One of the Masks of God
I grew up around much talk about “vocation.” The word was shorthand for religious vocation and meant surrendering your individuality to the service of God. The idea of being subsumed in the Absolute always appealed to me. But I didn’t enter religious life. I became a visual artist. To me the practice of art is a search for an experience of God.
Art is one path towards experiencing the Absolute. Beauty of color, form, and composition are ways in which the Absolute manifests itself. When we experience visual beauty, our soul expands into joy. And joy is a signifier of God’s presence.
In art as in religious belief, the possibility of doubt and self-doubt is always nearby. There is no certainty in the practice of art, no guarantee that a lifetime of creative struggle will yield the beautiful and profound work you are hoping to achieve. It is like seeking God. You may be a lifelong believer and yet feel you know God only by hearsay. Despite the uncertainty of the goal, the religiously minded yearn to live a God-intoxicated life. The artist wants to lose herself in the practice of art.
As Tennessee Williams once said, when you begin as an artist, art is a form of vanity – but in the end, art is a humiliation. That is, you can love the physical mechanics of practicing art – in my case, wielding the paintbrush – only to discover you have to struggle and search and think and agonize to find a distinctive creative voice. When the distinctive voice finally comes, it comes not because the artist understands the mechanics of painting (brushwork techniques, color theory, composition, et al.). The distinctive voice comes unexpectedly and unheralded in flashes of intuition in which the artist suddenly sees how to move her work forward into unanticipated beauty. These intuitive flashes are the artist’s form of grace. We do not merit grace by struggling with our artistic medium. It is the free gift of God.
For years, I lost contact with the religious aspect of my creative practice. I thought of my own work in narrow terms of aesthetic problems to be solved. This attitude changed when my mother’s health began to fail and she had to spend time in nursing homes. She asked me to bring a couple of my paintings and hang them in her room so she could look at them when she was too tired to do anything else. I brought a painting of irises to remind her of our spring garden, and a painting of our back yard in autumn. Over and over my mother told me how much peace she felt looking at these paintings and reliving happy memories.
Her reaction was a revelation. I had become habituated to the current attitude that art is a jargonridden, profit-oriented commodity produced to satisfy fashionable aesthetics. My mother’s comments refocused my thinking. I realized anew that artists create to make manifest the transcendent experience of beauty. My mother’s sense of peace and joy declared the power of beauty to bring emotional healing.
I started looking for ways to help others contemplate beauty as a form of physical or spiritual relief. When I learned that a local hospital was placing artworks in hallways and rooms so they would be accessible to patients and family members, I was eager to donate a painting. It now hangs in the ER waiting room. I sincerely hope that looking at it has brought peace and comfort to people in a hard place.
Lately I have taught art in libraries and adult education centers, reaching people who can’t afford or are too intimidated to enroll in formal college art courses. I help people acquire technical skills so they can create personally meaningful images. Many of them create images relating to their memories and their past. They are learning to interpret and make sense of their lives – learning the healing qualities of art.
Art and Christianity have taken divergent paths for centuries. But I think visual art can still assist personal devotional practice. Art is one of the masks God wears to appear to humankind. Here I submit an example of my own work (see opposite page): an ordinary house with two people engaged in everyday activities. But scrawled over one wall is a quotation from a 6th-century mystic. The words are difficult to decipher; I arranged the mystic’s sentences into fragments capable of several interpretations, and the house walls are drenched in red, symbolic of fire and blood. With this piece, “I Saw Him in My House,” I intend to suggest that every experience of God is ambiguous.
Alacia Stubbs M.Div. ’75 currently lives in Queens, NY. See her work at alaciastubbs.crevado.com.