Sacred Artist Interview: Matthew Whitney

I first discovered Matthew Whitney‘s art through the Image Journal‘s email newsletter. I am always looking for artists to include in the Presence journal, and I loved Matthew’s work and was delighted to find out he is also a fellow Seattleite. (In fact, for those of you who live in the area, he has a solo exhibition opening on December 4th at the Marni Muir Gallery here in Seattle.

I am grateful to Matt for his thoughtfulness and willingness to share his insights into the connections between the spiritual journey and the creative process here with you, my wonderful readers.

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Are you rooted in a particular faith tradition?
I believe in one God the Creator, who created the world good and beautiful. I believe that human sin broke the beauty and corrupted the world, but that Christ redeemed it by the act on the cross. Thus, despite the corruption, we live in a good, beautiful world.

What is your primary medium?
I make pictures; specifically oil paint on canvas.

How do you experience the connection between spirituality and creativity?
I consider spirituality to be a very real thing – a combination of the use of our senses with the soul to achieve awareness of that which is Good. For a long time I thought spirituality was something “real”, yet beyond reality, as if it were some sort of magical, out of body experience, or having God appear like lightning out of the sky. Some of my paintings attempt to tackle this idea. What I’ve discovered for myself is that the opposite is true –what makes us spiritual beings is simply being aware of the gift of our humanity. God created us human and he created this world for the human soul to experience. So, I find it is a natural reaction for us to be creative, and to make art about this gift of our humanity, of being humans living in Creation.

What role does spiritual practice have in artmaking?
I think spiritual practice is about being aware of our humanity. Being alive, and seeing the good in it, is spiritual practice. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” For me it’s more like, “I am, therefore I am.” Or, “I like the smell of a strong cup of coffee and to see the steam rise off it on a freezing cold morning, therefore I am.” Making art is a uniquely human activity – it is about pursuing a heightened awareness of our soul, and of our place in the world. To use a cliché, it’s a means to “stop and smell the roses.”

What sparked your spiritual journey?
The need to answer questions of spirituality for myself. I wondered whether we were truly spiritual beings. I wonder what is True and what is really Real? I have found for myself that without God and the grace of a redeemed world, we really are just animals that bounce off one another in an existential cosmos. I simply cannot accept that. There is something higher that motivates us, moves us; something further than what we can see in front of us, but we know in our hearts its there. Animals don’t make art, and they don’t practice faith. We are made uniquely and with a yearning for God. When confronted with questions about spirituality, I always quote my favorite poem, Raymond Carver’s In Switzerland, where he ends it with:

All of us, all of us, all of us
Trying to save
our immortal souls, some ways
seemingly more round-
about and mysterious than others.
We’re having a good time here
but hope all will be revealed soon.

What sparked my artistic journey?
It started with an ability to draw. All through life, I made friends by drawing cool pictures. I yearned for the school projects that involved dioramas, posters, etc. However I never really dreamed of being an artist. Not to sound like a stereotypical Christian, but if I look back at the events of my life, I feel like I’ve been led to be a painter. I never believed that being an artist would ever amount to anything, and so I tried to find “comfortable” career paths for myself. Yet despite having worldly success in these paths, I never found any satisfaction or contentment with those careers. Events in my life kept pulling me back to the easel, and a blank canvas to cover with paint. It’s there that I find satisfaction with my life.

Do you have a particular process you use when entering into your artmaking?
I keep a sketchbook on me nearly all the time. Besides drawings, I write ideas and meditations out as they come to me. That’s where I work out most of my painting concepts. I then carve out time to make art, and I use that time to do it, whether I am in the “mood” or not. Artmaking really is a practice when it comes down to it.

How does your artmaking shape your image of God?
Making pictures helps me refine my faith. It helps me answer questions about our world, reality, and myself in a way that words don’t do justice. Imagination is an important thing. If we are made “in the image of God”, then creating images ourselves can help us see into the transcendent reality of our world.

Art from top to bottom: Fear, Save Us, The Sleep of Faith

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It is a gift to me to have the opportunity to ask gifted artists these questions about spirituality and artistic expression because I see things from another perspective each time, a new window into this journey about which I have so much passion. While reading Matt’s words, many images struck a chord with me. I love the beautiful simplicity of defining spirituality: “what makes us spiritual beings is simply being aware of the gift of our humanity. . . it is a natural reaction for us to be creative, and to make art about this gift of our humanity.” In his words about art-making as practice and carrying a sketchbook, I am reminded of a writing teacher who encouraged me years ago to always carry a notebook so that I would always think of myself as a writer. And of course, I always love a great poem to illustrate a point.

Thank you so much again to Matthew Whitney for sharing his insights.  Please visit his website for more images.

-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts

My site was nominated for Best Religion Blog!

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