I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Martha Jane Petersen’s wisdom on quilting as contemplative prayer:
At age 65, I encountered a major turn in my life’s road. I slowly heeded a Divine call to become an artist. My hesitations gripped me long and hard. At this stage of life? I exclaimed. And what do I do about my writing, and being a minister? Whenever I found myself enmeshed in art – among artists, or at galleries, or in my own art making – my energy revved up, excitement mounted, and joy flooded me. I was led to recognize this as “a call.” It persisted and I saw that art could become a means to share God’s Good News visually, not just verbally. Explorations into painting, weaving, pottery, and art books finally led me to fabric art. I had loved fabrics and made many of my own clothes since my teen years. It felt like rounding a full circle. I disregarded making traditional quilts with their tedious construction, directed by someone else’s design. So I began to make art quilts – wall hangings of fabric – improvisa-tionally. This means my creations arise from my imagination, not from quilt books with set patterns, designs and instructions. In making my quilts, I pre-plan nothing and do not know where I am going when I begin.
When the urge to create a new quilt arises, I simply step forward in my studio to choose fabrics which seize my attention. Motivated only by my longing to create a new quilt – to play with color and shape, and make tangible something invisible – I make hard choices, excluding other beautiful possibilities. After finding an entry point I then arrange and re-arrange these selections through extensive trial and error. I attempt to discern a path without knowing the end result. The rise and fall of energy, what feels right, and checking in repeatedly with my intuition guide me. The design unfolds only as I proceed. The path gains clarity simply as I walk it.
When I have finalized a design, I flesh it out by constructing it. Putting the quilt together presents its own challenges. Sometimes, lengthy hard work may stall me. Sometimes I don’t know a suitable technique to complete a project, or I may have painted myself in a corner, and don’t know how to move beyond the impasse. I experiment with various techniques, some familiar, some I have only heard or read about. In the muddle of chaos, an exciting new thing often emerges, something unexpected, something fresh. As I boldly move ahead, I frequently take a hot iron and fuse pieces together. Or I sit and stitch, sometimes by machine but usually by hand in a contemplative frame of mind.
As a neophyte artist, I soon discovered that, in our work, artists become contemplative. Our focus narrows to the project at hand. We tune out distractions. We pay attention to shape and color, line and rhythm. We gaze at possibilities. I clearly understood this phenomenon in a new quilt. It was birthed in contemplative moments.
Initially the process of working out its design involved ideas, analysis and decisions, The first task of choosing the fabrics led me to settle on small squares, rectangles and a few triangles from three swatches of decorator samples a friend had given me. I cut out those shapes in the fabrics which resembled watercolor washes in shades of green, burgundy, pink and creamy white. Then I arranged the pieces in a path from the dark reds and greens at the bottom to the white in the top right corner. I labored over blending the colors from one shape to the next with no abrupt change. It felt like putting together the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Swooping up from the lower left hand corner to the upper right, a curved line of red embroidery interlaced with gold metallic threads anchored down a few of the pieces. I fastened the rest to the back by hand with beads: dozens of beads sewed in almost every corner of the geometric shapes. The beading required inserting invisible nylon thread into an almost invisible eye of a skinny needle. Threading the needle and knotting the thread proved challenging. The thread frequently tangled and I’d have to start over. I stitched the beads by drawing up the knotted thread from back to top, piercing the hole of the bead and down to the back several times to secure the bead. Up and down. Bead after bead after bead, day after day after day.
In the process, analysis faded as I concentrated on my work. Contemplation took hold when the quiet repetitive action of my hands allowed my inner self to grow quiet. Every other part of my life fell away when I gave the quilt my full attention, time and energy. I was thoroughly focused, totally absorbed. Not reflecting, not considering what to do next, not ruminating – just absorbed. The repetitive process captured my body and mind, heart and spirit. In and out, up and down. Over and over again. My mind was stilled, my verbalizing halted, and with the stillness, God’s presence enfolded me. “Hands to work, hearts to God,” the Shaker saying came alive. In communion with God I was praying wordlessly through my work, my hands, my eyes. The up and down motion centered me. Stitching the beads stitched me to God.
Portions of this Post is excerpted from Martha Jane Petersen’s new memoir Imaging My Inner Fire: Finding My Path through Creating Art. A fabric artist, writer and retired Presbyterian minister, she lives with her husband in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina.