Take an Art Break Podcast

How do art and spirituality intersect?

How do art and spirituality intersect?

Transcript for Take an Art Break Podcast Episode

Lauren (00:01):

Hello. All right. SA live. Hi.

Lisa (00:08):

All right. We’re live here with Michelle and we’re here artists moving. We’re our next podcast here. And we’re talking about art and spirituality. So Michelle, talk about yourself and your path to art and spirituality.

Michelle (00:24):

Yeah. So great to have the chance to talk about these wonderful passions. I’m a teacher and mentor, and I work with folks who are preparing for vocations as spiritual leaders, as well as folks who are everywhere on the path of curiosity about the things that are going on on the internal life and justice out, making out in the world. And it’s been interesting to in the last couple of years, notice where it is that this sense of art as a piece of who I am, has been really deeply rooted. And I think that’s maybe the central core of thinking about art and spirituality. That it’s something that doesn’t always have a direct line or definition or name, but that there’s something really inherent in each of us where creative plays a part in how it is that we express ourselves in the world, how we make meaning. And in most definitions, that’s where spirituality is. So most recently I’ve been aligned with an organization called the Jewish studio project, which facilitates a very specific process that draws from art therapy and religious tradition that brings folks together, looking at creativity as a spiritual practice and as a way of building community across across differences, across perspectives and finds ways to make meaning using all of those arts therapy and arts therapy, adjacent tools that give us opportunities to use materials, to reflect on life and what we are here to do.

Lauren (02:16):

Yeah, so we’re kind of diving into how art and spirituality intersect. And so tell me if there is a difference between just having a daily art practice and then using art as a spiritual practice, even on a daily basis, weekly basis. Is there a difference what, you know, dive into that?

Michelle (02:40):

What a, what a wonderful core consideration. I think it depends on how, how it is that you, that anyone might seek to approach it. I think of art as a wonderful spiritual practice, it draws from a multitude of traditions. When we think about why are we here we’re created to create, and that that’s a wonderful way of experiencing solitude. It’s a wonderful way of experiencing community. It’s a wonderful way of connecting with something larger that we might not understand, and something that helps us to connect with the inner wisdom that we have. So I suppose my answer would be both and <laugh> our and spirituality have deep connections and it’s a matter of perspective on how one might engage. I think that creativity as a spiritual practice could take many, many, many, many forms and heartbreak taking an heartbreak is I suppose, in a, in a, in a teeny tiny way, a, a prayer practice for me <laugh> and at the start of the pandemic, it got real focused real quickly as I was experiencing all, all kinds of overwhelm thinking, okay, if I just move all the books and chaos away, well, most of it and just have my little, teeny, tiny palette of watercolors here,

Michelle (03:56):

I can take a pause and doodle or make marks on a page and it helps to helps me to regulate, but it also helps me to make better <laugh> and show up a little more present, be a little more present to what it is that I’m showing up for, which has been a lot of zoom over the last two years. Right.

Lisa (04:16):

Of course. So that’s amazing. So you basically, during COVID times, like knew that you had to go to your art, like, oh yeah. You had to pick up the, and can you share with people how you went that direction, but also how they can go that direction because that’s, you know, that’s profound.

Michelle (04:40):

Yeah. I think one of the there’s so many 

Michelle (04:46):

Art intersects with my life in a multitude of ways. Every day, my spouse will sing a song to me and I sing back <laugh> and religious traditionalists might find that to be a very, you know, common, common response, prayer practice. There are other ways in my Jewish studio process work, we do text study along with setting intentions and doing witness writing and reflection. Wow. For me being aware of the need for something that would be self calming in particular, just started with a, all of my little one inch squares right here. Wow. At my desk. Wow. And, and having, having some place to put some focus. And so I have frequently found over the past two years that inviting folks into really simple bite size art exp experiences like doodling on a one inch square, which isn’t very intimidating or writing a haiku. I had learned many years ago about haiku as a, a way to cope with grief and just the thousands of cocktail napkins. I would just put those little syllables down just to get it out of my head and onto a page somewhere mm-hmm

Lisa (06:07):


Michelle (06:08):

I think those are some really great, simple entry points that can happen anytime during the day. Don’t have to require all the big supplies, the fancy materials though. Fancy materials are great.

Lisa (06:21):


Lauren (06:23):

So I would, it’s interesting that you said that you used it as a way to focus, and I think a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily think of art and focusing in the same room realm or anything like that. So tell us a little bit more about that, how you use art to focus in what you mean by that.

Michelle (06:47):

I think

Michelle (06:50):

Having materials in my hand, whether it’s a pen or ink or crayon or whatever, mm-hmm <affirmative>, and putting it on a piece of paper or cocktail napkin, or edge of the notebook is a way for my eyes to focus for my attention to be drawn someplace beyond the thousand different screens. I, I might be clicking on at any given time, which I think is a very dangerous place for myself. I can be, I can do doom scroll with the best of them <laugh>, but if I’ve got like one inch that I can put my eyes and hands toward that’s really helpful for me when it comes to focus. Cool. I also, you know, have no problem with the big Ole anything and the broad strokes and the, the big gestures, but for focus, I think of the tiny, the tiny has really been effective for me from haiku to the, in cheese, to the edge of the page scrolling, which I would’ve thought in elementary school was a useful tool, but actually it’s something that became part of life, part of I’m sure teachers finding it to be fidgeting and distracting, but we know better now that it actually is something that’s really good for our mind and for our our whole system of neurological centering.

Lisa (08:26):

Wow. Yeah. I think you’re tapping into so much maybe map out like that whole process, like how can someone tap into their spirituality and like just doodle or whatever, you know what I mean?

Michelle (08:43):

One of the, one of the ways that my beloved mentor, pat Allen and rabbi Adina Allen would talk about it is really setting that intention going into a moment with even the lightest presence of mine to say, I’m here to I’m here to experience calm. I’m here to get outta my own way. I’m here to in this moment connect more authentically with the folks I’m in conversation with whatever that intention is to find a way to set it. Mm-Hmm, <affirmative> take a breath pause, and then enter into whatever the dialogue might be. Maybe it’s the dialogue of a creative conversation like with y’all or it’s the opportunity to go into a meeting where we’ve got a rigorous agenda where we’re gonna talk about I X, Y, Z topics, or it’s going to just be okay, we’re gonna have a time where we’re setting all of that aside, and we’re gonna regroup as a community and do some breathing and creating together and having that sort of second step taking those materials, having a little chance to doodle or get out of our, our own way.

Michelle (09:56):

<Laugh> and then I think the, the thing that becomes kind of a more fulfilling or more rounded out prayer practice or spiritual practice is doing that reflective piece. So after having had time with materials after having set an attention to go back and reflect on what it is that’s, that’s had happened on the page. So with a little inch, it might be, I describe in my journal or on the other edge of the cocktail now could, like, I see that I’ve put a lot of blue on the page today. The blue makes me think of how wonderful it is to have blue skies. And today’s really gray and I’m feeling, you know, whatever rambling might happen on the page is an opportunity to, to myself what’s going on. But then this, you know, really juicy gem of it all is being able to do that in community being able to witness one another in community without talking about it without the conversation about what do you mean by blue makes you feel happy or makes you feel sad?

Michelle (10:53):

Mm-Hmm <affirmative> no, just putting it out there and having that sacred opportunity to say, I, I see you, I hear you. I may feel all kinds of resonance. I may feel curiosity. I may feel like I don’t know what that’s all about, but it’s a way of connecting in with vocabulary beyond vocabulary with a shared sense of meaning making without a shared of meaning making. But it gives us a really sweet and I think profound container for being able to express with one another the things that are on our hearts and mind and who doesn’t have more than one or two or a hundred things on their heart and mind <laugh>.

Lauren (11:36):

Yeah. So <affirmative>, I, I’m curious if you have ever through your practice when you’re with a community and creating with them through that project, if you’ve ever worked with other communities and to, to come together, to sit in a room and to practice art together 

Michelle (12:03):


Lauren (12:04):

Cross like a religious boundary or cross a spiritual boundary,

Michelle (12:08):

You know, that’s good. I would say as a person who isn’t Jewish, but has been trained in this particular methodology, my core work is really a diverse religious, spiritual, secular setting. So I work with with elderly humanists, I work with young folks who are in various training programs within specific traditions. But one example recently was it was the first in person thing I’ve done in two years. And it was a program about grief and climate change. And so folks from a variety of experiences and walks of life, and, oh my gosh, all the things that we know and the things we don’t know. And, and it was a group of young folks, we used this kind of methodology express on the page, those things that maybe a youth teen group isn’t gonna talk about, okay. You know, from the get go, but it gives us a, a, a way into a, a bigger conversation.

Michelle (13:08):

So whatever your background tradition there are ways that art helps transcend helps to give us a bigger, a bigger way of understanding what’s within. And what’s beyond my own personal life. I come from new England <laugh>, which is in one way where, where geographically, we might find ourselves <affirmative>. So part, a big part of my spiritual life is reflected in the transcendentalists. I lived in Concord right down the street from Walden pond. And, oh my gosh, that’s a whole other story. But Ralph Waldo Emerson would talk about spiritual about the arts as a spiritual practice. I love this. And when I learned that it made so much sense to me because I wouldn’t think of myself as somebody who would pray or even go to worship or, you know, participate in those things that are who, and, and, and set in some, in some particular ways.

Michelle (14:12):

And at the same time thinking about walking around Walden pond and singing songs and telling stories like, oh, that, that resonates with me having conversation. He would talk about that as a spiritual practice journaling poetry using the arts in any way, he would talk, describe this as a way of knowing one’s self through one’s self that’s a, a rough paraphrase, but I hold that as a real core personal theological belief that underscores how I understand and want to be part of communities where creativity getting us to think more broadly to find new vocabularies for connection, for finding places to express the overwhelming grief of being on this planet at this time, to experience the joy of being able to meet people in other places and other cultures who have other perspectives that we can learn and grow from all of that really meets my transcendentalists theological frame. But I think also is reflected in a lot of places and tradition and cultures near and far.

Lauren (15:20):

Yeah. I love this idea of everybody sort of finding their art break, right. Their own personal art break. I’m on a mission to, to get everybody to discover the, our own personal art break. And, and then coming into a community and then creating art together because they do, they do the same thing, and then they do a different thing at the same time. And so just, I I’m imagining this world where both of those things were happening for everyone and how wonderful they, that would be because you are reflecting on these community. Especially, especially right now, after two years of really not being together in person as a community mm-hmm <affirmative> of course, some amazing things were going were happening online, but just to come back in person and to remember what it, what it meant to create something other and what that does to the individual, as well as the community at the same time, it’s such a powerful tool to use art is such a powerful tool to get people to open their vocabulary, as you say. Right? Yeah. Even without necessarily knowing that they’re doing that and to also tell their story to themselves while also telling their story to the community. It’s, it’s it’s so great. So my question for you is, what if there’s someone out there listening right now, that’s like, I wanna do that. I wanna make my community more connected through our, but I, but like how, what are the, you know, how do you make that happen? What are the things you, what do you need to do to, to make that happen?

Michelle (17:01):

You know, I think of it was a few years ago when I learned about you all on the art break day, and I brought a bin of crayons and colored pencils and paper to a local bar. And <laugh>, you know, you have that set out and people are like that. That’s great. Yeah. Yeah. Like, I dunno, I’m just making art,

Lauren (17:19):

You know, I love it.

Michelle (17:19):

I think that, that, it’s that simple to me, it’s that simple, but I think professionally I’m really drawn to all of the art hives that are out there in the world in various and sundry forms, which are nothing more than setting up a table. And having people feel and be invited to explore with materials. And sometimes it’s a really structured conversation. Yeah. Sometimes it’s just breathing together. Sometimes it’s somebody sharing something that opens a heart seed for someone else that all of those things that bring us together, explore the places of expression. And I think, like you just said, Lauren, that sharing our stories is the most sacred task there can be and how it builds empathy and helps us to, to AME, you know, limit some of these divisions that are so much a part of our social fabric. Yeah. And to see really that we’re much more woven, much more closely than than capitalism might suggest at times, but that there are a lot of ways for us to, to, to come together, be stronger together and make a difference in the simplest, the simplest of communication ways.

Lisa (18:38):

Yeah. I love it. I, I love that. You’re finding, or you’re saying that art is a simple communication form. Creating, creating together is

Michelle (18:49):

Contr, you know, those teachers or communities that say you have to do it a certain way, and then you have to, you know, skill build. Like I don’t, that’s maybe important for some folks in some

Lisa (19:02):

Elaborate on that, that, that notion, what is that? Why do teachers say that and why, you know, we, I talk about art one all the time, so <laugh>,

Michelle (19:12):

Yeah. You know, it it’s been interesting for me because I, I don’t come from a trained, am I all frozen?

Lisa (19:19):

No, you’re no,

Michelle (19:19):

You’re good. Okay. I, you know, I don’t come from a trained art background, but one of the things, because I’ve had time and had the opportunity here during zoom life, mm-hmm, <affirmative> to drop in on various classes, I can learn. I’ve learned some techniques that help me to build a vocabulary so I can draw circles on a page all day. And I often will. But it’s also been useful for me to learn a little bit of technique so that I can express more clearly what’s on my heart and mind, you know, like how to use a tool, how, how to use how to use watercolors. Gosh, golly, there’s a lot of technique there and a lot of skill that can help communicate something Uhhuh, but even for someone like me, who’s gonna just, just use watercolors to doodle on a page, knowing that I can make pedals if I press here. And knowing that I can go from light to dark by having different strategies there, I, I find that to be really fascinating. And for most folks, the technique isn’t gonna be the be all end all. It’s gonna be the, having a tool to be able to explore feelings tell a story. 

Lauren (20:36):

Yeah. I love that notion that the skill is still attached to the ability to communicate. I’ve never heard anyone say that before. And I, I love that notion that it’s not to make it look better. Right. It’s to make the communication more here. That’s awesome. That’s beautiful.

Michelle (20:58):

That was, you know, I, I, I’ve done a lot of trainings in seminars. And the, you talked with ping ho last time. Yes. I did the, the C program with ping and friends. And what I found hanging out with more and more therapists is like, people have these really big artistic vocabularies. Like I would like to have more than my circles on <laugh>, you know, but, and, but that’s, that’s part of it. It’s, it’s the part of being able to be in a community that just wants of see and hear and engage with the, the thoughts and the feelings and make meaning and whatever the circumstances that are coming up. But I found that to be a fun way to maybe it’s, maybe it’s a part of deepening my spiritual practice. Maybe it’s learning those more advanced prayer technologies, but I’m less concerned with that particularly and more involved with this question of how does it take me into a new place of being able to communicate and connect and share, share stories with others.

Lauren (22:03):

Yeah. I’m thinking about this art and spirituality intersecting and I’m, and I we talk a, a lot about it with other artists and especially those I feel who are interested in using art as a form of healing or learning about themselves, and then also connecting with their community. And I, I was just thinking like a couple minutes ago that art and spirituality are a lot in this realm of the unknown and the sort of the you you’re ne like, and this is obviously personal opinion. You’re never gonna get all the answers. You’re just going, getting more questions. And, and I’m into that. I’m super into just having a lot to questions and just living in those questions for a really long time. And it’s almost like they can feed each other, you get one, you answer one you know, it’s like they’re having a conversation with each other. And, and maybe that’s why they’re con they are connected quite often together, you know, an art practice become a spiritual practice for a lot of people. I mean, Lisa has talked about that quite a bit, how she has out of body experiences when she’s creating art mm-hmm <affirmative> and you know, considers it a spiritual practice in a way. Right? Yeah.

Michelle (23:25):

I think that’s a, it’s, it’s such a thing to learn from mystic, from tradition. You, so whether it’s a, a tradition you learn about in comparative religions class or an esoteric you know, personal community shared experience there are so many who have found and who offer to us through their stories, ways of accessing greater consciousness and the unexplainable inexplicable. It’s a really, it’s a great tool, great practice, great community to be part of

Lisa (24:00):

Like what I’m, what I’m resonating is like, how can we take an art break to feel that we are something larger than ourselves? You know what I mean? Like, how do we tap into that realm of scribbling and that I’m tapping into something that’s not me, not my ego, but something that transcends, I mean, you’re talking about art as spiritual practice, right? So like, how do you do that? A person, I guess,

Michelle (24:29):

I mean, it really is an interesting thing, but some of the core components I think, are what y’all are doing with the heart break movement. It’s, mm-hmm, <affirmative>, you know, connecting with other people it’s giving yourself, you know, I might do something for one minute, but you know, is a quick reflect moment, but there are others that might do a whole rosary or a whole prayer cycle of some sort that takes time. And so you get a different experience when you’re doing it solitary when you’re doing it in community, when you’re doing something that’s quick and centering, or when you’re having maybe a more fullsome four hour, you know immersion into a practice or a technique, or a you know, making a mural over the course of a summer with a whole community. I think that that, or a you know, that has all of the components of a really rigorous ritual <laugh>

Lauren (25:23):

Right, right. Built

Michelle (25:25):

Into it.

Lauren (25:26):

You, yeah. That’s so interesting. Yeah. Now my mind is starting to go to lots of different places in terms of <laugh> as it always does. It’s just that, like, you know, right. If, if you think about why people go to community centers, why they go to church, why they, why they’re part of a religion? Well, they

Lisa (25:46):

Practice, right.

Lauren (25:47):

Right. Why do they have a daily practice of any time? Why do they meditate? You know, a lot of the answer is community and then a lot, another answer is connection mm-hmm <affirmative>. And so people are searching for answers to a lot of their questions. Mm-Hmm <affirmative> and I’m just thinking like, yeah, that’s, that’s, that’s art right there. That’s art. That is yeah, I mean, and so of course, of course they intersect quite a bit and of course they can help each other. I that’s, yeah. Yeah. Awesome.

Michelle (26:29):

As as mentioned, we have a lot, we could talk about here, but it’s really been super fun to think about, you know, those things that are, that are we talk about sort of one direction, you know, between myself and whatever is higher and those things that are among and between, and then all of those places that we’re connecting the, the art and spirituality, metaphors are many <laugh>.

Lauren (26:53):


Michelle (26:54):


Lisa (26:55):

I was reading something from Greg, Brad, I don’t know if the guy who’s a philosopher, but it was like, he said, the way to the, to get to the heart is like, breathe, listen, I’m just making this up. Cuz I, I lost it. Like breathe, listen. And then I was thinking, create and then reflect. Yeah. And then, and kind of realize what you’re doing. It’s just like, yeah, that makes sense.

Lauren (27:20):

Yeah. I love that. I love that. Wow. Okay. Well, thank you, Michelle. It’s been so great to talk to you about a whole bunch of stuff in a really short amount of time. <Laugh> and I’m sure that we will connect with you again in the future and talk some more and sounds

Michelle (27:37):


Lisa (27:38):

I’m gonna add one, one thing. How do you like people think about spiritual or religion or art? How can you like make them not think it’s like a taboo? You know what I mean? It’s like just do it, take an, our break. And does that make sense? You know what I mean, if you we’re talking about spirituality, people would be like, no, I don’t wanna do spirituality or religion I’m this. Or, or, you know, any, you mean, right. I’m that it’s like,

Michelle (28:05):

I think there’s a really wonder, you know, and part of the metaphorical thinking and sort of my professional training and background, like it’s, it’s meeting people where they’re at with all of these things. And so if your vocabulary is about connection and creativity, I want to be multilingual enough to be able to meet language. And if you wanna talk about at theology of despair, I also can, if I don’t have the vocabulary, I might be able to refer you to another colleague who does, but I think that that’s, that’s a really important piece of this, that there are all of these things that we don’t have words to describe or fully formed thoughts about, but <affirmative> once, once we’re in conversation, it does seem that folks have things that are really core values, core things that are super important and being able to listen and reflect and, and bear witness. Even if it’s not on my path or not something that I can who understand that process of from the beautiful tools of our therapy to bear witness is there’s religious practice too.

Lauren (29:12):

Yeah. That’s interesting. I like that. Yeah. I mean, I think we could keep talking, but we <laugh>, we’re

Michelle (29:19):

Not gonna do that right now. What fun. Thank you so much for inviting me in a conversation. I hope that we will do do it again.

Lauren (29:28):

I’m sure.

Lisa (29:28):

We’ll. I think, I think Michelle, we are in a conversation you’ve been following us and we’ve been telling you, so

Michelle (29:34):

I know my you and the whole neighborhood because of the kits going into the little free libraries and the bigger conversation that happens. When folks don’t even know they’re in the conversation,

Lisa (29:47):

I just wanna end that. Do you wanna talk about the free art libraries? Like the, how, how people have responded with the free art package?

Michelle (29:55):

Yeah, I mean, it’s just such to me, it’s so much fun to my spouse and I will go around on a sun the afternoon with the list of where all the little free libraries are and then sort of sneak in and sometimes people will catch you and it’ll be a conversation and sometimes you don’t even know what’s happening, but you go back next month and there’s no package there. So something happened. Maybe we’ll hear a little bit more about that, you know, next time.

Lauren (30:19):

Yeah. That’s awesome. Thank you for being such a integral part of our, you know, sort of the taking our break movement. Thanks for taking the time today. And we look forward to working and chatting with you and continuing this conversation in the future.

Michelle (30:33):

Sounds good. Sounds good. And in person someday, too. <Laugh> oh,

Lauren (30:40):

Thank you.