"Contours: Blind and Otherwise" - Life as Your Artist-in-Residence

"Contours: Blind and Otherwise" - Life as Your Artist-in-Residence

Allyson Darakjian   •   May 31, 2017

Since September 2016, I have had the honor and pleasure of being in the role of Grace Seattle’s Artist-in-residence through the Cascadia Residency. The mission of the Cascadia Residency is to cultivate generative relationships between artists and ministry leaders who are mutually dedicated to the artistic renewal of the Cascadia region and its churches. It seeks to fulfill this mission through a nine-month learning and working community of artists and church leaders. The program includes a series of short retreats and a two-week artist residency, allowing opportunities for theological education, vocational encouragement, art-making, and deep relationship for artists, churches, and patrons; and ultimately for the cultural and creative growth of Cascadia. 

When I started this role, I had no idea what it was supposed to look like at Grace. I knew that there were a lot of talented artists in the congregation and I was excited to begin thinking about what it would look like to create a deeper sense of community for them. I also knew that I had a pastoral calling towards artists and was excited to explore that calling in this residency capacity. Lastly, I was curious about exploring the limits and fullness of liturgical art and what it was like to create for the worship space.

Quickly after the beginning of the residency, Jess, John, and I came up with a plan for three, three-month long segments with themes that satisfied each one of my callings and desires for being an artist-in-residence. The first three months were dedicated toward collaborative work for Advent. I made paintings loosely based on the themes of cairns, or "guideposts in the wilderness" and was inspired by lyrics of songs that Jess specifically arranged and composed for Advent. These songs were based three biblical songs in the gospel of Luke: the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon. This aspect of the residency challenged me to stretch my ideas around liturgical art. Creating a visual meditation for the purposes of worship requires a responsibility to also teach about the work as an artist creating for the congregation. Just as a pastor expands upon the meaning of parables and mysterious, sometimes vague words of the gospel, so, too, the artist who is invited to create for liturgical purposes, is required, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to seek truth and understanding in their work. 

The second three-month segment of the residency focused on my pastoral leanings. These three months were filled with the experience of leading the Artist's Way group. The Artist's Way is a twelve-step program written to help people with artistic creative recovery, which teaches techniques and exercises to assist people in gaining self-confidence in harnessing their creative talents and skills. Author Julia Cameron attempts to show a connection between artistic creativity and a spiritual connection with God. The hunger for artistic community was a lot stronger than I anticipated. Leading the Artist's Way group was such a rewarding experience. I experienced so many creatively minded people in our congregation confidently learning to claim their artistic gifts and leanings. Our tiny community of artists dedicated their lives to the hard work of rewriting the artistic wounds of the past and moving roadblocks toward a more creatively flourishing life. I left every week so motivated and encouraged and thankful for the ways that I was learning to draw connections, and help others draw connections from their creative lives to their spiritual lives.

Painting studio at the Grünewald Guild in Plain, WA.

The last three months of the residency has been filled with a lot of reflection and contemplation. The actual "residency" part of this experience happened the first two weeks of May when I and three other artists from other Seattle area churches (John Knox Presbyterian, Bethany Community Church, and Westminster Church in Bellevue) went to live at the Grünewald Guild and made art together. This part of the residency brought together the liturgical curiosities and pastoral leanings I experienced in the other two segments of the residency in an abstract way. I began the two weeks trying to warm up my artistic senses. The way that I have done that in the past is by completing lots and lots of blind contour drawings. These drawings are an exercise that requires me to stare at an object or scene and draw it without looking or taking my pen off the paper. It requires me to really study an object, to learn it's lines, it's connecting points and shadows. It just so happened that the object I fixated on at the guild was a pair of scissors. These blue scissors became the object of fascination for me as I drew them over and over and over again, each time becoming more and more familiar with their form, their playfulness, curves and chips, planes and angles. My lines became more fluid, and then I felt a freedom to begin expanding the lines, layering them, finding shapes in the strange compositions I had created. Slowly, these scissor drawings turned to aggressive scribbled masses of layered lines, blind contours on blind contours, confusions on top of confusion, unknown masses built into beautiful piles and icons to meditate and ponder. And the lines continued to pour swiftly out of me.

Work in-progress at the Grünewald Guild.

As I was creating all of these strange things, I had no idea what I was doing. I felt a little crazy, and frustrated that at the time of creating the work, I struggled to find meaning. But isn't that just how life goes, anyway? You move steadily through life and often times feel that the piles of things and questions and madness and sadness and excitement and mediocrity just build up until you get a space to look back at the layers and recognize patterns, truth, and meaning. It's nice to think about how blind contours are a metaphor for living life - trying to really see something, to know something, and trusting that by gazing upon that thing, you may know something of it's truth, and that the disjointedness between your mind and your body may actually make sense of something if you trust the process of trying to really be with something. I think that's what all of that work at the Guild meant. And I think that as the artist-in-residence at Grace this past year, that is what I was trying to do as well, just trying to be with something - with you - with the congregation, and really trying to focus on the lines that connected the lives of us all. I tried to do that by focusing on the connections between image and words, between creative lives and spiritual lives, between seen and unseen. My show on June 2 will feature all the work that I created during my two weeks at the Grünewald Guild. (Work for sale as well!) I hope that it is pleasing to you, if nothing else, and that you enjoy the process of seeking to find resonation in the shapes, and the abstractions. It has been an honor to create with you, for you, and amongst you.

Show opens June 2, 2017
Contours: Blind and Otherwise

7pm 400 E. Pine Street