Art as Faithful Vocation

Connect Journal reached out to Mary Button to learn more about her artistic work in and outside of the ELCA. Her responses below have been lightly edited for style.

My name is Mary Button, and I’m a pastor and an artist! I grew up in Southeast Texas in beautiful Galveston County on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Growing up in such a beautiful place deeply shaped me. My parents gave me a camera for Christmas when I was 12, and I took it everywhere, documenting the salt marshes and estuaries that surrounded my small town. Eventually, I went to college to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography, and, as much as I still love photography, I found myself as a painter and illustrator during those years. After graduation I worked in the art world and began my freelance studio. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was pursuing artmaking in churches and other faith communities and began working as a liturgical artist. You can see some of this work on my website:

Mary Button

Connect Journal: What are some ways your vocation as an artist has been shaped by the work of liturgical artists and creators of visual art throughout history?

Mary: My life and spirituality have been shaped by many, many artists over the years. I love Marc Chagall and his playful depictions of scenes from the Hebrew Bible. Chagall depicted these stories as taking place in his own experience of Eastern Europe and Jewish folk culture. His work taught me the power of painting Biblical scenes in our modern contexts. I love Henri Matisse and his colorful collages and paper cut-outs. His work helped me to think through my own collage process. But, my favorite artist and the one who affected me the most is Sister Corita Kent, a Catholic nun and art educator at Immaculate Heart College in California whose bright neon silkscreens of 1960s icons like Bobby Kennedy and the Berrigan Brothers became a Catholic counterpoint to her contemporary Andy Warhol’s work. She created large-scale art installations at Immaculate Heart and has inspired many of my own installations and set designs.

Connect Journal: How do you think your own creative life and artistic works have been shaped by a Lutheran lens?

Mary: I see the world through a particularly Lutheran lens. In my art practice, I see how grace and resurrection are the threads which hold us together. I believe that when we create, we participate in the Resurrection. Each person carries within them trauma and pain, yet each and every one of us creates anyway. Our pain is transfigured when we create. Whether it’s planting a garden, cooking a meal or building a relationship, humans are hardwired for creation. And in all of this there is the grace that surpasses understanding.

Connect Journal: What have you heard from others about how your creative work has stirred, influenced or otherwise shaped their faith journey?

Mary: It’s always a gift to hear that my work has stirred something in another person. I even met someone at the Wild Goose Festival a few years ago whose tattoo was inspired by my “Stations of the Cross: Mental Illness”! The work I most often get feedback on are my ongoing “Stations of the Cross” series. People appreciate seeing that story told in a way that illuminates our own society and the challenges we face. I think that there’s grace in this too—grace that my small perspective and my small set of skills have had an impact beyond my small art studio. I feel deeply blessed by the interactions I’ve had over the years with people who have been touched by my work. It always affirms for me that art-making builds and strengthens community!

Connect Journal: Many adults hesitate (or downright decline) to create any artistic work to express their own faith experiences, religious beliefs or spiritual formation. Why do you think this is the case, and what insights do you have to help adults adopt a creative mindset in expressing these parts of themselves through visual art?

Mary: There’s something that happens to us between childhood and adolescence isn’t there? Children freely paint and draw, then somewhere along the way they’re made to feel self-conscious, and by adolescence a lot of us stop doing the creative things that we once loved. I think that the best way to break ourselves free of this debilitating self-consciousness about whether or not we’re good enough is to play—to fingerpaint, to experiment, to return to the creative things that we once did without worrying about the end product. 

One of the resources that has helped me to reclaim that playfulness in my own art practice is Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way.” She recommends that once a week, you take yourself on an “artist date”—and by “date,” she means however much time you can set aside weekly to do something to nurture your creativity. It looks different week-to-week for me. This week I took an hour to wander through a bookstore; sometimes I color in one of my adult coloring books, and sometimes I fiddle around with polymer clay, a favorite material of mine from childhood crafting. Connecting with a sense of joy and playfulness is essential to deepening your spiritual life. Playing leads to extraordinary things; we should do it more often!

Connect Journal: Readers of the Connect Journal serve children, youth and families in mostly ELCA congregations. What are some tips you have for them in weaving the use of visual arts into their ministry? What do you think can happen in children and youth ministry when people experience and create visual art?

Mary: I think helping children and youth connect to the visual arts is so important! So many of our schools no longer have visual art classes. By offering opportunities for young people to create, the church can stand in that gap. Churches are great venues for children’s art—they can paint on fabric and create paraments, chasubles and more! They can wrap sanctuary walls in butcher paper and draw until the whole church is filled with their imagination! They can blow bubbles on Pentecost and bring freedom and whimsy into our worship! Using visual art in support of Christian education creates so many opportunities to let children feel a sense of belonging and affirms their importance in our communities. Let your youth lead the way; show them that the church values the creativity, joy and playfulness they bring to the church!

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