Dear Jean, Week 6: “Painting is the Song of the Heart”

art l'arche
“Painting is the song of the heart.” – Jean Vanier

Dear Jean,

I’m sitting here in front of my computer on a cool drizzly day supposedly writing my final arts therapy paper. If I’m honest, I have managed to format my paper, type a working title, eek out an introduction, and…

…stop everything else and write to you.

Clearly I need a break from an academic look at art, and I need to gain some perspective. Isn’t that what art helps us do? Gain perspective? (We can talk about the ulterior motive of procrastination later.)

I’m watching the video and I’m seeing L’Arche members creating all sorts of art — visual, tactile, culinary, and relational art — and it is watching worship in action. God is interacting with and through us in paint, colour, food, creation, laughter, and friendship.

Mimi Farrelly-Hansen writes that “art making is inherently spiritual” (Spirituality and Art Therapy: Living the Connection, 2001, p.17). Our desire and ability to create reflects God as Creator. We take joy in it, we take pleasure in it; we find healing in it, we find transformation; we discover new aspects of ourselves, others, and God; and we create community, large and small, in the participation of art-making.

We are not always with people when we make art — whether we paint, sculpt, strum guitar, carve, mold, bead, or write poetry — but the presence of that art as an external expression of who we are existing apart from ourselves impacts community. That is, the act of writing could be considered at its core a solitary act; but in a beautiful extension of that aloneness in art-making, reading is often likewise a solo act. The community becomes a connection between one and one, whether the one and one ever meet in person or not.

I see more studio art in L’Arche: paint spattered everywhere, food all over the place, people together with brushes, pies, gardens, and glue. The process of creation flows out of the beauty of each person within the community, rather than academic prowess or polished artistic technique.

I’m not saying we ought not to strive to craft our art. Not at all! Rather, I’m saying that watching people with intellectual, physical, and mental disabilities create art for the sake of creation and friendship has rooted me in humbler place filled with wonder and desire.

“Don’t eliminate people because we want to eliminate suffering.”
-Jean Vanier, L’Arche Video (see below)

Someone with a severe disability might splotch finger paint over a piece of paper, and to the world it looks like a kindergarten child’s mess. But when we actually accept the place from which that glob came from — pure joy, pure pleasure, pure participation with God — that glob becomes greater than anything Rembrandt could have come up with.

Too often we assume a posture of being The Healers or The Helpers by creating art spaces for struggling people. We think we’re going to help the helpless. And, in some ways, we are just that by creating spaces for art-making to happen.

But when it comes down to bristles and clay, we discover quickly that we are only GateKeepers. We unlock the door, provide materials, keep the space safe, but then we are pushed aside to witness all of this joy, pleasure, and participation with God that’s been present all along. The best prophets and poets of our age (or any age) are those people who have known systemic and repeated rejection and neglect.

And yet the people in the L’Arche video seem to have greater innate capacities to turn that horrible abuse into rainbows, prisms, smells, and textures. Not only that, but they turn around and share all of this divine bounty with the rest of us GateKeepers.

How unworthy are we?

How could I have been so blind?

Here is the Mystery: God laughing with tempera paint and paper without thought of competition, rising the ladder, or agenda. Art for art’s sake. Creation for creation’s sake, reflecting our Creator. Joy in both the process (self and the art) and the communion (community and the art). God is in it all: people, process, and partaking.

How mysterious indeed.

What I wouldn’t give to have a slice of…was that pecan pie I saw?…right now on this chilly late-summer day. Both the pie and the people look absolutely…divine.

Until next time, Jean,

Hey readers, check out L’Arche’s 50th Jubilee Year Art Exhibition. Take some time, meditate, contemplate, and pray as you peruse art pieces from L’Arche community members submitted from around the world. You won’t regret it!

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