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The Art of Community, the Community of Art

Experiencing Communal Awareness Without Filters

The Art of Community, the Community of Art

by Rev. Andre van Zijl

There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication…”
John Dewey

“THE FACE OF AWAKENING #1,” Ceramic mask by Andre van Zijl

“THE FACE OF AWAKENING #1,” Ceramic mask by Andre van Zijl

Art is an interculturally unifying language for communicating human and spiritual experience beyond words. We all hunger for connection and community. We do well to dance, sing, write, paint, and sculpt our way through and beyond the past with its trials and tribulations (personal and planetary), toward the creation of a hopeful future that assures the survival of at least a postmodern “Noah and his family,” a bridge between the Earth-ravaged world we witness today and the seeding a future  with a more conscious, loving, and compassionate humanity that speaks to the well-being of all.

I speak this language of art to begin the creation of such a bridge.

As Joseph Campbell said, “Art is the funnel through which spirit is poured into life.”

Art can create a portal that opens up infinite possibilities for connection. This fertile field of communion allows community to build in ways that are subtle, necessary, and lasting.

To speak of creativity and the language of art is to speak about the spiritual significance of non-verbal awareness. When holistically appreciating a heart-centered lens of awareness, we can see with an egoless clarity that what unites us is far more compelling than whatever may appear to temporarily divide us.

This unifying essence is the hallmark of the qualities which contribute to positive community-building. Seeing beyond divisive and occluding appearances is what art encourages us to do. It provides opportunities to experience self-transcendence and allows for a deeper sense of connection to what appears separate and apart from us. 

Having been a creative solitary and a professional fine artist for 45 years, I am used to and greatly value my aloneness. At the same time, craving community and being an active participant in both creating and supporting conscious community, I equally delight in the experience of being a vibrant member of the “Beloved Community” – the community of all living things.

Art & Ministry

“MORNING WORSHIP,” oil on canvas by Andre van Zijl

“MORNING WORSHIP,” oil on canvas by Andre van Zijl

My public persona has historically been seen through the lens of art as sculptor, painter, draughtsman with over 30 one-person shows internationally, and most recently as published poet and author.

As an ordained Interspiritual Minister, I intentionally use art and teaching as part of my public ministry. One facet of this work is the Art-as-Spirit-in-Action workshops I’ve developed with my family over many years. Recently my wife and I, in partnership with our adult son and daughter, came together to present a workshop on behalf of All Paths Divinity School at the Parliament of the World’s Religions conference held in Toronto in November 2018. We co-lead a 90-minute workshop titled “Creating Sacred Community Through Art.” The focus is on experiencing the significance of art and creativity in the creation and sustenance of sacred community, generating possibilities for the participants to take its benefits out into the diverse communities they live in.

Though this workshop typically is presented as a two-day retreat experience (which we have offered at churches, temples, retreats, and community centers in many countries), my family and I were able to distill the essence of it into the brief session. Both our children had just been ordained during the Parliament as Interfaith/Interspiritual Ministers by All Paths Spiritual Community/All Paths Universal Temple in an extraordinary ordination ceremony. It was blessed by the participation of luminaries such as Swami Atmarupananda (Vedanta), Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Rev. Patrick McCollum (peace violinist, honorary African king, and rainforest “shaman”), and many others from our spiritual community. The creative flow was ripe indeed!

Creating Community at the Parliament

The workshop was a culminating experience at the Toronto Parliament, both for my family as presenters and for the participants when it was presented at the end of the last day. The beginnings of this crescendo experience, however, were anything but encouraging.

First, the venue was deep inside the cavernous conference center, alarmingly distant from any main thoroughfares. Locating the room was an adventure in itself, especially as the center was now quite quiet and the atmosphere a little anticlimactic. At first it appeared to be a singularly nondescript and uninviting meeting room. Adding to our concern that this might be a “dead venue,” when we arrived to prepare the space, the room was not suitable for art making. And no workshop participants were to be seen, no attendees hurrying in from any direction.

Undismayed, we entered the room and set about reorganizing it into a conducive setting for art making, converting it from an alienating classroom setting with a central podium and banks of seats and desks facing front, to a more organic communal space in the heart of the room. This ritual of preparing the space is a vital element in setting the scene for the community-building activity. We call this “setting the heaven.” We formed an “oval” with the tables, around which we optimistically placed seats for about ten people. It was important that the participants could look into each other’s eyes. Thinking no one would arrive, we held a collective breath in the silent room as the workshop start-time approached. However, as spirit would finally have it, there was a sudden flood of people who kept coming in to have an “art” experience. A community of about 20 individuals filled the room, seemingly springing fully-formed out of thin air!

Photo: Andre van Zijl

Photo: Andre van Zijl

We began by introducing ourselves to one other, sharing our art experience to date, and why we had come to this workshop. It was humbling to hear the rich variance of both spiritual and human qualities that characterized our ad hoc community – from well-proven academics, to seasoned artists, to newly formed youth activists – most of whom did not know each. There was a finely tuned generational balance as well. Half the participants were millennials, the other half grey-haired elders – together setting the stage for a time of discovery, surprise, delight, and connection.

I gave a short introduction on how art is something vital for everyone to participate in regardless of talent or experience. Art is always an opportunity for guiltless “adult play!” I shared my hope that we could keep ourselves from forming any concepts about what we were about to do and instead enter this time together by allowing whatever came up to arrive, without censorship, filters, or preconceived notions. I continued by saying there is no “right” way to create, just as there is equally no “wrong” way. The main objective was to have fun delving into the creative darkness and unknown – together.

Even though some of us might have been professional artists and others complete neophytes, the opportunity for discovering a new way to experience ourselves and each other already appeared to be in play. Playfulness was encouraged. To learn this art of bridge-building between ordinary self-consciousness – the “us-and-them” division, the “me-and-it” schism – is to shift into a more cosmic, egoless awareness which allows for a sense of identification with the All that is; beyond the alienation of the individualized self in separation consciousness, the so-called “normal.”

Journey with us through the opening process: Imagine yourself at the table with strangers. There are large pieces of paper covering the table surface, with markers, crayons, and pencils at regular intervals. Set to music, the meditation exercise is to playfully, with intention, doodle a spiritual self-portrait on the paper without creating recognizable shapes, objects, faces, or anything that can be named. Use rhythmic movement, colorful texture, and, if absolutely necessary, a very few significant words, to convey your unique spiritual essence. The emphasis is on leaving the critic out of the room and entering into an exploration of the unknown without any preconceptions of what that might be. This can be liberating, a little terrifying, and most enriching.

Photo: Andre van Zijl

Photo: Andre van Zijl

The session culminates when various exercises are introduced to expand one’s awareness beyond one’s personal creative bubble. In this creative flow, a natural bonding organically emerges with others and, with that, the experience of expanded community – an experience of communing with one’s deeper self and communing with others. 

A natural emergence of kinship became self-evident as the experience evolved and the session became “our” bejeweled, bedazzled, dancing, prancing, and playful, (cosmic) community Self-portrait. We’d each gone beyond the isolated individual to a sense of shared and loving sacred space, created by making reasonless, indefensible beauty together through art. There were many “Aha’s” that spontaneously erupted into laughter, and an authentic sense that something indefinable was present. The sacred community celebrated its differences as much as its sense of fun and personal validation. This all occurred within the subtle embrace of an atmosphere of non-judgmental inclusion, love, and joy, natural to birthing that type of experience and fostering this special bonding experience in fellowship.

At the end of our time, participants shared how the experience was for them. Some commented that they could not have had a more perfect ending to the week-long conference. The workshop allowed them to experience a union between head and heart – known as our common spiritual home and meeting place, beyond all the labels, existential issues, and apparent personal, doctrinal, or cultural differences. This experience comes from a deeper place within us which appears to reflect a global non-specific, non-conceptual awareness.

Art is capable of creating a non-verbal language which allows for enlightened “seeing” through all eyes, not just the eyes of our local cultural context but through the “eyes” of trees, of elephants, of salmon, and of the Earth itself as well. Creating a community of awareness, we communicate this seeing beyond the limitations of thoughtless greed and needless consumption, and powerfully learn the heart-song of the divine. 

Photo: Andre van Zijl

Photo: Andre van Zijl

When we approach the act of making art, especially together, we find ourselves in the flow of creativity, and for a time we are no longer in transactional awareness. Rather, we discover an open-ended beingness which does not draw its immediacy and wide-lens focus from the surface mind or personality. We enter a timeless space beyond our daily concerns. As Marion Woodman says in her foreword to author Robert Atkinson’s Mystic Journey, “Soul Making is When Time meets the Timeless.”

Building a global culture of heart-centered, holistic awareness of our personal connection, we are well advised to invite the playfulness of the divine ‘wild child’ within us to be a shared communal encounter, invited into our experience of life through the mysterious alchemy of the arts.

The arts are the expression of the longing of the finite to be dissolved into its Infinite source This can lead us to forget our tale of brokenness and inspire us to take up the mantle of our shared divine majesty. The within becoming the without. The possible becoming the actual.

What better way than art, dance, and song to bring the gifts of our essential unity? Seeding this blameless awareness, we allow into our cultures and communities the opportunity to be transformed and bring to fruition a real possibility of abiding peace.

Header Photo: Pixabay