I had an absolutely marvelous experience last week. I have a show of my girlhood and womanhood prints up at Memphis Theological Seminary, and I was invited to give a lunchtime convocation and conversation on women, their bodies, and gender roles in the church. It was powerful to me to grow up in a church with a woman in the pulpit, Louise Lawson Johnson, who has been a huge influence on both my faith and my art career. She not only modeled a woman with full agency leading worship (essential for me at any church I might attend), but she enlisted me to illustrate a national Bible study of Revelation for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., my first major illustration job.
My womanhood series celebrates women with full agency in several venues, clerical, sexual, and, more traditionally but important to many women, parental.
Matt Matthews, a teacher there and also a photographer whose work I admire greatly, gave me a touching introduction and kicked things off talking about the images of girlhood that Barbie locks us into and suggested that my girlhood prints in the same series offered alternative roles for girls, emphasizing imagination and delight and confidence.
I ended the slide show with a temporary mural I had done for Idlewild Presbyterian when I was artist-in-residence there. One of our huge doors went out for repair, and I painted on the plywood replacement that graced the hall for a few months. I painted a vision of God as a nursing mother, based on Isaiah 66. God speaking to Jerusalem says, "Behold, I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of nations like an overflowing stream; you shall suck, you shall be carried upon her hip, and dandled upon her knees. As one whom a mother comforts, so I will comfort you."
The room was full of students who showed up for an arts conversation on their lunch hour. They had powerful comments, questions, and personal experiences to share. I was honored to be able to talk about a range of subjects with such engaged and interesting people.
They were especially excited about the image of God as a nurturing mother. One man told me it was liberating to him as a man, which was beautiful to hear from my female end of things. A number of people stayed after to talk more, two students had emailed me before I even made it home, and four theology students with student loans and tuition payments were moved enough by the art to buy a print. It was an amazing day, and I felt so honored to be a part of a conversation like that. I'm still thinking about it a week or more later. And I think I need to do a new print of Isaiah 66, seeing how much the text spoke to people. The plywood door was such a temporary piece of work. I'd really like to revisit that idea in my newer medium. I'm grateful for the room of people who came and shared those ideas with me and sent me home inspired and excited all over again about the work I'm lucky enough to do.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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