. I'm very moved by the richness of color in medieval painting and the sense of drama, meaningfulness and devotion. 

Sandra Bowden: In the last 20 years the art of our rich Christian heritage has invigorated my work enormously. My Art History series was totally derived from my encounters with the work of the past…it was my gratitude for the powerful insights of past artists that has left me breathless and indebted.

Olivia Kuser: My favorite artist-or maybe I should say the artist who taught me most about how to make representational work that indicates more than is being represented-is a more overtly religious artist than I am. That is, he used conventional religious symbols, like crosses and churches in his work. Caspar David Friedrich was a German Romantic artist, working in the first part of the nineteenth century in Dresden. His work was not religious in the sense that Fra Angelico's or Caravaggio's is. The Church was not his patron and his work didn't hang in churches. But Friedrich was a deeply religious man personally and his work is symbolic. Friedrich's work is a huge influence on mine. I look at a lot of work, religious and non-religious- I love to look at art- but only his speaks to me in both languages in a way that I want to emulate.

Gloria Lamson: Not much. I am more influenced by pre historical (ancient sacred art, such as cave paintings, the standing stones, etc) and contemporary work with spiritual bent.

Michael Mallard: I can't say that I am influenced strictly by religious art of the past. I don't label art that has influenced me as religious or non. I like some art from the past that contains religious content, but the reason it moves me is not based on its' religiosity.

Michael Markowitz: Indirectly, a lot, because a lot of my ideas, have come from a number of significant experiences in my past.One was traveling around Europe by myself, actually three different trips in a five-year period. They were fairly long trips. Most of the time I spent just going to museum after museum, walking around cities and getting in a space where I allowed myself to be lead by the circumstances.. Taught me about giving up control and what happens when you do. I had an amazing, just magical experience every time I overcame my fear. At the same time when I went to Europe, I saw so much art, so much religious art, and was so moved by it. And the power of a work of art to communicate that kind of experience, or inspire that kind of experience, made animpression on me. My own process is not so much using icons of a particular religious history to communicate, to create images that communicate and inspire a certain kind of experience as much as what I think of as a spiritual experience. Being in that state of present connection and response, if you make works that come out of that, I think the fact that that is embedded in the workcommunicates itself. That's not through symbols, that's not through association, but it's through something else that's a little bit harder to pin down. It's what interests me.

The mainstream arts community typically alienates the "Christian" artist (or one with any specific religious affiliation). What has been your experience of this and to what do you attribute the prevalence of this attitude?

Christen Mattix: The problem that one encounters in identifying oneself as a Christian in the arts community is that it shuts down dialog instead of opening one up. Unfortunately, in the United States, Christian and Republican have become synonymous. As everyone knows, the art world is adamantly liberal. My goal is to live in such a way that people ask questions. I would like to talk about my faith in personal, honest way more than as a political category.

Sandra Bowden: I have not experienced this to any great extent, but know of other artists who have had tremendous difficulty with the secular art community. I am sure if I were entering different venues for my work, that I might experience more problems. But much of my work is shown and sold in fairly friendly environments.

Michael Mallard: The prevalence of this attitude is not limited to the mainstream art world. The labeling comes from the 'secular' world that encompasses the art world. I have experienced some bias from the art world, but that is okay. I am not an artist hustler working the art scene. Being a Christian should not hinder my interaction with the art world, but it should change the way I interact.

Making art is a deeply personal experience. Please share with us what deeply moves you to make art.

Christen Mattix: Chocolate. Desperation. Dissatisfaction with what I see in the galleries and the feeling that I can do better than that. Restlessness. And finally joy. The kind of Joy that George Bernanos describes in "Diary of a Country Priest" :

"Joy!  A kind of pride, a gaiety, an absurd hope, entirely carnal, the carnal form of hope, I think, is what they call joy."

Ultimately, I think creation is celebration.

Sandra Bowden: I have always said that my art leads me to make more art. It is as if the work goes before me, pulling me along, as each piece raises another question of technique, content or meaning that I then chase. One piece leads to the next. My life as an artist has been to follow the questions that the work raises, and I depend on that relationship to feed me spiritually and artistically.

Olivia Kuser: I think that art making is actually an ordinary activity-not ordinary in the sense of being hum-drum, but ordinary in the sense of being natural. Not for everyone, just as not everyone enjoys sports or math. But it's a natural response to the world. I love to look at things and I like to look in lots of different ways-art is one of the great ways of looking. You know just like fishing is a great way to get outside and mess around in the woods and water, art for me is a great way to get outside and mess around with ways of seeing. That's where it starts, in pleasure. In the enjoyment of seeing-you see something that interests you and you want some way to continue looking at it for a long time. Gets trickier and harder in the studio.

I will say that I often don't understand my motivations for my paintings until years later sometimes. I only recently tumbled to the fact that my marsh paintings were connected to my mother's lung cancer. I knew they were about breathing; the ebb and flow of the tides in the marshes seemed like long slow inhalations and exhalations, but unbelievably I didn't connect them to her illness until twelve years later. In this instance, I felt drawn to the marshes for an unknown reason, I couldn't have said what attracted me to those rather drab landscapes. I just knew I wanted to be in them, I wanted to stand in them for literally hours. Being in them satisfied me in some way that I couldn't explain and it was only after making dozens of marsh paintings that I got a glimmer of what it was that interested me-the stuff about breathing-and it was about a year of painting before I could articulate that. Painting explains parts of the world to me, and parts of myself to myself.

Gloria Lamson: Art is a way to give form to what is formless, touch what can't be touched, and say what can't be said. It creates a bridge between the physical and the non-physical, where the two become one. I am moved to participate in this attempt.

Our first and last creative project is our life itself. Art making is the best tool I've found to shape my life, in the direction of what is Real and True. It is my way to contribute to the evolution of consciousness.

Art is a way to address spiritual longing and live into my questions. It is an intimate relationship that facilitates growth giving me a way to bring the inside out and the outside in.

Michael Mallard: Wow, what a question! If I could put my hands on the what it is that drives me to make art I could have saved money on counseling. I really don't know. What I know is that I have been influenced by my grandmother who is a very visual person and my mother who is an artist. My father didn't understand my art, but he liked it and encouraged me to pursue art. Family and genetics are definitely motivating factors.

I have expressed my artist's angst to God on many occasions, asking, 'Why me?' Art making is fulfilling to me, but I get tired of explaining my work and calling. I wonder if I were a plumber and a Christian would life be as challenging? Often I think yes.

Michael Markowitz: To me, creativity is about surrendering something larger than yourself and allowing yourself to come into contact with, a communion with something outside yourself.Tto make that connection and let that compel you to do something you wouldn't do without that interaction.It's not about exercising control over what you come into contact with. It's more, almost a state of surrender, or at least a state of collaboration. And so it's not about doing what you want because you can't even know what that is if it really is built out of a state of connecting with something and having it connected with. I think this other thing, which is often confused with art is really a process of craft and it doesn't interest me at all. In fact I think they conflict with each other.

Do you use ritual or spiritual practice as a part of your process? If so, please explain.

Christen Mattix: My ritual involves clearing away the debris on my floor, making some tea and sitting and staring at a painting until I see where to start. I think it's great that some people use a "spiritual practice" to prepare. I find that I start taking myself too seriously. The whole goal is to annihilate self-consciousness.

Sandra Bowden: No, I go to the studio and I work. My prayer life is somewhat separate from the production the art itself. However, I view my creation of art as a kind of doxology, a kind of conversation with God, a prayer of praise and thanksgiving as I am making it.

Olivia Kuser: No.

Gloria Lamson: I have no set pattern of using ritual or other particular spiritual practices in my work. Though I often contemplate/meditate about my work and feel free to draw from any sources to assist me in aligning with what my work is and how it needs/wants to live in the world. I use art making itself as a kind of moving mediation and or shamanic journey.

Michael Mallard: As I indicated jokingly, but truely, procrastination is the only ritual of process I employ. I still struggle with the ritual of habit that Flannery O'Conner demonstrated. She sat at her typewriter 3 hours per day writing, and when she had no words she just sat. Habit is a ritual. When I make it to the studio to work, sometimes I pray, but for me, producing art never takes the orthodox icon-making route.

Michael Markowitz: I use spiritual insight as opposed to ritual. The older I get, more and more there is the sense of what's important and what's not.This starts to create a context of that you can choose to perceive and interact with the circumstances you're presented with in a way that is about feeding your ego and continuing the habits of letting your fears and desires guide your life and shape you and confirm and sustain the identity that you are trapped in, or you can look at experience and try and engage it creatively as a way to actually transcend that to be moved beyond it and to also do something that is I think more meaningful and authentic.It has to do less with your fears and desires than greater forces that only make use of you if you get out of the way and let them. I don't do it a hundred percent of the time, even when I'm drawing, but it gets more and more frequent the more I pay attention, and I try and pay attention.

So what spiritual understanding I have I have gotten from my experiences shapes the way I interact with my drawings. I catch myself giving in to very human habits of wanting to make a pretty picture and being in control of it. I'll become aware of it and most of the time I'll sabotage it. Not always. Sometimes I'll play it right out, just like my students do and then I go, "well, that was a waste of time." It's not a capital crime. It's not a terrible sin, but it's a waste of time. I try not to waste too much time in that way.

Brainstorm, Imagination Incarnate/Incarnate Imagination, 1998. By Michael Mallard. Acrylic and collage. 96" x 120".
The painting considers Christ's imagination; the underlying words are "A gift vivid and knowing, deep and lively-who can know it?" Made with a grant from the Pew Foundation.
Detail of Holy Family, 1993. By Michael Mallard. Acrylic and collage, 60" x 72".

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