On Belonging and the Via Affirmativa Conference

CC image by Nick Veitch

I hate traveling on four and a half hours of sleep, yet somehow the thought of packing always takes longer than the actual packing itself. Last weekend was no exception, and I traveled to a conference in Colorado Springs with more coffee than sleep in my system and a vague idea of what I could expect.

My boss has told me about Via Affirmativa for two years now, saying each time that it’s wonderfully affirming, all about (somewhat eclectic) artists who love Jesus coming together to explore the concept of truth wrapped in beauty and goodness. Each time, she’s invited me, but each time there was an excuse. This year, I finally said yes, and I wanted to share my thoughts on it with you all.

CC image by Nick Veitch

CC image by Nick Veitch

The theme was Belonging. There’s no pretty way to show it in a blog, but they split up the word so that longing was on its own, in its own font. The idea is that as artists, we all have this longing to belong to something more than ourselves. This can be difficult to make into a reality when your art seems to require isolation. And yet, community is in all of us. And though I may have inwardly raised my eyebrows a bit at the play on words, the concept appealed to me.

The weekend was a whirlwind of activity. I met so many people, heard so many concepts that I probably knew before but spoke to me in a new way. And I am still having a hard time sorting through everything in my brain. I’ve never been so inspired by a conference that seamlessly talks about art, God, the Bible, and our place of influence in the world.

Part of what I heard about belonging is the need to be present to the other artists around us, approaching them with a constant humility. What can happen when we are collaborating with someone is that we get so caught up in doing our part well or our way that we stop truly listening and responding to the artist in front of us.

I write with Rachelle, and so I know this concept already, and still I can pick out times where I was so focused on my part or my character that I completely neglected hers. Even if you write by yourself or draw or paint or whatever, this concept of being present in the moment to others is key. What happens when someone critiques your work? Instead of defending yourself or attacking the critic, respond with humility. Approach each person with the mindset that he or she has something to offer the world, to offer you, if only you would really stop and listen and be in the moment.

Another part of belonging is looking wider. I always thought in terms of going deeper within specific crafts, that I should become better and better at writing fantasy and create a community of people who get better and better at writing fantasy. And I still believe that has its place, but I don’t belong to a community of just fantasy writers or even other writers. I belong to community of everyone who does art: painters, sketchers, musicians, sculptors, photographers, film makers, dancers, and more. There is value in each art form, and we can all learn from each other and be inspired by each other. It’s wider than Embers Igniting can hope to print.

CC image by Seb

CC image by Seb

One of the coolest things to see was collaborative arts or pieces that dialogued together. A pianist and a dancer did an improv performance for us; first the pianist played what he wanted off the top of his head and the dancer matched her movement to the music. Halfway through, they switched and she led with her movement and he matched the music to her. They had never practiced this before, but it seemed so seamless; I couldn’t even tell when the switch happened. It was exciting to see two artists of different art forms truly be so present to each other in the moment and create something together.

All throughout the weekend things like this happened, both on stage and off, opening up to each other, sharing art even if it wasn’t a collaborative process. People who had never done improv performed for us after a workshop. We watched a video about an installation art piece called The Scarlet Cord, which was created to bring child sex trafficking to light. A dance was included in the video, and both were powerful, and another two pieces were crafted in response. There was a documentary about the same topic.

An artist painted a live piece throughout an evening of performances. A Jewish Christian got up to do comedic beat poetry (I have no idea how else to describe it), and a trumpeter added improv jazz in between. A dancer, an opera singer, a violinist, and a pianist performed a collaborative piece together. Later, they made the keynote speaker get up and do improv on the spot even though he had never done so (and he did it!).

Artists brought their children or young relatives, so we had all sorts of ages represented. Two sixteen-year-old photographers, instead of competing or fostering jealousy, worked together to create a piece everyone got to see. They spent their time learning from each other and from other artists. And I will never forget them.

CC image by Robbie Biller

CC image by Robbie Biller

I’ve been to other conferences before, for writers mainly, searching for a community but selfishly wanting to be at the top of it. At Via, I found a community, but there was no room for competition. We were bonded from the beginning by Jesus and the desire to create and do something good for him back where we live. When you emphasize that similarity, competition fades away and possibilities open up. We sharpen each other, we affirm each other’s work, we push each other to think of how we can shape our communities right where we are with who we are.

The last night of the conference, I stood by myself and watched the community interact around me, focusing in and out of each conversation. I thought of them as little pools of creativity at first, but realized afterward it was closer to fireworks, because I could see connections popping, the ideas forming, worlds opening loudly to possibility as they engaged. And I have never felt so at ease by myself at a conference. I knew that I could join any conversation and be welcome or that I could sit and listen and not wonder what people thought of me. I don’t wish to bottle many feelings to save for later, but that moment would be one. That feeling of stimulating creativity and peace was what the conference boiled down to me. And maybe that’s what it feels like to be affirmed.

I have to admit I have a small fear. Somehow I swam this ocean of creativity and beauty and goodness with so many people. I learned so many names and still felt that there were fifty more to learn. I hope that the deeper I go back into everyday life and the further I get from the ocean, that I do not forget the feel of it on my skin. I hope the same for everyone I met. If you read this and you’re from the conference, feel free to contact me. Let’s celebrate a community of artists who love Jesus and want to represent him in a real way. Let’s welcome other artists and art appreciators in, and let’s include the world too when they see beauty and want a taste.

By Tracy Buckler