The Spiritual Power of Art

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“Does my life reflect my values and beliefs?” This query is often on my mind, and probably yours too. As a child in Mountain View Friends Meeting (Denver), I learned the Quaker belief that there is “that of God in everyone,” sometimes called “the Light within.” The Light is our best and most holy potential, our goodness, our groundedness, our Truth. That Inner Light remains a core element of my belief system. It’s an axiom: Light=God.

At a time when three renowned American art museums are mounting concurrent retrospective exhibitions of the work of Quaker light artist James Turrell, I challenge all of us to invite Light and beauty into our spaces and into our spiritual practice.

In 1999, the summer before my senior year of high school, I attended Earlham College’s “Explore-A-College” program, where I took a two-week course on Quakerism with Michael Birkel. That class was the first time I (a singer and actress at an arts school) had learned much Quaker history and the first time I learned that early Friends were deeply ambivalent—if not hostile—towards the arts. Early Quakers, beginning with George Fox, but especially the second generation of Quakers, spoke out against many arts, including music and having one’s portrait painted. Their central concern was that performing or being painted were acts of vanity, putting focus on yourself above others and above God. All focus on the individual over the Spirit was to be discouraged. Even worse, acting could be seen as falsehood, lying, inauthenticity and therefore, not living with integrity, a core Quaker testimony. Integrity is a value I have always cherished deeply, and I struggled those weeks with my own faith and with how my beliefs matched my love of acting and the arts in general. It was a rich time of self-exploration.

I went on to attend college at Earlham, where I majored in art history and took a special research course on Quakers and the Arts. Now, almost fourteen years later, I am a professional art historian. I’ve worked for nearly eight years at a small art museum in Denver. In my free time I visit other museums, attend plays, ballets, and operas. And I serve my monthly and yearly meetings. Both Quakerism and art are my passions and my pursuits.

So how does art fit into a life that is built around God, community, simplicity, integrity, equality and peace? How does a girl who grew up at peace vigils in thrift store clothes justify committing forty hours a week to a temple to beauty and worldly objects?

In the art world a distinction is often made between so-called “fine art,” primarily meaning painting and sculpture, and “decorative art.” Decorative art, confusingly, means functional objects like furniture, tableware, and utensils. Fine art need not have a practical function. These terms imply a false hierarchy of value and a false definition of usefulness. Is a chair more useful than a painting? Not necessarily.

Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, where I work, combines both fine art and decorative art in our displays. When I give tours, I like to quote William Morris, founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement in England who said, “If there be a Golden Rule, let it be this: Have nothing in your houses you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” As the museum’s collection attests, “useful” is hard to define. I’ve come to believe, after years of internal struggle, that beauty itself is useful. The spaces we inhabit can feed our souls and imbue them with God’s Light.

This spring, three prestigious American art museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Guggenheim are all exhibiting the life’s work of Quaker light artist James Turrell (b. 1943). Undoubtedly the best-known contemporary Quaker visual artist, embraced by the art community worldwide, Turrell not only uses the metaphor of Light to represent God, he uses light itself as his medium. Rather than using paint or stone, he uses the light that is already in the world to focus our attention, to draw us in. Some of Turrell’s works involve viewing light, some involve being immersed in it to the point of disorientation. Works like the “sky space” he created at Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston, Texas are frames for the observation of natural light. Just as we seek Spirit in Meeting for Worship, Turrell asks those who visit his works to immerse themselves in light and participate in the light spaces he creates. In a 2009 interview with Richard Whittaker, Turrell said, “It’s not my light; it’s not my remembrances to trigger. They are yours. They can only come from a direct experience, by you.” This is what all art has the potential to do. We are invited to engage, to seek, to immerse ourselves in a new world of color, shape or sound, and see how that experience changes our lives, if only for a moment.

Turrell has said he is “working with light in a space so that the light feels to be tangibly present there and seems to be filling the space.” This is what I want to do with my life—feel the tangible presence of God’s Light in me and in the spaces I inhabit.

What I know is this: anything on earth can be either a distraction from or an instrument toward seeking the Divine, depending on its use. Some instruments are more helpful than others, but the difference is less about the instrument and more about the user and the use. One can worship in a minefield, in a quarry full of sharp rocks and loud jackhammers, or one can worship in a quiet empty building. The latter setting may be more helpful for reaching the desired goal, but any space presents a pathway and opportunity. It seems trendy among Quakers to be anti-materialistic and indifferent to possessions. I understand feeling repelled by humanity’s overconsumption of resources and the drive to own the newest, trendiest thing. But I also find it a missed opportunity, feigning indifference to the things we put on our bodies and in the spaces we inhabit. Would your life feel different if your space inspired and empowered you? Could beauty around you help you see God?

The impact and power of an art object is admittedly subjective. Sometimes a piece of art is so powerful it hits you over the head with emotion and energy. The person next to you might not feel much of anything, but the message gets straight through to you and sparks an electrical surge in your heartbeat. This has happened to me several times in life, most powerfully in 2008 when I first saw I Mean, Thank You by Melanie Weidner. Melanie had recently finished the work and showed it to a small group of us at a Quaker committee meeting. It immediately spoke to me so powerfully that I laughed with the deep truth it contained.

The piece shows an outline of a woman, chest open to the world, with messy colorful chakras marked on the form. Swirling around her are energetically drawn swarms of color and words, a beautiful chaos that seems to stretch beyond the edges of the paper. Printed in large, bold serifed letters on top of it all are the words, “Damn.  I mean, thank you.”

Yes! My soul said. Yes! This is the most authentic prayer. The prayer of my life. A reminder that in every moment of disappointment, there is reason for gratitude. The memory of meeting this painting has stayed with me since 2008. Last August, for my 30th birthday, I ordered a giclee print of it for my bedroom wall.

We must keep God close. We must savor the power and awe, the “ah-ha!”s. We must keep learning and seeking. Art is a wonderful instrument for these qualities in my life. There is awe in worship, in nature, in friends and in moments when “Damn!” just slips out. Art has no monopoly on Spirit. Yet the power of beauty and space should not be discounted as a pathway to God.

You learn when you work at a museum that nothing in the building, no artistic masterpiece, is more valuable than a human life. If confronted with a gunman or a fire, we are trained to do whatever is needed to keep the people in the building safe.  I hope this is obvious. But the objects we collect do sometimes become like friends to us. They spark memories, record moments, inspire awe and bring out our best selves.

I used to feel that I would be a better person and Quaker if I was not attached to any worldly possessions. And there still might be truth to that. Many people I admire live without many belongings, devoting themselves and their money to social causes that deeply need our attention. But more and more I recognize that my space is significant and transformative to me. If it is cluttered, I feel stressed. I am most grounded when my home is organized, colorful, designed with meaningful objects, and full of sunlight. I can imbue my space with a sense of holiness and joy, and that in turn grounds and empowers me so that I have more to give the world. I try to invite God into my home daily. I do this in many ways, including by nurturing and empowering my Inner Light, and by finding inspiration in the artwork and objects with which I surround myself.  ♦

Maya D. Wright is a lifelong member and attender of Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver, Colorado. Her skit, “A Short History of Quakerism in 10 Easy Points,” was published in Build It! A Toolkit for Nurturing Intergenerational Spiritual Community, and has been performed at Quaker gatherings all over the world. Maya recently completed her Master's in art history and museum studies at the University of Denver.