Today we have a guest post from my new, artist friend, Nicole Farley, founder of A New Creation. I met Nicole at Wild Goose just this past summer when she was putting up her tent near mine. It turns out that we live only a few miles from each other! Once I learned that she was moving from parish ministry to art ministry, she was stuck with me. Over the past three months, she’s been travelling, networking and making innovative art with all kinds of church groups. She worked with my youth group to create a powerful piece about who God is, and importantly, who God is not (read more about that here). Be sure to check out her website – she’s amazing!!
Nicole, first please tell us a little bit about your new ministry. What types of projects have you been doing?
The projects have been as varied as the congregations with whom I’ve been working. One was primarily a paper project where we set the table with the gifts we bring, so we filled our “dishes” and added them to a long paper “table” that was hung behind the communion table.
I’ve done Tyvek and tissue paper banners with another congregation, with an image of a journey across the banners that can be used in both Advent and Lent. Soon, I’ll be working with a congregation to make two large icon panels for Advent which are inspired by the many Nativity of Christ icons. And, of course, there is the project we did together, the wooden frame with two layers, Plexiglas showing who God is not and painted wood on the inside showing who God is. Every project has been unique to the group and to what it is trying to accomplish in making art together.
What I enjoy about your work is that you lead so many different types of projects. Where are your favorite places to find inspiration?
Undoubtedly, museums are a great place to start because I get introduced to techniques that I might not have otherwise dreamed up. Years before Pinterest was a thing, I was collecting images of projects, which I still have stored and categorized in binders, and experimenting on my own with what I was finding. Now that Pinterest exists, I use it, too, especially to store ideas around techniques as well as designs. One of the greatest gifts to me in this role as a pastoral artist are the people I work with – every project I’ve done so far has gifted me with at least one person with a fantastic, creative, new-to-me take on the project and so I get to learn from them, too. And I must also lift up the art at the churches I get to visit.
I’d love to hear the story of how you decided to begin this new ministry. How did you get started? What made you take this risk?
I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Industrial Design but had set it aside when I got my “big girl” job after graduation. I would still do crafty things, usually in a flurry around the holidays because I could justify the time diving into making things. I eventually headed into a second career in ministry and I didn’t really have time for projects, especially around the holidays, so I unintentionally tucked away that creative side except for rare occasions when I would make something for the worship space. About three years ago I was keenly feeling the loss of any creative outlet so, at the NEXT Church Conference (mostly Presbyterians but all are welcome!) I attended two creative workshops to feed my own spirit, not even considering how they might serve the congregation I was serving. In one workshop in particular, I learned about some collaborative art techniques I could use back in the church and came up with a simple Pentecost project in which people of all ages and skill levels could take part. And I made it inexpensively.
That project was well-received so I came up with a different project for Advent; another good response. So good that someone suggested we invite other churches to come play with us. I planned a banner project for Ordinary Time and three other church groups came. I gave them a prototype and taught them the technique and set them to copy the prototype or carry out their own design. And there came a moment, one that gives me goosebumps every time I think/talk/write about it. There was a tangibly sacred moment while we were all working on the same/not-quite-the-same project and there was something like a holy hum to the room. It was in that moment that I realized “this” could be something more.
I had imagined I would just keep plugging away in a congregation while doing the art projects here and there but the Spirit intervened. My husband and I have a son who is a senior in college and his upcoming graduation changes our financial needs so we found ourselves in a place where we had the flexibility to take the risk of one primary income. The more we talked about it, and the more I discerned, the clearer it became that I was supposed to follow the path toward this different ministry. God has a way of being persistent!
You and I have spoken a bit about the connections between art, creativity and faith. Can you share why you believe art is an important part of faith formation?
Oh my goodness, how much time do your readers have?! Well, it all begins with the beginning, where God the Creator creates humankind in God’s image. We are creative people by our very design! Creating is an intimate part of our relationship with God, in my mind.
A huge gift of the creative process is the internal processing we do and we’re given permission to do it without words, so welcome by us visual people. If you ask me what color I think of when I think about God, I personally am going to say green. If pressed, I can tell you it’s because I think of the verdant abundance of gardens and the new life of spring. If I have to choose an image or a shape or a color to tell a story of faith then I am connecting on a different level with that story than I did just sitting listening to the story read to me. Try creating a dance to capture the walk on the road to Emmaus. Even if you are simply strolling along to show the disciples walking with Jesus, you have now lived that story in a new way.
That all speaks of us creating art but we also have receiving art at our disposal, too. And I don’t mean just religious themed art, although that gives us an entry into some familiar stories and allows us to more easily examine the art with the eye of a critic – one who evaluates, analyzes – what was John the Baptist supposed to be doing in that painting? what does it say that Jesus is portrayed as being of Asian descent? why are there three of so many things in that piece? We can bounce art off of what we’ve been taught, what we’ve questioned, what we’ve assumed.
And then there is art without necessarily intentional religious expression. The piece that inspired the one I did with your group is a work called Trans-ition (Trans-ición) by Chicago artist Sam Kirk. She wrote of this piece: “I saw a trans woman walking down the street and I couldn’t help but think about how often we (LGBTQ people) hide within our own communities…I hope the more people see and understand us, the more they will help us gain equality. We must be seen to be celebrated.” The Jesus I know spent his life seeing people who were at the margins, healed them to help them gain equality. The piece by Sam Kirk met me at my faith.
The last thing to add about this connection between art and faith formation is that making art requires us to be vulnerable, as does engaging with God. So often in our society we are told the aim is self-sufficiency, proficiency, efficiency. None of these apply to our relationship with God; God repeatedly asks us to lean on God instead of ourselves, to slow down, to be present, and instead we make golden calves to give ourselves the feeling of control that we don’t actually have. I say making art requires us to be vulnerable because, while we can become proficient at a technique, I have yet to meet an artist whose final piece ended up looking exactly like the artist’s initial vision. I need to be willing to let the art have a say, and the tools and the materials. Sculptors will tell you they watch for what the marble has to show them. It is a very vulnerable thing to go in with pencil/marker/paintbrush/camera in hand and just try using them. Creating is a great vehicle for learning to let go of our tight grips on the world around us, for slowing down, for being present, and that makes us more pliable to leaning on God instead of relying on ourselves.
Lastly, what has been the most important thing you have learned in the first three months of this new adventure? What would you want someone beginning a new, innovative ministry to know?
I have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that people crave creative expression. So many of us heard somewhere in our school years that we weren’t doing art “right” and, not to be overly dramatic about it, our spirits were crushed. Everyone is creative, EVERYONE. I am really terrible at line drawing, I can’t for the life of me begin to understand the mastery of spray paint art (a.k.a. graffiti), and I do not have the patience for painted portraiture or massive pieces. Just because you couldn’t draw a straight line or your people were always disproportionate or you envisioned the sky as orange, doesn’t mean you aren’t able to be creative. Some of my favorite small works are by Brian Andreas, who doesn’t draw straight lines, proportional people, or anything in “traditional” colors. I have learned that I have a window of opportunity to help people be vulnerable and try something in the safe community of a church family – if not with them, where else?
My advice to someone beginning a new, innovative ministry is to hold on loosely to your vision, giving God room to shape and direct it. I think I know what this ministry is but I am ready to watch it turn into whatever God needs it to be. I just keep listening and responding and I look forward to seeing where I am and where A New Creation is a year from now, two years from now, and so on. In the present, I am extraordinarily grateful for people like you, and churches like yours, who took a chance on this “new” thing!
Nicole, thank you so much for working with my youth group and for sharing your story with Bless Each One readers. I can’t wait to see what exciting projects you will be a part of next!