In his boldly-titled blog post “Beauty will Save the World,” Dr. Curt Thompson urges readers to find and create beauty in art and the natural world even, and especially, during the stress of a global pandemic. He argues that noticing and creating beauty brings us into the present moment: “These acts of creativity give us a sense of agency, of acting in this world that, for the moment in which we are creating, changes it by focusing our attention on beauty.” Thompson says that when we create or pay attention to beauty, we “actively engage our brain’s right hemisphere’s mode of attunement to the world, the mode that keeps us temporally engaged in the present moment.”
Artist and teacher Mary Abma of Sarnia Christian School in Ontario agrees that attunement, of losing a sense of time while immersed in a project, is a wonderful gift: “That’s when I feel closest to God; that’s when I feel like I am truly praying.”
During online distance learning, Abma offered her students an art lesson inspired by the outdoor art of Andy Goldsworthy. Her YouTube lesson invited students to get off their devices and go outdoors to find inspiration in nature. Sarnia Christian School students created designs out of what they found outside: “They used anything from stones to plants to sticks. A lot of them used a combination of whatever they had in their yard. They didn’t have to go far afield.”
Students arranged items they found with symmetry in mind and took a photograph of the final design. This type of art does not leave a footprint but captures a moment in time: “The artwork remains [only] in the photograph.” Abma explains that this type of project is “a responsible way to do land art; it doesn’t take from the natural environment.”
Shadow and light
Abma’s students also participated in a visual prayer project. She challenged them to find an object, photograph it with attention to the interplay of light and shadow, and write a prayer about its symbolic meaning. Some parents, grandparents and community members near and far joined in.
Participants explored the effect of shadow and light in their photographs. Shadow is significant in many ways: “It gives a depth and a 3D quality to the work from an artistic point of view.” She gave as an example one particularly striking photograph of a toy syringe coming out of the shadow into the light. Shadow and light exist in relation to each other, as do hope and sorrow. “It’s the human condition,” Abma says. “We hold this duality in our hands all the time.” The prayer project gave participants an opportunity to express this tension visually and in reflective writing.
The photographs and prayers that were contributed to the prayer project were gathered together on a website, in keeping with a philosophy that art is made in community, for the community, and was a unique artistic experience: “Art doesn’t have to be a painting or a sculpture.”
On the path of beauty together
This community approach was also evident in a parallel project, a Prayer Walk related to Psalm 27. On the first of five “Screen-Free Fridays,” students from Sarnia Christian School went for a walk with suggested prayers and photographs, such as thanking God for life while photographing an example of new life. In Abma’s words, “It brought people outside, and they actually walked in the world with this intention, a prayerful intention.” Taking photographs along the way made an abstract experience more embodied.
Abma believes that putting ourselves on the path of beauty, living in resonance with it, is essential during this time in which people are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as with racial injustice. She says it will rescue us “at least psychologically, if not physically.” For this reason, she plans to spend her summer working (at a safe distance!) with some students on a mural that they started earlier in the year for Vision Nursing and Rest Home’s affordable housing building, Wellington Flats, in Sarnia. This project is a group effort: “My work and my philosophy involve community. It is a community of people saying, ‘let’s do this.’”
Students are creating 20 panels that will become a large, community-driven art installation to show the past, the present and the future of the piece of land where the building is located as well as its flora, fauna, soil, water and geography. During the quarantine, they persisted with this project at home, completing tasks they could do at a distance, such as photo transfers and even remote interviews with residents.
The project will now include references to COVID-19. Vision Nursing Home experienced an outbreak of the virus, “such a desperate struggle with it.” The experience of the pandemic will be added to the mural in some way: “That story is part of the mural now. It can’t not be.”
Transforming stories of struggle and sorrow into art is an act of prayer and redemption. Thompson argues that, in Christ, beauty has the final word over death: “We must look for and live in resonance with that very oncoming beauty.”