Art That Speaks Softly

When I was an art student in college, I felt like I needed to make big statements with my art. It was the early 90’s. The Cold War was ending and the Gulf War was beginning. The Soviet Union was disbanding and apartheid was beginning to unravel. I found myself wanting to talk about really big, complex issues like race relations and social injustice. I wanted to make bold proclamations of my faith. To my dismay, my work was almost never received with the deep passion and conviction with which it was made. I sat through many a critique feeling very bad about myself and quite misunderstood. While my skill as an artist was not bad, the art was lost in the poor communication of what I wanted to say.

Now some 25 years later, I realize that while the 18 year old version of myself had a lot to say, I did not have the life experience, general knowledge, or vocabulary to add anything to those conversations with my art. This isn’t to say that we don’t all have a lot to learn from the next generation, we do. But in the same way that I hate getting parenting advice from people who don’t have kids, the white, American, 18 year old girl who grew up in an upper middle class Christian home, who was just beginning to understand what it meant to follow Christ, could hardly speak into the religious, political, or social discourse of that time in a meaningful way.

To put it simply, I had not lived enough yet. I had not walked with God through times of unspeakable joy or crushing pain. I had not spent enough time in His Word or at His feet. I was not prepared to sit at the table and offer much substance to the conversation with my art.

Where did that leave me? Was I to stop making art until I had something of importance to say? Thankfully, no. I continued to develop my skill by painting still lifes of monochromatic objects and creating sculptures out of clay and wood. I sat in lectures and memorized paintings and movements of art. I quietly toiled away and amassed a broader set of skills and understanding about art, all the while learning from my fellow artists and helping younger ones along the way.

By my junior year of college, I had migrated to the ceramics department. I found a home there. Sometimes, the things I made were art and sometimes they were utilitarian. Today I find the same beauty in both kinds of work.

British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge said, “If we want to see art that challenges the prevailing secularism, we need artists who are not only skillful, but also theologically well equipped, grounded in a fellowship, and living obedient lives. Christianity is not a mere philosophy, it is a spiritual relationship that results in changed thoughts and actions, and it will only rub off on our work if it has first of all permeated our lives.”

That’s at the root of it all isn’t it, “a spiritual relationship that results in changed thoughts and actions”. That has to be my first pursuit, in every role I play in my life- as an artist, a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a sister.

Now, all these years after I began making art, I don’t usually try to make big, sweeping statements with the things I create. For me, it has been quiet growth and abiding faith that have best prepared me to be a part of conversations about faith, life, and art. While I rarely have answers, I do have personal experience, empathy, and a strong foundation on which to draw. I pattern my life around pursuing God in every aspect. That spills out, sometimes accidentally, into what I create.

Whether I am making a mosaic-topped piece of furniture or dishes to share a meal on, I am entering into people’s daily lives in a way that is quiet and intimate. I don’t take that lightly. I hear God the most when he meets me in quiet, intimate ways. Maybe I am making a bigger statement with a well-made mug that someone uses every morning than I ever did with the art I made in college.

-Jennifer Chetelat

Resident Artist & Gallery Assistant