“I have a mantra that all art is sacred,” says artist Emily Ann Pothast. “If you’re looking at something and you can’t figure out whether or not it’s sacred, then I wouldn’t call it art.”
Pothast’s new multimedia art exhibit, “Drawing God from Direct Observation,” explores the human creative practice as a function of spirituality and devotional inquiry. The exhibit, which opened this past weekend at Hedreen Gallery, grew out of a visiting artist lecture Pothast gave at Portland State University last spring.
The exhibit explores the relationship between art and spirituality through drawings, video art, music videos of Pothast’s band and an experiential library lounge filled with books and objects from her own home.
“I always want to create a little oasis away from thinking about art as an art market or commercial art galleries, but thinking about art as an experience that is transformative and that experience being inherently unquantifiable and notoriously difficult to monetize,” she said.
Though Pothast earned her MFA in printmaking from the University of Washington in 2005, she has since branched out into other mediums such as music and video. For her, visual art and music are deeply interconnected.
Pothast is the front woman for two music projects: Hair and Space Museum, a conceptual sound art video installation, and Midday Veil, a six-piece rock band with improvisational currents and some psychedelic rock elements.
“There’s an emphasis on ritual and performance and sometimes video,” she said of Midday Veil. “It’s kind of an immersive experience.”
This notion of the experience, and how our perception structures our experience, is a common theme explored in all of Pothast’s art.
“When something is spiritual for me, what I mean by that is it transcends the sum of its parts,” Pothast said. “There are all these things that could be seen in one context as completely ordinary, but because the experience is holy then the objects take on an aura of holiness or specialness.”
Pothast was raised Lutheran and is deeply interested in medieval and early Renaissance Christian and European art. But rather than discussing any one specific religion, her exhibit explores how artists throughout history have engaged with God and the infinite through their own individual experience and spiritual practice—hence the title, “Drawing God from Direct Observation.”
“The title is kind of facetious because part of what we think about as God is the thing that you can’t see or that you can’t prove—you have to take on faith,” she said. “The kind of process I’m talking about when I’m talking about God is something that doesn’t require faith—it just requires careful observation.”
In other words, we can see our relationship to eternity and the unfolding of the universe happening all around us.
“Seeing God is a misnomer,” said art and visual theology professor Fr. Tom Lucas, S.J. “It’s an experience of God. Very few people have visions. I’ve never seen God, but I’ve had deep experiences of the divine present in my life. A lot of people have that experience of the mysterious, beautiful, ineffable.”
For many artists, the human creative practice and the sacred are inseparable.
“Art and religious belief, and this reaching out for something bigger, are always interconnected,” Lucas said.
Pothast noted that geography and language have historically played a huge role in art and spiritual practice, but in our contemporary culture we have become divorced from creating within that context.
“There’s a certain reclamation of the sacred that maybe we as contemporary people can wrest back from the imperialist culture that we’ve created for ourselves where everything’s plastic and everything’s choking the ocean,” she said. “The culture we’re creating is actually really self-destructive; the things that we call creation are our own destruction. There’s a certain way to pull back from that and turn inward into a practice that resembles more closely a traditional spiritual past where you think about your actions in the world and your relationship with material culture and what you’re making and why.”
If we can return to that deep, indigenous root of human spiritual practice, then our art is truly sacred. And as humans, all of us are capable of creating and partaking in sacred art—we just have to be open to the experience.
“Art for most of human history has been connected in a fundamentally inseparable way from religion, from spiritual practice, and yet art history kind of exists in this place where we look at things dispassionately,” Pothast said. “We’re like scientists and we move outside of it and we don’t get inside the essence of that hot, subjective experience of the All. If I can occasion an ecstatic experience of the All,” she laughed, “That would be a good goal.”
“Drawing God from Direct Observation” is on display in Hedreen Gallery at the Lee Center for the Arts through April 4.
Additional reporting by Peter Wachsmith.