The Call to Create: An Interview with Suzanne Stovall Vinson

Christ and Creativity

This month we begin our intermittent series of interviews with YCWs who blend art and ministry in ways that are nourishing and inspiring. The Rev. Suzanne Stovall Vinson (suzanne l. vinson through her art) offered such thoughtful responses that we offer her thoughts completely unedited here. Don't miss the photos as well...

Also, do you know fabulous YCWs with a story to tell about pursuing art and the creative life along with ministry? Let us know so we can contact her for a future column!

First, give us some general info about the kind of art you do, and when you got started with it, and what your ministry context is.

My ministry is expanding and contracting depending on the time of year and the opportunities presented.  I am an artist and a minister working with a wide variety of groups.  I have been a minister in the church filling the associate pastor/educator role providing pastoral care for all ages as well as art & spirituality experiences.  I have been a Chaplain to an assisted living/nursing & dementia care facility where I worked with residents, families, and staff preaching and teaching and incorporating art along the way.  I am a support group facilitator, using art as a means of creative expression through grief and loss, moving into a path of healing.  I create art for my soul, as a means to fuel my own journey and heal as I experience the painful stories of others.  My art is always a way of feeding my soul and has become something I can share with others as well. 

I have created and offer retreats, workshops, and groups that allow others to find their creative voice, first given by the Creator God, as a means of further connection with one’s spirituality and identity.  My work in this is taking shape, and I am eager to travel and guide others who seek this type of ministry.  My calling evolves and I feel called to women and women in ministry especially, but also to anyone who hopes to find healing.  Thus, I am a traveling woman with great hopes for the future. 

My ministry takes place with each group, each individual whether in birth art sessions, through retreats, or through bereavement support.  I preach and teach and claim my voice through both my words and my art.  The claim to this voice has taken years, and I’ve come a long way.  Yet, others could name that voice long ago.  We sometimes grow into ourselves.

My art takes the name Silver Tree Art, which I have recently explained in a blog post found here:
My retreats, groups, and other forms of ministry will take the shape under the name Sacred Groves.   

Tell us about your rhythms and routines for creating--do you have a particular time each day or week? How do you "get ready"? Which tools (whether physical or spiritual) do you find indispensable for your creative work?

Always with me:  sketchbook, a few colored pencils, Koh I Nor pens (color & refillable), and my favorite pencils. Most always with me:  my camera & fabric, scissors, needles, and thread for my current project.  

I am very sensory so I really like touching my materials and seeing what inspires to create.  I cannot go long without using my hands, so I am often just doodling in my sketchbook.  Sitting outside with the sun or wind is really inspiring, whether writing a sermon or sewing or working on a block print.  I enjoy my time out doors as much as the act of creating, so the two have merged well.  The sounds of birds and breeze are very calming.  The act of creating stills me within in a way that has become prayer for me.  My soul is fed and my soul is quieted.  I am able to center more on the present and the moment at hand because I give myself so much time to create, to draw, or to attend to the creative spirit within.  Do I draw every day?  Probably.  Grocery receipts, bulletins, small fragments of paper end up covered.  I’ve always done this in coursework.  Now I teach others how to do the same.  

I love color and paper.  I devote time to my work alone, but usually I am in the midst of a crowd: whether gathered in worship and doodling while listening to the sermon (as a parishioner these days) or with my women in ministry weekly gathering.  I listen as I create, whether to myself or those around me.  It’s not like becoming absorbed by a story within a book, but being unleashed to the story taking place around me… and creating within it.  So much of what I see and hear causes me to want to create, that my creating becomes a part of the backdrop.  My friends watch me as I draw; often I don’t even realize I’m drawing. 

When I lead an art workshop on how to use a wide variety of materials, I place those materials on the tables and encourage folks to draw or paint, to swat (yes, that, too) or combine.  We experience God through our senses and so much can take place in our spiritual selves if we allow ourselves to create from nothing:  water and a brush on a hot sidewalk, only to evaporate.  Blank paper and watercolors.  A found feather and paint printed on a t-shirt.  A carving from wood or linoleum. 

I get ready in the same way:  I have materials before me.  I touch, draw, cut, and stitch.  Sometimes I do one as a “warm up” for 5 minutes.  Some projects are more “successful” than others, like drawing a favorite design.  Then I move onto a more challenging project:  custom work, a logo design, or work with materials to inspire a retreat project or something that enlivens the story.  I love creating an image based on scripture.  Then I put it down.  Walk away.  Move into the rituals of life with others in the home and wait for the moment to return to it.  I often create while with my son, and he works with me, too.  He will draw in my sketch book.  He has free reign on a LOT of materials and paper, but I keep a bit put away just for me, too. 

In what way does your art nourish or inform your ministry? Tell us about a time the two spheres converged.

A story that I have full permission to share involves a family from the Assisted Living facility where I was Chaplain.  A man of 103 was dying.  He and his wife, both Spanish speakers, would sit in the sunroom every day and watch the birds from the bright windows between naps.  I would smile and touch their arms, saying “hola” which is the extent to which we could communicate.  Thus, I never saw them in their living space until Mr. G was in poor health.

Paint

mr. g painted. Photo by suzanne l. vinson.

Once I saw his space with his beautiful table of paints and brushes, boxes painted and jeweled with sequins, I knew that I had missed an opportunity to connect with him.  Had I?  As I talked with the family, 5 generations in one small room, I asked if they wanted to trace his hand on a group canvas that we’d been working on in an art & spirituality group.  They did.  I brought the canvas to them and they placed his hand lovingly on the canvas, traced his beautiful hand in the center.  They wanted to keep it and paint inside of it on his behalf. 

I returned the following morning, going straight to his room to find his family there.  They were ready to show me his hand.  Inside of the traced hand, they painted the story of his life: wedding band, cotton candy, popcorn, and Ferris wheel (he owned a circus in Mexico before moving to the US) along with other details.  We shared tears.  It was beautiful.  We connected and our bonds were sealed.  Time to pray.  We gathered together holding hands, with the traced and painted hand near, and I prayed.  As the words of prayer were spoken and all Amen’s said, Mr. G breathed his last and departed. 

The experience with this devout Catholic family whose love of art and whose love of Christ converged in the tracing of hands and holding of hands fills me with joy.  My eyes are blurred and my heart beats full of love and appreciation for this gift.  While this is one of many stories, I did not question my art and ministry again.  I am who I am.  God is good and gracious and fills us with abundance.  There are many other stories in this one work of art.  See the hand of Mr. G and others who have departed, breathing their last. 

Hand  

the work of our hands. 2008. photo by suzanne l. vinson.


What is the biggest challenge to your pursuit of art, and how do you work to overcome it?

Time.  Money.  Trying to do too much at one time.  Though, I have taken an approach to life that everything holds creativity.  If I appreciate my cup of coffee or tea or the container itself as art, it is art.  When I want to create, I try to include those around me rather than stealing away.  Yet, there are times that I do need to carve out time to be alone create.  In general, I have found that once you have art or creating as a part of your day or routine or spiritual discipline, you’ve made space for the act of creating and it’s as much a part of the day as cooking or showering. 

What advice do you have for people who would like to pursue art but aren't sure how to get started, or are feeling stuck?

Start with your hands.  We use our hands for everything and you should praise your hands by caring for them.  Give thanks for your body and all it’s parts.  Trace your hands on paper and do something with them.  Connect to your inner child, whose creativity shone once, and can guide you along the path now.  That child knows God well.  That child knows how to dance with the Spirit of God, how to behold and how to work in awe.  You have great power and strength within you.  I believe we’re all called to be creative: through writing, preaching, storytelling, appreciating, loving, laughing, resting, cooking, dancing, walking, and waiting.  There is a form of creativity in all of these phases and stages and movements and moments.  We can be creative in the way we take a walk or move our eyes toward what we can appreciate.  That appreciation for God’s creativity is a gift.  

Practically speaking, notice what you’re drawn to: colors that catch your eye, artists, art mediums, shapes, symbols.  What have you “always wanted to do when you have the …time, money, energy”?  Take a class or ask a friend who has some talent in one of the areas you want to move forward or understand.  Spend an hour in a garden.  Take pictures. Walk in the yard with bare feet. Walk along the shore.  Appreciate something new in your day.  Take a picture or draw one of the most routine parts of your morning.  Eat something different: a fruit or another cuisine.  Am I sounding like Sark?

Check out a book about some form of art that you’re interested in.  If the library doesn’t have it, ask them to order it.  (I absolutely LOVE knowing that books really can be ordered!) 

Be bold, even taking small steps.  As a spiritual director said of her beautiful friend in her final days with cancer, “Say yes!”  Her advice was to say yes to dancing, say yes to art.  In essence, Say yes to whatever your heart leads you to creatively.  Your spirit knows how to dance. 

While we tend toward saying “yes” in ministry as we provide pastoral care, stay up late or get up early to complete a sermon, go the extra mile for someone in need; we often put aside the “yes” for our own self-care and pursuit of art.  I believe that acting upon creativity in a new way can enlighten your spiritual self.  You can come to know something new within yourself, even when you find that “you’re just not that good at it”.  Good here is in the act of trying, in the act of saying yes.  Good here is saying to God, thank you.  We are full of possibility; the start is trying something that speaks to us that calls out to us just as God calls us.  Maybe it’s God speaking, asking you to create.  Art isn’t always comfortable—what’s seen or what’s attempted.  We will always learn something of ourselves, the process, or of others in the act of creating.

Who are your creative mentors and inspirations?

My grandmother continues to inspire me though she died Mother’s Day weekend 2002.  She was a gifted cook, gardener, caregiver, floral arranger, and quilter.  Among her talents, she taught me how to make my first biscuits and allowed me to grow into much of the artist I am today.  My mother holds the seamstress and painting skills, to which I am thankful.  I grew up surrounded by family who could take something from nothing and make it beautiful.  Being surrounded by beautiful quilts, good southern cooking, farming, and paintings galore, I grew to appreciate and explore creativity from an early age. 

Today’s inspirations include:  The quilts of Gee’s Bend, my potter friend Ana, my photographer friends Jayme and Rani, my husband and his hand-drawn cards for every occasion.  I love the etchings of Mary Lou Hess, the block prints & watercolors of Walter Anderson, and the drawings of every child I’ve ever known.  Surrounding yourself with creative friends helps, too.  They inspire me a great deal.

For the specific work I do, I am inspired by words: scripture, sermons, storys, and songs.  I am inspired by sights: the natural world including water, trees, grass, flowers, birds, bees and all between.  I am inspired by color: rich, bold, beautiful strikes of color OR the absence of color but for a few chosen strokes. 

AND I love field trips.  We visit the library at least once a week along with the botanical garden, the river, or our backyard. 

A final question from Barbara Brown Taylor's writings: What is saving your life right now?

The home I have made with my husband and son.  They are saving my life right now as I take delight in our days and nights together.  They give me the time and space I need with them and sometimes in solitude to grow as an artist and as a minister.

I say that the bar has been placed high for spending my time away from them.  I am very blessed to have the life I live.  I am happy for the forward movement of my future with them and with those that come into the sacred groves of my art & ministry.  I am rooted in a space that is true to me and to the life I want to live.  My home, my family, and my home within myself each have the space for me to create.  Creating is loving, laughing, painting, playing, cooking, writing, preaching, teaching, and all the spaces in between.

Suzanne  

photo by frick frack foto.  ©2009.

Tree

photo by frick frack foto.  ©2009.

Comments

I totally love this interview! What a great idea to do this interviews and hear a bit about the artist's life--That image of the family painting the hand of the dying man will stay with me forever. This was fascinating.

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