Paint and Pandemics: Thinking, Feeling and Coping Through Art
Redeemer's senior art students share their experiences working and creating amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
9 min. read
May 12, 2020

Beauty. Discernment. Discipline. Reflection. For a Christian, these terms coincide with a fruitful spiritual life. For an artist, they make up the process that comes with putting their thoughts to canvas, fabric or the pottery wheel. As Redeemer’s senior art students can attest to, the two are often one and the same. 

“Everything in the actual process of making art can be almost meditative, from picking up a pencil, pen or paintbrush,” says fourth-year art major Audrey Messersmith. “Then, there’s the discipline involved and letting God move you through that. Using your own artwork to convey a message, bring attention to things or simply show that there’s beauty in the world all has God in it.”

“Using your own artwork to convey a message, bring attention to things or simply show that there’s beauty in the world all has God in it.”

Messersmith started her academic career as a biology major and art minor. After realizing she was more drawn to art, she switched majors while taking on psychology as a minor. Since then, she has refined her skills using a variety of materials and mediums.

“I kind of have two focuses. My exhibition pieces are primarily in watercolour with some multimedia materials. When I work on my own projects, I often use pencil, ink and sometimes a bit of digital colouring.”

Messersmith is referring to her senior exhibition. At the end of every year, graduating students are given the opportunity to showcase a semester’s worth of work in the Redeemer art gallery. Due to the restrictions of COVID-19, the department pivoted and moved the exhibition online. Each student developed their own webpage that includes photos of their artwork, an installation shot, an artist statement and a short biography. Although the opportunity to showcase her hard work wasn’t lost, Messersmith still feels as though she’s lost a milestone of her graduating year.

“Because I changed my major so many times, I wasn’t going to walk in a graduation ceremony since I took so many classes. So for me, my “graduation” was almost going to be my exhibition. It’s a little sad that I won’t be able to put all my work up on a wall and have my family and friends come and see all the art our group has done.” 

Despite this disappointment, Messersmith’s work is sure to make a lasting impression no matter how it’s presented. Titled The World is Waking Up, it focuses on the various types of harm done to the environment. 

“It’s three large watercolour paintings of areas of the world that have been impacted by either climate change or the actions of humans. I’ve taken these pieces and destroyed them, actually, with a knife, red paint and charcoal dust to show the damage that is done to our world and to each other by our own hands. I’m kind of trying to make a wake-up call for everyone to pay attention and see what we’re doing.”

The World is Waking Up by Audrey Messersmith: Installation Shot

Like Messersmith, student Sarah Murphy imagined her senior exhibition quite differently. However, moving back to her family home led to a unique opportunity she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to pursue.

“I wasn’t really sure where I would work on my art after university. I didn’t have enough space when I moved home, so I contacted my pastor. He said there was a room in the church that I could use, and now it’s a potential long-term studio for me.”

Sarah Murphy’s Studio

Another huge benefit is the impact Murphy’s work has had on her spiritual life. Her exhibition, Reoriented, features three acrylic paintings on plywood that depict a unique combination of mandalas and the hex squares of Pennsylvania Dutch barn quilts. According to her artist statement, the creation of both a mandala and quilt pattern involves a careful, intricate process of applying meaning to even the smallest symbols in pursuit of a complete and unified work. The connectedness of each pattern can also translate into an act of meditative prayer and the need for Christian unity. 

“I have not been a stranger to the brokenness within the Church and the bitterness of Christians towards each other (myself included). We are afraid of the freedom we are given and we misuse it, hurting others along the way… I want to connect the meditative force of both mandalas and hex signs and bring them into a Christian context showing how they all connect. I also want to highlight the continuing power of traditional symbolism.”

Student George Wastle’s exhibition, On His Shoulders, represents one of the most formative events of his life. 

“The theme commemorates my dad, who died in 2012,” he says. “He was an exceptional role model to me. The paintings come from a variety of artistic influences, and I’d say they’re a series of unconventional portraits because they’re all from different angles and arranged different ways. They show different facets of my dad’s life including his work as an electrical engineer for Christian TV, his travels to Italy which inspired my own studies there last year and the other amazing ways he impacted my life.”

“Second Home” by George Wastle

Like Messersmith and Murphy, Wastle doesn’t underestimate the role art has played in his spiritual formation. 

“I’ve found that working on a painting can be a meditative and thoughtful process. I’m always thinking about which symbols can best represent the theme of the piece, whether that’s something about my life journey or my relationship with God. For me, there are certain things that can be better expressed through painting than writing. This is especially true for my exhibition, where it’s really about being with my dad again even though he’s not here. By being reminded of that, I’m inspired to continue his legacy even though I’m following a very different path than he did. It’s also just about discovering and expressing the beauty of the world and God’s creation while mixing different colour harmonies to show that beauty.”

“For me, there are certain things that can be better expressed through painting than writing. This is especially true for my exhibition, where it’s really about being with my dad again even though he’s not here.”

Due to the major role it’s played in these students’ lives and education, art has been especially meaningful to them during the upheaval of COVID-19. Although isolation still comes with its challenges, it has also had some unexpected benefits. Wastle simply appreciated having extended time for his work to reach its fullest potential. Messersmith found that the anxieties of a pandemic were actually the driving force behind her creative process.  

“When you’re experiencing something like quarantine or dealing with difficult thoughts, sometimes you want to do something familiar to recentre yourself,” she says. “For me, that’s art. Maybe I don’t always have an idea of what I’m going for at first, but whatever I’m putting on the page can help me figure out what I’m feeling and thinking. Then, I’m able to approach those feelings with eyes wide open.” 

After being given space for a private studio, Murphy became increasingly grateful for the opportunity to take solace in her work away from the uncertainty of quarantine. 

“I’m able to go there as a kind of oasis and not feel stuck in one place all the time. It gives me a chance to enter that flow state and just paint for a while.”

Although their final exhibition wasn’t the one they envisioned, the senior art students were still able to showcase work that draws on their distinct passions, convictions and experiences. They created and shared beautiful things that inspire richer relationships with the world, our communities, our loved ones and, ultimately, with God. A fruitful spiritual life indeed.

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