an explanation of prayer painting

Why do I call myself a prayer painter?

What does it mean to paint a prayer?

When I was a child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I didn't have an answer. I didn't know. But I assumed it would be some sort of artsy something. I knew I would do something creative.

My office would be a studio of some kind, or the world itself.

Many years ago, when I was in college, I had ideas around art-making and why we make art and the purpose of art and who is allowed to make it - and while the conversation around these ideas was interesting, I took on some things that didn't really belong to me.

A few years after that, when I lived in New York, I was surrounded by young artists who were ambitious and hungry for success.

Success meant gallery representation, selling art, the cover of magazines, good reviews.

These are all good things, by the way. I support these things.

I loved art. I loved it. I knew amazing people who were making amazing beautiful things, but I gradually realized, in the world I inhabited, there was just too much cynicism. Too much self-referential sarcasm. Too much competition and emotional violence.

(I don't mean the art world, or even New York, I mean the personal little corner of it where I found myself.)

So, I stopped making art.

And I didn't make art for a long time.

I channeled my creative energies into other things. 

Or I ignored them.

You can't really do that.

If you have a need to work creatively, that need will haunt you. It will push at you until you can't ignore it. (The way God does.)

So, a few years ago, I surrendered and bought some canvas and paint.

When I stood at an easel again, after a long time away, it was frightening.

Because who was I and what was I doing and why?

But right about the same time I decided to make art again, I decided to go back to church.

I'd always been God-obsessed. I'd always felt like my spiritual life was my life, but I had some issues around church (see: patriarchy), and I had for years been going it alone.

I'd come to believe I wasn't really wanted by church. That if church really knew me it would reject me, so I just did myself a favor by keeping myself at a polite distance.

But no matter how clear you think you are on things, no matter how certain you are, God has a way of shaking things up and showing you something completely different than what you thought was possible and, basically, that's what happened.

I returned to church and church did not reject me. In fact, it embraced me.

(Thank you, people of Good Shepherd, Fr. Brian, and Fr. Andrew.)

And I returned to painting.

Both of these things were a return to myself, to core parts of myself that I had pushed away because of fear.

I enrolled in some art classes, only instead of teaching technique and right ways and wrong ways, these were classes about freedom, about feeling your way with paint, about painting from the soul, intuitively.

These were not classes about good art and bad art. There were no successes or failures.

Slowly, painfully, I learned to make art that was about process, not product.

Which is also what church was doing in my heart.

It was a free-fall into the unknown. A devotion to mystery. An untethering of the ego.

I come out of a lineage, a community. I am not the first or only person to use the phrase prayer painting, but it is the phrase that best fits what I do.

My painting process is rooted in spiritual connection. Before I paint, I ground myself. I light a bundle of sage or a candle. I center and breathe. Then, I write a prayer on the canvas. 

My prayers are personal and global. Sometimes they are rambling and pleading. Sometimes they are straight out of the Book of Common Prayer. Sometimes they are lamenting. Sometimes they are praising...they are prayers.

And when I've written them, I begin to move paint.

I just move paint, layers and layers of it, without thinking.

I paint until I begin to see shapes and faces. 

I paint what comes. 

I paint what rises. 

I paint what I hear and sense and feel.

So maybe the paintings are answers to prayers. Maybe the are containers for answers. Maybe the paintings are guardians. Maybe they themselves are questions.

They are a visual expression of what is in my heart.

I believe art-making belongs to you. To me. To everyone. It is not just for special people or talented people or clever people.

I do not mean that all art is the same and I do not mean that all people will be professional artists. 

I mean that you have a right to make art for no reason other than you wish to make it and there is a value in making it and that value is inherently yours.

I believe we are created to create.

I believe that when we are in the act of creation, God is doing something. The Holy Spirit is moving.

I believe the way you express what's in your heart matters.

My paintings are prayers.

That is what they are.

When you see my paintings, you see something about me that I don't know how to articulate any other way. 

And here's the biggest shock of all - I want you to see them.

When I first started doing this thing, it was for me. It was private. I had no intention of sharing these paintings with anyone because that would be...well...it would be embarrassing, wouldn't it? It would be like taking my mask off in public and showing my most vulnerable self. 

Why would I want to do that?

But that's what worship is, too, and I do that every week. 

God calls us to community, and at some point I understood that my prayer paintings needed to be seen by other people in order to be complete.

I didn't need critique. I didn't need advice. Other people didn't have to like the paintings or even understand them. But other people had to see them.

When I let the paintings come out into the world, into their community, I was letting go of them. I was letting the Spirit move the way is wished to move. I was relinquishing control.

I am still stunned every time someone buys one of my paintings. It is probably bad business to say that out loud. 

But it's true.

Recently, someone contacted me about a painting and said, "She's speaking to me, I have to have her."

That's not about me, but it still feels good. It feels like joy. And peace. 

It feels like I'm on the right track. It feels like I'm doing something my soul is meant to be doing.

I spent a lot of years of my life wondering how I could cultivate that feeling and it turns out, the answer was something my child-self already knew.

My paintings change. I don't feel tied to a particular style. Although I would like to create a cohesive body of work, I often have to remind myself to just let the paintings be whatever they want to be.

I'm painting prayers and prayers are messy. 

Prayers take us off in all sorts of unexpected directions.

For the record, I don't believe in an old man God who grants wishes like a genie. I don't believe God blesses people with material goods. I don't believe God moves us around the game pieces or chooses winners of football games or elects presidents.

My prayers don't make things happen.

But maybe what prayer does is make space for things to happen.

I went back to church and I went back to the easel and everything about my life changed because everything about my heart changed.

I pray with paint.

My job is to get out of the way.

The support I've received for creating these paintings has been astonishing to me and I am deeply grateful.

Right now, an exhibition of my paintings is hanging at St. Raphael Episcopal Church in Lexington.

(Thank you, Mtr. Karen.)

There is a reception on Friday, May 12, from 6:30-8 pm and you're invited.

Please come have some wine and cheese and mingle with us. It's a beautiful church filled with lovely people, and my prayers are there.

I'd love to see you.