Sacred Artist Interview: Jan Richardson

I have been a fan of Jan Richardson's work for a long time.  Her books In Wisdom's Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season and Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas are two of my favorites because of their combining of word and image. Unfortunately the latter of those two is only available used through Amazon now as very expensive copies (I helped Jan sell out of her own copies), but she is working on getting it re-printed. I also enjoy Sacred Journeys: A Woman's Book of Daily Prayer, filled with Jan's meaningful words.  She also has a beautiful blog at Painted Prayer Book.

Even though we have never met I have long felt a kinship with Jan, in large part because of her own Benedictine connections, her use of lectio divina, and her love of illuminated manuscripts and the way she sees her work as a contemporary extension of that tradition.  When I first discovered her work I felt like it was the first time I encountered someone who was doing the kind of work I was being called to do.

So I am grateful for the opportunity to connect with Jan in recent months by email and even more grateful that I get to feature her here for this week's interview.

Are you rooted in a particular faith tradition?

I come from a long line of Methodists and am an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. I have drawn much sustenance from wellsprings of the Catholic tradition, particularly from monastic spirituality. I spent some years as the Artist in Residence at a retreat center run by Franciscans, and I’m connected with St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery, which draws from both Methodist and Benedictine traditions.

What is your primary art medium?

I first began to experience myself as an artist through the medium of paper collage, and I keep returning to that medium in various forms. I’ve recently begun to make collages from tissue paper that I’ve painted, and I’m loving the new creative doors that’s opening for me. I also began working in charcoal a few years ago. With the charcoal, I work in a very spare style; it’s a great counterpoint to the more intricate, colorful collage work. I’m also really engaged with words as a creative medium. I’m a writer as well as an artist, and I am passionate about projects in which I get to intertwine words and images, particularly in book form. In recent months I’ve been exploring the word-image connection in the blog that I’ve created, Painted Prayer Book.

What role does spiritual practice have in your art-making?

There are spiritual practices that give me a framework for understanding and engaging my creative life. For instance, I’ve come to think of my creative work as an ongoing process of lectio divina, a Greek term for sacred reading. Lectio divina is an ancient way of praying with a sacred text, not only the Bible but any sacred text, including the text of our own lives. Making art gives me a way to reflect on my life, to read and interpret the stories and experiences that are inscribed on my soul. Art-making is a way to crawl into a text, to explore and ponder it from the inside, and to make my own contribution to the telling of the story.

Creating art is itself a form of spiritual practice. Spiritual practice, whether or not it involves physical creating, invites us to work on everything that comes up in our journey. Being an artist presents me with all kinds of opportunities to do that work, to keep chipping away at the challenges that come in the creative process, including resistance, envy, and weariness.

Spiritual practices remind us of the value and necessity of giving ourselves to the daily habits that deepen our souls. Bursts of inspiration and leaps in our artistic work usually rest on the bedrock of routines we have developed. Those routines may sometimes be mind-numbingly boring, but they’re what help us show up and make ourselves available to the creative spirit. The mundane and the miraculous are intimately intertwined.

What inspires your spiritual journey? What inspires your artistic journey?

I am a book fiend. Books offer endless fascination and inspiration on my spiritual journey as well as my artistic journey. In the last few years, I’ve found huge inspiration in studying medieval illuminated manuscripts, which often incorporated images and words as a way of helping people pray. Sometimes these books overtly make their way into my artwork, such as the series The Hours of Mary Magdalene, which was inspired by medieval Books of Hours. The influence of these manuscripts isn't always overt; more often, these books subtly shape my work with their insights into the relationship between words and images, and what that relationship can invite us to. From exquisite prayerbooks to texts of biblical books such as the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Apocalypse, these manuscripts demonstrate how books can offer their readers an interior pilgrimage, a portable cathedral, a sacrament, a threshold to the divine. I want my work to invite folks into the kind of space that these artful, sacred books offered their readers: a thin place, to borrow a term from Celtic spirituality. A place where heaven and earth meet.

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Thank you again to Jan for sharing these words with us.  So much resonates here with me, especially her reflections on lectio divina as "an ancient way of praying with a sacred text, not only the Bible but any sacred text, including the text of our own lives. Making art gives me a way to reflect on my life, to read and interpret the stories and experiences that are inscribed on my soul. Art-making is a way to crawl into a text, to explore and ponder it from the inside, and to make my own contribution to the telling of the story."  I am going to ponder the image of the stories inscribed on my soul and how I might crawl inside the texts of my tradition and offer my own vision from that place.

Make sure to visit her beautiful website and her blog with reflections for the season of Lent.  Remember she also has some lovely handmade books for Advent & Christmas, Lent & Easter, and on Revelation available. 

(images from top to bottom: The Welcome Table, Mother Root, At Her Table: Mary Magdalene with a Book of Hours, The Crucifixion, Advent Window)

** Make sure to visit this week’s Poetry Party **

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