Interview: Artist and Priest Sally Brower talks about Art and Faith from North Carolina, USA by Peter Menkin
by Peter Menkin 11/21/2010 / Church Life
For many the subject of Art & Faith is a mystery. Here we join with The Reverend Doctor Sally Brower who in the following interview speaks of her living the mystery of Art & Faith, and as an artist herself shares some of her work. Assistant Priest at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Charlotte, North Carolina USA (a lovely city), her artistic talents are encouraged by the Parish.
As a poet, she speaks to readers with the voice of a believer and the words of someone who knows her theology. This sample from one poem indicates a yearning for God:
I can only stand upon the earth
and bid you come,
lay bare the bones.
Uncover every sweet deception,
every treasured self perception,
until I am yours alone.
Yet it is the visual arts she delves into in this interview started by phone, worked by emailed questions, and answered in writing by Reverend Doctor Sally Brower. During one phone conversation to her home, this writer recalls she said North Carolina, a State of the Union in America's South, encouraged artists and had a strong interest in the arts.
Winner of various prizes in art, she also as a Parish Priest emphasizes in her ministry the relationship of Art & Faith and how it creates and contributes to worship and a broadening of knowing God in Christ. She speaks to this in the interview. Further, as a Priest and Artist, Sally Brower has taken retreats to learn about art, and as painter of icons and photographer, she also has given retreats on the subject of Art & Faith. All of these retreats, taken and given, are for the purpose of advancing an understanding of God and this for herself and especially in her ministry to others. She speaks to this in the interview, as well.
For those interested in learning about her education, herewith schools the Assistant Priest has attended:
Virginia Commonwealth University, B.F.A. in Design, 1971
North Carolina State University, M.S. in Psychology, 1978
North Carolina State University, Ph.D. in Psychology, 1987
Erskine Theological Seminary, Master of Divinity, 1998
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Senior Year and Internship, 1997-99
Her statement on her Resume reads: Trained as an interior designer, psychologist, spiritual director, and minister. Brings energy, creativity, and vision to every endeavor. Uses visual art and writing to promote the encounter of mystery and explore the meaning of our life's journey.
A woman who is not alone in her art work, more education of the artistic kind includes these artist-teachers--an impressive set: Iconography: studied with Vladislav Andrejev, Prosopon School 2009, 2008, 2007, 2005; studied with Xenia Pokrovskaya, Hexaemeron, 2008; studied with Suzanne Schleck 2008; studied with Louise Shipps 2000, 1998.
A married woman, she told this writer that she and her husband will be vacationing for a couple of weeks, and adds that she was, "Delighted!" to be interviewed on this important subject to her ministry, Art & Faith.
1. If you recall, I came across your work on Episcopal Church for Visual Arts website. But then, I am new to you and your work. How long have you had an interest in faith & art?
Art and faith have always been intertwined in my life. When I was working on my bachelor's degree in fine arts, I was probably the only art student who went to church on Sunday. Yet it was in art history classes that I discovered a period of art known as Renaissance in the North , because it represented a time and place when religious art was dominant.
But it has only been in the last thirteen years that I have come full circle and brought art into a central place in my life of faith. My repertoire includes: writing icons, combining visual images on screen with written meditations for worship, creating a CD of meditations and music for use during a stations of the cross prayer walk, enacting Biblical characters through costume and original monologues, published litanies for use in worship, leading retreats on art and spirituality, religious poetry and paintings, pilgrimage photography, and receiving a grant from the local Arts and Science Council for an Expressing Your Faith Through Art weekend.
2. Having heard the term "journey" so many times, both a religious and spiritual term I am sure readers will be curious to know more about your own relationship with art and with faith. What started you on your journey? Or should I say "journeys?"
The first time art and faith came together for me was the 1997 gathering of Spiritual Director's International when I was asked to create a piece of artwork that would be a focal point for the weekend and incorporate their logo. I began to think about the medium I would use, the size it should be for a room of several hundred participants. I settled on a 4'x4' acrylic painting. I used the colors of the rainbow for the diversity of people that serve as spiritual directors. There was a numinous gold light indicating the light and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The background was blue for the clarity of truth. It was the first time I had ever been identified primarily as an 'artist'. It was two years prior to my ordination.
3. Was there a seminal moment? Some people believe in the seminal moment, the religious "ah-ha." Also the artist's "ah-ha," that time of inspiration of the artist when he or she knows she will be creating something, or in this case beginning a journey as a Priest, or into Priesthood. Even beginning the work of an artist, let alone a work of art. Tell us of your seminal moment in starting work with faith in mind as an artist, and in the life of the Church as a Priest.
There were two seminal moments for me in my life of art and faith. The first was attending my first icon workshop in 1998. I had studied icons and begun to include them in personal devotions. Icons are not seen as 'art' but as windows to the holy, pointing beyond themselves to the heavenly realm and the person or persons they represent. For me, it was the first time I was gathered into a community of people with whom I shared both Christian faith and art. We painted contemplatively, in prayer and silence with sacred music in the background.
The second moment came after entering my first call in 1999. My official role was in pastoral care and spiritual formation. I had incorporated art into worship, workshops, retreats, and teachings. There came a moment when the senior pastor said, "I didn't call you to be the art pastor." In retrospect, he did me a great favor because he was naming my true identity. I am now flourishing in an Episcopal community supportive of my art.
4. When speaking with you by phone at your home, you mentioned something about access to the right brain. That is intriguing. How are art activities a way to access the right brain? And of course, what do you mean by "accessing the right brain?"
In an oversimplified view, the left brain is logical and analytical and the right brain is intuitive, creative, visual, and imaginative. The right brain responds to images, symbols and sounds. The multi-sensory environment of worship would thus appeal to the right brain: the sound of bells and music, the smell of incense, the visual beauty of stained glass, icons, and candlelight, the taste of wine and bread, the touch of a hand in making the sign of a cross or receiving a blessing.
5. This is a kind of part two of the previous question. Please tell us about the spirituality of working with image, getting out of the thinking brain.
The spirituality of working with image begins with creation. When God speaks, there is creation. God's language is light, color, texture, sound, shape, and movement. Art invites us to speak God's language. Secondly, working with image is profoundly incarnational. God appeared in the human form of Jesus, sanctifying human flesh and allowing us to depict the face of God without falling into idolatry. The images of Jesus painted from the earliest days of Christianity speak to us in the language of God, not with human words, but with sheer beauty that awakens us to awe and reverence and praise.
6. Interestingly, you've been involved in retreat work. Describe a retreat for our readers--for instance the one held in West Los Angeles, USA.
It is, of course, impossible to describe in words what must be experienced, but I will offer a sampling. I began by telling the retreatants we were embarking on a spiritual journey of discovery. We were going to use art as a medium to open doorways into our perception, to put us in touch with the unseen sacred realm through the power of imagination, and to cultivate respect for the holy in the ordinary, to embrace the love at the heart of all creation. We were also going to use art as a medium to look inside ourselves as well; to create a path of inner knowledge where we dared to live deep questions and where we practiced the art of waiting on God for the answers.
We looked at four pathways. On the Path of Presence we were seeking the transcendent God who is Holy Other; the path of being rendered speechless in wonder, silent before the great Mystery of Life. I showed photographs I took at ancient pilgrimage sites around the world and we lavished devotion on making an illuminated manuscript. I always bless the participants hands before beginning artwork.
The second path we explored was the Path of Practice where we were seeking the immanent God revealed through and in creation; the path of sacred attention. Music accompanied a slideshow of photography from the beauty of creation. We collaged devotional images from nature and wrote poetry. The third path was the Path of Possibilities where we were seeking the inner world, the world of God's kingdom that lies within us. I showed poetry combined with photographs from a place of pilgrimage. I led a meditation which led to drawing a mandala.
The fourth path was the Path of Personal Transformation where we were seeking the transforming power of God to draw us close, to heal us and make us whole. We considered thresholds, those liminal spaces between what is and what could be, the doorways of invitation between our lives as they are and as God envisions them. On this path, participants were asked to integrate all of their workshop experiences and the art they had created and to journal their reflections.
7. Probably a popular subject for the past ten years in some quarters, art & faith are like a combination of influences. I have heard of art as a work of faith, and the work in art as a spiritual practice. But not always art & faith as a way of being religious. When did this start: The Why Now. What is it about the intersection of art & faith at this time that makes it of interest and an issue for people?
I think there are at least five reasons that art and faith are again entering into a close relationship. First, the dominance of the word based culture is eroding. Our children know all about icons not religious images, but images you click on a computer screen. We are becoming an image based culture.
Second, the spiritual hunger of our day is causing a fresh outpouring of religious art for the ordinary person. Angels and crosses appear not only in Christian bookstores but in catalogs and websites alongside secular art. Just this week articles have appeared in print on the appearance of religious imagery in jewelry and fashion.
Third, technology is inspiring a new generation of multi-sensory worship where the screen becomes the stained glass window of the twenty-first century. Expanded art forms are entering worship like liturgical dance, drama, and live painting by artists.
Fourth, creative and expressive arts are being used extensively in workshops to help open people to the inner self and to divine mystery.
Fifth, there is a renewed emphasis on faith in parts of the art community. I think of the Episcopal Church and the Visual Arts, Christians in the Visual Arts, and the Grunewald Guild which is an art-faith community in Washington State. Conversely, seminaries have classes on arts and the Christian life and art as a contemplative practice.
8. Many of the readers will be interested to learn about some of your tools. For instance, what kind of camera do you use?
My camera is a Canon Powershot SX20. Prior to that I had a Canon Powershot A540.
9. Tell us about the integrity of your work. Do you enhance photos with Photoshop? Is that okay as part of a photograph's integrity?
I do not use Photoshop to enhance photographs. I think integrity is preserved whenever we are open about the process we used to create the final product. For instance, photography can be a useful medium in mixed media work. Also, I have created artwork combining altered photographs and it is identified as digital artwork.
10. As well as tools, readers and other artists who are readers will want to know something of our tools used in creating a work as a painter: What medium are your paintings in?
My icons are 'painted' in traditional egg tempera on gessoed wood panels. I also paint in oil and acrylic on canvas.
11. I have been interested in Icons for years. In case you didn't know, Rowan Williams has written one or two small, lovely books of his meditations on working with icons. You create them. How long have you been working on icons?
I have been working on icons for twelve years. My best teachers have been Russian Orthodox iconographers. I am beginning my first commission.
12. What brought you to do icons?
I was given icons as a gift by several friends. The priest at the Episcopal church I attended is now an Orthodox priest and he taught me about icons and their use in worship. When I attended the Shalem Institute to study spiritual direction, we used icons for meditation. I read Henri Nouwen's book Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons. When I saw an icon workshop offered at a nearby Episcopal retreat center, I signed up. My instructor encouraged me to do further study with the Russian iconographer who taught her.
13. Besides as an exercise in a personal and private way... and of course since you are a minister in a Church... I am sure this next to last question is directed at the community aspect of effects and acts in creation. Please let us know: Is art a ministry for you? What is the place of the artist in Church community? (I know that question could in itself be enough for a full interview-article.)
My body of work is multi-media and it is ministry. Whether leading worship in a church setting or introducing art in a retreat setting, it is my hope to put others in touch with the Holy, to help them become more aware of God's presence in their daily lives. The artist in the church community brings a creative spark, reminding us that God placed that creative spark within each one of us.
14. Would you like to add a comment, statement or remark of any kind that hasn't been covered? We've certainly covered a lot of ground with these questions. Thank you so much Reverend Sally Brower for being kind enough to be interviewed.
Art for me is as much a call on my life as priesthood. The artist and visionary Meinrad Craighead, in speaking of the earliest drawing on the walls of caves, said that artists were the first spiritual leaders because they were the ones who could see in the dark. The mystic and artist Hildegard of Bingen, as translated by Matthew Fox, said that neither science nor technology is enough to awaken a people. It is the artist's gift to do the awakening. It is my call and gifting to use my creativity in the service of spirituality, to use my art on behalf of faith.
Behold the Beauty of the Lord
Sermon: September 23, 2007 at the
Westwood Presbyterian Church Women's Retreat in Ranchos Palos Verdes,
Exodus 33:17-23; Psalm 2:4-8; John 17:20-24
Rev. Dr. Sally M. Brower
Several years ago I wrote, "Art invites us to speak God's language and seek God's face." When God speaks there is creation. When God speaks there is light. When God speaks there is water and sky, there are mountains and trees, flowers and birds and butterflies. God brings color and sound, shape and movement to dance before our eyes. Creation is saturated with the beauty of God.
Yet the greatest beauty is not the beauty God created, but the Beauty that is God. Moses asks to see God's glory. The psalmist longs to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. To seek the face of the Lord has been the quest of psalmists and artists through the ages. Jesus prays for us to see his glory, the glory given to Jesus by his Father in the act of love. "Art invites us to speak God's language and seek God's face."
Post Reformation and post Enlightenment, we have been accustomed to being people of the word and not people of the image. Stained glass windows and frescoes belong to an age when most people were illiterate. Yet we stand at an amazing intersection in history, when image meets word in the age of computers and the internet. Our children are children of the image. Projection screens appear in worship, the stained glass images of the 21st century. Protestants sit by Catholics and Orthodox in iconography classes across the U.S. daring to depict the face of Jesus the Beloved.
In traditional Orthodox iconography, we are told we cannot paint the face of God because God remains unseen, but God appeared to us in the person of Jesus and we can paint the human form that we have seen. The images of Jesus from the earliest days of Christianity and down through the centuries speak to us in the language of God: not with human words, but with sheer beauty that awakens us to awe and reverence and praise.
Icons are scripture in image. They are the power of the gospel spoken in silence directly to our hearts. One of the most revered icons in the world is the icon of Christ at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai in Egypt. Saved from the ravages of the iconoclastic period, this icon is reputed by art historians to be one of the oldest existing icons of Christ. More amazing than its age is that modern technology has shown that it shares the same facial structure and proportion which we know from the Shroud of Turin.
Several years ago, I was going on retreat up in the mountains of North Carolina. It had been a long year with only two pastors in a 2600 member church and I was weary, not just physically, but soul weary. I was delayed in leaving Charlotte and got caught in rush hour traffic. By the time I reached the interstate on the outskirts of the city, I decided I could not take anymore of the main roads I was going to find another route. As the poet said, I took the road less traveled by and it made all the difference. I had several choices, but I chose the most out of the way.
Two miles off the interstate, I entered Bessemer City, a small town that was bypassed by the growth and development of the larger metro area. I passed Fat Possum's gift shop. I passed the used car lot with bright yellow happy faces flapping in the breeze and there across from the car lot was a billboard. It was mostly a black background, but there in the center was the Christ of the Sinai, full height on the billboard, staring down at me. I pulled the car over and sat in awe. There were no words, just the face of Jesus confronting me with his penetrating gaze, piercing through to my soul.
I knew I could have chosen other roads but here in this tiny town, the Lord of the Universe was confronting me. I was familiar with that particular image of Christ though never on that scale. Little pictures tend to shrink things down to a manageable concept, but Jesus was revealed that day with the full force of his glory. For the rest of the trip, all I could think about was the face of Jesus. For the next two weeks, that's all I could think about. And as I thought about the billboard appearance of Jesus in Bessemer City, I thought about the little town of Bethlehem and the story that was told all over the world. Isn't that the way Jesus comes to us in unexpected ways, in out of the way places?
Another week went by and I was heading south on the interstate again, and I just had to turn off and take another look. Three-tenths of a mile off the interstate on the opposite side of the road, there was another billboard just like the first one. I pulled over and wept. I longed for what Peter preached about in Acts 3:19-20 that "times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you." For the second time, Jesus appeared in the midst of my life, seeking me every bit as much as I was seeking him.
The heart of the psalmist cries out, Seek his face! Your face Lord will I seek! Image awakens us to the beauty of the Lord; image opens us to the power of the Lord's presence which touches our lives in unexpected ways. Image helps us to encounter the mystery of God and explore the meaning of our spiritual journeys. In reflection, I wrote a new verse to the tune of A Stable Light is Lighted:
An image once is painted
Whose glory spans the years;
A beauty revealed, once hidden,
That moves us now to tears
Yet seeking him we find him
In an unexpected place
A billboard points to heaven
An image reveals his face
Peter Menkin, an aspiring poet, lives in Mill Valley, CA USA where he writes poetry. He is an Oblate of Immaculate Heart Hermitage, Big Sur, CA and that means he is a Camaldoli Benedictine. He is 64 years of age as of 2010.