Mariah Ziemer on artist sacred spaces for Salt and Iron Seasoned Writing

An Artist’s Reflection on Sacred Spaces: part two

Light the candle. Say the prayer. Open the sketchbook. These are the words of contemporary Scottish painter Alastair Gordon, who honors artmaking as a sacred and prayerful space. My “candle” happens to be a cup of tea, but I hope the liturgy instills the same kind of reverence as I set up my supplies.

Two of my biggest artistic challenges come before my pencil has made a mark on a page. Whether my piece is commissioned, or whether it is a work of my own imagination, there is the challenge to establish a vision for what I want the end product to look like. Deeper still is the second challenge to evaluate the condition of my mind and heart, which coincides with my identifying the purpose of my work. Considering artists at large, this point of reflection may require a certain thought, gesture, or question. Maybe the experienced and disciplined artist has turned this conscious evaluation into something more intuitive. Every artist is different, but I’m finding that in the quiet moments of preparation, they all need their “candles.”

A Pottery Wheel

I return to this evaluation of mind and heart again and again, but I recall one significant shift in my attitude that occurred while I was studying art in college. As is the nature of most scholastic environments, my studio courses were also subject to a performance-driven grading system. The thought of performing as an end in itself would sometimes stain the approach to my work with fear—fear for what the professor or my classmates might think, fear for how my work might compare to theirs, or fear for how a single project might determine the trajectory of my career. Getting into the rhythm of creating a piece helped alleviate some of these fears, but I was acutely aware of their influence in the early stages of a project, even before it was assigned. Ironically, making art became both a stress-reliever and a stress-inducer.

What helped me break free from these fears was something of another medium altogether: pottery. After graduating with my studio art degree, I was visiting a friend’s ceramic studio back in my hometown. My friend and I each sat down at a pottery wheel, and she showed me how to mold clay for the first time. No class, no grades—just learning a new skill. I cupped my hands to form the base of a bowl and then pressed my thumb into the lump of clay to form its center. Wet clay pressed against my fingers and dripped over my hands as the wheel gained speed. It was soothing, rejuvenating, playful. The finished product ended up being a small, very plain looking bowl (let’s just say it did not reflect the worthy instruction given by my friend, a talented ceramicist), but I was much more satisfied with the process than the result.

This experience helped me face buried wounds and fears but also the very truths that could heal them, all of which manifested somehow through the work of my hands. I learned to identify which fears were healthy motivators and which were unhealthy barriers. Many of my unhealthy fears were born out of doubt, ignorance, bitterness, and pride. I realized how much I had been clinging to control, which was sometimes just an excuse to boost my ego. At the pottery wheel, I entered cautiously (it wasn’t a reckless sort of freedom), but my fear did not deter me, nor was it debilitating. I was no longer burdened by the “what-ifs” that I am so quick to exhaust.

Instead of overanalyzing my every move, I simply became focused on the next task. Restrictions and setbacks became opportunities. Skill aside, I think my ideas became more dynamic and purposeful. I learned to sketch more freely, explore, and cope with frustrations with a little more understanding, especially when drawings did not turn out like I had hoped. It also reminded me to distinguish public work from private work. I still wanted to engage academic conversations and formally critique some of my work, but I also dedicated time to find a quiet corner and draw pictures that simply brought me joy, drawings that might only be seen by my family and close friends, if anyone.

Moments of Making

To my fellow artists, I want to ask you this: How are we curating these moments of making? What is held in the suspended moments before we stain a white canvas with paint, press down on smooth piano keys, dance across the stage, write on the page, open the recipe book, dig into the earth, or speak into the microphone? In these spaces, we get to play like children, relish in beauty, and express the pains of this world so that hope may persist. We have the privilege to listen to the world’s secrets and find our own voice in the conversation. We have the means to stir imaginations and build bridges between fact and meaning. These are territories bursting with possibilities. What a delightful space to step into; what a noble calling to participate in.

For my fellow Christians and patrons of the arts, how can the ways of the artist help us curate meaningful encounters with God? How can freedom, play, and attentiveness in the studio inspire surrender, joy, and contemplative focus in our approach to sacred spaces? Even if you do not consider yourself to be an artist, we must understand that we are all profoundly creative beings and makers of meaningful things. Just as we are able to love each other because of our loving God, so are we able to create because of our Creator God. Even if we believe this, do we light our candles and put it into practice? 

As we press into the “spacious places” that my friend was so kind to remind me of, may we be followers of Christ who cultivate postures of invitation rather than ones of resistance. Hebrews 4:16 declares a succinct invitation: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Christ alone is our High Priest who wants us to come as we are, but we do so boldly because we have faith that our truest needs will be met in Him through His grace. Even as we encounter difficult paths, this act of trust, surrender, and faith helps spiritual nearness grow. We can light our candles, nod to Christ (our great companion and guide who walks with us), and pass through the next doorway.

What an adventure it will be.

Author: Mariah Ziemer

Mariah teaches studio and art history courses for middle and high school students at the Thomas MacLaren School in Colorado Springs. Her personal interests and educational background are interdisciplinary in nature, often combining technical and theoretical studies in the visual arts with history, culture, aesthetics, and theology. When she's not teaching, you can find her chatting with friends at a coffee shop, catching up on a BBC show, or playing pickleball with her friends.

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