It’s a cold November day and I stand in front of the bricked up entrance to an abandoned Bingo Hall at the heart of the Parson Cross estate in the North of Sheffield. I have a can of paint in my hand; I take a deep breath and with some trepidation begin to spray great swathes of colour across the breeze block wall. This is my prayer, this is my meditation, this is a prophetic act that breaks open the universe on that grey and ordinary South Yorkshire street.
As I paint then passing cars sound their horns, the passengers shouting out encouragement or warnings that the police are just round the corner. Children stop to watch, young men come and talk, the police take down my details and each moment feels sacred. Out of it all, out of the deep experience of being in that place, of listening to the people and of feeling the textures of the building an image emerges. It’s not my painting, it doesn’t belong to me because it has come from that place and it is a sign of the presence of God in that community. Taking the courage to be creative in a public place opens the window to the sacred that is already present.
I am an artist and a Methodist Minister and I work as a pioneer for the Methodist Church in Sheffield exploring new ways of being church centred on the creative arts. Most of my work is tentative and ambiguous; there are no easy answers or divine fireworks just the fumbling pursuit of the creative spark of the Spirit of God wherever that may lead.
When we begin to create we move into a different way of being and reveal something of our souls. Churches do not always nurture an environment where we feel safe enough to do this, often keeping us trapped as passive recipients of a sermon, or regurgitating someone else’s words in a song. The act of creation; be it putting a pencil onto paper, sinking fingers into firm clay or smearing oily paint across a canvas, breaks open sacred space. It invites us to the infinite potential and novelty of encounter with the transcendent that we might call ‘God’. But that word is far too limiting to contain the height and depth of the experience of the other that it points towards.
Art has the possibility of expressing this that is inexpressible. The more deeply we explore the nature of God and ourselves the more that ideas and concepts framed by words begin to falter and fail. It’s then that the exuberance and ambiguity of the image or the created object can take us deeper. Here words become crude tools unless wielded subtly by the poet or the storyteller.
Creating is certainly a risky activity; we make ourselves vulnerable when we begin to express who we are. I was scared when I stood in front of that old Bingo Hall. Not only was it the first time I had attempted a piece of street art it was the sense of a loss of control and total exposure to the world that made me fearful. I wasn’t closeted away in my studio with its familiar smell of linseed oil and accumulated detritus of half finished paintings, sculptural experiments and a lump of spilt plaster of Paris that has fused itself to the carpet. Over a few weeks, safe in that private place, I had sketched out again and again ideas for the image I was going to make on the street. But, eventually, I had to take that risky move of faith to go out. It’s a sense of call that flows from my encounter God: I experience God as exuberant creator, who, in Christ, is intimately involved with the world, getting down on hands and knees in the dirt to serve others. So, from that experience of God I ask myself ‘How then should I live?’. For me that means getting out in the community, touching the dirty breeze block walls and seeking beauty. As I make art I try to reveal that beauty in ordinary places. Not in the stunning vistas of the Peak District just a short drive away (we don’t need much help to gaze in awe and wonder there) but in the concrete multi-storey car parks, the litter strewn alleyways and the derelict buildings that we pass each day. This is a prophetic act that says ‘God is present here and now’.
When I make the choice, and take the fearful step towards a creative act in a public place then something remarkable happens. As I become vulnerable in the act of creation so it enables people to become vulnerable to me. Anyone who has ever made art in public knows that passers by will instinctively slow down and glance over your shoulder at what you’re doing, and some will stop to talk. The creative act breaks down the social barrier and as people come and speak to me on the street I say very little, some of them talk about their lives, some talk of experiences of God a long way outside the jurisdiction of any church. The first time I made art in public in this way I was overwhelmed by the end of the day, having heard the stories of young and old, some trivial, some deep, I felt like I was standing on holy ground.
The role of the artist is the role of the prophet, Often the outsider, often misunderstood, always seeing the world in a different way to the prevailing powers. I remember seeing Tracey Emin’s ‘Love is What you Want’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery last year. The work of this strange and brilliant woman was disconcerting and evocative it opened up new ways of thinking and experiencing what it means to be human in a gutsy and at times bloody and visceral way. I left transformed.
This is just as it should be because we cannot truly enter sacred space without being transformed by the encounter. The sacred space emerges from a mutual gift. The giving of the artist of him/herself in the piece of art, the giving of the viewer in reaching out to engage with the piece, bringing all their life and experience to bear on the encounter and then, the giving of God: the loving gift of the creative spirit that emerges whenever we make ourselves honestly vulnerable to each other.
Walter Brueggman says in ‘Prophetic Imagination’:
"Imagination is a danger, thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one."
Artists are called to continually put themselves in that risky place, imagining alternative ways of experiencing the world, opening up new possibilities of being human and of knowing God. If we ignore them, or silence them, then we may well feel more comfortable but we will surely be the poorer for it.