In the late 1960s, a researcher named Frank Barron explored the relationship of religion and creativity and whether being religious and/or spiritual had an effect on the artist. He interviewed Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and a Hindu, as well as a number of others. The interviews were quite straightforward until he talked about the Quaker artist. His writing about this artist took a different turn. It was as if he was stopped in his tracks and felt a different tone in this interview. Reading the interview was like reading a hush or silence or something that was going deeper in its connections. He says, “She spoke of the Quaker silences. She thinks everyone should be silent at special times. . . [She] was quite unusual in bearing and demeanor, and in her manner of talking. She spoke in a very low and even tone, and everything she said seemed to come up from depths. She was completely lacking in social front.” (Frank Barron, 1968)
At that time, I was at the beginning of my exploration of this subject, which in a sense has been my life’s work. As a new Quaker, reading that interview became a guide and a light for me in approaching my arts – which were theater and writing – with the quiet and the integrity with which I was learning to approach life through my Quaker practice.
A number of Quaker artists have described a relationship between their Quaker practice and their art. Some of these artists are well-known and were either members or attenders of Quaker meetings, including actors James Dean, Judi Dench, and Tyne Daly, writer James Michener, singers Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez, architects James Turrell and Tim Vreeland, and cartoonists Signe Wilkinson and Ed Sorrel. Their abilities to dwell in the silence, sit in the Light, and seek the Truth have direct correlations to the ways they do their art.
The way Quaker artists talk about doing their art seems very much in tune with the stories of creation in the Bible. Although not all Quakers identify with Jewish and Christian theology, there are certain elements of this theology that seem particularly in tune with Quaker faith and practice.
The creation stories in Genesis generally begin with chaos and antagonism and tension. In the Genesis stories, right before creation begins, the Spirit hovers over the waters of the deep. The Hebrew word for “hover” is rachaph, and it’s the same word used for an eagle hovering over her nest. There is a sense of quiet and calm and brooding and warming the egg. This word implies incubation. There is a protective love bringing life into being. There is a sense of peace without anxiety and fear.
Of course, many artists begin their creative processes with desperation and with a sense of being frantic and frenetic. As Quakers, many of us try to begin with a sense of waiting and listening. It is not a rush. It is not a time of grabbing but a time of letting go, letting things emerge and evolve.
The subject matter of any artist is an expression of what is brewing inside of them. Our art doesn’t come out of nowhere. Sometimes the subject matter is directly connected with our Quaker values and beliefs. Lighting designer and architect James Turrell works with the play of Light. He creates architectural spaces that allow us “to greet the Light” and to sit in the Light.
Many Quaker architects use natural elements like wood and stone and are very aware of how the Light plays on these surfaces. We can see this in most of the earliest Quaker meetinghouses and many recent ones.
Pulitzer-prize-winning cartoonist Signe Wilkinson creates cartoons that expose and express social justice issues. She shines a light through humor on current events so we see the hypocrisy or the problem more clearly.
In my own writing, when I feel I have not gone deep enough and am simply saying what has been said before, I sit in silence and imagine Light penetrating into my heart and even into my gut, trying to find the Truth of the matter.
Our connection with the Spirit allows us to move into community, which is actually part of the art form for many of us who work in dance, theater, film, or music. When I was directing theater, I worked to create a community made up of my cast and crew. I learned to see each of them as equal and important and worthy of respect. When we moved to the actual performance of the play, I thought of the audience as being a community I wanted to embrace as part of the whole production.
Over my fifty years in the arts, I have increasingly become aware of the different gifts that each person in that community brings, from what seemingly is the smallest part of an art work, such as hanging the light so it illuminates what we clearly want to see, to the actual beauty of a production or a piece of art.
Even those who do their art in solitude recognize the importance of others. Plenty of great writers have been saved by great editors. Many great dancers have been able to express their inspiration and abilities because of the choreographer – and the choreographer gets inspiration from the dancers. The actor is helped to find the truth of the role by working with the director. The musician is as dependent on the composer as the composer is dependent on the great musician.
In the Bible, creation is done through teamwork and relationship. The word for “God” in Genesis is “Elohim,” which is a plural word. When God makes Adam and Eve, the phrase is: “Let us make man in our image.” In Proverbs 8, God is creating with Wisdom (Sophia) as the master craftsperson at His side. What seems on the surface to be a singular act never is.
In Jewish and Christian theology, there is joy at creation. When the Book of Job talks about the creation, it says “all the morning stars sang with joy.” In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is co-creating with God, and she is a delight to God.
There is another stage in the creative process that has always struck me as compatible with Quakerism. In Genesis it says, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all of the work of creating that he had done.”
In Jewish theology, rest is not just taking the day off. There is a sense of lying fallow. We might try to make a difference through our art for six days, but on the seventh day, we don’t push the envelope, we rejoice in what has been created. In Judaism, the Sabbath is to be a day of joy and celebration.
It is so easy for me to feel like pushing and changing and making things better and acting and doing. Being a Quaker has helped temper this. I believe this might have been something Frank Barron felt during his interview with the Quaker. There was something about her authenticity that was reaching into his still and quiet place. He felt it. It always feels to me that when I move into that space, the outward expression becomes much purer and clearer and more truthful. We seek this as Quaker artists. We seek this as Quakers in our lives. ~~~
Linda Seger has been a Quaker since 1970 and lives in the Colorado Rockies. She has a ThD in Religion and the Arts, and has studied and practiced this intersection of creativity and spirituality for over fifty years. Her latest book is God’s Part in Our Art: Making Friends with the Creative Spirit.