Women artists on spirituality at InterFaith Works’ Rose Forum

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 10/08/09More articles
(“Immoveable Spot” © Susan Roth, used with permission.)

In 2002, when Dorothy Rose passed away, InterFaith Works decided to remember her with an annual forum named in her honor. For more than 20 years (she retired in 1998), Rose was executive director of what was first called the InterReligious Council of Central New York, guiding it from a small volunteer group to an independent agency that serves thousands through an array of service ministry programs: the Community-wide Dialogue Circles to End Racism, Covenant Housing, Refugee Resettlement, Senior Companion and Spiritual Care.

The Rose Forum is a fund-raiser event for InterFaith Works with a different topic and hosting congregation each year. May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society hosted this year’s Rose Forum on September 29th. Scheduled at 5:00 PM so that the audience could come directly from work, the event nearly filled May Memorial’s sanctuary, and the crowd seemed quite content to stay afterward for a dessert reception despite the nasty weather.

The Newhouse School’s Barbara Fought, who has moderated several past Rose Forums, guided a conversation among Canestota-based Post-Abstract Expressionist painter Susan Roth, letterpress paper Islamic designer Cjala Surratt, and pianist and choral composer Crystal LaPoint. Novelist Donna Woolfolk Cross was unable to be there as planned since she was traveling to the Rome Film Festival for the premiere last Friday of the screen version of her “Pope Joan.” But she did send the movie’s trailer; this was the first time it’s screened publically in the U.S., though it’s now available in its German version with English subtitles on YouTube (see below).

Besides the movie trailer screening, the Syracuse Symphony Pops Choral Ensemble also performed “The Song I Seek,” with music and lyrics by LaPoint. Roth brought several paintings to the event and she has posted an annotated selection of paintings with spiritual themes on Flickr during preparation for this event at flickr.com/photos/dhughto/sets/72157622275379713/.

Fought posed a series of questions to the artists regarding the connection between art and spirit, the request to share a spiritual experience, on the difficulty of getting started, on the choice of art works each had brought, on the creative process and whether it’s lonely and at what point the process results in enjoyment. On first entering, audience members had an opportunity to take index cards to write questions for what was a fairly brief Q&A at the end of the moderated conversation. Fought chose three questions, about art appreciation in the culture, the role of editing, and a query about what age each artist was when she first realized her calling.

It’s clear that the artists were chosen in part to fulfill diversity of faith (Roth is Jewish though she pulls from a range of faith traditions, Surratt Muslim, LaPoint Protestant – and Cross would have provided a Catholic representative), art forms (visual arts, music and text) and even ethnicity. But the commonalities emerged with the panelists’ responses to Fought’s request that each “share a spiritual experience.” Each cast that in terms of the practice of her art and the act of beginning. Roth spoke of the fear of facing the empty canvas – “That moment is prayerful” – and the gratitude she feels daily for the opportunity. Surratt as well compared this to prayer, and LaPointe noted, “That little moment of bliss after a successful performance is short-lived, replaced with panic when you sit down again.” Each discussed the solitary nature of their work, its aim for connection and its trait of always beginning anew.

Dorothy Rose’s advocacy ranged far and wide, so it makes some sense that an annual event honoring her contributions would try to cover all the bases, so to speak, by highlighting a different topic each time. Nevertheless, this evening left me hoping that InterFaith Works might consider repeating this year’s topic, which is so amenable to deep consideration of the sources and reaches of art and how it sustains our connection to “the good.” So much recent public discussion of art centers on its more instrumental uses for development and economic recovery. It’s necessary to make this case in a recession, and fine to remind policy-makers that artists need to make a living, that research proves that art in school raises tests scores across the board and decreases violence, and that art as product is a more significant part of the economy than they may assume. But forums like this one make a contribution of a different order. In appreciation of that potential – and since the audience was clearly so happy to be there and stay a while – the formatting might run a little less like a tight ship next year. Perhaps the Q & A at the end could allow for live, un-vetted questions. And perhaps that audience might include some invited leading figures on whatever the topic happens to be so that the conversation is an event for that community as well as the InterFaith Works community.

Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

TAGS: Interfaith Works, Susan Roth, Donna Woolfolk Cross, Cjala Surratt, Crystal LaPoint, Pope Joan, Dorothy Rose, Barbara Fought
EDITION: The Eagle

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