The Spiritual Significance of Art

On his blog, The Art Edge, art critic Brian Sherwin wrote an article entitled “The Spiritual Significance of Art” (http://theartedge.faso.com/blog/73876/the-spiritual-significance-of-art) in which he wrote that specific works of art had “touched [his] soul”, and he asked us readers to write about works that had similarly affected our own lives. Art has, of course, always influenced my thinking and emotions and my life in many ways, although not necessarily dramatically. On Brian’s cue, however, I recalled encounters with artwork that affected me in a deeply mysterious way - “sacred” would not be too strong a word to describe the effects. The first and without doubt the most dramatic of these sacred experiences in fact launched my career as an artist. 

I was a housewife and young mother of two in St. Louis in 1972 when I was totally sidelined for six weeks with a nasty viral infection. The illness and the prescribed bed rest, with all normal activity stopped in its tracks, relying on others to care for my children, caused a deep depression and despair about my life. One day, in bed, I read of a forthcoming art exhibit at the St. Louis Museum of Art. Memories of my teenage aspirations to be an artist (that were snuffed out by an overly critical teacher) came to mind. I decided to visit the museum as soon as I could get strength to walk. At last, weakly, I joined a long line of museum visitors awaiting entry to the exhibit. I left pride aside and asked people in line near me to allow me to rest beside the line and then catch up, rest again and rejoin repeatedly. They easily acknowledged my fragile condition and my determination to see the exhibit. Finally I entered the main exhibit area. I’d never seen an original Van Gogh, although I well knew his name and works and vaguely remembered stories of his troubled life. Then it happened: right in front of me, countless pink peach blossoms clinging to the branches of a tree, myriad shades of pink and pale coral against blues of many values - Breathtaking!

And something much more than beautiful - the tree standing alone on the hillside with colors raging suddenly, somehow, gave birth to a hope that, just maybe, I could learn how to create such beauty myself. My life - and soul - changed in that instant from being those of a housewife among pots and pans and cleaning and caretaking. Instead, I was someone whose hands would form lines and shapes and blend colors – I would become an artist.. From that day forward, a desire to paint has never left me. Incredibly, after seeing the peach blossoms (“Souvenir de Mauve”, actually), I immediately won a raffle prize for art lessons from a local artist, and a gift of a set of oil paints. In my subsequent career as an artist and teacher of art, I’ve had the great honor and pleasure of having students become artists themselves, and I like to think that I’m passing on some part of a spiritual - a sacred - gift that Van Gogh’s peach blossoms gave me in 1972. “Touched my soul” is a perfect description of that moment in the museum. Brian wrote that, in his view, art is “spiritual” at least in the sense that “a specific work of art can ‘touch’ someone on the inside – establishing a connection that ‘cultivates’ change within the viewer”. I like that definition of spirituality - when I think about it, it’s wider and deeper than it first appears to be, and yet it’s nicely simple. However, I’ll go a bit further and suggest that the “touch…on the inside” that Brian mentions comes from a source that I call “sacred” or, sometimes, “divine”, keeping in mind that those words have many different shades of meaning for different people. I believe art can put a sacred touch on any soul. Is that why it endures, long past cave paintings, through kindergarten kids, Van Gogh and on?

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