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Center for Action and Contemplation

Artmaking as Contemplative Praxis in “ONEING: Art and Spirituality” 

Multimedia artist Lourdes Bernard illuminates how art is tangible spirituality.
April 15th, 2024
Artmaking as Contemplative Praxis in “ONEING: Art and Spirituality” 

This article is from the newest issue of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s biannual journal, ONEING. Both the limited-print edition and the downloadable PDF version of “ONEING: Art and Spirituality” are available now in our online bookstore.   

Art is singular. Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it, summon it, from even the most tragic of circumstances. The best art is political, and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.

Toni Morrison

Art is Singular

The practice of Menju (face-to-face transmission) is a ceremony in Zen Buddhism where the dharma or truth is “transmitted” to the student by the teacher. In actuality, it is less about a transmission and more about a mystical seeing and a spiritual recognition during a face-to-face encounter. Historically, the encounters were recorded and became part of the spiritual lineage of passing along the dharma in Buddhist communities. The lineage stories are called rokus, which means records.  

Aesthetic encounters are equally transformative, which is to say that a viewer can experience an emotional, spiritual, or psychological shift upon encountering a particular work of art. In this way, art can have a healing impact and elicit a powerful positive response. For me, works like Diego Velasquez’ “Christ Crucified” at El Prado and the monumental works of Julie Mehretu and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons offer me a transformative spiritual experience, time and again. After sitting with their art, I am moved and fundamentally different in a way that can only be triggered by viewing compelling art. Today, we are inundated with images, and yet it is through images that we process information that allows us to understand our world and, in turn, to make societal changes.  

In this article, I want to discuss audience engagement and participation in art projects, artmaking as a spiritual and contemplative praxis in the studio, and how this dialogue between artist and audience is a catalyst for societal change. Art is deeply rooted in shared lived experiences as well as in the imagination. Art reveals culture, mirrors society’s vulnerabilities, celebrates our humanity, and is truthful.  

Aesthetic encounters are equally transformative, which is to say that a viewer can experience an emotional, spiritual, or psychological shift upon encountering a particular work of art.

Lourdes Bernard

Similar to our experience of nature, art is the spiritual made tangible. Artmaking is a manifestation, a record of a spiritual conversation in the studio that simultaneously involves hand, eye, mind, body, and heart during the making and birthing of an image. Artmaking is spiritual praxis. It is this combination of energies that can potentially live in the image or the work, physically expressed as marks, color, form, materiality, and narrative content (when that is the focus of the work). 

Artmaking is both physical labor and contemplative praxis. As an artist, I’ve discovered that the work is its own thing, and I strive to be faithful to the work. In that sense, there can be an intention but not an agenda or ego while making the work. The art stems from an authentic curiosity and an honest exploration, a discovery and a fresh response to a subject, an environment or idea. For me, having a formal contemplative practice makes this possible, although it doesn’t make it easy. I think there is a faithfulness and a devotion in the practice of artmaking which can feel monastic while simultaneously linking us back to the world and to God.  

Art’s Invitation

Art invites audiences to consider the spirituality and transformative power of images. Engaging art offers respite, contemplation, even as it shares powerful, inspiring, or difficult stories. Art images are real and alive and have the power to change us and cause change. As I noted earlier, they can shift our perspective on what we thought we knew and understood about a subject. Too often, art is considered decorative, and it is significantly more than that. Engaging with art means we have to slow down to allow a new experience to enter which perhaps cannot be accessed in another way. It can be an expansive experience.  

Sometimes the artwork is simply a place where particular issues, ideas, and problems can live. The work offers no solutions, as that’s not what art is. This reminds me of the quote attributed to Pablo Picasso (1881–1973): “Art washes away from the soul the dust from everyday life.” Having said that, it’s intriguing that we are in a political climate that strives to deny particular histories and historical events, and books are being banned to accomplish that end. So, perhaps art images can help counter that as repositories of truth and history. Historically, images have been used to promote false narratives and create harmful government policies such as anti-immigrant legislation — and, at the same time, images have triggered lasting social justice movements.  

There is a faithfulness and a devotion in the practice of artmaking which can feel monastic while simultaneously linking us back to the world and to God.

Lourdes Bernard

The relationship between artists and the church was at one time symbiotic. Artists were commissioned to create images that offered early Christians a way to understand biblical stories, scripture, and theology. The arts served a communal function and were integrated into church life. Images offered beauty and access to transcendence. Divorced from formal institutions, artists today make work that is rooted in a contemplative approach and, as such, is responding to what is happening in the moment. Such art is prophetic and offers a collective process that includes beauty and can invite participation in a particular activity or action. This invitation can raise questions that challenge the audience to unpack complex issues. In this way, artists function as “technicians of the sacred,” and they are also healers.  

What follows is a discussion of art records, an archive of public-art actions which integrate activism and contemplation through face-to-face encounters.  

Truth Telling Leads to Contemplative Solidarity

When I discovered the Center for Action and Contemplation’s Living School, I was in the midst of discerning what God might be inviting me to do differently if I allowed myself to be softened by grief after my mother’s passing. I’ve learned that saying yes to God involves grace rather than self-will. I was trying to say yes that Labor Day week after spending the summer immersed in nature’s beauty. I had traveled to various breathtaking locations, making art and sketching as a form of pilgrimage. My final destination was an island in Maine known as God’s Pocket, where I discovered a deeper spiritual intuition that was guiding me toward a new beginning. When I returned to New York City, I came across a reference to the Living School and decided to apply.  

On January 21, 2017, I attended the Women’s March in Washington, DC. It was life-giving and inspiring. However, this was followed by the new administration’s very aggressive anti-immigrant policies, the Muslim ban, and mass detention and deportations at the southern border. Intuitively, I recognized parts of my story in the plight of current immigrants. I recognized an emerging pattern of authoritarianism as the scapegoating of immigrants escalated. My anger gave way to curiosity and inspiration. I began research on a new art project about my parents’ experience while living under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (1932–1961) and how his subsequent assassination and the revolution that followed became a catalyst for our own family’s separation and eventual migration to New York City from the Dominican Republic.  

The historical drawings became part of my story, which is also a universal story of immigrants forced to flee the instability created by war.

Lourdes Bernard

My parents never spoke about what happened, and I created a “family album” to document the April 1965 US invasion of the Dominican Republic in order to reclaim this history. Our family was separated shortly after Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) sent 42,000 Marines into Santo Domingo. Until I began this research, I didn’t know my story well enough to feel the impact of my immigrant experience. I made the first images in shock, then anger, which gradually gave way to awe that felt like a new beginning.  

It didn’t settle anything for me that our time in Ciudad Nueva coincided with the US bombing and occupation of Santo Domingo, so I set out to document history as a way to witness what happened. I made drawings to fixate on something, to clearly capture and digest the past for the first time. The historical drawings became part of my story, which is also a universal story of immigrants forced to flee the instability created by war. This body of work raises questions about the impact of militarism and the cultural price of displacement and migration. US intervention created instability, poverty, and displacement, which led to the vast Dominican diaspora, including formation of the largest immigrant community in New York City.  

The Border Crossed Us

As reports of the conditions in the immigrant detention centers were leaked, I was invited to speak at Bryn Mawr College on my art project “Las Mujeres de Abril” (The Women of April) and also to lead an anti-deportation solidarity art-action workshop for students and faculty. During the art action, I gave them three prompts. In the first, they were asked to consider what they would pack if faced with deportation. They were asked to design a suitcase that would either contain something to comfort them and keep them safe or that contained a memento to remind them of the life and people they were leaving behind.  

That contemplative time of suffering and paying attention transformed me as much as it transformed my work, allowing me to use art as a form of reportage and witnessing, and to engage in face-to-face transmission.

Lourdes Bernard

Because US immigration is always about defining American identity and who does or does not get to claim that, the second art action asked them to consider American identity. Using the phrase “The border crossed us” to detach “nationality” from “belonging,” I asked them to imagine and create a passport that expanded the notion of identity when it is not tied to nationality. In this way, the nation of origin would not be a barrier for movement to another nation. The students reconsidered notions of identity and how it can be designated in ways that recognize our humanity. This created a contemplative space to consider what is actually essential to know about “the other.”  

Painted Prayers

Another art action with a spiritual component is known as “artivism,” which uses art as an activist practice which may or may not be political. The art action which most impacted and transformed me was the installation “Please Take One: Free Love, Compassion, and Gratitude” that I created at a church in New York City. I filled a large metal bowl with small paintings, each with an intention written on the back. The installation was an invitation to parishioners and all church visitors to engage in face-to-face transmission. One of three intentions was written on the back of each painting, and they were asked to take a painting and give it away as gratitude, love, or compassion to a stranger, a loved one, or to themselves. Making the installation was also a contemplative act which allowed me to call forth more compassion, love, and gratitude as I made each work during a period when I felt myself needing all three. The installation was set up in June, during pride month in New York City, and close to 800 small “painted prayers” and intentions were given away that month. 

Irrevocably Beautiful

Someone recently shared that Christianity challenges the status quo because it fosters the right to resist. This is the simplest throughline for the work I have been making the last few years, in spite of backing into Christianity during a lengthy spiritual search which unfolded over an equally lengthy period of caregiving. When caregiving ended, what remained — along with the love and shared memories — was a visual archive of the caregiving journey during which Mom was my muse.  

I created over 300 paintings and drawings which document the many twists and turns of that ten-year period. During this time, I used my art to witness and to archive our moments together. Artmaking was a way of spending time with Mom. As I made art, I experienced time as stillness, and its slowness transformed my artwork. My art became more intimate and thoughtful, and, though I was unaware of this then, my creativity flourished in ways that altered what I choose to create and share with audiences today. That contemplative time of suffering and paying attention transformed me as much as it transformed my work, allowing me to use art as a form of reportage and witnessing, and to engage in face-to-face transmission. 

Established in 2013, ONEING is the biannual journal of the Center for Action and Contemplation. Renowned for its diverse and deep exploration of mysticism and culture, ONEING is grounded in Richard Rohr’s teachings and wisdom lineage. Each issue features a themed collection of thoughtfully curated essays and critical perspectives from spiritual teachers, activists, modern mystics, and prophets of all religions. 

Lourdes Bernard is an award-winning Dominican American artist whose multimedia works address how historical events take shape within a landscape.  Lourdes’ project “The Women of April” exhibited in the New York Studio School gallery, then traveled to the Erdman Center at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she is currently artist in residence. Learn more about Lourdes Bernard. 

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