Creatively catalytic: nurturing the arts and artists
The International Arts Movement (IAM) is a non-profit arts organization founded by the Japanese-American Nihonga painter and National Council on the Arts member Makoto ("Mako") Fujimura. IAM's mission is "to gather artists and creative catalysts to wrestle with the deep questions of art, faith and humanity in order to inspire the creative community to engage the culture that is and create the world that ought to be." Each year, IAM holds the IAM Encounter with workshops, lectures, salons, film screenings, exhibits, and more. This year, more than ten countries and thirty-five U.S. states were represented.
At the 2008 Encounter that convened from February 28 to March 1 in Tribeca (lower Manhattan), Mako referred to a "Third Language." Noting that there are many aspects of our contemporary cultural language that are relevant only in religious communities and others only in secular communities, and not in both simultaneously, Mako suggested that we need a Third Language relevant and intelligible to both communities. Of the many terms in the emerging Third Language discussed at the Encounter, "creative catalyst" was one that created quite a buzz. In fact, while Encounter-goers heard from several "creative catalysts," including business leaders with a strong appreciation for the arts and creativity, directors of foundations that support artists financially, and arts patrons—buyers and arts organization board members—there remained a question mark as to the exact meaning of the phrase.
One of the workshop discussions at the IAM Encounter endeavoured to explore this question. In an artists' bungalow filled to capacity with students and professionals, U.S. citizens and expatriates, artists, ministry leaders, and businesspeople, a lively conversation ensued. After nearly two hours' wrestling with the practical and pragmatic aspects of what it means to be a "creative catalyst," forty-plus workshop participants came up with three key ways that every person can serve the common good as a creative catalyst. While the details are wide and varied, they can be summed up in three words: intercession, encouragement, and hospitality.
One woman shared that her church had begun a prayer group with a specific focus on the arts. As they prayed for artists in their community, the gap between those who create art and those who appreciate it diminished. Empathy arose in intercessors' hearts as they prayed for the young painters, writers, and performing artists among them. The artists, in turn, began to cross the bridge of empathy as well, and generosity replaced the selfishness that—sadly—is a trait frequently associated with artists. Advocacy was also identified as an aspect of intercession and as another way that people can be creative catalysts. Teachers, community members, student leaders, church board members, and businesswomen and men can raise their voices to endorse not just having art, but having good art in their schools, civic groups, and houses of worship.
Another way to be a creative catalyst is to become "a Barnabas to the Arts." The first-century influencer Barnabas is best known today for being an encourager to a budding young upstart named John Mark, who failed at his first attempt to "be somebody" on the road with some travelling disciples. When the Apostle Paul was ready to throw in the towel on the young man, Barnabas invited John Mark out of his failure to join Barnabas in his own travels. Barnabas's investment was a good one—John Mark subsequently wrote a bestseller commonly known as "The Gospel of Mark."
What if more people today were intentional about taking risks on young artists, encouraging them through failures, and talking them out of giving up? Instead of reminding creative hopefuls of the high risk factor—that according to the Department of Labor, "the work (for actors)—when it is available—is hard, the hours are long, and the pay may be low"—what if people helped to guide budding artists toward success?
A businessman in the workshop commented that he had some very creative young people on his staff, and he wanted to give them more opportunities, but he felt that they were not giving their creative best at work. They treated their "day job" like a day job, saving their creative best for after-hours artistic pursuits. Talking with the businessman afterwards, I was encouraged to hear this forward thinker articulate the revelation that part of his role as a creative catalyst was not just to correct these youngsters, but also to shepherd them toward creative faithfulness in all they do.
Intercession and advocacy, encouragement and exhortation, are ways people can serve as creative catalysts. But there was another, less obvious suggestion that came out at the IAM Encounter workshop: offering hospitality.
As I interacted with the workshop participants, I recalled an experience from my early days as an actress, when a creative catalyst cleverly disguised as a pastor connected me with an 83-year-old member of his church. A few days after having tea with Grace, I moved in to an "upper room" in this elderly grandma's house. Not only did I find a home for a few months while I performed, but Grace got a huge kick out of sharing my adventure, and my new roommate and I became lifelong friends. A gentleman in the group shared that his creatively catalytic parents had purchased a home in their retirement years, which they set up intentionally to be a place for up-and-coming artists to showcase their work, with a living room that could hold up to 150 people for discussions, readings, and lectures.
Do you have a professional theatre in your city? You might consider inviting some of the actors to your home for dinner on Monday nights—their night off when they're performing. Is there a coffee house in town that exhibits local artists? You could encourage an emerging artist by purchasing an original piece of art from them. Do you have a large living room? How about inviting twenty of your friends over for a night of poetry reading, with poetry students from a local college reciting their works?
As Calvin Seerveld wrote in Rainbows for a fallen world:
The most full, cultural obedience by the communion of saints is not the stand-up testimonial by a lone Christian artist, to which one may applaud, but rather an international community of Christian artists showing themselves, in all their dedicated weakness, as one open door in a Christian cultural ark not established by human hands, where young and old believers and unbelievers may enter as a relief and a workshop.
Creative catalysts—interceding, encouraging, and offering hospitality—can help artists keep that door open.