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Life is art, even if it's messy

Thursday, February 13, 2020, 2:03 (IST)

Life as art is not a new thought but what exactly does it mean? When I think of my life through the lens of art it looks messy, incomplete, rough around the edges, full of pencil markings, and faint lines I've tried to erase.

It doesn't look anything like the works of art I admire so much in the Art Institute of Chicago.

It doesn't even resemble the art I make that I keep or discard depending on how I feel about what I see. My life ticks on whether or not I'm satisfied with what I'm making of it.

Perhaps some people have no trouble thinking of their lives as works of art but I can't imagine it's a helpful thought for everyone, especially those suffering or struggling in some way. "Your life is a work of art" comes across as a platitude, maybe even patronising.

But this week I've realised that even if my life isn't a work of art, it is still art. And I believe that yours is too.

You see, this week I took an art as meditation class which totally upended my understanding of art, and of life as art.

The class opened with the facilitator telling us that we would be making expressive art and not fine art.

"We're concerned with the process of unfolding, not the final product," she explained, in a kind and gentle voice. She then read Genesis 1 and drew our attention to the slow way in which God creates, taking time to pause in each day before the next begins. We were asked to share our initial thoughts using just a word or phrase. Then we were told to "make a start" and obediently began to create, using whatever materials we'd chosen (I used soft oil pastels and a large piece of paper I'd found at the bottom of the wardrobe).

My initial idea was colour bursting out of darkness so I began by creating bold stripes of colour radiating from a dark space at the bottom of the page. It didn't look how I'd expected and I wanted to give up. If I'd been alone I might well have done so. But I didn't. Instead I started smudging and blending which loosened me up. I started to enjoy the process. I was adding colour and pattern but it felt organic and free, not forced or even deliberate.

After a while I stepped back and paused and noticed that a white area was growing in the middle of the page. It looked a little like a dove so I tried going in that direction. It quickly became clear that this wasn't working so I paused again. This time our facilitator encouraged us to pause longer. As I did, I noticed that even though it was very rough and incomplete, I felt committed to stay with this emerging picture.

I could see its beauty - not because some parts looked nice or promising but because something was happening in the process of making this piece that was important. I also noticed that there were a few squiggly lines near the centre that looked a little like a female figure with flowing hair and arms outstretched. When we returned to work, I added to these lines and quickly noticed some more squiggles nearby that looked like two more female figures.

When I stepped back I saw that these figures looked as though they were dancing the colour out of the darkness. "Let there be light," I thought and I heard the joy and celebration in these words. We ended by journaling about the process and I scribbled a prayer of praise to the God who creates with such joy and delight and is utterly present in each moment of the process. I asked for help creating with the same joy and delight and presence.

The piece of expressive art I produced is not a masterpiece. It is not a work of art. But I will treasure it because of the way it opened my eyes to see that art is not a product but a process, complete with false starts, dead ends, surprises and many pauses, which can sometimes seem like empty waiting. I've paid lip service to that idea for years, perhaps you have too. The good news is: it's true. And when I think of art as a process it's impossible not to think of life as art.

Sometimes we think that living a life of faith means tidying up the messy places in our lives and that, until we have done so, our lives are somehow lacking and are certainly not worthy of the label 'art'. The art part will come when we've figured out our calling, we've overcome our addiction, we've wholeheartedly forgiven the pain another has caused us. Or when we're no longer grieving, or in pain or doubting. Or when we fully embody the radical love of God, and our walk is perfectly in step with Jesus.

But what if the art is in the process? What if it matters less that we avoid taking any wrong turns or going down dead ends and more that we boldly make a start and then keep pausing, staying open to the guidance of the One who brought us into being in the first place. What if what matters is being ready to hear - again and again - where we need to let go and where to lean in?

So, yes, your life is art. Even if it is messy and unfinished. Even if you are grieving or lonely or in pain. Your life is art not because it is polished and complete but because it is a process of unfolding that is meaningful and valuable. And the great Artist who creates with joy and delight, created you with joy and delight and is still at work in you now.

Jennifer Goodyer is a writer and artist living in Chicago. She is training to be a spiritual director. Follow her on Twitter @goodyerjen