Written by Kit Ripley //
Many people think that being an artist is frightening. They are afraid to paint because they hear the accumulated voices of teachers and critics who disparaged their creative efforts until their inborn spark of creativity was smothered by negativity. Some people think that artists are antisocial or emotionally unstable, citing the fact that Van Gogh cut off his own ear.
I disagree. The unfortunate experience of some need not condemn all artists to fear and instability. In fact, I believe that creating art is healthy and healing for our souls. Making art with other people is even better. When we make art in groups, we encourage each other. We exchange ideas. We share wisdom. Making art together lessens fear, relieves stress, and releases joy.
For the last fourteen years, I have been living and working in northern Thailand with a non-governmental organization that implements anti-trafficking campaigns and provides residential, educational and rehabilitative services for adolescent survivors of trauma including sexual abuse, domestic violence, labor exploitation, and human trafficking. As part of our holistic services, I teach therapeutic art classes for our residents. I have also led dozens of art and spirituality retreats for others in the community. At the retreats, we practice prayer and contemplation through making visual art. In my work, I have discovered that creating art improves the cognitive, emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing of participants. I use the process of creating visual art to cultivate
- Personal insight, inner healing and resilience
- Social belonging, culture care and shalom
- Sacred encounter with God through visual prayer
Art emerges from both inside and outside the artist. The artist receives training and guidance to learn basic techniques and properties of various media. As the artist grows and develops, their ability to express themselves improves over time. But creative ideas don’t come from the artist alone. We also receive inspiration from outside ourselves. Sometimes a teacher or friend will suggest an idea. Someone else’s art may communicate with us. Sometimes the natural world inspires us. For example, when we paint a flower, we are building a bridge between the flower and ourselves. We are trying to understand it better. It’s a kind of dialogue with the natural world because that flower touches our souls and gives us delight. The shapes and colors resonate in us and our painting is a response to that delight.
Art can also be a collaboration between the artist and a holy creative mystery outside of ourselves. This holy power is something we cannot control or force. It is difficult to explain, but when we brush shoulders with it, we know it. Since I am a Christian, I call this power God. I think people of other faith traditions may encounter this holy mystery, too. It can be compared to a wind that blows through and invites us to paint something. It leads us to choose this blue color and not that green color. We feel the sound of it in our bodies. We hear the leading of it in our minds. And sometimes we simply have to express it before it blows away somewhere else in search of another artist. It is a magnificent and miraculous experience. And in the end, we find that we have been transformed through this encounter with the holy.
In fact, I would argue that creativity is essential to human flourishing. The forces of evil and darkness in the world are destructive and chaotic. These systemic forces conspire to dehumanize, degrade and commodify the teen girls I work with every day. They work relentlessly to erode community and disempower poor and marginalized people. They foment antagonism and incite injustice and war. But when we create, we pull together disparate things to make something new that did not exist in that same way before. We are doing something constructive, cultivating form, structure and meaning, or as Andy Crouch puts it, shaping the horizons of cultural possibility. Art and creativity, at their best, nurture new cultural forms that build healing, social belonging, and shalom. So the action of artists can actually oppose the destructive, nihilist forces at work in the world. When we plant a garden, or write a poem, or make a meal for friends and family, or perform a dance, or paint a picture, or play the piano, we are making a statement that beauty and goodness are valuable…That the human spirit is defiantly going to experience the fullness of life and goodness! This kind of creativity is an act of reclamation in the face of cultural demolition. It is an act of justice. It’s a kind of beauty that moves the soul and whispers of hope and possibility.
Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Rev. Kit Ripley is an American Baptist International Ministries missionary, and has been serving at the New Life Center Foundation in northern Thailand for almost fourteen years.