Paying attention

There are many ways to pay attention, but one of the ways that I have found myself exploring more recently is paying attention through art. The more I draw and paint, the more I find that it allows me to pay attention, and I want to reflect very briefly on four of those ways:

Attending to one thing
I am easily distracted. What I see out of the window or the corner of my eye will always take me away from what’s right in front ot me. Except when I’m painting. When I paint, I often find myself in a state of intense, yet calm, concentration. I’m able to focus on the thing in front of me, and distractions fade away, I lose my habitual impatience, and time starts to flow in a way that isn’t demanding or controlling or threatening. The texture of the paint on the pallet, and feel of the brush on the canvas, the smell of the paint, the way the brush feels in my hand, the emerging image and its shapes, colours and contours: these are my horizson, and I am rooted in the moment in a way that almost feels timeless. I know that painting doesn’t do this for everyone, and that there are many activities that have the capacity to offer something of the same experience. I hope that there is something that does this for you, especially if much of the time you struggle, as I do, to ‘monotask’, or if the circumstances of your life make this hard.

Attending to place
In Church of England ministry there is a concept called the ‘cure of souls’. It’s hard to put into ordinary words what this means, but to me it has been a shorthand for the love that I have always felt for the places and their people that have been given to me, as a priest, to love and care for. As a vicar I felt it as I walked the streets of my parish, my footsteps becoming a prayer of blessing on the physical location and all that happens there, as well as in my interactions with the people of that place. It felt as if my presence there was (or, at least should be, if I was doing it right!) a means of God’s blessing. That place, and those people, had my attention, my care. I am now chaplain of a College, and I feel the same way about that as I did about my parish. During the initial COVID 19 lockdown, I couldn’t be in College at all – almost nobody could. And some instinct led me to paint the places I could physically get to. I started by creating some line drawings of the College, to offer as colouring-in pictures on the welfare pages of the College website. Then, I painted my Chapel, and the view from my office window. It gave me back a sense of the place for which I had cure of souls, and allowed me a way to emotionally, psychologically and spiritually reconnect with that place and its community, dispersed though we all were. As I drew and painted, I found my thoughts and prayers echoing the blessing that I would usually express through my footsteps.

Attending to stories
Before COVID most of my paintings were biblical. I would use the act of painting as a form of scriptural theological reflection, finding that the process of working out how to convey a story on canvas raised many more questions than I would have thought of without that physical process. Even the question of which moment in a story to choose carries with it a whole set of things to reflect on – and there are some stories that I have painted several times, choosing different ‘moments’. And there are some ‘missing scenes’ that I have also tried to fill out – the gaps in scripture, the parts of the story that we know must have happened, and yet are left to our imagination. I’ve also really loved it when people have asked me to paint a particular story, or part of a story, or missing scene, because it gives me a chance to engage with how the story sounds to someone whose life experience and theology may be very different from mine, and who may be connecting with scripture in ways I’ve not thought of. This paintings below are: the risen Jesus meeting his mother just after he’s seen the disciples in the upper room; the woman with the bleeding, and Mary in the garden.

Attending to people
Finally, I wanted to reflect briefly on using art to attend to people – real people. With my biblical paintings I started looking at photographs of real people to enable me to learn how to paint human faces – and this immediately confronted me with how white most of the western art tradition is (and also, that trying to make everyone look ‘middle eastern’ also isn’t quite right either – when we treat people generically we are straying into the territory of stereotyping, which can lead to much worse). I looked back at the wonderful resource ‘The Christ we share’, which gathered images of Jesus from a huge range of traditions and cultures, and started trying to pay more attention to this diversity in my paintings. I stopped looking for a Jesus who looked like me or like the stereotyped image of someone from the middle east, and started trying to see Christ in all people – not just as a theological idea, but as an enacted idea, through painting.

This month I have set myself a further challenge. Having become reasonably competent at painting people who do, at least, look like people, it’s another whole level of skill to depict actual people in such a way that they are recognisable! So for Black History Month I am trying to draw or paint or sketch one mini-portrait a day to help me celebrate or learn about someone I hadn’t celebrated or learned about before. I won’t be sharing all the pictures, but I’ll try and share some of them. Here is the first: Alfred Francis Adderly, CBE, who was the first black student at St Catharine’s College, and in whose honour the College flew the flag of the Bahamas on October 1st (and will do so again of October 31st). You can read more about him here. It’s just a pencil sketch, but it’s my first attempt during this BHM to start paying more attention not only to the diversity of humanity, but to particular people from whom I could learn a lot.

All these ways of paying attention are works in progress – but they are things I’ve thought about for a while and never quite felt able to commit to in writing. Maybe something in one or more of these forms of attention-paying through art will have resonated with you. Maybe you’ve not picked up a paintbrush for a long time and this has made you want to try it again. Or maybe this whole post has made no sense at all! Comments and disagreements are always welcome, but remember to be kind, because we are all works in progress, still learning, still making mistakes.