Art and innovation: beginning, again

Art, says Juli Kalbaugh, can help us see how our lives are more than just the sum of our parts.

abstract sea ocean wave, sun universe watercolor painting

Always we begin again. — St. Benedict

Normally, I soak up every ounce of those words by St. Benedict. They remind me that my most recent stumble into the darkness, or my panic-stricken flailing about, or my failure to have an open posture toward the world is not the end of the story. Always, he says, we begin again.

But recently, I have wished all the beginning would end. All the new has started getting old. Each of us has been navigating makeshift roads these past few years, full of twists and turns, stops and starts, and lots of bumps and bruises. My own path also included being married to an epidemiologist during a pandemic, a breast cancer diagnosis in 2020, and moving to a new state twice in three years. New rules, new places, new homes, people, jobs, routines, new post-double-mastectomy body. New everything. I find myself starting over, again. And I am tired.

Creativity and innovation often arise in times of crisis. And we have witnessed ingenuity surging as our communities, our churches, our families, have figured out new ways of being in the world and being with each other amidst turmoil.

But if creativity and innovation show up in crisis, why is it that I feel like ingenuity looks more like a speck slowly setting on the horizon, a shimmering spark getting smaller and smaller. I can just barely see it if I squint long and hard. But then my gaze is jarred away with an abrasive honk from the car behind me. I have, once again, not moved quite fast enough for the world around me, and I lose sight of what little inspiration I thought I could see.

“Motion” by Juli Kalbaugh.

I think part of the reason for this loss of energy for innovation is because I have downshifted into a new phase. When crisis hits, our adrenaline activates; we have to make moves, change lanes, and figure out how to keep going. It requires quick and immediate action. But once that intense race is over, we no longer need to have pedal to the metal. I have made it out of the acute phase of the pandemic, cancer, and moving (again), but I am not quite to the finish line or into the final stage that some crisis experts refer to as “recovery.” I have been referring to it simply as the “crash.” It feels like I have been run over. I am out of gas. All the power pushing has turned to peaked puttering. It is in an in-between phase, stuck somewhere in the muddy middle where the wheels are working to create traction but seem to just keep spinning.

But in this liminal phase, I am reminded that all the maneuvering is part of the long process of orienting and reorienting my life toward home. And what I need right now is not to muster up more action or create one more new thing that gets me there. What I need right now is a way of being that helps me pay attention to the life I already have and to the Beloved who has always been right there with me along the way.

I believe that the arts can help be a part of this orienting work, grounding us in love and rest, and reminding us of God’s redemptive work in the world. While one side of creativity and the arts is about innovation, avant-garde, and pushing boundaries, another angle reveals how the arts help us heal, give us hope, and bring us back to God.

I recently started beginning my workday by taking five minutes to read poetry. In a fast-paced world of grind and hustle that pushes speed and acceleration, poetry invites me to slow down, savor, and be fully present to the moment. The turn of a good phrase gives me pause and invites me to sit with the words and let them soak into my soul. Rather than start with a bang and run as fast as I can out of the starting gate, it reorients my day and my posture from productivity to presence.

I also started making a musical playlist of songs that resonate and speak to me in this season. When I hear that beat drop and the musician P!NK belt out , “Go where love is on our side. It’s a trust fall, baby,” my head starts bopping, my feet start tapping, and I can’t help but stop what I’m doing to participate in the magic of the music. This playlist is available to me any time I’m feeling sad, stuck, or angry, but I find myself popping it on when I’m excited, happy, and hopeful. Music covers the gamut of my emotions. It breaks me away from getting stuck in my thoughts and draws me deeper into my full-being, tuning me into my senses and allowing me to think with my whole body.

But the arts aren’t just for my own individual experience. The arts have a way of bringing us together for collaboration and connection. A few weeks ago, I took my two young daughters to a creative event called “Loose Parts Play Palooza.” We entered a huge sanctuary stocked with a gazillion random small-to-medium “loose parts” — beads, buttons, pinecones, sticks, cardboard boxes, silk scarves, stickers, wicker baskets, gems, stickers, and more and more. The vast assortment of random recyclable and trash-able items was an endless rainbow of trinkets and tchotchkes. We found ourselves on the edge of a literal and imaginative playground of discovery beckoning us to come, touch, and feel our way through this new world.

In this Parts Palooza, I witnessed children inviting other kids into their carefully constructed cardboard castle. Former strangers, now new friends, on a grand adventure. I saw them sharing the precious gems they had collected with someone next to them so they could see what beautiful thing emerged when they combined resources. When given space for creativity, the children intuitively experimented together. Art can help us see how our lives are more than just the sum of our parts.

Art can help us see how our lives are more than just the sum of our parts.

And in all of the creative experimenting, art allows us to experience grace. When we participate in art, we are allowed to feel the messiness, the unfinished, the mistakes. Despite my anxiety about getting paint off of clothing, the kids’ swashing color on cardboard canvases and smearing it all over their hands and shirts is part of the process of making something beautiful. The frustration of glue not sticking, or accidentally drawing on the wrong side of your intensely thought-out masterpiece, or running out of that purple swatch of fabric opens you up to embracing an imperfect innovation.

It can be easy to get stuck thinking about art as something only “artists” do. But engaging art doesn’t happen only when you enter a museum. And engaging God doesn’t happen only to the saints or only at church. In Jesus, we have a God who not only “set [God’s] glory above the heavens” [Psalm 8:1], but who has taken this glory and participated in the human experience. God is with us in all that is difficult, frustrating, painful, confusing, ugly, and broken.

And God, who is with us in this in-between stage before the final restoration and redemption, loves to take the ordinary things in our lives and in us, and transform them for joy and for the good of all. Right here. Right now. Whether you are dancing in your kitchen, building a sandcastle, or doodling during class, you are opening up space for playfulness and glee. You are making space for the Spirit of God to surprise and delight you.

So, if like me, you are in a season where you feel like you are on the wheel, spinning around and cycling back to the beginning over and over again, perhaps it is here, just where we feel we’ve reached the end of ourselves, we need to be reminded that WITH GOD we begin again, always. Amen.