Creativity and the Church — Allyson Mills

Before I could read, I enjoyed going to my family’s church every Sunday and staring at the stained glass on the tall, otherwise cream-colored stucco walls. I especially loved the 10:30 service, when the sun would shine through the heart of St. Sebastian just right to cast beautiful rainbow patches on the walls and ornately carved ceilings. When this gruesome image of St. Sebastian with arrows through his chest freaked me out, I’d simply turn my head to my left, where a 50-foot window depicted Jesus, rising in a circle of light emanating from his figure. These golden rays of glass sunlight pierced through the cobalt blue background. I loved the little angels in the panel’s corners, too.

In elementary school I learned that European peasants couldn’t read, so churches put the biblical stories in the architecture of the church. To me, it’s a nice reminder of how God is in everything: us, nature, our buildings, and our art. The story in every panel conveyed a great amount of imagination and hope, even on Good Friday. Richard Rohr, a Christian theologian, once said that Jesus had a great imagination. How else could he have agreed to die for us without imagining the future of a saved humanity, even after his human form was no longer here to see it? He knew he wasn’t dying for nothing and had hope for a brighter future. As I type this post on Easter weekend, I can only imagine the light of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven cast in a light even greater than the stained glass I so loved in my home church, a light filled with hope that would carry through generations thousands of years later.

The arts have been integral to my spiritual practices and impact how I pray. Outside of church, I find ceramics to be one of my most meditative activities. It always makes me think of how much care God must have put into crafting Adam, God’s first little human with so much hope for him. God is a wonderful artist, putting so much care into creation and the beautiful (dare I say creative) process of evolution. As someone made in the image of God, I like to put this same sort of parental care into crafting my work. I love making my chunks of clay come alive, becoming small gifts I can give to make others happy. Unlike God, I often don’t get it right on the first try. My clay will get too dry or I’ll make it too wet. Sometimes it cracks in the kiln. However, this gives me a chance to try again and learn from my past mistakes, in a similar way to how I view sin. Making mistakes is inevitable in life, but we can take that clay and make something beautiful and new.

At my church in Madison, Pres House, I founded a club called “Created to Create”, a weekly student group aimed at social connection and stress management through creative practices. I purposely liked to pick activities that were new and challenging for members, so we could learn to have fun, make mistakes, and grow as artists. This year, we made 80 valentines for local assisted living homes and put out coloring sheets in the student lounge as a meditative practice during Lent and finals week.

Overall, I think the arts are integral for establishing hope and imagination for a better future. I also have loved seeing how art is used in other faith traditions. Buddhist sand mandalas have always inspired me, reminding me that nothing is permanent and even the moments of beauty and joy are fleeting. The intricate motifs and bright colors in Islamic architecture inspired me to use more color and pattern in my own art. I love using art as a prayer practice and bringing this practice into my own faith community. Like the stained glass windows I’ve loved since childhood, art is a reflective activity that helps me process even the most difficult images with grace and beauty.

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