Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

“Artist of The Soul”

Written by: on September 7, 2014

I can remember as a child being told to “pay attention.” I don’t know about the rest of you but for most children it was not the easiest thing to do. And now, as an adult, I still believe that it is not the easiest thing to do. I would offer that paying attention or attentiveness is quite difficult to grasp especially with all the distractions and noise in our culture today.

In the Huffington Post’s Arts and Culture section, James Elkins, art critic and historian at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago wrote an article entitled, “How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting?” He shares the following:

“There have been a number of surveys of how visitors interact with paintings in museums. One found that an average viewer goes up to a painting, looks at it for less than two seconds, reads the wall text for another 10 seconds, glances at the painting to verify something in the text, and moves on. Another survey concluded people looked for a median time of 17 seconds. The Louvre found that people looked at the Mona Lisa an average of 15 seconds, which makes you wonder how long they spend on the other 35,000 works in the collection. A survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art supposedly found that people look at artworks for an average of 32.5 seconds each, but they must not have counted the ones people glance at… All this goes to show that our encounters are usually brief encounters or non-encounters.”[1]


I wish I could say that I was surprised when I read this article, but I’m not. Often times, I too have been guilty of going to the museum or an art show and simply glancing and ready to move on to the next one in order to have time to see all of the paintings, and go about the rest of the day. Why is it that we don’t’ stop long enough to look, stare, gaze and experience some of the beautiful and insightful artwork that have been provided by countless artists?

In Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue, William Dyrness argues that today most people do not focus their attention on “great works of art and architecture.”  Their attention is primarily on popular culture, “especially that which focuses on movies, television, MTV, and now the Internet.” Laurie Frendrich, a professor of art, states that “before modernism, painting was the noise in the culture, because it attracted attention…now the culture is the noise, and painting attracts little attention.”[2]

Although some of the influences of popular culture are not a bad thing, we must use wisdom in how we use or express the arts in our worship and our spiritual lives. We need to ask ourselves if they represent a knowledgeable and theological understanding of the Christian worldview.  Are we moving forward in seeking the genuine transformation of culture, or are we standing still and allowing culture to transform us?

Dyrness, admits that it is his conviction that the practice of worship provides the most appropriate setting for a fresh appraisal and even a renewal in the arts. He believes that making beautiful forms is theologically connected to our call both to listen and respond to God in prayer praise and sacrament.[3]  Simone Weil has argued that there are three ways that people are drawn to God: through affliction, religious practices, and by the experience of beauty.[4]  So, could it be that art may be an excellent way of catching our attention to draw us to God? It caught my attention.

I have a friend who is an artist. No, not a rock star, or a fashion designer, or an eyewear designer. She is a painter—”an artist of the soul!” She painted the picture below entitled, Miriam’s Song. It is a painting about my life—an inner portrait. This painting hangs on the wall in my office where I can see it every day. Why?…because this painting is a reminder of God’s faithfulness throughout my life.  When artists capture something of the way God does things…we are challenged to see the world, and even God’s presence there, in ways that we have
Miriams Songnot seen it before.[5]

The angel represents the times that I was delivered from harm and the times of pain and grief where I was held and strengthen. The various “windows” represent the insights that God has given me along the journey. She was in conversation with her paintbrush, paint tube and with God as listened to my soul and painted.  She captured the moments of joy in my life (sisters, music, etc…) and the moments of sorrows (death of my beloved). And she captured the future (God walking with me and leading me through a door of opportunities and life).

Whether in the church or in the larger culture, we must learn to treasure the gifts of artistic imagination for we are desperately in need of the “visions” of artist to help us prepare for that grand worship around the throne of God in heaven…we all need a deeper education in the visual arts, but even more we need a liberated imagination…a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit, who continues Christ’s work of moving creatures to praise the Father.”[6]




[1] Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-elkins/how-long-does-it-take-to-_b_779946.html (Accessed September 4, 2014).

[2] William Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2001), 15.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid., 97.

[6] Ibid., 156-157.

About the Author

Miriam Mendez

7 responses to ““Artist of The Soul””

  1. Richard Volzke says:

    I agree with Dyrness that most people are overly focused on pop culture and digital media. We have become accustomed to all of our senses being stimulated by media. In London, I visited the London Museum of Art. I found it difficult to stop and enjoy the art, and realized the reason I was having a hard time is due to the lack of sensory input. I am (as most of the world is) used to having my senses bombarded constantly by sight, sound, touch, smells, etc. How can we disconnect ourselves and ensure that we are able to slow down and have an enjoyable experience as we encounter art?

  2. rhbaker275 says:

    Your post is insights and informative … I sense your reflective thinking and it is apparent you are not one of the thirty-seven second art admires. My own confession is that I have been to very few museums and I suppose I don’t have the mystical acumen that sees the inner and deeper spiritual secrets hidden in most art work. I do love artifacts – the kind that clarify how people lived, the tools they worked used and the toys they played with. When I stand in a great cathedral, I am awed by the beauty – however, I must again admit, I am probably equality awed by the skill of the craftsman or the engineer that could design something of such beauty and architectural strength.

    You suggest that possibly “art may be an excellent way of catching our attention to draw us to God?” Dyrness acknowledges that this ought to be the case with icons, relics, or visual images. He notes, the use of such art work in the ancient and medieval age as “meant to lift the soul toward the contemplation of God … to turn away from a worldly love toward a purer love of God.” His whole intent seems to be a “dialogue” in how we might recover our vision of God’s beauty, especially as it is revealed in God’s goodness. This is something, according to Dyrness that “must not be ignored by Christians who seek to answer the call to witness and praise,” that is, worship (kindle 2786).

  3. Clint Baldwin says:

    Appreciate the portion where you note in the Huffington Post as showing how little time people spend looking at the Mona Lisa and wonder how long this suggests people spend on looking at other art.

    It makes sense to me that in our fast-paced world/lifestyle, people would simply mimic this process in engaging with art. No one has really “trained,” “discipled,” “formed” them to know otherwise. Viewing a piece of art is simply an event to do for many people and not an existential engagement with formation and a learning-curve involved.

    As well, on many days/times in the Louvre, it makes sense to me that many people would only give the Mona Lisa 15 seconds. Huge crowds, people jostling you, a long wait to see it, people roped off a few feet from it and preserved behind thick glass…we set the time up to be less than deeply profound. There are times that the gallery is quieter and this helps, but still…

    As well, with other art, we essentially chuck people into the gallery without any pre-formation and suggest to them that it is meaningful to quickly walk through a large building and look at things from bygone eras hanging on the wall. Somehow this is an act which is supposed to aid a person in becoming “cultured.”

    The problem is that many persons have not been given the tools to appreciate the works of art they are seeing.

    I would imagine its not too difficult for people to see we often do the same thing in the church. We toss people into the process without relationally forming them into being able to understand what they are really getting themselves into and then blame then when they don’t like it. Needless to say, more so than not (of course not always), it’s not their fault…it’s ours.

  4. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Hi Miriam, I like you highlighted the importance of paying attention to arts and providing space in our devotions. You also remind me that when we take time to look at a painting, we are allowing ourselves to slow down and learn from others who are different from us. So, I agree with you “…we must learn to treasure the gifts of artistic imagination for we are desperately in need of the “visions” of artist to help us prepare for that grand worship around the throne of God in heaven…” Great insight!

  5. Michael Badriaki says:

    Dear Miriam, thank you for reminding us that the role of the arts and it’s appreciation in our lives is ultimately the work of God through his Holy Spirit. I am drawn to the fact that worshipful visual arts in all their expression will only make the impression they are meant to if accompanied by the purposes of God. You posts highlights the significance of “a liberated imagination” and indeed what a strong point for us to ponder on.

    Again thank you!

  6. Julie Dodge says:

    This is so well written, Miriam. I appreciate your consideration of high art in particular, and the general public’s inattention. As you described how people view art in museums, I thought of how I shop. I walk through a store, skimming the aisles/racks until something catches my eye. I think I do the same with art. I skim until something speaks to me. I’m certain I miss things that way, but I wonder if this is a product of a fast paced, immediate gratification culture. How often do we really sit and reflect? Perhaps not enough.

  7. Miriam,
    Such a rich, thoughtful post. This book caused me to think again about the “whole” of worship. Your wrote, “we must use wisdom in how we use or express the arts in our worship and our spiritual lives. We need to ask ourselves if they represent a knowledgeable and theological understanding of the Christian worldview. Are we moving forward in seeking the genuine transformation of culture, or are we standing still and allowing culture to transform us?” I am reminded that we can be practicing our faith apart from a deep knowledge or theological understanding. When we fail to do so we end up lacking transformation. (I am pausing as I write this to consider what this truly means about intentionality and attention.).

    Thank you Miriam for guiding us to reflect more deeply, for knitting together an artist perspective.

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