CREATING ART AS AN ACT OF PRAYER
by Erika Hastings
In 2003 I completed my research and thesis for my master’s degree at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. The following is a summary of my thesis entitled, Creating Art as an Act of Prayer.
WHAT WAS YOUR INSPIRATION?
My journey with the topic of creating art as prayer began with a quote that I read from Abdu’l-Bahá, an important figure in the Baha’í Faith, where he describes the act of creating art as worship and prayer. “In this wonderful new age, art is worship. The more thou strivest to perfect it, the closer wilt thou come to God. What bestowal could be greater than this, that one’s art should be even as the act of worshipping the Lord? That is to say, when thy fingers grasp the paint brush, it is as if thou wert at prayer in the Temple.” Every time I read this quote, I marveled at its sheer contrast to 20th Century thinking. What does this look like? I thought to myself. What does this feel like? How could I create this act of prayer through my art? These were questions that burrowed into my brain like a tick and would not leave.
I went to art school during the postmodern push, where art was not a spiritual or emotional act, but rather a primarily conceptual, intellectual pursuit. My process of creating art seemed to differ so greatly from what I was taught that I felt like an outsider. It is only as I studied the connection of the spiritual with art that I realized that in fact I was not an outsider, but that thousands of artists over the centuries attested to a deep spiritual pull that they felt as they created art. It was something that guided and inspired them.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN “TO CREATE ART AS PRAYER”?
Creating art as an act of prayer is an embodied, active prayer. It recognizes that every thought and action that we undertake, if it is done with a spiritual awareness, will have a spiritual effect. In this light, creating art is the channel through which an artist’s prayers are manifested. Art is not prayer because of a particular imagery or symbolism that is used. Art as prayer is a conscious connection to the Creator. As described by one artist, “when I go into my studio, I tell myself, this is my temple. This is where I worship. I am always conscious of striving to perfect my art and in the process of this striving, I am coming closer to God.” In an artist’s attempt to perfect their work, they slowly perfect their life in the process and bring their work and their life one step closer to reflecting the divine.
WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE?
Creating art as an act of prayer is often accompanied by several experiences. Physical sensations can take over the body such as shivers, goosebumps, tingles, tears or a swelling of emotions in the heart and chest. A sense of time can become distorted where hours can feel like minutes. Self-consciousness and the fear of failure often disappear. Effort, endurance, focus, concentration and patience come easily. There is release of control where there feels like no separation between the art and the artist – as if the music plays itself or the painting paints itself. This often brings about a feeling of oneness with all creation and a heightened sense of joy, hope and peace.
HOW IS IT SEEN AROUND THE WORLD?
Several religious and cultural groups have, for centuries, practiced art as a vehicle for communicating with God. The Navajo Native Americans created sandpaintings as a ritualistic healing and cleansing of evil spirits. In fact, the word for art in most Native American languages is synonymous with the word prayer. The Australian Aborigines created sandpaintings and dot paintings in ritual ceremonies to reproduce and pass on sacred knowledge and spiritual power. Tibetan Buddhists also created sandpaintings, paintings, sculpture and music as acts of prayer whereby they would reproduce sacred objects and visions that served as tools to access their Creator.
Shodo, the ancient practice of Zen calligraphy which means ‘the way of the brush,’ is an active meditation through which the artist releases control of the ego, self, desire, and personal will in order to let the art flow through him. In Mexico ex-voto paintings, meaning dedicated gifts, were created and offered as protection from illness or thanksgiving for miracles that happened. Within these specific traditions, art was – and in many places still is – used as a direct tool for prayer and spiritual communion with the Creator where the person becomes the channel through which the divine inspiration flows.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES WITH CREATING ART AS AN ACT OF PRAYER?
Anything that comes from our lower/ego self, such as fear, depression, lack of confidence or self-criticism has the power to take us away from remembering our Creator and creates a barrier to making art as prayer.
WHAT ENHANCES THE PROCESS?
Simply all those things that help us to focus and remember our spiritual reality. Each person treads a different path and will find inspiration and guidance through different means. Some examples are:
− Prayer and meditation
− Developing skills to a level of excellence
− Letting go of expectations and control
− Creating a sacred space
- Being in nature
− Making it a routine
− Confidence and joy
WHAT ARE YOUR RESEARCH FINDINGS?
There were several important findings from this research. First of all, creating art as an act of prayer changes the perception of the role and function of art. It provides new motivations for creating art and helps us to better understand the creative process and access our creativity more frequently. It gives us courage to shed our fears about creating art and seeking approval from others.
Creating art as an act of prayer also serves as a catalyst for personal transformation. It provides an opportunity to increase our capacity for reflection. It helps us to use our personal challenges as triggers for transformation and to develop new spiritual qualities. Creating art as prayer helps us to access a spiritual state and to create a connection with the Creator on a regular basis. This provides new insights into the role and function of prayer and meditation, which in turn helps us to overcome taboos around topics of spirituality, prayer and God.
COULD THIS HELP ME?
Yes! Practicing and reflecting on art as prayer is a unique and accessible tool for communicating with God that anyone can do. It can expand your ideas about the role and function of art, and affect the way that you view or teach art. It can also help to transform your life by bringing you closer to your Creator.
We all find the path to our spirit or to God in different places and in different ways. For many people, this journey begins and flourishes through the creative process. It will not be for everyone, but hopefully a continued sharing of experiences with art, prayer and the path toward the Creator will offer glimpses into our life experiences and enable us to better understand our spiritual journey.