Marybeth Leis Druery is another one of the wonderful artists I have had the privelege to encounter through my art editing work with the Presence Journal for the spiritual direction community. Her website Contemplative Art is filled with her luminous watercolors and purchase of her beautiful cards and prints goes to support Student Open Circles.
I always feel a sense of kindredness to the artists who so willingly share their wisdom here, and in a particular way with Marybeth. Not so much her religious upbringing, as the influences on her ways of being now. So read on for more illumination!
Are you rooted in a particular faith tradition?
While in university, I left the extremely fundamentalist Christianity that I grew up with and began a journey of finding my roots in the life and teachings of Jesus while deeply valuing interspiritual conversation and formation. I have difficulty fitting myself into any boxes, given how rigid the boxes were that I grew up with. But instead I find the margins more life-giving. Perhaps I can see further from here. Spending time in these border regions has developed in me a commitment to building bridges which I do in my work with university students, bringing together young people from diverse backgrounds to explore deeper meaning and get involved in service together.
I find the More in all that is. My experience is that very near to us, just beneath a thin veil is a light that infuses everything, a love that lies at the heart of the universe. I miss it so easily. We all do – and I hope my paintings lift the veil in some small way as the process of creating them does for me, inviting me to abandon fear and control for the amazing dance of life!
What is your primary art medium?
I love working with watercolours, the way they flow and call me into letting go. Their luminous quality opens the up the light within me and helps me express movement and energy.
Many of my paintings are mandalas, a symbol of wholeness which has been part of human spiritual expression throughout history and across many cultures. It is based on the circle, being symbolic of, among many things, eternity, centeredness and oneness. The mandala can be used as an object for focusing attention in meditation.
How do you experience the connection between spirituality and creativity?
Painting connects me with a deep part of myself, expressing my experience of what Hildegard of Bingen calls the "invisible life which sustains all." I have an intuitive sense that I am entering the dance of creation, co-creating with the flow of the Real through me.
Otto Rank says that art (and I would add creativity) "is the potential restoration of a union with the cosmos, which once existed and was then lost." There are few places in Western society that encourage us to slow down, reflect, and connect to deeper realities. Instead of calling us to explore who we are and what our purpose is, our consumer society directs our focus to security, productivity and appearance. In creating we find a sacred space that invites us to enter in, search for meaning, and engage our being. Here I move beyond the external stories imposed on me and discover more of my true nature and authentic voice, which is a deeply spiritual journey for me.
What role does spiritual practice have in your art-making?
I experience my art-making as a form of centering prayer in the way that Gerald May describes prayer: "immediacy in the present moment, honesty of desire, some kind of reaching toward the source" or "to simply be yourself." It takes "practice" since letting go and simply "being" do not come easily.
Over the holidays, my 8-year-old niece gave me a drawing she made of how she imagines me painting. In it I have a huge smile that stretches from ear to ear and I'm sitting in eager anticipation on the edge of my chair. What really stands out to me is the light fixture she drew suspended to hang just above the table with strong yellow rays reaching out and touching everything. I wish that my experience of my painting "practice" always felt this delightful and infused with light. But in reality it's a constant struggle between letting it flow from my authentic center and the voices within me that focus on the outcome and what other people might think. Yet in those moments where I surrender to what is, five minutes can feel like an eternity as I lose my self in the mystery of creation.
I try to paint with the intention that each piece is only for my own process and journey – that I don't need to show it to anyone else. From this perspective, I more easily slip into surrender to the moment. I try to adopt the attitude that there are no mistakes, just information. Each piece is an opportunity for learning and growth. As the U2 song puts it: "grace finds beauty in everything." My spiritual practice of painting is a place where I am understanding grace more deeply. In the moment is where I find grace, not being concerned with the past where I might look for comparisons or with the future where I question if the outcome will be good enough. But rather, this moment is where I get out of the way and live from a place that is deeper than ego. Here I become an instrument for something larger unfolding in the universe.
What sparked your spiritual journey?
I had a sense of a loving Divine presence surrounding and filling me from an early age, particularly in nature. And while the images of the God that I was raised with invoked fear and trembling, I see now that a deeper sense of this all-embracing Presence has sustained me. I was drawn to a deeper spiritual journey through the despair I felt in my teenage years, prompting me to really question the purpose of life and to look for deeper meaning. And this journey has intertwined with my artistic journey.
What sparked your artistic journey?
Looking back on my childhood, I started out very creative, but I picked up so many messages along the way that deadened this part of me – messages that told me I need to be approved of by others, be productive, and get it right, which all served to squelch my creativity. While I continued to sketch through out my teenage years, my drawing was focused on perfection and was, therefore, a source of anxiety. So instead of pursuing a more creative field, I took math at university since I knew when I "got it right." However, with time, I have been led into fields which more deeply match my gifts and interests, companioning young adults in their spiritual and creative unfolding. Several years ago, I took the Jubilee Spiritual Direction training program which encouraged a wholistic approach to spiritual formation. I began to explore my spiritual journey through painting, discovering more of my creative self in this process. I also began to pay closer attention to my dreams as a key to my inner life, noticing that they were revealing how I was ignoring my artistic self. I felt called to pick up and nurture the creative child within which has led me into a deeper spiritual journey.
Do you have a particular process you use when entering into your creative work?
Living in a reflective way is vital to my creative process. I need to be committed to listening to my own life and the lives of others, looking for the light just beyond the thin veil everywhere.
One of my favourite writers, Frederick Buechner, describes his creative writing process when he says: "As nearly as I understand the process, I am simply letting an empty space open up inside myself and waiting for something to fill it." Living reflectively helps me to open up that empty space inside and it's from this deep place that images sometimes emerge. I can't control this process but it usually happens when I'm giving attention to my inner life in some way such as in meditating, reading, journaling, or guided meditations. I use a sketchbook to collect ideas and when I've set aside creative space, I play with the ideas, images and colours through a dynamic process where I try to let go of control and stay away from having a strong outcome in mind.
Pat Allen in Art is a Way of Knowing says that "paint is feeling liquified" and sometimes my process is to simply paint how I'm feeling. I then put this abstract piece aside, and later, pick it up, sit with it, and further develop form within it that connects with my experience at the time. It's amazing to me how the colours, layers, or images often reflect what I am experiencing in ways I was not conscious of while painting it. It's also been helpful to see layered meanings within my paintings through reflecting on them with my spiritual director. And recently I've begun the practice of journaling which each painting on where it's come from, where it might lead me, and what I noticed in the process of creation.
How does your art-making shape your image of God?
I find it easier to express my "theology" in paint than in words. Words about God are often "loaded" but images help me communicate past these barriers. I was raised in a very strict religious upbringing where, as a woman, I wasn't given a voice or dignity. God was seen as distant and demanding, and creation was no longer happening. What I've discovered is that creation is ongoing and I am invited to co-create with the Divine. My artistic expression has been part of my path to finding my voice and a life-giving spirituality that is an alternative to the patriarchal religion I was raised with. And has significantly helped me to live with mystery, unknowing, wonder, and ambiguity in my relationship with the Divine.
A warm and heartfelt thank you to Marybeth Leis Druery. As I said in my opening comments, I felt a kindred connection to her spirit, a fellow border-dweller and someone who offers her art as a way to "lift the veil", even if just for a moment. I am captivated by her quote from Otto Rank, that art "is the potential restoration of a union with the cosmos, which once existed and was then lost" and will be contemplating the poetry of at image for a long while.
Images from Top to Bottom: Picked Too Soon, Wonder, Circle of Light, Lament, Coming Home, Beginnings, Opening to Life, Emerge, Hope
-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts