Meeting God in Garbage

Allison WehrungThe Artist as Educator

One afternoon a few years ago, I was walking down the stairs in my seminary’s main office building, carrying an arm-full of magazines and newspapers. A fellow student saw me and asked, “Oh! Are you working on a new art project?” Honestly, I was just helping my boss take out the recycling, but my classmate wasn’t too far off. Making art has found its way to the heart of my own spiritual practices, and more often than not, that practicing involves supplies that were on their way to the dumpster. Here are some trash crafting lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Start somewhere. Anywhere. If I waited until I had a thought-out plan for every single project, let’s just say I wouldn’t have very many projects. And even when I do sketch out an idea, chances are good that the finished product isn’t an exact match. Sometimes there’s a biblical text or current event I need to process, or maybe I stumbled upon a captivating image on a page in a magazine. Still other times my prompt is just a vague, yet persistent, urge to create something. In the latter moments I sit down with my trash stash and paint, waiting to see what jumps out. Start paying attention to what jumps out to you. What do you notice? If it’s a certain photograph, slow down long enough to really look at it. If it’s a particular color, find a matching pencil or paint and fill a page with it. Sometimes facing the blank page is the hardest part. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you have to start somewhere.

Trust the process. I’ll be the first to say this is way easier said than done, even after you’ve found your starting place. My train of thought takes the same track with just about every project: “I have a good idea! Wait, how am I actually going to do that? Okay, this’ll work. Nope, that’s not what I had in mind. This is terrible! Everything is terrible! Hang on, okay, it’s coming together. Yeah, this is cool. Look what I made!” It’s actually amusing how dependable my creative self-doubt can be. The key is not to get stuck in the middle of it, even when you can only see one step at a time. Take a break if you need to. But come back.

Share, if you want. Don’t, if you don’t. Art can open doors to a different type of conversation. Words come at us constantly from our televisions and news feeds, and at times it’s a breath of fresh air to get to process something that isn’t already trying to tell us what to think. Of course, that’s not to say that artists never make statements, but sharing as we illuminate the familiar stories of our faith in sometimes unfamiliar ways can reflect the boundless nature of God’s own self. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for making art that you know is just for you. Most of my projects start as a way for me to interpret something that is affecting me, and often I end up learning more from making it than I do from the finished product. That’s not something you can always explain, and that’s okay.

Wonder “what else?” Whether I’ve always realized it or not, this question has settled at the center of my own mixed-media making. The inside of a computer charger cord? Sounds like a vine to me. A bamboo sushi mat? Manger in the making. Bubble wrap? Paint stamp. When you wonder “what else,” mesh produce bags from the grocery store become wind and water, and magazine pages become mountains. Making art doesn’t have to be expensive. Cardboard can be your canvas.

When it comes down to it, I’ve realized these lessons have as much to do with life as they do with my mixed-media making. When I start with recyclables I already have, I’m reminded that the internal gifts we already have are enough too. When I consistently trust the process of a piece of art, I’m more apt to trust the Spirit’s nudging in other areas of my life, even when those nudging don’t come as quickly or clearly as I might hope. When I risk sharing an image I made, that openness is carried into other conversations. When I’m in the habit of wondering “what else?” about my recycling bin, I’m also more likely to wonder past first assumptions about my neighbors and about strangers. Your creative spiritual practice may involve less dumpster debris than mine. Whatever the medium is, start somewhere. Trust. Share (or don’t) and wonder. You never know what God might say along the way.

Allison Wehrung is a faithful doodler, trash crafter, and question asker. During her time at Columbia Theological Seminary, she spent two years coordinating the Sanctuary for Prayer, Art, and Creative Expression. She’s the campus minister at UKirk Ole Miss and keeps track of her own visual adventures at girlandgluestick.com.