Art as Justice-Making
Painting and Writing Holy Women Icons
How can we repair a damaged world?
As the American embassy was bombed in 1999, I was hunkered in a Russian orthodox church gazing at the brooding faces of male saints that filled every inch of the sanctuary. Where were all the women? As a sensory overload accosted my eyes in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula, I scanned the scene to find only two women crammed among all the icons. At the Temple of 1,000 Buddhas in Thailand, nary a woman was portrayed. And I continued to ask, “Where are all the women?”
Since iconography wasn’t a part of my spiritual tradition, I experienced these icons as an art historian, thus divorcing me from their devotional nature. In addition to wondering where all the women were, I questioned why so many of the men were whitewashed; a large majority of the icons were historically men of color, but they were often represented as fair-skinned men, sometimes even with light hair. I learned about the devotional aspect of iconography—for both artists and viewers—and how icons naturally bridge the gap between spirituality and creativity. Yet I longed for equal representation, icons that include the vast array of humanity.
Confronted with a virtually all-male sainthood in every major wisdom tradition, I wanted to give traditional iconography a folk-feminist twist. I found iconography a bit intimidating, as the ominous eyes of male saints met my gaze with a felt mixture of judgement and exclusion. So, I wanted to change the style to make it more accessible, hence the folk art. Intersectional feminism—or feminism that pays careful attention to the intersections of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability—became the lens through which I researched and painted.
This folk-feminist creative spirituality began nearly ten years ago when I first painted Sophia-Wisdom for a Lenten group exhibition based on the theme, “The Many Faces of Jesus.” Since then I have painted over ninety of these folk-feminist icons, wrote a book and coloring book about the ways our spirits are stoked by learning about these revolutionary women icons. Then I turned the entire endeavor into a non-profit, the Holy Women Icons Project, which seeks to empower marginalized women by telling the stories of revolutionary holy women through art, writing, and special events. Because it wasn’t enough to bridge the chasm that often exists between the arts and spirituality, but to extend that bridge to connect with social justice.
These vital connections between creativity, spirituality, and justice didn’t start with me, of course. Rather, there are brave and bold women who have bridged these gaps for generations. I think, in particular, of Gloria Anzaldúa (September 26, 1942 – May 15, 2004), an American scholar who focused on the intersections among queer theory, feminist theory, and Chicana cultural theory. Born in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, Anzaldúa also bridged the borders of personal and academic writing, weaving together theory with lived experience, English with Spanish, and inviting readers into a new world, or Mundo Zurdo, that transcended these seeming binaries.
“My job as an artist is to bear witness to what haunts us, to step back and attempt to see pattern in these events (personal and societal), and how we can repair el daño [the damage] by using the imagination and its visions. I believe in the transformative power and medicine of art,” explained Anzaldúa. I believe her transformative framework is precisely what we need to bridge the chasms that exist between spirituality and the arts, the arts and social justice, and social justice and spirituality. These are bridges needed to repair a damaged world.
Too often, the arts are viewed as decorative at best, distracting at worst, by both spiritual leaders and activists. Why dance when there is praying to do? Why paint when one should protest? These sentiments, however, assume that the creative imagination is mutually exclusive from nurturing the soul and repairing a broken world. Because dance can be prayer. And paint can be protest. Imagination, in fact, can be redemptive. I would contend that justice is not had, for example, when the homeless are covered with a dank and rickety shelter, or those who are hungry are fed processed, tasteless foods. Rather, when all are surrounded by beauty, enlivened and nourished by the food on their plates, when all are inspired by their surroundings, then justice has come. Beauty, then, is the aim and goal of justice. The arts are the creative bridge that connects spirituality with social justice. This is the work I hope to do with the Holy Women Icons Project.
As an artist, author, academic, and activist, these bridges are a vital part of my work as I give traditional iconography a folk-feminist twist by painting and writing about revolutionary women— and particularly queer women and/or women of color—from history and mythology. Anzaldúa’s bridges make the connections between painting and writing about biblical women, goddesses, and historical women, illustrating that the body, mind, heart, and soul can be simultaneously enlivened, engaged, and nourished.
Because the Holy Women Icons Project isn’t just paintings and writings, but an opportunity for those who have never seen themselves as holy to catch a glimpse of their own worth, to see reflections of themselves as sacred. In this way, creating beauty is a revolutionary act.
Lest you enter your own kind of existential despair, assuming that such bridges exist only for the professional artist, let me assure you of the creative protest and artistic spirit latent within your own being. Never allow anyone, including yourself, to tell you that you are not creative, that you possess no artistic talent, that the only way for you to honor your spirit is with all those traditional “spiritual disciplines.” Whether it’s an outside-the-box approach to social change, creativity in the kitchen or garden, repairing something that has broken in your life (literally or metaphorically), singing, dancing, painting, coloring, drawing, woodwork, fabric art, sculpture, film, instruments, writing, or moving intentionally and thoughtfully through this beautiful and tragic world with awareness and gratitude, there is creative potential living inside you.
One of my Holy Women Icons, Anna Julia Cooper, referred to this creative potential as the “Singing Something.” Anna Julia Cooper (August 10, 1858-February 27, 1964) was the fourth African American woman to earn a Ph.D., a Black Liberation Activist, and educator. In her first book she describes God in auditory terms rather than imagistic, claiming that God is a “Singing Something,” a divine spark or urge-cell that exists within all humanity. This “Singing Something” is a creative, divine, and equalizing presence among us all. It’s singing inside you; can you hear it?
The more revolutionary women I research, paint, and write about, the more I bear witness to the ways these seemingly disparate Singing Somethings within us all work together in harmony. The more I paint and write about these stories, the more I learn to listen to the songs others have to sing. And the more I am empowered to raise my own voice.
What makes your heart sing? What stirs the creative spirit inside you? And how might you cultivate that creative spirit to help repair a damaged world? Enlivened by Anna Julia Cooper, let us honor the “Singing Something” within others and ourselves. Do we need protest? Yes. Do we need prayer. Sure. But equally important, we need holy imagination to help us a dream a better world into being. Emboldened by Gloria Anzaldúa, let us build creative, majestic, life-altering bridges so that we can create such a world.