Many of the people I’ve written about since Ash Wednesday have been long-time guides along the spiritual path of my life, people with whom I’ve been acquainted (mentored, befriended, pastored) over a period of years. But today, I write of one of the “minor prophets” (but a prophet for sure) whom I encountered along the way: Carol Egmont St. John, artist, poet, free and freeing spirit, and author of Taproots: Where Ideas Are Born.

Chuck Melchert and Anabel Proffitt first told me about Carol St. John’s week-long workshops on Cape Anne,  Gloucester, MA, an experience called “Summereach.” Carol welcomed small groups to her Rocky Neck studio to explore creativity together. It happened that my cousin Mary Louise O’Connor had a home in nearby Rockport, and I was able to enjoy her company (and room and board) that same week. (Saved me a few dollars, always important back in those Vermont pastorate days.)

Carol’s “workshops” were more “playshops,” but “play” to be taken seriously, if that makes sense. Out of that play, and feeding right back into it, was an artistic freedom that found expression in our writing poetry and using paint and other media to communicate something of ourselves, that is, our selves. Carol provided the inspiring words and gentle teaching that gave us permission to tell our personal stories and histories, to share dreams and visions, to work through loss and grief, and to scratch and scribble, splash and splatter, sit in silence and rhyme and read through our week on the wharf.

A few activities I remember —

  • walking along a nearby beach and collecting shore “stuff” (grasses, shells, fallen flowers) which we were to turn into a mask of ourselves;
  • sitting or walking silently on the edge of deep quarry to gather our thoughts and let them find life on paper;
  • drawing with our non-dominant hand a picture of a favorite or significant childhood memory (which would turn out to look as if a child had drawn it, no matter our skill level);
  • taking a walking tour of galleries, including one where I made my most serious blunder of the week : I asked a photographer what kind of film he had used for one magnificent seascape; he barked at me that it didn’t matter. He was right, of course.
  •  blindfolded, we were to draw a picture of the family table where we had grown up as children (I recall, even now smiling broadly, that the blindfold Carol used to demonstrate the exercise was a bra);
  • with light brown butcher paper (maybe it’s all light brown…I don’t know, never having been a butcher), spread out over a long rectangular table, each “artist” was given a jar of tempura paint and a brush — and we were to paint a garden object (flower, grass, butterfly, bee, etc.) with our one color, in our assigned area of the paper. Then we would rotate to another block, and now and then follow Carol’s call to trade colors as we circled the table. The result? A huge colorful garden mural some eight feet long, with no butcher paper showing through. When the week came to an end, Carol presented each of us with a section of that mural, a remembrance to take home and share.

Carol gave us all writing assignments, too. And as intimidating as it was for the non-poets among us, we followed her lead, since she had so quickly provided an atmosphere of trust and safe harbor. Toward the end of the week, we were to share something of what we’d written, though some poetry (free verse or in meter) might have been so personal we’d prefer to keep it to ourselves, and were allowed to.

Carol’s own artworks surrounded us in her gallery, a wonderful collection of watercolors and oils. Even the more “serious” subjects seemed winsome and playful and alive with spirit. Laughter and prayer, intimate moments shared with friends who had been strangers only hours before, and creativity unleashed and set free — what a gift that time with Carol St. John was.

Until death interrupted. Halfway through the week, while I was sitting on my cousin’s sunny porch looking out at what is known as Motif #1 in the little boat harbor in Rockport, the telephone brought news of the death of Robbie Young, an elderly retired farmer, a member of my congregation in Vermont. I left for home early the next day.

In my haste to leave, I forgot to roll up and pack my section of the garden mural that Carol had given me the night before. I left it with Mary Lou, who that morning had so admired both the art and the communal process that created it. When I called her about it later, I told her to enjoy it and to hold it for my next visit.  I had hoped to return the next summer.

Death interrupted again, though. Mary Lou, an artist herself, died of cancer by the time I was able to return to Summereach. But she left behind this legacy, words I’ve copied from the web site of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute:

The Creative Arts Program was founded in 1997 by Mary Louise O’Connor, a Dana-Farber patient:

“Vital to life as Breath
is what we think, feel, dream and make.

Discovering and expressing
What images and ideas appeal to us
is a path to our own deeper worlds, and
connection to what inspires the human spirit.

It is very important to be inspired
especially now.”

                                                  – Mary Louise O’Connor, Ph.D

[It turns out that Carol St. John and my cousin Mary Lou (as I grew up calling her) knew one another, both being active in a local artists group.]

Two summers later, Anabel Proffitt, Chuck Melchert, my wife Joan, and I went to Rocky Neck for Summereach, with Carol St. John very graciously forgiving my tuition since I hadn’t been able to complete that original week. Her generosity provided even more inspiration, and the love, the freedom, the imaginative use of pen and paint brush and paper…all led to a wonder-filled week of discovery, of showing, and telling.

Since I am writing primarily for myself here, and figuring all these entries will be of interest someday as my children reflect on my life, I am going to add this very personal note. If you, anonymous reader, think this self-serving, then pay no attention.

Dear Jeff,

We missed you at our Transformation Day, but recognize how much your warm humor and sensitivity added to Summereach. Lo and Behold! I met Katherine, of Katherine Paterson fame, at Gordon College the other night. She said you are a dear, dear friend and I wondered what two people like you sit around a table and talk about. I’d love to be there. Her talk moved and healed me on an evening when I needed both. Lucky you, lucky she to have each other.

[signed] Carol St. John

P.S.,  May I use your poem on my brochure?

Of course,  I gave her permission. but I have no idea what poem that was! All I know is that Carol St. John’s influence over the seven or eight days of my life at Summereach opened me up to new ways of thinking, praying, playing, and creating. Maybe this blog is part of that.

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