AWESOME CREATORS :: OPENINGS : THRIVING AT THE LIMEN OF CREATIVITY AND TRANSCENDENCE
li·men; n. pl. li·mens or lim·i·na
I consider it a really good sign that my gut impulse on starting to write up this introduction to OPENINGS is to begin with the word, “wow.”
As in, “wow: these were some of the most satisfying interviews I’ve ever conducted.”
As in, “wow: how lucky to have become engaged in such essential, critical, intelligent, even handed dialogue with such kind and talented people around such an incredibly essential, and often skirted, topic for the creative community.”
As in, “wow: this presents an unprecedented opportunity to explore this conversation further! what a… blessing.”
I say blessing only semi-jokingly as our Awesome Creators series welcomes OPENINGS, an artist collective begun at the behest of the Paulist Fathers, which is run out of – and exhibits at – St. Paul the Apostle, in midtown manhattan — a collective whose mission statement is the deceptively simple, “artists exploring the connections between creativity and transcendence.” (…there’s that “wow” again.) It could not have come at a better time, as since returning from Naropa I’ve been stalling on framing the mindfulness lessons of Dharma Arts for this community, part of a belief that if The Operating System is going to continue providing tools for artists to truly thrive and lifehack their way into a new paradigm, that it is going to be necessary to address this question — so I’m thrilled it’s happening this way.
Rewind: The painter Georgia Elrod had mentioned this unusual marriage to me some time ago, but it had faded from my memory until another Operating System community member, the writer Julian Gallo noted online that his cousin (Steve Palermo) was going to be taking part in the upcoming show at Openings, Frenzy Into Folly. It didn’t take long for another of those rhizomatic bridges to be built: after exploring the mission and work of this collective, it became immediately clear that their goals (in generating dialogue and empowering artists from a range of disciplines) were very close to our own.
I reached out to Father Frank Sabatte, who generously agreed to take the time out to meet with me, as did Frenzy into Folly’s curators, (and Openings members) photographer Keena Gonzalez and painter Michael Berube. It was the first of many good signs that they shared my enthusiasm in developing this relationship, something our meetings would confirm beyond a doubt.
Frank Sabatte will introduce himself to you as an artist first and a catholic father later, knowing all too well the baggage attached to his professional title. He provided me with some fascinating background about the history of the Paulist Fathers, a sect of Catholicism founded by Isaac Thomas Hecker (b. 1819), a transcendentalist in the mold of Thoreau and Emerson who at one time was involved in the (failed) Utopian community, Fruitlands, which was co-founded by Amos Alcott (Louisa May’s father). Suffice it to say, both the history and contemporary workings of this open minded, nonjudgemental, humanitarian tradition, long overshadowed by Papal norms (which clearly was the cause of not a little consternation for this kind and open man) is worth more inquiry, which I encourage you to do if you’re intrigued.
I was eager to ask Father Frank – whose job is, by the way, entirely devoted to the Paulist mission to support the arts — the hows and whys of OPENINGS, which he founded in 2006, and more about the “creativity and transcendence” question the collective seeks to address. What followed was the story of how his agenda to support artists and grow the program had taught him more than he could ever have dreamed, as he explained with great humility and enormous respect that via these conversations he has come to believe more than ever that artists possess a social consciousness that is not only useful but which in fact contains the most essential teachings for our contemporary world.
But it goes farther than that — when you first visit his website, where you’ll begin to scratch the surface of his own intricate, extraordinary embroidered paintings (the pictures do them no justice, btw), you’ll note perhaps the quote from Francis Bacon, ““The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery.” In his reflections, also on his web page, he begins to get to his true conviction: that “art is the outcome of a spirit engaged, connected to Spirit.” Are you there yet?
As I sat with Frank, he described art as a conversation that never ends, and described his relationship to the artists in his community as one in
which he was the constant recipient of great gifts. He described the work of Openings as one in which artists were encouraged to recognize their true and immense value, using the parable of the Samaritan woman at the well as a backdrop to the lesson that everyone has a great gift to give, and that sometimes it is in the asking to receive that both recipient and giver recognize the extent of that value. (Can I say wow again yet?)
It was important to Frank that I understand that the conversations Openings was encouraging were not, in fact, about “God” — and that in many ways that spirituality was not directly addressed in the creativity and transcendence dialogues. On the one hand, he noted that the space itself was powerful, (“never underestimate the power of context!”) but he also rightly explained how the process of engaging with him and the church, even subconsciously with the mission in mind, was an experience via which one looked at oneself and others in a new way, and was one that was designed to take you out of yourself, recognizing your creative act as, in many ways, the transmission of something larger than yourself.
And, crucially, for the first time in my life, I had a Christian priest acknowledge that the standard use of the word God was delimiting… not only that: that when human beings talk about and define God, that our spirituality becomes confined and domesticated, a situation worth avoiding with great care. Frank quoted from St. Anselm’s ontological argument, noting that when we use the word God as per modern Christianity, we are no longer talking about God at all. He uses the word “spirit,” and spoke with no judgement about all religions’ search for the same thing. He has no interest in conversion and his role is not that of a missionary by any means — with every fiber of his being, it is clear, here is someone who believes that there is a reason why, as he says, Dictators get rid of artists first: because they hold the key to truly understanding the ineffable.
From his Reflections: “Any artist will tell you that at some point while working they loose consciousness of time and their surroundings. They enter time out of time, ‘liminal space’. It is not a “high” in that it is not an “easy” or “relaxed time”, it is “creative space”, colors, shapes, ideas that were not connected before are being connected. Artists will tell you they “hear” an inner voice guiding them; they can tell the difference between this voice and a need to finish the piece or worse, by thoughts of how they can make it appeal to others.”
“Entering this liminal space demands the artist listen to her soul. It is deep listening, and deep listening is prayer.”
If we can get over our conditioned reactions to the words “God,” “Spirit,” and “Prayer,” what we’re left with is: this is a man who believes that creative work is the most essential work we can do with our lives, and that in that work we are able to access the highest possibilities in ourselves. This is evolved ministry if I’ve ever seen it. No, wait — I’ve never seen it before. But now I have. (I cried a little when I got home, I’m not gonna lie.)
If that wasn’t enough, the following day I met with Keena and Michael at the Flame Diner near St. Paul’s, and found the artists’ side of the story equally satisfying. Also, I can never quite toast a muffin as well as they do on those flat grill tops.
Wait, no, seriously: these are terrific folks. When I first approached Keena and Michael, I let them know that I was going to do a piece on Openings in general, but also that I was interested in running a series of artist previews for Frenzy Into Folly — I’d been taken by the gorgeous, silent-film style promo videos they created with participating artist Joey Kilrain (who provided video and branding) and was impressed by the breadth of work showcased. It was exciting to me to be able to offer our community an introduction to nearly 40 artists who were selected for this upcoming Openings exhibit in a creative way that would highlight and celebrate this work even for those unable to come see the show.
Keena has been involved with Openings for 2 and a half years, while Michael joined a year ago — though he’d exhibited in an earlier show. For Frenzy Into Folly, they’ve posited the definitions of these terms, exploring art and transcendance as they relate, perhaps, to bouts of agitation as well as the pursuit of wild ideas… but not strictly that; guidelines for artists was left intentionally open to interpretation.
Both in relationship to this curatorial umbrella concept as well as in a more general artistic approach to the Openings mission, Michael in particular was quick to point out that for many participants (including himself) this was not a conversation that was grounded in “spirituality” — at least nominally. However, to pick back up on the idea of the ‘liminal,’ which entered again into our conversation, he not only conceded to but firmly agreed that in art’s ability to access and evoke a physical reaction from the senses, and thereby connect to both the perception of the ineffable and of a universal human experience, there exists a quality of transcendance, an entry into a threshold space beyond the ordinary. That, above all, was there room opened up for via the Openings model.
Keena spoke about the practicality of Openings for many artists who she felt struggled in the years (and even decades) after finishing an MFA program, who might remain informally part of a creative “community,” but who lacked a space in which to engage, non judgementally, in open dialogue both about their own work and larger issues in art making. She described her own experience as inspiring and motivating, explaining how for many people this collective has provided a safe and supportive environment to experiment and grow as artists — and that the mission’s driving question served to support that even further, emphasizing group inquiry and critical exploration of both self and work for those involved.
Crucially, for both, Openings was a space for the fostering of community, a place to share work and dialogue. Not only that, it was a community of intention — a place where the intention for art making was alive, well, and empowered in participants. Where people became comfortable owning the term “artist” and qualifying their practice as worthy and valuable. The idea of it being a much more accurate “big tent” than anything we’ve seen in politics for a long time was thrown on the table, then laughed down simply out of distaste for the associations it inspires.
However, I think I rather like thinking of the artists community as a place where our truest spiritual revival is, in fact, taking place. I think Father Frank would get a kick out of that, too.
For me, and for The Operating System, this is a relationship and a conversation that’s only just beginning. For the next eight weeks, up until the Frenzy Into Folly opening (on the 14th) and through the run of the show, we will be highlighting participating artists here on the site. We’ll also be in attendance at the reception at the 20th, and we invite you to join us — to come see the work in this remarkable environment, and to meet the people who make Openings such a remarkable, and essential, community.
Towards the end of our meeting Frank quoted St. Paul’s pastor, Gil Martinez, as remarking at a former opening, “now THIS is liturgy.” If you take a closer look at that word, you’ll find it means not “religious” ritual but, in fact, a communal response to the sacred through activity reflecting praise or thanksgiving, as well as the space in which participants come together to create community, then I have to agree. Art is prayer, the arts community is liturgy when we come together to celebrate and value our work and each other? Let’s not get bogged down in vocabulary — let’s be grateful and continue to learn from the incredible, important, ineffable, transformative practice of art making, together.
When was the last time you considered the etymology of your own “inspiration”? Don’t let the word “God” get in the way.
inspiration c.1300, “immediate influence of God or a god,” especially that under which the holy books were written, from O.Fr. inspiracion “inhaling, breathing in; inspiration,” from L.L.inspirationem (nom. inspiratio), noun of action from pp. stem of L. inspirare “inspire, inflame, blow into,” from in- “in” (see in- (2)) + spirare “to breathe” (see spirit). Literal sense “act of inhaling” attested in English from 1560s. Meaning “one who inspires others” is attested by 1867.
FRENZY INTO FOLLY
The exhibition runs from Sept. 14 – Oct. 26 , with the opening reception on Thursday, Sept. 20th from 7-9pm inside the church.
The show, curated by Keena Gonzalez and Michael Berube, features work by Andrew Berardi,Anthony Santella, Araceli Cruz, Carrie Elston Tunick, Daniel Nelson, Denise Penizzotto, Dennis Santella, Garry Velletri, Iliyan Ivanov, James Vanderberg, Joey Kilrain, Johanna Bartelt, John Pavlou, Julia Whitney Barnes, Keena Gonzalez, Kenneth Walker, Lori Merhige, Marjan Moghaddam, Mark Brennan, Matthew Farrell, Meg Graham, Megan Hildebrandt, Michael Berube, Oksana Prokopenko, Patricia Bellucci, Rachel Kohn, Rebecca Simon, Robert Aitchison, Roger Geier, Sandra Mack-Valencia, Sarah Hollars, Sarah Knouse, Sherry Aliberti, Steve Palermo, Suzanne Broughel, Tim Rusterholz, Virgil Alderson, and Wen-Chi Chen.
Opening Reception: September 20th 2012, 7-9pm
Exhibition Dates: September 14- October 26
Mon – Fri 7:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Sat – Sun 8:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Location : Church of St. Paul the Apostle
Corner of West 60th & Columbus Ave. (212) 265-3495
New York, New York 10019