Creating the sacred
Creating the sacred St. Mark’s hosts ‘rare and important’ exhibit

The main hall of St. Mark’s Church plays host yet again to the annual “ICON: Visions of the Sacred” exhibit, which runs through Oct. 19./Photo by David Halterman

by Jules Masterjohn

What is sacred art? This was the question facing me while mulling over my task as juror for this year’s exhibit, “ICONS: Visions of the Sacred,” currently on display at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Not only did the concept of “sacred require deep reflection, but even the notion of what art is stared me squarely in the heart as I prepared to look at creations by more than 50 artists for the annual juried exhibit.

To assist in my query, I did what many computer age people would do – I googled the phrase. The inquiry produced more than a million references relating to the topic. There were sites advertising religious icons like Byzantine mosaics, Native American dream catchers, and goddess statues; ones offering divining tools used in Tarot, astrology and other occult fields; and still others displaying ethereal and visionary images by contemporary artists like Alex Grey.

Equally present in the search were references to sacred practices like the sacred arts of massage and tattooing. My favorite site was named “Whooping it up” and described the Sufi art of listening to music. The sites that were most relevant, however, were related to the sacred arts of tantra and yoga. “Tantra,” in its language of origin, means to “weave or loom,” and the Sanskrit translation of “yoga” is “to yoke, join or to unite.” The thesis I had been formulating was that sacred art takes the viewer – and certainly the maker – beyond the boundaries of normally perceived time and space, transcending earthly concerns through materials and the visual elements of color, line and light.

Many visual artists experience the union and weaving that are central to the processes described in yogic and tantric practices. Not always and not every time when focused on creative pursuits do we creators find “The Groove,” as I call it: that mind space where time seems to fade and all other aspects dissolve into the task at hand. Musicians, dancers and other artists as well as athletes have all experienced this unified state of awareness where the maker merges with the making: the writer becomes the story, the dancer “is” the movement, and the runner becomes each stride. 4

Artists report that the creative process enables their conscious minds to perceive that spirit (energy) and body (matter) are not separate entities. This focused engagement gives rise to profound experiences and the creation of powerful objects that embody a sacred energy, which is then accessible to the receptive viewer.

Artist Alison Goss expresses this merging eloquently in the artist statement relating to her hand-dyed and stitched fabric painting, “Opening Night,” on display in the “Icon” exhibit. She writes that her “art emerges from her meditative practices and reflects her desire to explore the mystery of consciousness – that field of awareness that permeates and gives meaning to the universe. It is about quantum physics and spiritual inquiry and about how they both point to the same truth.” For Goss, this place/space is called “the flow,” and “Opening Night” depicts the seed of consciousness. The rhythmic, radiating lines from the circle’s center invoke the cosmic dance of matter and energy.

Chyako Hashimoto interprets this idea in symbolic form in her calligraphic work “Enso,” where “form is emptiness and the emptiness is form.” The shodo painting, an elegant circle of black ink on free hanging white paper is a deeply spiritual form for Zen Buddhists, which illustrates the cyclical nature of life and oneness of the universe. Simple. Continuous. Whole.

Sasha Howard's light sculpture "Universal Prayers for Peace."/Photo by David Halterman

Louise Grunewald’s handmade book, “The Heart and the Flame: A Book and a Prayer” represents the old and long tradition of books as spiritual guides. Hers is filled with icons of compassion, the flame and the heart, and offers deep wisdom through the elegantly penned phrases. Turning the book’s pages engages our kinesthetic being, and we participate in the revelations the book holds.

Ann Smith’s watercolor “Comfort” is illustrative of the merging experience of the sacred state. Silhouettes made of light values and delicate linear elements are enveloped by a field of earthy darkness. Are these human figures, rock formations, biological forms or ancestral spirits? So provocative in its multi-referential imagery, this painting would not leave my mind’s eye.

The pastel painting “Deep in the Heart of the Canyons,” by Rebecca Koeppen, is a landscape that captures a sense of transcendence through her use of light, both naturalistic and metaphoric– that’s light with a capital “L.” The reds and oranges that describe the rock walls highlight a sense of passion and ecstasy often reported in mystical traditions that accompany a state of transcendence.

Photographer Bob Spencer shows with simplicity of composition in “Sunflower and Shiprock,” that communication within the nonhuman world of vegetable and mineral – between a sunflower and a rock formation – is present and palpable. A calming blue-grey sky embraces each and acts as the medium of transmittal.

Humor – often a vehicle for the sacred – is demonstrated by C. Scott Hagler’s mixed-media sculpture “Curiously Strong Icon.” He plays with the idea of the religious icon in his tribute to the Virgin of Guadalupe, while reminding us to stay in a light place – that’s light with a capital “L.”

“ICON” is a rare and important exhibit for our community and is part of a larger Sacred Arts Festival held at St. Mark’s each fall. The art included was made for the expressed purpose of sharing one’s ideas of the sacred. “ICON” is not a theme show: I don’t believe an artist can successfully transmit the sacred in their work by simply fulfilling an assignment.

One could argue, as Judith Reynolds did in her statement during the festival’s roundtable discussion, that all art produced at earlier times in human history was created for sacred reasons: to remind us that we as humans are part of a larger world, both seen and unseen. The works included in “ICON” held my eye, intrigued my mind and touched my heart. Light, both real and metaphoric; color, dynamic and quiet; forms in nature and geometry; textures of the material and the emotional worlds – all come together to reveal that sacredness is communicated through the simple and through the complex. •

“ICON: Visual Expressions of the Sacred” is on display through Oct. 19 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 910 E. Third Ave.



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