Sacred Artist Interview: Katharine Houk

I was first introduced to the work of Katharine Houk by Tess at Anchors and Masts. I love it when people point me to their favorite artists (hint hint) because I always discover someone with tremendous grace and beauty in service to others.

Katharine is a textile artist who creates these beautiful and tactile ritual pieces including garments, stoles, and banners.  She was so gracious to take time to respond to my Sacred Artist Interview questions and offer us a window into her creative process and spiritual path. 

So read on for more wisdom:

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Are you rooted in a particular faith tradition?

In my childhood, before the Universalist and Unitarian Churches merged in the early 60’s, I attended a Universalist church, which was the church of my mother and her family. The open and inquiring Christianity I experienced within that church merged with my numinous childhood experiences in the natural world to lead me to a cosmic view of religion and spirituality. Both parents were science professors, and my father was atheist, which was an interesting family dynamic involving much questioning and exploration on my part. On this lifelong journey, I’ve graduated from both Christian and interfaith seminaries, because what calls me is the big picture, and our place within it.

My spiritual journey has always been a part of who I am, beginning with the kinds of questions I asked my parents in my preschool years. I cannot remember a time when I was not fascinated with the depth and breadth of life’s being, meaning and purpose, even as a child.

What is your primary art medium?

In addition to my youthful love of the outdoors, I enjoyed playing with cloth, so I was delighted to discover the art medium of textiles when I was in my twenties. Thus I graduated with a degree in design in fibers. I’ve always loved making things with my hands, and fiber is a very tactile medium – textures, colors, and layers. My work celebrates beauty and the world: playfulness, images from nature, Celtic knots and spirals, and transformative themes. You’ll find landscapes, inspiration from animals and plants, and spiraling energy in my work. People come to me especially when they need something meaningful or symbolic, so I tend to hear from churches and individuals needing garments or other items for ritual and celebration. A growing part of my work involves recycling and “upcycling” castoffs – clothing, fabrics, and scraps – into beautiful and useful items, in the spirit of living more lightly on the Earth. The studio where I work doubles as a safe space where people can come to speak with me.

My largest and most exciting project, a work in process, is Temple of the Cosmos, a room-size tent-like portable environment created of sheer fabrics imaginatively depicting the story of cosmic, biological, and cultural emergence. This colorful, diaphanous space will be home to whatever is called forth by the light and imagery within it: ritual, celebration, meditation, or whatever else emerges. I hope to offer experiences and gatherings within the Temple to groups and communities.

How do you experience the connection between spirituality and creativity?

I cannot separate spirituality and creativity, because in my experience they are one and the same. I understand God, or the sacred, as the everywhere-present process of creativity at the heart of life and our lives, our evolving cosmos, and our emergent cultural processes and expressions, including religious traditions. The Christian tradition speaks of the being born anew in Christ, the Buddhist tradition of awakening to our Buddha nature, which are other ways, among many, of expressing this sacred experience and process. We clothe the ultimate and unknowable in our sacred metaphors, stories, and artwork.

My work is re-enchantment. It’s about waking up, seeing life and the world anew, creating conditions such that we have an opportunity to experience the grace of our emergent universe. Each day, each moment, we are poised at the developing edge of that creativity, that newness that is our life, our possibility. Since the beginning of time, powerful forces of emergence have given us our selves and all that is. And this emergence remains as mystery, despite the pronouncements of both theologians and scientists. The creation of the Temple of the Cosmos is my small attempt to express the wonder of this mystery and to offer support for living courageously into the unknown.

Each day, I try to take time to engage in contemplative spiritual practices, whether reading, meditation, chanting, or movement – the form has varied over the years. Being outdoors in wild places rejuvenates me and holds many spiritual lessons for me, and inspires ideas and imagery for my artwork. In church, family, and other gatherings, the spiritual practices of right relationship and interrelationship beckon. Each of these practices sustains me in my daily living, helping to keep me centered, focused, awake and aware. It’s a challenge, to be sure, but one worth pursuing.

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

My art-making itself is spiritual practice. When I enter into the work of creating something tangible, it involves a shift of consciousness. I often light a candle before beginning, and play music or chants, to signal the move to the state of flow that characterizes the work. It isn’t easy to express this experience in words. It is a process of being open and receptive to what the materials are saying to me, merged with my original intention and all the ideas and experiences that have brought me to the moment. Though I am working alone, everything and everyone I’ve experienced has contributed to that moment.

How does your art-making shape your image of God?

Art-making is about creativity, about bringing something into being that has not been before. It is also about co-creativity in the form of relationship, and about acting and doing, although we cannot know beforehand what may unfold. My image of the sacred, or God, has always been a shifting, emerging, ever-renewing imaginative expression of the creativity of which we are consisted and in which we are embedded. This may sound abstract, but in living, it is very immediate and earthy. Wherever and whenever I am in relationship – with self, another, the materials of my art-making, or the Earth – there exists sacred possibility. And these relationships are daily and embodied, powerful and personal.
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Thank you again to Katharine for sharing such insightful words.  In reading about her work and seeing her art, I want to walk through the Temple of the Cosmos!  What an incredible sensory experience that must be.

Her path is luminous and I found myself inspired especially by this definition of the integration of God and creativity: “I understand God, or the sacred, as the everywhere-present process of creativity at the heart of life and our lives, our evolving cosmos, and our emergent cultural processes and expressions, including religious traditions.”  Yes, a God who pulses through every moment of our lives, through each process that unfolds.  I also love the image of her work as “re-enchantment” — what a refreshing framework for the purpose of art-making.

Make sure to visit Katharine Houk‘s website!

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(c) Christine Valters Paintner at Abbey of the Arts:
Transformative Living through Contemplative & Expressive Arts

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