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Prayers on Canvas—wholeheARTed guest, Rev. Millicent Thomson

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Art, Faith, and Honest Connection

Prayers on Canvas—wholeheARTed guest, Rev. Millicent Thomson

Lisle Gwynn Garrity

When we first began this wholeheARTed series, we were curious about integration. We wanted to hear from other creatives about how fear, art, creative process, and faith are all integrated in their ultimate journeys toward wholeness.

To close out the series, our guest this week opens up about how an uninhibited practice of pushing paint around has become a spiritual practice leading her to more fully discover herself. Millicent Thomson shows us how messy paint strokes can help with processing unspoken prayers and muddied emotions. Her reflections remind us of the role creativity might play in each of our lives, in guiding us to become more whole.

Read on below and check here to catch up on all of our wholeheARTed guests throughout the series.

We are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration—it is how we fold our experiences into our being.
— Brene Brown

SA: When did you first consider yourself an artist or creative person? 

MT: I still do not consider myself to be a creative person. My pastor always identifies me as creative, but I am not sure I can see that yet. I have come to recognize that I think in pictures. Sometimes I hear words strewn together so beautifully that I can see those words come together as a whole in the form of a picture. It is new to think of myself as an artist. I have always been good with words. I love to write. In college, I developed an appreciation for the visual arts. It was in seminary that I discovered that art could express what I felt inside that I did not have the words for. Recently, I read Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” That to me is what helps me to claim my prayers on canvas as art.

SA: Tell us about the art you create or how you express yourself creatively.

MT: The art I create is a manifestation of the things deep inside my soul that I can’t get out any other way. Last summer, I was doing Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). I had a huge conflict with another chaplain. We had a fiery discussion about whether Holy Communion should be an open table or a closed table. He asserted that Communion was not an open table and I argued that it was. The argument sparked so much emotion in me that I had to go into the chapel at the hospital and cry. I cried myself to sleep. The idea that Communion is not for all struck a chord deep in my soul. I was still angry when I got home. I tried to journal, but that made me angrier. I knew I was going to have to work with this person the next day and I had to do something. I pulled out my paints and just started playing with the colors. When I got to the blue, I noticed that my stroke changed. My hand was fervently and furiously swirling across the canvas. It moved in circles and side to side, over and over. Then, I noticed that I felt better. I felt cleansed, purged, and free from those feelings. Not only did I have a venue for my feelings, but I was also able to see my feelings and they were blue. In observing the chaos of my feelings, I realized that my base emotion was not anger, which I expected to be red, but my base emotion was blue. Blue is not a color for blinding rage. What was this emotion? What is happening here? It was then that I recognized that my base emotions were hurt and sadness. The thought that Communion, which represents Jesus, was not available to people hurt me and made me profoundly sad. It was art that helped me to find that emotion, articulate it, and also process it.

(Left) Millicent leading worship at Columbia Theological Seminary, Atl. (Right) Art by Millicent Thomson.

SA: What is your creative process like? 

MT: I do not think I have a process for creativity. When I feel the desire to paint, I have this tingle in my arm and have a heightened sensitivity to colors. When I have the desire to write, I feel it in my fingertips and I have a strong desire to touch paper. When I sit down to do either painting or writing, I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and see what comes forth. Painting is more difficult for me than writing because when I write, I edit as I write. In painting, once the paint hits the canvas, it is there. I then begin to wonder where I was going with that color or stroke and why I wanted to edit it out. I am a lot more self-aware with my painting than with my writing.

SA: What does fear look like for you and how does it show up in your creative process?

MT: Fear is a new emotion for me. For years, I have masked fear as anger, which results for me as projecting a tough exterior. In my art, my fear is usually under a layer of something. It may be that I have several circles and fear is an inner circle that is protected by several other circles. In other pieces, fear is further down on the painting. It is rarely at the top.

Art and journal reflection by Millicent Thomson.

SA: How do you push beyond fear and self-doubt when they emerge during the creative process?

MT: I don’t know that I push past fear in the creative process. I aim to produce. It is only afterwards that I can typically recognize what came out of me. I have yet to identify anything I have produced as beautiful. What I produce is usually a jumble of emotions that came out on paper or canvas in one swoop. I have had people shed tears when I explain the different elements in the work, but the work itself has not met my standard of beauty.

SA: How is your creativity connected to your faith?

MT: I have come to recognize that I pray on paper. My writing can take on a poetic almost psalmic tone. My painting is me sharing the intimate spaces of myself that are only reserved and entrusted to God. For the last year, I have been working on a Vacation Bible School curriculum for my church that is completely based in the arts. I selected the stories of creation. It did not feel ready for public presentation, so we opted for a boxed Vacation Bible School kit this year. Actually, now that I think about it, it was my fear of sharing my art that I don’t yet see as beautiful. It was my fear of being judged. It was my fear of people not getting the process of seeing and joining God in creation that caused me to pull out of this year’s VBS.

SA: How does creativity/art lead you to wholeness?

MT: Creativity/art leads me to wholeness because it offers space for me to be my full and authentic self. I do not have to worry about whether my thoughts or feelings are oversharing or not appropriate for a setting. I can think and feel freely. Art and being creative also gives me a strong sense of control that I may not feel in other areas of my life. Ironically, it also gives me space to feel freedom in ways that I am hesitant to enjoy in other areas of my life. Art and creativity fills in the gaps for me to fully find and express my full, real, and authentic self.  


millicent-5.jpg

Rev. Millicent Thomson is an itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She works as an English as a Second Language teacher for middle and high school students in Clayton County Public Schools. Rev. Thomson loves to travel and to witness God's artistic creation throughout the world. 


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