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Monk in the World Guest Post: Sharon Johnson

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series. Read on for Sharon Dawn Johnson’s reflection, “The Green-Beaded Branch.”

‘Mary as the greenest branch.’

At the moment of reading this startling phrase, an image of a green-beaded branch appears in my mind’s eye – and issues an invitation, “Bring me to life.”

I’m intrigued by this new-to-me name for Mary, even though I’m already rooting in the green power of viriditas, the term coined by Hildegard of Bingen. The V-word constantly alerts me to the life-greening sap flowing in my body and in the world. So, when the beaded image shimmers in the visio divina way of sacred seeing, I sense my artist-self being summoned. I say yes to the invitation.

The calling to creative service as a bead and fibre artist enriches my monk-artist practices. The process proves to be a different matter, however. I struggle with the push-pull transition from the completeness of a mind’s eye image to seeking a suitable branch and starting the branch-encircling bead work. What kind of branch? Where to find it?

Months pass as other losses and responsibilities press in. I grieve the front garden loss of a long-established shrub, a hibiscus syriacus (also named Rose of Sharon). All summer long, I resist uprooting its woody remains. Then, one September morning – Hildegard’s feast day – I discover fresh shoots sprouting from under the soil. Surprise!

The unseen roots generate new life. I accept the hidden gift that long-grieved loss contains the green viriditas power to become the place of new life for me too. This natural cycle gives evidence and meaning to my own spiritual growth and composting seasons.

For thirty-five years, the hibiscus syriacus has shown climatic resilience and adaptability because of its microclimate location. Winter snow insulates the shrub and the sun’s heat on the nearby brick wall regulates its life, winter and summer. Six weeks of large rose-mauve flowers in mid-summer proclaim the shrub’s hardy nature.

The new growth allows me to cull the dead wood, repurposing it for an artwork. I choose one small branch to bear the beading. The front garden’s shrubby gift inscribes in me a heart-etched lesson about yearning – contemplative and artistic. What I long for dwells closer to home than I ever imagined possible!

Thanks to a retort stand with adjustable test tube holder, I have a ‘third hand’ to grip the velvet-wrapped base of the branch. Using that hand, I can twist and turn the beading. Easier said than done! The artwork’s experimental nature twists and turns me out of my comfort zone. My trial-and-error methods offer a way to grow the work and myself as monk and artist. My studio becomes a sacred space, the creative work a new way of praying.

I make several unanticipated discoveries. Though I can wrap threads on certain twiggy branches, I can’t directly bead onto the main ones. The twigs add overall form and three-dimensional space, yet their dry fragility means they’re likely to break if accidentally pressured. While the third hand holds steady, my own hands must be mindful to maneuver without doing damage.

Some bead shapes prove too big or awkward to snug around a limb; the workable ones still slither around so I can’t position them. They too twist and turn, just like me and my third hand.

I devise new methods to bead the main branch sections using small, freeform sections fitted to particular spots, and add armholes or straps where necessary. Bead, fit, bead, fit again, repeat. I attach one straight section stitched in RAW (right angle weave) using invisible lacing. I’m pleased with the results, but feel raw, so I seek balm in Hildegard’s choral tonics.

Even though her viriditas themes bring fullness to my life, I don’t yet know that Hildegard originated the Mary as greenest branch phrase and set it to music. O, viridissima virga, ave… (O, greenest branch, hail…)

The slow-ripening months fill with many viriditas dreams that keep me energized, like a Camino pilgrim walking step-by-step. I’m puzzled, though, by one that I have no time to digest. The dream pictures a well-tailored emerald green jacket – no comments, no feelings, no associations. A month later, I remember my mother’s stories of my dressmaker grandmother who could cut out garments freeform without paper patterns. I gasp to realize – I’m tailoring a made-to-measure garment of praise for Mary!

But the greatest surprise still awaits me, a further month along the Epiphany road.

I intend to mount the Mary branch on mottled green fabric stretched over a 6-inch x 12-inch frame, but size doubts prompt me to consult an art teacher/ fibre friend. I’m stunned when my friend suggests re-orienting the work. She is right.

I find myself floating, suddenly, like Hildegard’s feather on the breath of God. When we shift the vertical format I’d first envisioned to the horizontal, Mary As The Greenest Branch comes alive!

Sharon Johnson, a writer and bead/ fibre artist living in Ottawa, Canada, created Mary As The Greenest Branch during 2018 and 2019. Currently, she is beading the fourth in a series of green artworks. She belongs to Out of the Box, a local group of artists exploring diverse fibre-related media.

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