The Art at the Heart

A sermon by Barbara Wells
September 29, 2002
Paint Branch UU Church


A year ago we held the first Public Education Sunday here at Paint Branch. This came about partly because the UUs for Social Justice in the Baltimore/Washington region (UUSJ) had chosen public education as a primary focus. We were challenged to look at how congregations like ours might help support our public schools and my sermon last year invited us to imagine developing a partnership with a neighboring school.

After that sermon, a few of us got together and brainstormed what we might do. Of immediate and real interest was the idea of "adopting" a school in some fashion. There was expressed some trepidation. Can a church be in partnership with a school? What about the wall between church and state that we support? What I learned is that we not only could be in relationship with a school, but that hundreds of other congregations, UU and otherwise, are already doing so. We can’t proselytize our faith in the school (which we would be loath to do anyway) but we can offer our services in support of their programs. Just as we might do in any social justice arena, the public schools are places where we can put our faith into action.

Once we understood this, it was just a case of figuring out what school we would support. During the course of this past year, I visited a number of schools, elementary, middle and high schools. But what was needed was someone to drive the creation of this new relationship. When Sylvia Lagerquist suggested we consider the school where her daughter attends, and where two other Paint Branch teens attend, it quickly became a no-brainer.

This morning, then, we are launching a new program at our church, a partnership between this congregation and the students and teachers at the Suitland High School’s Visual and Performing Arts Program. I had the pleasure and privilege to spend an hour at the school this week alongside Sylvia, who with her husband John, are not only members of this church but also parents to Kirsten, a student in the visual arts program at Suitland High School. During the past year, I had visited a couple of other High Schools in our area. While the other schools were less crowded with smaller campuses, I was struck immediately by the different feeling I encountered at Suitland. For here were young people clearly interested in what they were doing. The students I met and saw seemed independent, intelligent, and most important, deeply connected to what they were doing. They all seemed to want to be there.

I felt the same way about the teachers. The teachers I met in the music, drama, dance, and art programs were highly committed, clearly talented, and eager to tell me of their students’ gifts. At least one of the teachers is a graduate of the school’s art program. All of them were obviously committed to the vision of the school. And all of them are scared that the program will fall prey to the budget cuts that threaten all our state’s public schools. They’re scared because they know that art programs are usually first on the chopping block when it comes to state funding. There are many people out there who think art is a luxury and will gladly cut funding for it to make room for the more traditional subjects like math, science and reading.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of math, science and reading (OK, I am a fan of science and reading — math I can live without!) but I truly believe that a good education isn’t just about the mind. Education is also about heart — and I am convinced that it is art that is at the heart of who we human beings really are.

My own story speaks to this. While I have always been an engaged and eager student, it was in the theatre and the music room where I came alive. Music, in particular, was an everyday part of my life. I grew up in a musical family. We not only listened to music almost constantly, we also sang together as well. To this day, my mother likes nothing better than to have her four daughters sing to her old songs from our childhood and hers. It can be "Amazing Grace" or "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" or "Children of Darkness" or the Tallis canon — the content of the song is less important than the singing of it. Music was my family’s way of being in harmony. When things were hard a song could melt our fear or anger away.

I had friends who found their joy and comfort in other artistic forms and expressions. One friend found solace and an outlet for her creativity in sewing. To this day she makes beautiful quilts. Another never left the house without a drawing pad and charcoal. Yet another writes poems that make me cry. Each of them discovered important things about themselves through their art. For them, as for me, the art they chose was at the heart of who they were. For art touched us in that deep place some of us call spirit. For them and for me, art has a holy quality for it seems to arise out of creation itself.

Human beings are, it seems, the only creatures on this planet who create art. Anthropologists who study ancient civilizations are always drawn to the art our ancestors created. Whether it is cave drawings in France, or funerary art in Egypt, or drums and other musical instruments found in many different civilizations, art is often the tool we use to understand who these ancient people were and what they believed.

For art, it seems, springs out of the same place in our spirits where the religious impulse also lies. The separation of art from religion is a very modern phenomenon. Most art, from the plays of ancient Greece, to the dances of West Africa, to the sculpture and paintings of the great Renaissance artists, to the ancient music a cantor sings in the synagogue, is bound to religion.

Though much of the music and art we see and hear today is not overtly religious, I would suggest that it still stems from that deep place in the human spirit that longs to create, to understand, and to make beauty in this difficult world of ours. We humans are art -making creatures, and to deny this important part of ourselves is to deny the very essence of who we are.

But the artistic spirit is delicate. It needs to be cultivated and encouraged if it is to flower. If children are not given the opportunity to explore and create in a myriad of different ways, the flame of creativity can get very dim. That is why art is so crucial in the lives of children of all ages. From pre-school finger painting to the sophisticated drawings and photographs I saw at Suitland High School, is a very short trip. Without the kind of programs like the one at Suitland, children with artistic urges may have no where to go to expand their gifts and deepen their understanding. I truly believe that when young people are given the opportunity to create, whatever their gifts, they are more likely to become well rounded and creative adults. And those are the kind of adults our world needs.

While most of the young people who study art do not make a profession of it (I, for instance, have a bachelor’s degree in Theatre, not in religion!) they will use their artistic talents and skills in whatever they do. Their art may not make them money, but it will very likely bring them joy, which is worth far more than any amount of dollars.

In a moment, you will hear more from Sylvia Lagerquist about the desperate need this wonderful school is in. For now, let me close by asking you to take a look around this room. Note the beauty of the paintings and pictures that grace our walls. See the energy and movement in the design of our beautiful building. Remember the music that has come from these instruments and our mouths. Reflect on the poetry that is written into our hymns. I would even suggest that we note the creativity that went into the creation of our clothing, our jewelry, our shoes, even the chairs on which we sit. Yes, it took the ability to understand math, science and reading to make these creations, too. But I would argue that without the creative spirit that comes from deep within the heart, nothing of beauty would exist except for that in nature. As beautiful as the wind sounds in the trees, we would be bereft if we could never hear the strains of a piano, a clarinet, or a voice raised in song.

It is my hope that this church will find a way to encourage the creative spirit not only in our own members and friends, but also in our community. The students and teachers at Suitland High School’s Visual and Performing Arts program need help. They need supplies, yes, and money, too, and we will do what we can to help them in those areas . More important, they need to know that there are people in the community who care about what they are doing, who see that it matters and who want to experience first hand the gifts that are being developed through this excellent program. Today we are fortunate to hear and see some of the gifts nurtured at Suitland. It is my hope that we will continue to support them in this important work of the heart and the spirit.

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