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Answers in the Arts

A quilt-maker, a painter, an author and other artists share how their art and their faith have grown together.

Jane Burke began quilting at the age of 40 and found in the ancient craft answers to some of life's most painful questions.

Answers in the Arts
"The Way Home," like most of Jane Burke's
creations, reflect forgiveness, healing and faith in God.

Since that first ten-week introductory course in 1991, the Mississauga, Ont. woman has developed into a popular speaker who travels with her award-winning quilts and tells how their creation helped to bring healing.

Her most recent quilt, "The Way Home," illustrates Jesus as the good shepherd, and also as the vine, the bread of life, and as the alpha and the omega. The shepherd points the way to the narrow path that leads to heaven's gateway, and allows viewers to share in Burke's sense of trust and hope.

Such explicitly biblical work has not prevented Burke from being awarded by mainstream organizations such as the Canadian Quilters' Association and the Mississauga Quilters Guild. Both have recently conferred honours on "The Way Home."

Like all her quilts, it's a masterpiece of design, colour and complexity. Every fabric is carefully selected for its pattern and hue; every stitch is made with care. Like much enduring art, Burke's quilts reflect the heart of the artist—in her case a heart that radiates forgiveness, healing and faith in God.

In fact, quilting helped her grow in health and faith, she says. It has given her the time and quiet and expressive outlet to deal with childhood sexual abuse.

"I could see answers to questions that I had, [revealed] on cloth," she says. "They would just leap out at me. For instance, one of my questions was, 'How come—if God is so powerful—He allows a little girl to go through something like this?' "

Quilting became for her a way to reflect. Disturbing, long-buried memories surfaced and were finally dealt with. With every quilt, more answers and more healing came.

Calgary painter Amy Dryer also took to art seeking answers. Some see her as a rising star in the world of art. Only 26, she likes to joke that she must have "an old soul."

"I remember as a child having big questions, and I think that's why I did art: to answer the questions and then to reflect on the answers," she says.

Her work—with its bold strokes, intense colours and vivid contrasts—has been described as having a certain pain and thoughtfulness about it. Dryer's faith informs the character of her work in a less explicit way than Burke's quilts.

"I think every piece of good art holds a mixture in it," she says, "a mix of wool and silk, purity and dirt, simplicity and complexity. I think that's a part of life. To fully show what life is, you can't ignore the pain. But there's also hope."

Her portrait of a rugged rodeo clown, "Toothy Grin," illustrates a man with a tattered hat, smeared make-up and broken teeth. This character has literally been in the dirt. The painting captures that element of grit and suffering. But it also shows the joy of this rodeo clown. There is light on his face; he laughs; he loves to make people laugh. The sun shines on him.

"You can't do a portrait if there are no shadows," Dryer says, "because everything would be flat."

Plumbing the sunshine and shadows

Art that lasts often goes beyond reproducing sunshine and shadows—it includes a creative exploration of the light and darkness of life that audiences can reflect on.

Answers in the Arts
"Toothy Grin," from a series of rodeo
clown paintings by Amy Dryer.

But for the artists themselves, many say the process of creating actually helps them personally to arrive at truth and healing and a deeper understanding of God.

Regina author Joanne Gerber isn't afraid to tackle hard questions in her books. A Christian, she writes fiction for secular audiences while exploring the many shades of what it means to be human. "I'm very interested in how we can stumble towards grace, even as people who are living in the complexities of apparently meaningless modern life," she says.

While she insists she doesn't write for therapeutic reasons, she admits that completing her first book, In the Misleading Absence of Light, was healing. The award winning collection of short stories (three Saskatchewan Book Awards and a Canadian Authors Association award) deals with themes of suffering and struggle. Occasionally it tackles experiences she herself has lived through: like growing up in a broken home and living with a schizophrenic father.

"I think the artist has access to truth in the creative process," she says. "We're challenged emotionally and morally, and there's a sensory involvement with a work of art. A work of art gets in and unsettles and provokes [the artist] and makes us see the world through new eyes."

Toronto arts expert John Franklin agrees. Franklin is executive director of Imago, an organization that supports the development of the arts and Christian artists in Canada.

He says art helps us to see things in a different way, largely because "imagination is a God-given lifeline that helps us understand ourselves, the world and the God who created it all. Imagination serves to give order and meaning to our thoughts and experiences."

Answers in the Arts
Amy Dryer: answering
questions through art.

A former philosophy professor, Franklin believes the arts may well be the last place in our secular society where transcendence is still possible. In exploring life through the arts, the job of the artist isn't to "get it right" but to "get it real," Franklin says.

Dialogue with God

Vancouver pastor Rob Des Cotes is founder and creative director of the Vancouver Arts Network, an association of hundreds of area artists that defines itself both as a Christian ministry to artists and through artists to contemporary culture.

"Art is a form of dialogue with ourselves and with God," says Des Cotes.

"Jesus said, 'You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.' Most of us live pretty superficially, so art is a way to objectify the truth within us. I don't think I can know the truth of God without knowing the truth of me and vice-versa."

Des Cotes, a jazz flautist and painter, goes on to explain that just as we can look through creation and discover something about the Creator, so too can we look through art and discover something about the artist.

Answers in the Arts
"Canadian Summertime"

He cites Romans 1:20: "Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities, both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things that God has made."

If you ask Jane Burke what she has discovered in the process of creating her quilts, she tells of previously unknown springs of creativity bubbling up within her, new-found joy and deeper trust in God. Since taking up the craft, she's given up workaholic ways and now delights in the simple act of creating beauty and sharing it with others.

Joanne Gerber is working on a manuscript for a novel titled Like Manna. It will explore another piece of her experience, a time when, desperately ill, she endured a three-year-long confinement. Writing this book has also been healing.

"I love the process of writing," she says, "the meticulous process. I hear language as music, and it's very satisfying for me to get a sentence or a cadence right. And not just to think, but to feel about all of these things."

Answers in the Arts
"All Things Work Together"

Des Cotes also thinks the act of making art is "therapeutic." He says his participation in a jazz quartet is satisfying because it's so much like his spiritual life. "It's the improvised nature of it," he explains. "It's the idea of having to be adaptable, that I have both a certainty about where I'm going but also a readiness to be redirected at any point. It's incredible research for the spiritual life."

People sometimes get stuck in unmet expectations and disappointments, according to Des Cotes, and then suffer because life just "won't be controlled."

"Art can teach us how to participate with a medium more than control it. It can teach us the value of discovery. That's a healing thing for life itself, for people to understand that they have to participate with life, that they can't control it."

John Franklin makes a similar point. Fear silences people, he says, but artistic creation allows the artist to wrestle with truth in a way that moves beyond mere rational, linear thinking. Arriving at truth, the artist often arrives at answers and healing and deeper faith.

"The process of making [faith] your own involves asking the hard questions," Franklin explains. "Art can be the same. It has to do with getting at the truth of things or getting at reality. And having integrity in the process."

Patricia Paddey of Mississauga, Ontario, is a regular feature contributor to Faith Today.

Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2005.




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