By LESLIE JOHNSTON, MFA student in the Writing and Consciousness MFA program
This post was written as an assignment for Professor Cindy Shearer’s Aesthetics of Value course. In Aesthetics of Value, students explore their arts heritage and inquire into the values that guide their creative work.
The church of my childhood overtly embraced the arts, using music and performance to open hearts and minds, a zealous form of evangelism known throughout our community. These were my earliest beginnings as an artist: a vocalist singing in the choir or as a soloist, an actor participating in one of the many theater productions, and even a puppeteer—my own beginnings as an evangelist.
My grandparents infused their art into their ministry. For over 30 years, they were an integral part of one of today’s most widespread Christian radio stations, Heralding Christ Jesus’ Blessing. Grandpa was given the gift of his hand and his heart. He studied art education, only to become a minister, and later a missionary in Quito, Ecuador. He used chalk art as his medium for spreading the gospel, telling stories from the Bible to children and adults across the world.
Grandma was given the gift of her hands, her voice, and her heart. She played the piano most of her life, using it in her ministry, and produced records, while spreading the good news in English and in Spanish to children and adults across the world. Sometimes my grandparents married their art forms, creating entire programs in which grandpa would draw and grandma would sing—the visual and the oral combined made for a captivated audience.
The church has had a long-running love affair with the arts, for better or for worse, using the arts when it benefits their cause, shutting them down when they begin to challenge their position. The situation becomes even more hairy when the church and the state have a shared interest: not only do the arts pose a threat to the position of the church, but can intimidate those with political power. There is great power in the arts, but more often than not they are seen as something superfluous—an oxymoron in and of itself. The arts are usually the first thing to be cut in our schools. The Dark Ages happened for a reason.
I suppose it is rather easy to equate republican with Christian in our country these days, but both my grandparents are actually democrats. As an adult, I understand that the world is not as black and white as it sometimes appears. I do not want to have to be one thing, or another. Republican or democrat. Christian or not. Artist or not. Gay or not.
In all actuality, I am what some people would call a recovering (gay) Christian. I’ve had a lot of messy territory to navigate within the church, within my family, and with my own self, after realizing that I loved women. Words have been a very important part of that process, and so has my education.
Knowledge truly is power.
Words offered me a tool to better understand the deeper meaning of life, to look more closely below the surface of things, to think more critically and to evaluate. The arts have played a big role in the development of my self-esteem, self-acceptance, and communication skills. My arts education has made me a better person, as did the church.
Like my grandparents using their art to spread the gospel, I want to spread the arts to as many people as possible in my lifetime, making my mark, using my gift, advocating change, while encouraging expression for those people that remain in silence or in isolation.
It is only fitting that I ended up pursuing my master of fine arts degree at California Institute of Integral Studies in an arts program that emphasizes integration, interdisciplinarity, and the importance of finding the educator in the artist, the artist in the educator. As they say, teach the student, not the subject. Over the years, I have come to realize what I love most about the church: its sense of community, how it brings people together. It is the same reason I love the arts.