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The Spirit of Art

female artist creating painting art and spirituality

Getty/gorodenkoff

Art and spirituality are intertwined. “Art is to spirituality what a car is to speed. It’s not the only vehicle that will get you there, but it can do the trick.”

A good way to get yourself in trouble as a public school teacher is to start talking about spirituality or religion in the classroom. Separation of church and state and all that. Of course, by giving this subject a wide berth, teachers miss an opportunity to connect with students who are looking for meaning and a higher purpose in their lives. They miss the subtle nuance of connecting art and spirituality.

So, while I don’t talk about religion or spirituality with my students, the latter is implicit in every lesson. That’s because I teach art.

Art is to spirituality what a car is to speed. It’s not the only vehicle that will get you there, but it can do the trick.

Spirituality is humanity at its best. We’re spiritual when we’re focused on such things as compassion and beauty rather than materialism and competition. We’re spiritual when our work is blissfully creative rather than unbearably tiresome.

In art, the opening to spirituality is the creative process. Drawing, painting, sculpting—any inspired movement is spiritual in nature.

[Also read: “Thomas Merton and the Role of Art in Spirituality.”]

Connecting Art and Spirituality

I know this from personal experience. Like many art teachers, I’m a Sunday painter, spreading oils around a canvas from about 7-11 a.m., religiously. Those four hours pass very quickly; I’m often shocked to pick up my watch and see that I’ve been going strong for hours when it really seemed like minutes.

The focus and peace I find in the painting process restores my soul. It’s also nice when one of my landscapes or seascapes turns out well, though that is a secondary consideration. The meditative act of creation is the point.

By the way, I grade my paintings the same way I grade my students: A, B, C, D, or F. The difference is, I don’t throw my D and F students in the dumpster. I’m sure the administration would frown on that.

I’m always excited when I head to my art studio on Sunday morning. I know many folks head to church at that time, and I wonder if they feel the same enthusiasm for their spiritual renewal as I do for mine. I attended church every Sunday as a kid, but it always felt like a chore. The late novelist John D. MacDonald summed up my feelings on the subject: “To me organized religion, the formalities and routines, it's like being marched in formation to look at a sunset.”

I’m always excited when I head to my art studio on Sunday morning. I know many folks head to church at that time, and I wonder if they feel the same enthusiasm for their spiritual renewal as I do for mine.

On Monday, it’s back to work, naturally, and while I’m an observer of the spiritual process rather than a participant, I still find it quite inspiring. This process doesn’t happen with every student, I should note, and never happens immediately. It takes some time for the kids to shift gears from the rational and analytical left-brain class they just departed to the instinctive and emotional right-brain class they just entered.

Exploring art and spirituality can take many forms. Students need an art class, and I use the term broadly; it could be music or drama as well. These classes give the left side of the brain a much-needed break, and studies show that students who take an art class have better overall grades than students who do not.

My students initially spend a few minutes loudly talking, mischievously engaging their neighbors, and defiantly staring at their phones. I take attendance and cajole them into a quieter state, then explain the lesson with words and images. Finally, I set them loose on the assignment, flip on some soft rock and wander the room.

I have a sign on my bulletin board that says, “Less Talk, More Art,” and I cite this often while walking around at the beginning of class. There might be some sighs. A couple of rebellious yawns. An inappropriate word or three.

Then it happens—the daily miracle. Art and spirituality begin to come together.

The room becomes relatively quiet. The students look more at their work and less at their neighbors. They begin to create.

Of course, there are always a few Bolsheviks to contend with. Typically these are macho boys who think art is for sissies.

I have a lesson that has converted a few, featuring four-time Olympic discus champion Al Oerter, who was also a dedicated abstract artist. One of Oerter’s techniques involved him tossing a discus into a puddle of paint and having the colors splash up onto a canvas. Messy but interesting, and often quite beautiful.

Beauty, which is spirituality’s good-looking cousin is the underlying goal in class. The concept gets a bit of a bad rap in contemporary art circles, which values ideas more than beauty. Still, in extolling this concept, I’m in good company. “Filling a space in a beautiful way,” said Georgia O’Keefe. “That is what art means to me.”

And so I stroll on, quieting some students, encouraging others, and trying to stay out of the way of those who are clearly engaged. They are easy to spot: eyes focused, hands poised, and spirits ablaze.

Keep reading: “3 Ways to Heal Ourselves With Art.”


About the Author

John Foley is a writer, artist, and teacher in Prescott Valley, Arizona. His novels include Hoops of Steel, which was named a...

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