Tuesday, September 30, 2014
|St. Meinrad Cathedral|
Brother Martin (© Lori Allen)
“A camel is a horse designed by committee.” ~ attributed to Vogue magazine in 1958; to Sir Alec Issigonis; to Lester Hunt
Only three weeks before I formally ended my Unitarian Universalist religious educator career, I attended an “Art as a Window to the Soul” retreat at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Southern Indiana. This was the second time I’d attended this retreat, and I was hoping for the inspiration and direction I’d experienced at the same retreat a few year earlier. Br. Martin and Br. Michael led the retreats, inspired and informed by their artist lives and their religious vocations. Retreat participants were encouraged to listen, reflect, rest, create, and participate in the ritualistic rhythms of monastery life.
Along with the things we all pack for a vacation, I brought the baggage of the last few years of my religious education work. That baggage was filled with feelings that my leadership was not valued and a questioning deep inside me that would not stop asking, “what happened?”
Mid-week, Br. Martin invited me to his stained glass studio on the monastery grounds. For people who make retreats at St. Meinrad, an invitation for a private tour of Br. Martin’s hermitage studio is akin to a Lebron James fan being invited to stop by the James house for a beer after the game. I would have liked to have time to change clothes, get my camera, put on lip gloss . . . but instead Br. Martin held the door of the retreat house open and motioned me out ahead of him. As we began the half mile walk to the studio we exchanged the usual pleasantries about the weather and the beauty of the renovated buildings on campus. These exchanges were followed by a silence interrupted only by our breathing and the sound of a distant hawk. Finally Br. Martin broke the silence. “I wanted to have a chance to check in with you, Lori. There’s a seriousness about you that’s different from the last time you were here,” he said in a voice that said he knew my heaviness but was not afraid to learn more about it.
“I’m a f-ing mess!” I said only to myself. Out loud, to Br. Martin I said, “Huh, oh, yeah I, ah, hmm.” He turned his head and looked at me and smiled.
“You don’t need to explain,” he said. “I just wanted you to know I noticed.” We walked in silence a few more paces. “And I can help hold those things while you’re here.”
For the first time ever, I allowed my sadness about leaving my work to be transformed from constant conversations in my mind into tears that flowed quietly down my cheeks, hitting the ground or evaporating, as we walked around the edge of the rural monastery campus. My tears explained everything to Br. Martin, his silence was his affirmation that he cared and understood. Eventually we came to his small studio. When I stepped through the door I was greeted with the soothing medicine of his creative space. My gaze scanned and collected images of glass samples from the glass factory in St. Louis, the wall where he projects the final images of each stained glass pane, the work table with sketches strewn about, the chair where he sits to read and draw, the shelves filled with books, dust, and his other creative pursuit – pottery. I was envious of the space and his ability to make a living as an artist.
“Would you like to see some of my finished pieces?” he asked after explaining the stained glass process and some of the tools of the craft. My face revealed my response. The space was so small that he only had to take one step to the architectural drawings cabinet to carefully remove the matted watercolor paintings preserved with plastic shrink wrap. He leaned over to place the paintings on the work table in stacks. I helped him hold them up as he explained each painting. He knew by memory which building in which location held his art. He also remembered the dimensions of each window, what side of the building, and what room of the building the windows were installed in.
“These are the seven windows that I did for an Episcopal church. It’s the six sacred sacraments with the middle frame depicting Christ as the center of the sacraments.” We laid that painting face down on the table to reveal the next one. “This is more representational. The blue glass with red highlights was installed on the east, the red glass with blue highlights for the west, the setting sun.” We laid that painting face down, then the next and the next.
When we’d seen at least twenty paintings of his windows, I asked, “So, do you prepare a few drawings for each group? Do they vote on their favorite?”
Br. Martin’s attention shifted from the paintings to me. His persona changed from modest artist to mortified monk. “Hell no!” His answer sent me back one small step. I held my breath as my heart fell down out of my chest and into my gut. His wide eyes met my wide eyes. After what seemed like an eternity, his horror of hearing my question melted into a smile. “Oooh noooo. I learned loooong ago. There are some things that you cannot do by committee.” He took a deep breath, shook his head, then did a hand plant on his forehead. “My first commissioned piece, I took two drawings that I thought represented what the congregation said they wanted. Here sit down, this is a long story.” He motioned for me to sit in his chair as he set down the rest of the paintings on the work table. He pulled out a stool from under the table for himself and continued, “The aesthetics committee, the board of trustees, the minister, the capitol campaign committee for the windows, and some major donors met with me to look at my drawings. For about two hours they hovered over them making comments like – “can you use the color from this drawing in that drawing?” “Can you combine the tree in the first pane with Christ in the second?” “I’d like to see this done with birds added to symbolize our key donors.” The suggestions were endless. I sat there with my yellow legal pad making notes and rough drawings – trying to capture the ideas and desires of every person in the room.”
I could feel the anxiety and uncertainty he’d experienced during that time as he dove deeper into his story. He explained that even though he had advanced degrees in art and had worked with a professional artist as an apprentice, he’d turned over control of the project to people who only “know what they like when they see it.” He’d allowed this group to claim the same authority as himself, the artist. He personalized the committee’s comments as critique for his drawings and attempted to make every detail appeal to every person. He took his designs and reworked them according to the suggestions. When he returned, it was the same experience with new suggestions for the new designs. The third meeting was filled with even more disappointment, including sketches made by the children in the congregation that he was to try replicating. Br. Martin withdrew as the artist after that third meeting. The committees designed their own windows and asked him to build them. He declined.
“I’ve learned in my work that it’s the artist’s job to listen deeply to the ideas and visions of the commissioners of the piece before beginning initial drawings. Before I even agree to begin the process I let them know I will have one design for them to vote up or down. If they vote my design down, they can tell me what they like and don’t like about the design and I’ll make a second design. Again, a vote up or down is taken on the design, no changes. If, after two attempts, they don’t like my work, I bow out of the project. I work hard not to take things personally.”
“How many times have you had to bow out of a project?” I asked.
“Hmm. I’ve been doing this for about thirty-five years, all these are finished projects” he said as his hand swept over the paintings on the work table. “Other than the first disaster, once. There was one time. I have found that people really appreciate when you are confident in your work, and when you set clear boundaries and let the work speak for itself.”
I could feel the synapses in my brain speed up and connect as he finished his story. That “what happened?” question I’d been asking myself about my religious education work was being answered in the story of his stained glass art process. In the past years, in a congregation where many members yearned to see themselves as relevant and important in the ministry process, I’d lost my confidence. I had allowed myself to become the Br. Martin with the yellow legal pad, writing down notes as committees picked apart my recommendations or presentations for programming. It was apparent in the different groups I worked with, which ones were looking to me for leadership in going forward with programming that was relevant and accessible to their lives as they searched for connections that fostered spiritual growth, and which ones were looking to me to re-create the peak experiences of their pasts. Those who were obsessed with re-creating the past busied themselves creating and revising policies and procedures that assured the status quo.
When, and how, did I transition from confident religious educator to placating program administrator, I wondered? I suspect, no I know, that transition happened as I realized my offering “thumbs up or down” options for programs and administration might end my employment with that community. It happened when I begin helping create the rules and policies that ensured things would always be the same. It happened when I believed, as did some congregants, that I was a peer in the community rather than a leader. “What happened” took several years to manifest, but I recognized it in the instant Br. Martin told me his story.
At the end of the week Br. Martin and Br. Michael drove me to the airport in Br. Martin’s pick-up truck. It was a jovial ride filled with sharing our experiences of religious work. At one point between one story followed by laughter and another, Br. Martin got serious for a moment. He took his eyes off the road to make eye contact with me and ask, “what’s changed with you? You don’t seem like the same person who was in my studio four days ago.”
“Oh my god,” I laughed as his gaze returned to the road ahead, “after visiting your studio, I went back to my room and destroyed all my yellow legal pads!”
From the back seat, Br. Michael leaned forward and chided, “Martin. You told her that story?” Br. Martin could not answer because he was laughing so hard. We were all laughing so hard. Yeah, he told me that story. And now I’m telling it to you.
· How do you claim your power in areas where you have expertise?
· Can you present your work, unapologetically, to those who have given you a task?
· Are there areas in your life where you need to re-claim your authority? How will you do that?
· As you meditate today, see yourself observing others review your work –a report, a presentation, a piece of art, a clean room, a fed child - whatever you do. See yourself letting all comments go in and out of your awareness without judgment or concern. Answer the questions they may have. Now look again at that work that the others have reviewed. Do you embrace it? Do you decide to start over? How do you feel about your decision? How has this story and exercise effected the way you will address your next project?