Art as prayer: Considering art forms as spiritual practices

Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri explores art as a form of spiritual practice.

Mini-beaches: watercolor prayers for CREDO siblings

“Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other and our truest selves.” — Henri J.M. Nouwen

A prayer to see beyond what’s in front of us

Art and color have a prominent place in my life. I often stop to admire that which I consider beautiful: a ripe, yellow-orange mango; the stained-glass windows of an old church; an intricate street mural; a Miami sunset. Music and the visual arts have been especially meaningful, coming from a family of choir singers and art lovers. I have fond childhood memories of coloring at the kitchen table, a tin full of crayons close by, or, as a teen, sitting on the floor of Puerto Rico’s Museo de Arte de Ponce mesmerized by the bright orange dress of Sir Frederic Leighton’s “Flaming June.”

While I don’t remember a time when art and color were not present in my life, for all its prominence, the visual arts were absent from my life of prayer.

It seems strange to look back and recall a time when something artsy was not a preferred spiritual practice. Now, I cannot imagine a prayer life without it. Considering that arts, crafts, coloring and drawing have been an integral part of children and youth programs, I’ve been surprised that, as a church, we have not placed more of an emphasis on exploring personal spiritual practices that use visual arts. Even with the proliferation of coloring books for adults, the knowledge of health benefits associated with painting, sculpting and creating and the understanding that there are different styles of learning, it is not uncommon to hear that “coloring is for kids,” to think that doodling during a workshop or a sermon means the person is not paying attention or to believe that painting should be left to those who are trained, professional artists, like Michelangelo who painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and sculpted La Pieta. In fact, art in its many forms – whether sung, sculpted, built, painted or danced – has been part of the institutional church for millennia. In this respect, to consider that art can also have a place in personal devotional practices is not far-fetched. Any art form can be a way to pray, reflect and cultivate a relationship with God. Personal devotional practices should respond to one’s styles and personality, so bringing one’s authentic self before God in prayer could also mean including art.

Reflection on Psalm 8 on Earth Day

Understanding that art also belonged in my prayer life took me a few years. As a teen, I stuck to more traditional disciplines and personal devotional practices, none of which included the visual arts, and I struggled to develop a spiritual routine that actually worked for me. Although I had seen artists and painters create pieces in the context of worship, it wasn’t until I came across Sybil MacBeth’s book, Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God, that I truly considered creating art as a viable form of personal prayer. Praying in color is “an active, meditative, playful prayer practice … [that] involves a re-entry into the childlike world of coloring and improvising,” she writes. In her book, MacBeth explains how she sat down with paper, her collection of markers and colored pencils, and began to doodle. In her drawing, she included the names of family and friends who were going through difficult times. To her surprise, when she had finished drawing, she discovered she had also been praying. Inspired by MacBeth’s take on improvisational art, I began to explore this practice in my own way. Praying in color gave me the vocabulary and the method needed to explore spiritual disciplines in the realm of art. It is interesting how a practice that feels true to oneself evolves and becomes one’s own. In my case, praying in color began with paper, markers and colored pencils, and it eventually morphed into paintbrushes and watercolor paints. I now use a plethora of art supplies to craft and engage in prayer. When it comes time to pray, our dining room table becomes an art table, a place of worship and prayer.

A prayer of intercession

To be clear, I consider myself a prayerful person who is artistically inclined. I am not a trained artist, and a person doesn’t need to be one to pray in this manner. All that one truly needs is to have a heart for prayer, art supplies, a comfortable spot to pray and a willingness to be present with God in the moment. For me, focusing on a doodle, a painting or a coloring page tunes out the noise and minimizes distractions — allowing for quality time with God. I set out an intentional time for prayer – not necessarily a fixed time, but an intentional time – bringing to mind people and concerns, gratitude and praise. I might stop midprayer and return to it later in the day or the week. Though I might have something in mind as I begin to pray, the final painted or drawn prayer rarely turns out the way I imagined it, and that is perfect.

As I pray while doodling or painting, I am inspired by many things. Beaches reminiscent of the Puerto Rican seascape and flowers that burst in color are favorite art subjects. Sometimes biblical passages come to mind, and I meditate on them. Other times, images emerge, and I meditate on them, too. Following the advice of my spiritual director, I take time to reflect on what emerges from the page, praying, breathing, listening, painting some more, appreciating the colors and shapes and wondering, “¿Qué es lo que el Espíritu Santo quiere compartir conmigo?” (What does the Holy Spirit want to share with me?)

 I have painted, doodled or prayed in color while listening to someone preach, during an ordination service and in a Bible study. Sometimes I gift the painted or drawn prayers to the person that has come to mind while I was creating. Favorite art pieces have been made into postcards to send — shared prayers that hopefully bring joy and comfort to those who receive them.

The Holy Spirit communicates and moves us in manifold ways. Through creating art, I have come to understand the Holy Spirit is not confined to specific (even more known or popular) spiritual practices. I see God’s imagination, creativity and beauty reflected all around me, including in art pieces, and it is a reminder of God’s constant love and grace for all.

Learning new ways to incorporate the visual arts in prayer has been a blessing in this pandemic time, and I’m inspired by the work of watercolor artists I’ve discovered in the past year through social media. Watching their videos as they draw or paint has given me courage to try new painting techniques, to be more intentional and to consider other approaches to creating art. I try not to get frustrated when an idea or image doesn’t quite translate to the page, remembering that what is truly important is the time with God in prayer. The resulting artworks are not perfect nor do they need to be. MacBeth would advise me to “dismiss the inner critic.” Prayers come as they come; coloring outside the lines is definitely encouraged.

A lament prayer for Keishla and Andrea, victims of femicide

If, as Henry Nouwen explained, as quoted in the book Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit, spiritual formation is about “the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves,” and if art has had a prominent place in your life, consider its many forms as viable forms of prayer. When I felt spiritually disconnected, depleted and thirsty, the Holy Spirit came alive through art and revealed a path to revive spiritual life that brought forth my truest self. I found clarity in art and colors and, more recently, in watercolors. I’m sure the Holy Spirit isn’t done, and new art forms will eventually emerge.

What are those spiritual or life practices that inspire you and make you feel closer to God? Where do you see God’s creativity and imagination manifested, coming alive, in you? Consider these questions, and if the answers include any art form, let this be an invitation to give it a try, to gather your supplies and, dismissing the inner critic, feel free to explore its many forms as prayer.

For further consideration along the journey:

  1. Invest in good coloring or art supplies. A dried-out marker or a shedding brush can become a distraction and interrupt your time of prayer. Quality supplies don’t have to be expensive.
  2. Keep supplies visible or accessible to you. We have heard the popular saying, “out of sight, out of mind.” If the supplies needed are tucked away, far from easy reach, it will be harder to engage in prayer this way.
  3. Have a conversation with your family members or housemates on the spiritual aspect of creating art and its role in your life of prayer. If you feel comfortable sharing that spiritual space, invite them to pray along with you. Otherwise, let them know that engaging in an art project is a sacred time — time with God in prayer.
  4. The more you engage in these practices, the more you will discover what works and speaks to you. Be kind to yourself in the process. The answer to “Am I doing this right?” is “Yes, you are.” Ultimately, the goal is to set aside a time of prayer and respite that, in Nouwen’s words, reunites you with God (and others) and your truest self.