The Visitation: An Interview with Artist James Janknegt

This Advent I have been captivated by Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary. I am drawn to her circumstances, but also very much to the wisdom and mystery of her. I know what it is to struggle with infertility and then to be surprised by Life. The other things? The patience, kindness, and strength...they elude me. I have spent this season asking God how to lean into Elizabethness, and the asking brought a delightful gift.

I discovered this painting by James Janknegt aptly titled The Visitation. Every time I look at it I make a new discovery and I find that this story is settling into my bones. The painter describes his work as "contemporary icons," scriptural truth in a modern setting. I asked him if I could interview him for this blog. I wanted to share his work with you. It is my deep pleasure to invite you into my conversation with James Janknegt:

The Visitation by James B. Janknegt • oil/canvas • 18”x36” • 2008

The Visitation by James B. Janknegt • oil/canvas • 18”x36” • 2008

Michelle: Why do you paint?

James Janknegt: I always wanted to be an artist. I feel like being a painter is my vocation. I originally struggled with the idea when I first became a Christian when I was 17. I didn’t know of any contemporary artists who were Christians and I wasn’t sure that being a painter was a valid pursuit. I had a mystical experience while browsing through a Salvador Dali book in a mall bookstore. I opened the book to his painting of St. John of the Cross and I felt God speak to me in that clear, inaudible voice that to be a painter was my vocation. Ever since then I have pursued that with all my heart.

M: Why paint icons?

JJ: I don’t think to be a Christian and an artist one must paint religious work. Any kind of expression of creativity is a participation in the creative work of God. But around 2000 I decided that I would only paint religious work. I think it was a bit like, “If you were going to die and could only paint one painting what would you paint?”  I admitted that my faith was the center of my life that everything else revolved around, so why wasn’t I making paintings about that? I mean, it is the “greatest story every told” and I think every generation deserves to have that story told in the vernacular of their own time. So that is what I set out to do: paint religious paintings in the spirit of the great religious painters of the medieval world but in a contemporary way.

Art is about incarnating ideas, putting flesh and bones on stories.
— James Janknegt

M: I think that was what first captured me about this painting, the story is told in the vernacular of my time. The personalities are recognizable but made even more familiar by the setting. I notice that you have several different pieces on the topic of The Visitation. What is it about this event that continues to captivate you? 

JJ: The visitation is one of the first powerful windows looking into the incarnation. As soon as Jesus is conceived, Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth who is already six months pregnant with John. Both John and Elizabeth acknowledge the presence of Jesus as the Messiah, John by jumping in the womb of Elizabeth and Elizabeth by prophesying full of the Holy Spirit, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” That the Creator of the universe consents to spend nine months in the womb of a woman is mind boggling. It reminds me of the passage in Philippians 2:

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

M: Your work is so impacted by your faith, do you find the reverse to be true? How does art impact your faith?

JJ: I love art history and love going to museums. I also love looking at art books. I use to go to the art library when I was in school and just roam up and down the aisles pulling out art books and looking at them. I particularly am drawn to religious art. Just as the visitation speaks so powerfully about the incarnation, likewise art is about incarnating ideas, putting flesh and bones on stories. When I see a work of art that takes the abstract forms: lines, colors, shapes and values and weaves them into a composition that visually speaks the same thing that the story is telling, I am deeply moved. One of my favorite artists is Ben Shahn who wrote a book called The Shape of Content. His point is that the formal elements of a work of art are what tells the story. The shapes, lines, color and composition are what speak on a deep level to the viewer. If the artist is just concerned with “ telling the story,” without telling the story through the visual elements what you end up with is bad Sunday School illustrations.

M: What role does contemplation, observation or paying attention play in your work?

JJ: I hope that my work is a combination of deep study of the scripture, informed by the teaching of the Church along with a deep visual understanding of the world around me. I am not trying to recreate 1st century Jerusalem in my paintings. I try, through prayerful study of the scripture, to understand it in the context of the original culture in which it was written. Then I attempt to translate that into contemporary visual American life. So, the paintings end up being a blend of the objective truth of scripture and the subjective experience of my life.

Thank you James!

James Janknegt is a prolific painter! Many of his paintings (including the one above) are available as prints. Do visit his website: www.bcartfarm.com


If you would like to use James' work as a starting point for worship, choose a time and place free of distractions. It can be helpful to some people to journal during this exercise. If you are one of these people, be ready with paper and pen (but also be willing to put your pen down when needed). Scroll through his various pieces (click here to find them) and notice which one you are drawn to. Click on it to enlarge and then prayerfully consider the piece. Use the following questions as a guide as long as they serve you:

Why am I drawn to this piece?

Consider/journal what it is about this work that draws you to it at this moment.

Ask the Holy Spirit to make connections for you, to form a prayer in you.

Listen. If you find that your mind has wandered, take a moment to offer that stray thought to the Lord, and then settle back into a listening posture.

Give yourself some time to ponder the experience. Give yourself at least 24 hours. Then consider these questions:

Was this a new experience for you?

Did you notice any resistance to the exercise? Where do you think that came from?

In what ways were you called?

Can you use this technique of noticing what draws your attention, asking the Holy Spirit what He might have for you, in another context during your day?

Once you start to practice noticing and listening, it will become a habit. It will become a way of "praying without ceasing."

Homing Instinct

Is it faith
In the stories
Passed through generations,
One freckled butterfly
To the next
That carries them brave
Over seething seas?
Is it hope
In the fragrant fields or
The promise of nectar
Sweet for their children
That steers their purposeful wanderings?
 
Is it devotion
That tethers the bee to her hive,
That enables her to carry
Four miles of heathered hills,
lilac and clover
inside her brain the size
of a grass seed?
 
How do Jews always know where Jerusalem is?
How do Muslims know which way to turn
To face Mecca?
Most of the time, I don’t even know where I am or
Where I’m going
Let alone the direction of
My hidden home.
                              —Michelle Winter

Shimmering Contrasts, India Part 9

Speeding through the streets of colorful metropolitan Kolkata, we slow down and stop near the hippodrome to let a small flock of about fifty goats cross the street. Through the car window I watch a man in a bright orange tunic and pants, wearing a turban and carrying a mat under his right arm walk out onto a nearby soccer field. He is not bothered by the two dozen men chasing a ball up and down the green. He walks into their midst, opens his mat and sits. He is an orange beacon in a green sea and the soccer game parts around him, continues almost uninterrupted, different cultures occupying the same space.

This week we take two mornings to visit freedom businesses. These are businesses that exist to give people work, choices, and dignity. The two businesses we visit are specifically aimed at releasing women caught in the sex trade.

The first one we visit partly because we are considering using them for t-shirts. Shandra wants me to make a logo that can be used on t-shirts that will be sold to raise funds. To do this I need to understand what this company can and cannot do. The company is called FreeSet and you can find them online here: http://freesetglobal.com/

I meet the art-prepareres, the color-mixers (with their rings of Pantone color cards!), the fabric cutters and shirt-assemblers, and then I buy several t-shirts. I want to know how much drape there is in the cloth after it is printed. I am delighted to say that these shirts become personal favorites. They are soft and maintain their hand.

The logo I dream for the House of Light Project incorporates these things: a flame in an Indian-like pattern because their word for light is the same as their word for flame, a house within the flame and the word jyoti (flame) in Hindi inside the house. The house is filled with light and it emanates light. Beneath the flame is the website address where people can donate to the project. It is a little website I set up for them that they will maintain as they grow. The donation portal goes through Cru, which is the established and highly regarded non-profit that employs the feisty Shandra. The address is: houseoflightindia.com

The second freedom business we visit is Sari Bari. I have loved their products for many years, and we think it might be a good connection for the nuns at the House of Light. Sari Bari creates products--mostly blankets and bags--from used saris and straight stitching called kantha embroidery. The atmosphere among the women in the workplace is one of easy camaraderie and dedication to the work. There is something light and beautiful about the place. It feels like an oasis. You can find them online here: http://saribari.com/

Sister Dorothy, the smallest, youngest and newest sister in the house, comes with us to our meeting with the president of the company. One day I will create art to honor this most amazing woman. She does everything with her whole heart. This earnest woman, speaks to a tall, quiet earnest man with a heart for justice, peace and healing. I watch God stitch the ends of their fabrics together as they speak and I still don't know how He does it. Words are insufficient to describe that afternoon as we sit cross-legged together, grateful for the mats beneath us and the kindred spirits before us.

Sacred ground in the middle of the largest sex trade district in India.

Different cultures occupying the same space.

Playing With Dolls, India Part 8

I have spent a lot of time studying trauma this year. Enough to know that I don't know hardly anything. This is a complex field of study and the science has started to move quickly. Part of the reason for the complexity is that there are so many varied factors in creating trauma. Why do two people experience the same event and yet one is traumatized and the other seems to take it in stride? Trauma is not just something that happens to someone, it is very much more than that.

We do know that one factor in the level of trauma sustained by a victim of sexual violence, is the reaction of people who receive her afterwards. If her people overreact the trauma is deeper--this includes overreactions on both sides of the spectrum. We would expect that rejection by her people would be traumatic, but so is excessive sympathy. And what would excessive sympathy even look like? Well, that's another thing that varies from person to person.

Enter entrainment. Here is a short video to illustrate the concept:

In physics, entrainment is associated with conservation of energy. When two objects of like vibration are in close proximity, they will begin to move together in synchronicity. Two objects moving together use less energy than two objects moving in opposite directions.  

When we dance or sing to music we use entrainment to play together. Music therapists have used this concept for decades to teach muscles to work again, to help brains of stroke victims to make connections again.

We see this in nature as well. Biorhythms synchronize. Fireflies blink on and off together. And, when we sit next to one another and do art or craft, we breathe together. And you know what happens when we breathe together? We don't feel alone anymore. We feel accepted without feeling smothered. We just exist together, breathing together. 

Another thing we know is that having permission and space to tell our stories in our own way, rewires us. It gives us power over the story instead of the story dominating us. Before I left for India, my daughter and I talked about the many ways that dolls had given her personal stories voice throughout her childhood. She put together a doll-making kit for me to take to India. There in the House of Light, a truly safe space, our team sat with the girls and care-givers and crafted dolls together. Breathed together. Relaxed into rhythm together.

And girls who had missed out on childhood played with dolls. By the next day breathing became laughter and they were creating bouquets of pipe cleaner flowers and gifting them to one another.

Synchronicity. Moving together. It's good for healing.

And it's less lonely that way too.

1 in 6, India Part 7

The television was always on in the hotel restaurant. The large flatscreen at the far end of the room was most often tuned into the news. The news was (understandably) Indo-centric and skewed slightly in India's favor, so I was shocked one morning when I heard the anchorwoman preface a story with:

One in six girls in India does not survive to reach the age of fifteen.

One in six.

One in six?

And the girls we were working with? They were girls who did survive. They made it to fifteen years of age, but they have endured so much in their little lives.

One in six. I am not a numbers person. I had a hard time understanding the statistic. I needed a visual. How could I wrap my mind around the meaning in those numbers?

One evening some new friends took us to visit various sites around Kolkata. It is truly a beautiful city. We saw civic memorials and religious sites including a Hindu temple and the Anglican cathedral of St. Paul's. We found relief from the Kolkata heat in the cool interior of the cathedral. Behind the baptistry, at the back of the church, was a framed quote from John Donne. The words were so familiar to me, but standing in India with a heavy statistic pressing on my heart I read them, heard them, as if they were brand new:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

We are all a piece of the same cloth, together we make a tapestry. That statistic is not just a number. Because we all participate in humanity, we are all diminished by the death of another, all diminished by the hurt of another--even if we don't know it.

So, here is a piece titled 1 in 6. It is a visual for myself to see what that number means. Two broken eggs from a box of a dozen. When I was finished with this textile piece, I took a sharp blade and tore 6 holes into it in no particular pattern. I was trying to mar the piece without symmetry or beautiful placement of the ripped places. Because our tapestry, our humanity, is marred by the death and misfortune of others.

1 in 6, Michelle Winter ©2016 polyester & rayon thread with cotton print fabrics on natural cotton twill, stitch mounted to 16x20" museum board

Whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we understand it or not, when lives are lost, we all lose.

The Wedding Party, India Part 6

The nuns asked that we come to the House of Light only on weekdays, so we had the weekend "off." This meant that we had the opportunity to locate things we hadn't known we would need until we set up and started working. We strategized over breakfast Saturday morning. At some point during a discussion that included USB hubs, keyboards, fabric stabilizer and printer-scanners as well as planning visits to organizations and agencies the following week, we decided that this was the perfect day for us all to get henna tattoos.

Henna is a plant that grows in warm climates. It has been used as a cosmetic and textile dye for over 6,000 years. The leaves are dried and ground into a powder that is mixed with lemon juice or tea and essential oil to form a paste. This paste stains skin, hair and finger or toe nails. Henna tattoos are cultural, not religious. They are used by Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs among others. The designs are decorative and are used to indicate a joyous occasion.

I studied henna tattooing (mehndi or mehendi) the last time I was in India, and teacher-storyteller that I am, created a workshop around using henna to tell stories. I have taught it several times. The focus of the workshop is on creating symbols to stand for parts of a story we want to tell. Giving people a voice through visual metaphor is a powerful healing tool.

Our team decided to use one of the samples I had made for my workshop. It was a story of healing--physical healing and restoration to community. It was the biblical story of the woman who bled for 12 years. We could have just gotten various designs, but there was an unspoken need that this story satisfied for all of us. It was about holding many things at the same time: remembering the broken, while remembering hope; pushing through obstacles to grasp healing, while allowing God to heal in His way; and so much more that we couldn't articulate in that moment.

The numbers indicate the order for telling the story, from Michelle Winter's "Henna For Storytelling" Workshop ©2013-2016

The numbers indicate the order for telling the story, from Michelle Winter's "Henna For Storytelling" Workshop ©2013-2016

Our Muslim driver had henna dyed hair and henna tattoos on his hands. We had arrived in Kolkata towards the end of a Muslim festival season and the evidence of celebration still clung to him. He knew just where to take us for our henna tattoos, he negotiated the price for us, he kept a watchful eye for dangers invisible to us and he was full of advice for making the henna stain last longer.

Even though we started with the same design, we all had different artists. This was the result:

Henna tattoos (mehendi), India team 2016. Photo credit Abby Mayer.

Henna tattoos (mehendi), India team 2016. Photo credit Abby Mayer.

And isn't that the way of it? All healing is individual.

This was a fun, team-building activity with unintended consequences. When we engaged the culture in this way it opened doors. Immediately everyone who saw us smiled and gestured towards our hands. They knew mehendi indicated Joy. The tone of all of our interactions from this moment forward was completely different. Conversations opened with a discussion of mehendi, and a deep satisfaction that we were enjoying India. The henna made us friends rather than strangers. We had accidentally stumbled into Joy.

Shandra whispered to me, "I think they think we are here for a wedding."

"We are," I whispered back.

She grinned, "Yes, I suppose we are."

We were the wedding party, bringing tokens of love to the beloved. God sees you. You are beautiful to Him. He loves you.

Do you know why bad things happen?

Yeah. Really, me neither.

But I do know that God sees you. You are beautiful to Him. He loves you. Stumble into Joy.

On Monday, the nuns and girls would be thrilled with our mehendi. They apply henna tattoos as part of their Christmas celebrations, and were intrigued by the idea of using it to tell stories. Sister Dorothy and I talked about the possibilities...

And another fun thing: there was a big Hindu wedding in the hotel that weekend...the groom's younger brother insisted we attend.

Surprise! Hindu wedding, Kolkata 2016

Surprise! Hindu wedding, Kolkata 2016

As a result of this wedding, I met a Hindu man who talked to me over the course of the next week about marriage, faithfulness and love. He was preparing for his own wedding this coming winter and all these things were very much on his mind. I learned a lot from him, and pray that he finds what his heart desires.

I pray that for you, too.

Stumble into Joy.

India, July 2016 A Poem

     India, July 2016

“Why do the vehicles on the road honk so much?”
We asked our driver
“My horn says:
     I am here
     I am here
     Don’t forget that I am here.”
 
“Spicy!” we sniffled.
And the street vendor laughed,
“The food says:
     I am here
     I am here
     Don’t forget that I am here.”
 
Brightly colored scarves and sarees
     Tangerine
     Gold
     Red
Flutter like prayer flags:
     I am here
     I am here
     Don’t forget that I am here.
 
The children around the car
The toothless woman with a can
And the silent girl chained to a bed:
     I am here
     I am here
     Don’t forget
That I am here.
          ~Michelle Winter
 

Stillness and Flurries, India Part 4

Eighteen months ago Shandra slept at the House of Light. The house is an aftercare refuge for girls who have been traumatized. One of the newly rescued girls screamed and sobbed all night, caught between nightmares and restless sleep. The nuns and the girls know these nights. And they know that sometimes all they can do is pray, hold, and be present through the dark until the morning. I think Shandra tried to prepare me as we drove to the house, but there are no words for the anguish caused by this evil.

We were prepared for the tasks of the day. The young members of our team, Girls of Grit and Determination, had sourced and purchased the other items we were taking.

Halie and Abby, Girls of Grit and Determination at the computer store in Kolkata.

Halie and Abby, Girls of Grit and Determination at the computer store in Kolkata.

The computer store, street view... (photo credit Abby Mayer, 2016)

The computer store, street view... (photo credit Abby Mayer, 2016)

We had a computer, printer/scanner, embroidery machine, fabric and other items in the trunk. We carried hoops and parts on our laps. I still had the embroidery sample cloth in my hand and was writing and rewriting lessons in my head. I wanted to introduce sewing and embroidery concepts in a way that unfolded logically and was easy to grasp. The rest of the team discussed strategies for setting up the other equipment and plans for the day. We were very prepared for the tasks ahead, but emotions are unpredictable.

We were welcomed with warm greetings and with tea. Shandra asked me to do a short presentation to all the nuns gathered around the table. When I pulled out the sample cloth, Sister Parmila (who is in charge of tailoring and teaching sewing) held it in her hands, shook her head and cried, "God is so kind!" (Definitely a theme for this trip). Soon they were dreaming of the possibilities (another trip theme).

After tea, we unpacked everything. The girls formed an excited throng around us that moved when we moved. One of the girls who couldn't stop smiling, took over the camera and took pictures of everyone. Like a photographer at a wedding, she organized portrait groups and bounced from room to room carrying delight with her. The House of Light was a flurry of activity: sewing lessons, computer lessons, everyone moving loudly, laughing.

Except Shandra.

Shandra smiled sometimes. She hugged sometimes. She nodded sometimes. She was present, but still. She was very still.

Shandra carried this special kind of Stillness born of Wonder.

I heard it in her voice as we drove away. I hear it in her voice even now. "Did you see her?" she asked. "The Girl Who Couldn't Stop Smiling? That was the girl who 18 months ago couldn't even stand. Her spirit was so broken, so crumpled, she was a puddle in the corner during the day and sobbed throughout the night."

There were other stories of healing and growth: a girl trained as a teacher who found work and now lives strong, one finishing her training as a mechanic while we were there, another preparing to take exams that will open up more educational opportunities. The girls and nuns are a family formed by trauma and love.

I think that everyone involved in this project has asked some variation of this question at some point, "Is love enough?" Are we doing enough? Are we moving fast enough? Are the care givers skilled enough? These are important questions, but they are flurry questions. Perhaps the answers are in the stillness.

Pray.

Hold.

Be present.

Through the dark.

Until the morning.

I Am Disturbed, India Part 3

I pushed open the door from the hotel and stepped into the Kolkata heat. Immediately, my glasses fogged up. As I stood wiping them, I could feel sweat collecting between my shoulder blades. By the time our driver dropped Shandra and I at the sewing machine shop, our clothes had melted into our skins.

But inside the shop, the atmosphere was quite chilly. Neither the manager nor his assistant smiled. When he spoke, the manager was careful to look pointedly away from us, mostly out the window, so that we became most familiar with his right ear and shoulder. He asked us a lot of questions, he didn't answer ours. The assistant brought us tea. The manager didn't drink his. I didn't drink mine.

"I could feel the steam coming out of your ears in that cold room,"  Shandra would laugh about this for weeks. And it was true. My anger was growing and I was struggling to contain it. This man, Lord! He is so condescending! How? How is he going to be able to do the things we have contracted him to do? How can a man this arrogant teach the women at the House of Light? His arrogance is a wall... And suddenly I realized I was catching a glimpse of another invisible story. There was so much I didn't know about this man, so much I would never understand; however, it was clear that he was woven into this tapestry. To discount him would be to leave a hole in the fabric. That's when the Holy Spirit broke into my own arrogance.

"There is much I don't know," I leaned forward. "Teach me."

He turned and looked at me for the first time. He waved at his assistant and thus began an hour of "training." I let him show me the machine features and I cooled down. He let me ask questions and he warmed up. We embroidered several samples onto black cloth and with each stitch our conversation became more real. Then he asked me to step into the back room. He wanted to show me the machine I should have bought. It filled the room. He showed me that it operated in exactly the same way as the smaller one but moved significantly faster.

"Tell me why you prefer this machine," I asked him.

"It's so much faster! You cannot hope to be competitive in the industry with the machine you bought!" He took a breath, "Tell me why you prefer that machine."

I laughed, "Because it is so much slower! That machine will go to a home for girls. They will learn on it without losing any fingers and then have the skills to get jobs later."

"A home for girls? It is going to a home for girls?" He looked at the floor for a second. He spoke very quietly, "Then you have purchased the correct machine." When he looked up he was smiling.

Shandra signed the papers and we packed up the boxes. She would laugh later, "I don't know what you did but you gained a friend in that shop." The Holy Spirit wanted to use the stones in my own wall of arrogance to build a bridge. As we were leaving I picked up the black cloth on which we had stitched out several samples, "Can I have this?" The assistant snatched it out of my hand, but the manager gave it back to me, "Of course you must have it, there is no problem." He gave us several business cards, "You must please disturb me for any reason. If the sisters at the House of Light need anything, machine maintenance, lessons, any question at all! I will look forward to being disturbed by them."

This textile piece is titled The Holy Spirit Disturbs Us. I wanted to do a textile piece to remember that moment. I loved that the manager used the word "disturbed" because it so accurately encapsulated all of our feelings that morning. We were negatively disturbed by one another, then we were positively disturbed by the Holy Spirit who invited us to try again. The piece is entirely hand-stitched to honor the effort, one stitch at a time, one word at a time, that it takes to choose to build a bridge.

The Holy Spirit Disturbs Us, Michelle Winter ©2016 cotton thread on cotton fabric stitch mounted to 16x20" museum board

The Holy Spirit Disturbs Us, Michelle Winter ©2016 cotton thread on cotton fabric stitch mounted to 16x20" museum board

The gray background fabric felt chilly to me, like the atmosphere in the shop when we first arrived. The orange square is the Presence of God, which is always there. The straight stitches are a nod to a form of traditional Indian hand embroidery called kantha. They form lovely undulations in the fabric (and texture is the reason textiles are my first art love). I chose white embroidery floss because I wanted something that didn't stand out too much. I wanted the stitching to feel almost atmospheric. The straight lines at the bottom are about the paths in which we are often stuck. The undulations are the unintentional ripples those paths can create. The scattered stitches are the times when the Holy Spirit explodes us out of our paths. The curved stitches are the times when we are merely nudged to see things in new ways. Anything can happen when The Holy Spirit Disturbs Us. I used a mounting technique that was new to me. Though it was a pain-staking process, I am so happy with the result and will definitely use it again.

In Which I Get What I Don't Deserve, India Part 2

It is a humbling experience to be fed by those with little food, or given a gift by those who have nothing to spare. It is tempting to refuse the kindness offered so generously, but it is precisely that staggering generosity that overrides all refusals. The only way to receive such a gift is to surrender to it, to accept it knowing there is no possibility of repayment. It is practical grace. All grace.

The second day we were in India I met Sunaa. At first I thought I was there to care for her, but instead she carried me. I tried to paint the gift of her. The first attempt was a very abstract painting, but there was too much pain in it. I painted over it, and the second attempt was too structured. There is a lot of structure in India, but much of the healing I witnessed happens outside of it. I made a third, and then a fourth attempt. By then the layers were building up and I liked the complexity of the textures. Then I realized that Sunaa's gift impacted me and shaped the rest of the trip for me because of it's simplicity. The painting below looks nothing like what I had envisioned. It is not about pain or need. It is about the deep capacity every single human has to bless another.

Sunaa is from Kerala, in the south of India. Kerala, where bananas grow, where they speak the beautiful Malayalam language and wrap sweet spirits in warm chocolate skin.

"Why did you move so far from home to come here?" I ask her.

She answers slowly, and clearly, "I wanted to help people. I didn't know how I could help, but I thought . . . perhaps I could give kindness."

"Who did you want to help?"

She is quiet for some time, searching for the words. Then she smiles. Sunaa looks me in the eyes in a most un-Indian way until we both know that I am listening with my heart.

"You."

And I receive the gift.

Overwhelming kindness.

Grace.

All grace.

What If All We Had to Offer Was Kindness, Michelle Winter ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

What If All We Had to Offer Was Kindness, Michelle Winter ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

Invisible Stories, India Part 1

One of the first decisions a storyteller makes is where to begin the story. Do I begin at the beginning and trace the events chronologically? That might make the story easier to follow. Do I begin in the middle, drawing you quickly into the action? Do I dance around the edges unfolding the back story and the forward action in concert? I want to take you with me. I want to immerse you in this India Story.

But I can't.

The story is too big to tell, too deep and wide to hold.
And so, He hid the pieces inside the people.
The people.
That we would reach for one another and become
The poem.
~Michelle Winter, 2016

I entered into a long parade of stories invisible to me. I couldn't see the beginning. All I could do was reach out my hand and try to catch some shimmering confetti, pieces of Truth, as they flew by.

I missed much, but there were pieces of blue and green: women with gentle hands who offer kindness and healing; a girl who sets aside her need for rest to support her broken friends; women who have given up their lives to create a home and a family for the hurting.

There were pieces of red: men and women with fire in their eyes and hearts who have left their homes (some from other cities, some from other countries) to fight for justice and to rescue those who cannot fight.

There were pieces of orange: a feisty woman determined to pour herself out for the least of these; a quiet man hoping to change the world one person at a time.

And yellows, and golds: children who hold on to life and to one another, a middle aged woman reaching around the world to connect people who can be more effective together.

But, all that would come later. On the day we landed in India, we had been traveling for 36 hours and still had a drive ahead of us to the hotel. The streets were noisy, but the sounds organized themselves into music as we drove. There was heat, and breeze, colorful curbs and buses, the fog and stain of diesel, crowds, curry, lost luggage and a red alert for terrorist activity in the area. 

This is my first day, the landing day:

After A Hard Day, Rest Michelle Winter ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

After A Hard Day, Rest Michelle Winter ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

And so, perhaps there is a beginning after all. This is the only story I can tell. It is my story of how I danced in the parade of love and compassion in India...if only for a few steps along the way. 

The House of Light

My friend Shandra hates injustice. That's probably true about a lot of people, but Shandra beats it with a stick. Last year she went to Kolkata, India to partner with an international NGO. She wanted to save girls from the sex slave trade. The NGO only prosecutes cases they think they can win. Between them they came up with a plan to grab girls from perpetrators they were sure they could put away. The problem was that they needed an adult witness to testify to having seen a crime committed. Do you see where this is going? They needed some mighty brave women to risk their lives by going into very dark places.

Where do you find women like that?

They visited churches Kolkata asking if anyone would consider doing this. A woman in a golden sari stood up. "Look no further. My sisters and I. We will go." They explained to the woman that her life would be in danger. She waived them off. "Our lives do not belong to us. We gave them to God already."

Shandra wrote this:

I met some nuns who were all about Jesus and justice. We call them the Ninja Nuns because they run alongside ... on rescues into brothels. When I met them, Sister Lissi told me of her hope to turn their home into a place to love and care for the young girls who were being rescued.

I became a contributor last year. One of the many things I love about this project is that Protestant organizations joined hands with Catholic nuns to love the hurting. This kind of unity is what Life is about and it is what I have been praying for since 2000. Unity, not so that we can all believe the same thing, but so that we can love in a big way. Unity was Christ's last prayer for us before He was arrested. We are better together. Loving big.

A few weeks ago I met Shandra for coffee. "I'm going to India in July and I need you to come with me," she said. I listened while she described what she needed: a textile artist who could also help them purchase and learn to use an embroidery machine, someone who could offer soul care using the expressive arts. Then she said the magic words, "Michelle, what I really want is to take a dreamer." 

I'm going.

This is exactly what I signed up for when I became an artist missionary in April. This is what I do. I walk beside those who are doing a good work and offer some creative tools. 

Want to join the adventure? If you would like to contribute to the project or to my ministry you can do so HERE.

If you would like to join my prayer team, you can fill out the form HERE.

Here is an email excerpt from India:

"Greetings and thank you for this help. I am sure that this would be seen as a great step in the history of missions, to know how the Evangelicals and Catholics can come together to give freedom to the oppressed. Please let your partners and friends know our gratitude towards the expression of love and commitment to the girls in Kolkata. I know that much effort from your side have gone behind the scene and may God bless you for all efforts."

And He does, you know? God blesses all efforts.

God Sets the Lonely in Families

Psalm 68:6 is a beautiful verse. God sets the lonely in families.

A very tall fifteen year old boy just left my house. My son met him on the school bus and they became friends in November. Since then he and his brothers have spent a great deal of time at our house. We are very different to these Viking children, tall redheads, loud and raucous. He showed up at my door two hours ago sniffling. He had just had a fight with his mom, he felt lonely, our house was the only place he could think of to go. A tall cup of hot chocolate later, the smiling boy was ready to go home. He was encouraged, but so was I. These are hard years for a man-child. His big brave heart encourages me.

Sometimes it's lonely to be an artist in ministry, but God has set me in a family. Artists in Christian Testimony Intl is a mission organization that supports and sends artists into the world to share God's love. For the past two years I have been thinking about this organization. This year I took the leap. I applied, sent in my references, was invited to present my portfolio in person and then invited to join them. They commissioned me April 16th. I am now an artist-missionary and Creator Spiritus (the art ministry creative consultation organization I started) is a department of A.C.T. Intl. I'm so excited!

And these people have so quickly become a family to me. There are hard things in this decision, but the support from an organization that values creative tools for bringing well-being to the world is so encouraging. I have so much to tell you!

I'm just getting started. The number of things I will get wrong, well, I am sure countless is the word I'm looking for. I value every single prayer. And think of the possibilities! Of the hearts to be encouraged! Of the lonely to be welcomed into God's deep love! Of the hurting to meet the Healer!

Want to come along for the ride?

Here is the link to my page at the A.C.T. Intl website: http://actinternational.org

And here is where you can add yourself to my prayer team:

Name *
Name
Address *
Address

Standing on the Threshold

The November Women's Ministries Event was about identifying the things that hold us back from growing in our relationship with God, leaving those things behind and moving forward. During Pastor Gaby Viesca's sermon, women wrote down their obstacles, then stuck them onto the back sides of the doors (which were painted black), opened the doors and walked through them towards the beautiful. It was an exercise in Truth and Hope.

Here are the five doors. These are the beautiful sides, the other sides were painted solid black. Many thanks to my amazing crew: Veronica Lake, Constance Lee Adams, Kathy Berry, Sue Epps, Gaby Viesca, and Quynh Nguyen. There is something quite wonderful about painting with friends.

Here are the five doors. These are the beautiful sides, the other sides were painted solid black. Many thanks to my amazing crew: Veronica Lake, Constance Lee Adams, Kathy Berry, Sue Epps, Gaby Viesca, and Quynh Nguyen. There is something quite wonderful about painting with friends.

This is the benediction I gave as the event transitioned from the planned portion to the vital mingling-in-the lobby portion:

It's not hard to think of reasons not to come. There are many reasons to go it alone, but we are the Body of Christ and you have spent the entire week being an elbow--alone, being an ear--alone. You know in your bones, even if you don't know it in your head, you know it in your bones, that we must come together to be a BODY.
You were home behind your door, you reached out your hand and turned the knob, crossed the threshold and walked out into the rain, you crossed the parking lot, entered through the outside doors into the building where everyone looks like they have it all together, you crossed the lobby and entered these sanctuary doors where you found we are all broken together.
What happens when we set aside reasons, and cross into community? It's a mystery--a surprise, a delight. We have painted bright colors, different paintings on the backs of our doors. You have crossed so many thresholds tonight, will you cross one more? Go through the doors and enter into community, offer and receive love. Please linger. Good night.

A Call to Worship

I had the joy of writing the Call to Worship for our Women's Ministries Kick Off event in October. It is written as a Spoken Word Poem meant to be a true call to worship--an oral summons to turn our faces and lift our eyes--rather than a reading.

Pause
Turn and Come
Turn away from what ails
Frightens
Worries
Brings you low
Turn your hearts to God and Know
That He is Here
And He is Good
Believe
Be loved Beloved
Come.
Come in,
You’re invited
Yes, you hear the drum
That’s our God calling you
Come
Leave it all behind
You are mine, Our God calls us
out of the night
Into the light
He gathers us
And says it is good
In the desert there was one bush that burned
But that was enough to make Moses turn
He turned aside and worshiped God
Now what if you
Who are Called out of the dark
What if you took up that spark
What if you let God’s breath warm
Transform you into a fire storm
Each of you burning bright
together
Each one conquering the night
together
Each one carrying the light
together
You keep the doors closed on your dark places
Those deep spaces
When was the last time you opened those doors and looked
really looked into the deep
You’d be surprised at what you see.
Arise
Because even in those places God’s put an ember
Arise woman remember
That you were not made for the dark, you were made for the light
You were not made to be alone
But to stand side by side
To sympathize
You were not made to be ignored, not made to be bored
Arise woman
You were made to inspire
To rise higher
You were made to be fire
Arise woman you are mine says the Lord
You were made to be light
Arise woman
IGNITE

Abraham's Stars Part 3

And after all that preparation, after sharing our stories and playing together, it got hard. In order to stabilize the weavings we had to sew every warp piece to the one next to it—by hand. There was no other way, no short cut. We had to show up and put in the work, we worked side by side and we built relationships. We were in the lobby every day except Sundays, for 7-9 hours a day for 4 weeks. 67 different people showed up to volunteer. Many came numerous times.

This is the part that scared me. I knew it would. Much of my work I do alone. Community pinches me. At this point the tapestries held my fears: that I don’t belong and would never be able to break in, that I would fail. But early in this process someone came and she sewed quietly. I worried about how to entertain her, what to say? After several hours she thanked me for providing a space where she could sit with women and just be, where she didn’t have to talk. And just like that the Lord released me. Instead, I prayed every morning that He Himself would offer hospitality, that the lobby would be a safe place and that everyone would feel welcome here. And every single day He brought people who needed one another to sew next to each other. We shared lives, good books, good movies, recipes...

While I stitched in the lobby, a man came by. “You’re listening to stories? I have a story.” “It’s too late to write it into the tapestry,” I told him, “but if I can keep working while you tell me I will stitch it into this piece.” A total of 73 people over 4 weeks stopped by just to tell their stories. Their stories are just as much a part of this work as the ones written and they bring the total number in the tapestries to almost 400.

The lobby became a sacred space. One woman walking through said, “There is a stillness here, a peace. I can hear the women talking, so it isn’t quiet that I am feeling. No, it’s stillness.”

 
Part of a stitching crew. Each of the three looms could accommodate 4 sewing volunteers at a time. The Navajo-loom-inspired-Olivia-and-Larry-designed warp tightening mechanism worked well for rolling the large pieces and keeping them tight while we worked.

Part of a stitching crew. Each of the three looms could accommodate 4 sewing volunteers at a time. The Navajo-loom-inspired-Olivia-and-Larry-designed warp tightening mechanism worked well for rolling the large pieces and keeping them tight while we worked.

 

Someone said, “When you get these pieces up no one will know how much work really went into them.” But isn’t that true for every single ministry in the church? How many people really know how much work is done behind the scenes to pull off any act of love or kindness, any ministry, or even a sermon?

This started as an offering to the Lord, and a project to illustrate community. It became a love letter to my church:

To all those people who said, “I would never put so much work into something” as they walked through on their way to put just as much work into preparing for their ministry. I see you. To those people whose stories filled my heart. Yes, it was a love letter. But, in the end, I was the one most blessed. By your courage as you face every day. By your faith as you hold onto God’s promises. By your love for your families and neighbors. And by the dear people who came and sewed beside me, offering their friendship. Thank you. I see Jesus in you.
Some of the dangles made by the children. I was just getting ready to put them on when teenagers started arriving in the lobby for youth group one night. A few asked if they could help, which inspired the rest of them and the job was soon finished. Their spontaneous generosity rounded out the statistics for this project. Now every single demographic in the church could claim to have had a hand in it!

Some of the dangles made by the children. I was just getting ready to put them on when teenagers started arriving in the lobby for youth group one night. A few asked if they could help, which inspired the rest of them and the job was soon finished. Their spontaneous generosity rounded out the statistics for this project. Now every single demographic in the church could claim to have had a hand in it!

The weavings in place in the main lobby above the doors into the sanctuary.

The weavings in place in the main lobby above the doors into the sanctuary.

Our stories woven into and through God's story.

Our stories woven into and through God's story.


praying twice

This is the playlist we used off and on while we sewed. In many ways our songs were prayers. The songs are related to the stories, people and hopes invested in the weavings.

Abraham's Stars Part 2

And then we played...

See, the thing about three gigantic looms in the lobby is that they are hard to ignore. They are, in fact, so hard to ignore that people who would normally avoid involvement in such a project became caught up in it.

We had God's story in God's words written out on the warp fabric, our stories written on the weft fabric, the looms were warped and the weft pieces rolled and organized into baskets. Here is a portion of the email instructions I sent to volunteer loom monitors and paint helpers:

Thanks so much for agreeing to help out! This is a true community project! So many people have contributed stories, time and effort already and this Sunday we get to help even more to participate. What we are doing is offering hospitality. The default word is, "Yes!"
Here are the general guiding principles:
* We want to include everyone. Please encourage cooperation. Shorter persons can weave the lower end and from underneath, those with mobility issues can weave from the side, etc. The looms are large so it will be very difficult for someone to weave the entire length alone. That is intentional. We are all a part of one another's stories.
* Have FUN! Lots of it!

There was so much joy in that lobby. Both weeks, people lingered long after each service. Adults and kids played together, crawling under and into the looms, others weaved from the outside. We laughed a lot, caught up with people we hadn't seen in awhile and talked to some we had never met. Did I mention that we laughed a lot? Yeah, that's a beautiful sound.

Little hands sticking through the tapestry help the fabric along. In this project, everyone made a valuable contribution!

Little hands sticking through the tapestry help the fabric along. In this project, everyone made a valuable contribution!

Meanwhile, on the patio Leslie Dugas led kids in a painting project. I wanted people to look at the tapestries later and know that they were "in" them, that the weft pieces represented their stories. I felt that adults would be able to make that leap, but that kids might need something more concrete to understand the concept. I asked Leslie, an amazing watercolorist who has a heart for sharing art with children, if she would help kids to create dangles for the finished tapestries. We had plywood stars, circles and swirls. I was hoping that each one would be distinctive so that kids could look at the finished project and find their pieces. Leslie has always come through in a big way. She helped kids find their voices and translate them into unique and beautiful painted pieces. I love them so much! Thanks Leslie!

There were four older men who had not turned in stories, and made it clear that they did not want to weave. However, they were fascinated by the loom construction and had lots of questions about the fabric preparation. I answered all the questions to the best of my ability and then became involved in something else. Later, I noticed that they had deputized themselves as unofficial docents and hosts.  All four of them had little groups in tow and were giving tours filled with loom construction and fabric preparation trivia. I heard them call this "our project," "our looms," "our tapestries," and it made me so happy. We all participate in our own ways!

If you missed Part 1 you can find it here.

Abraham's Stars Part 1

The leadership team at CMBC asked me to come up with a project that met this criteria:

  • include people of all ages and skill levels in a large art project
  • correlate with the sermon series on the life of Abraham
  • illustrate and encourage community
  • fill a large empty wall over the sanctuary doors

I offered them several ideas for a community project and they decided on this tapestry weaving project. Everyone of any age or skill level can weave. The colors represent the night sky and the stars that Abraham saw when God told him that his descendants would be like the stars. The entire piece would be approximately 40 feet wide (including the white spaces between) and 25-30 feet long.

 
community quilt mock up20150624_18231960.jpg
 

I sketched a design for 20ft by 10 ft looms on a napkin and asked Larry Haggin if he could build three. He answered with the most magical word, the word that opens doors and gives wings to ideas, he said, "Sure!"

Loom #3 in the hallway.

Loom #3 in the hallway.

Loom #1 in the lobby, loom #2 would be in the gym.

Loom #1 in the lobby, loom #2 would be in the gym.

I mixed white acrylic paint, pearl interference paint and fiber medium in a squeeze bottle and wrote out the story of Abraham from the book of Genesis onto 1500 feet of fabric. God's story in God's words would become the warp for each loom.

We invited the congregation to participate by sharing their answers to any of the following questions:

  • Describe a moment of revelation.
  • Describe a time when you felt strong even though you were clearly weak.
  • Describe an experience that made you feel like part of something larger.
  • Describe a time when you knew you were in the right place.
  • Describe a time when you felt called to something other people considered strange or silly
  • Describe a time you gained or lost someone or something important to you.

We received 244 submissions and we wrote them on the fabric that would become the weft. There were stories about miraculous healings and the mighty power of God, stories about long suffering with no end in sight and the carrying presence of God, stories that asked where is God in this?

Olivia and Larry devised a warp tightening mechanism for the looms based on a Navajo-style loom, and then she, Nick and I warped them:

 
Sweet Olivia, my favorite art intern (don't tell the others), warping a loom.

Sweet Olivia, my favorite art intern (don't tell the others), warping a loom.

 

When we warped the looms, we didn’t worry about keeping the story in order. God is outside of time. However, we saved out the first and last line to use as binding. The first tapestry binding furthest to the left is the first line of Abraham’s story: “Terah set out with his son Abram from Ur of the Chaldees…” The last binding, the one furthest to the right is the last line of Abraham’s story: “And Abraham breathed his last…”

I sorted the stories submitted by the congregation into baskets that went with the parts of Abraham's story. I started doing this because I noticed how relevant Abraham's life and experiences were to today and saw some similarities in our stories. ALL of the stories submitted fit into the Genesis story! We rolled the weft pieces into manageable rolls and set the baskets by the correct looms and we were ready for Kid Friendly Summer Sundays!


All That is Unseen

God puts beauty in places where no eye will see it, where no one will applaud it. Why does He make the depths of the sea beautiful? Why does He make the outer reaches of space beautiful? Because He can. Because He makes beauty for the sake of beauty and it gives Him pleasure. Because He is God.

One of the projects I did for Cedar Mill Bible Church this summer was their stage set to accompany their sermon series on the life of Abraham. I wanted to emphasize the section where God tells Abraham to look at the stars and to try to number them. Those stars would be his descendants. That was us. He saw us up there. Hubble telescope pictures are free images in the public domain. This one is called "The Birth of a Star:"

 

There is almost an innerspace quality to it. I can imagine that it is my birth picture, the gathering together of my soul that it might be placed into the body God knit together for me. David Hooten, artist-printer extraordinaire, helped me to fill the 40 foot stage with this image.

There are people who spend a lot of life bringing light into dark places. They share food and resources, they rescue hostages, they dare to go into the covered, the hidden.  But even in those places where no eye is meant to truly see, even there, they will tell you, there are embers of the beautiful.