Deepening ties through art

Bishops and spouses explore the sacred space of artistic expression
November 1, 2005

Mary Howe has learned to break down barriers by picking up paintbrushes. “[Art] is just a wonderful opportunity to begin conversations with people that you wouldn’t normally have,” she said. “It gives you an opportunity to talk with people on another level and get beyond the barriers that exist.”

Howe lives in Kansas City, Mo., with her husband, Bishop Barry Howe of the Diocese of West Missouri. For the past five years, she has taken watercolor classes, furthering a hobby she has pursued since age 8. Although she says she is “very inspired” by nature, Howe paints almost anything: from flowers to vacation spots to portraits of her three grandchildren.

Since 2002, Howe has shared her work at informal art shows, such as last year’s exhibit at the House of Bishops meeting in Spokane, Wash. The exhibit featured work by bishops’ spouses that included painting, calligraphy, photography, music composition, pottery, vestments, millinery and carving. The first such show was held the previous year at the bishops’ gathering in Cleveland.

Lynette Williams, wife of retired Suffragan Bishop Arthur Williams of the Diocese of Ohio, arranged both events to strengthen relationships between the bishops’ spouses. “We really do get to see a different side of folks, other than just being married to a bishop,” she said.

Bishops join the fun

Although the first show featured work solely by spouses, Williams invited bishops to share their creations in 2004. Bishop Michael Creighton (Diocese of Central Pennsylvania) displayed mahogany baby cradles, Bishop Gerry Wolf (Diocese of Rhode Island) showed her paintings on wood, and Bishop Thomas Shaw (Diocese of Massachusetts) contributed his ceramic pottery.

“It’s just a wide-open celebration of the creation of self expression,” Williams said. Bishop Catherine Waynick of the Diocese of Indianapolis did more than celebrate art – she brought a piece home. Waynick asked Howe if she could keep Howe’s photograph of an original watercolor, a serene flower garden titled My Heart Sings.

“It was very flattering to me that she liked it enough to take it home with her,” Howe said. The work had special meaning to Howe, who gave the original painting to The Rivendell Community, a religious community in southwestern Missouri, on the anniversary of her mother’s death.

Like Howe’s watercolor, many pieces displayed at the bishops’ meetings have special meaning to the artists who created them. “It was delightful to see other parts of people’s lives that you wouldn’t know about,” Howe said.

Not surprisingly, many of the works reflected their creator’s faith. While some were designed specifically for church use -- Anne Labat-Gepert’s Advent chasuble and stole, for instance – others were created through “divine inspiration.”

“I feel like it’s an expression of my spirituality,” Howe said. “It brings me into a sacred space when I am painting, and I feel close to God when I am in the midst of it.”

 -- Michelle Gabriel, a journalism graduate who interned with Episcopal Life in 2003, is studying law at Boston University.

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