Friday 9 June 2017

Faith & Creativity: Susan Mulder

Welcome to the first in a new series on Faith and Creativity. Let me introduce you to Susan Mulder who I met on a retreat in Fremont, Ohio earlier this year.

An award winning, classically trained artist, Susan works in multiple media including oils, sculpture, installation and encaustics. After receiving her MFA in painting from Kendall College of Art and Design, Susan has served as an executive director for an arts organization, taught at the collegiate level, designed and led workshops for regional arts organizations, colleges and conferences and has spoken at national conferences on arts related topics including arts and entrepreneurship and religion/spirituality in art. She currently resides in Western Michigan with her husband and enjoys spending time with her growing family, reading, writing and creating.
Anomoly, 2017, 60"h x 40"w, oil & mixed media on linen

Susan Mulder: Christian Art
If you ever want to have an awkward conversation with an artist, bring up “Christian Art”. I don’t think I have ever had one that wasn’t filled with strong opinions on either side-there seems to be no middle ground. This may have to do with the fact that it is incredibly difficult to nail down what the term “Christian Art” means. Some believe it is religious art, some see it as spiritual art; but one thing we can all agree on is that it is difficult to agree.

I’ll begin by defining the terms religious and spiritual, as I will use them, because I believe there is a distinct difference in their application in regards to the nature of art. Religious represents a more didactic turn in which the work exhibits characteristics of ‘telling’. It is obvious in it presentation and leaves little room for interpretation on the viewers part. A good example would be images of the crucifixion, biblical stories and almost any image that contains a visage of Christ. Spiritual, on the other hand, is more enigmatic. The content is less direct and may be parabolic in nature, distinctly indiscernible as specifically spiritual in nature and can serve as an extension of the artists spiritual inclinations.

How this applies in my own work has been a journey. Long before I had any formal training I had an idealistic viewpoint when it came to the role of religion/spirituality in art. As an artist and a Christian I believed that I was called to be deliberate in my choice of subject matter and have a moral punch line for each piece. I worked with my church to bring about a better understanding for the role an artist could play-besides merely watering plants-in both the worship space and the worship experience. While this fed my creative nature it left me feeling constrained and, at times, not much more than a propagandist for leadership. In my attempts to create ‘good Christian art’ I was operating under the misnomer of what, I thought at the time, Christian art should be.

When I returned to complete my degrees I walked away from any idea of creating work with religious or spiritual implications. I was heavily vested in conceptual interpretations and often imbued my work with densely layered philosophical underpinnings-which I loved. I still love deeply hidden meanings in my work but the difference now is that the meaning really only applies to what happens in the creation process-which I’ll touch on in a moment. I have an undergraduate and graduate degree in painting and also work with installation, sculpture and dabbled in performance work. While working on my undergraduate degree I undertook a course of study that led me down the path of researching religion and spirituality that carried through into my graduate work. I was fortunate to have a professor who supported me (she was an art history prof.) and allowed me to spend a concentrated course of independent study that included seminary courses at an outside institution and the production of a lengthy thesis on the role of religion and spirituality within the context of contemporary art.
Pour Some Sugar on Me, 2011, 72" x 72", oil, mixed media on canvas

Following the completion of my MFA my art has undergone several permutations and, at one point, the complete suspension of any work at all. I walked away from creating for a period of about three years because I could find no reason to continue to paint. It wasn’t an existential crisis of any sort it was in response to a fresh calling to let go of everything. My personal life, my work and my spiritual life were in a season of deep transitions and when I finally went back to my work I found that the old ways of creating were of no use to me. Concept felt empty and I was forced to reevaluate what it meant for me to create.

The work I now began felt directionless but more necessary than what I had previously done. I discovered that when I was in my studio I entered into a space where I was finding a deeper expression than I had previously known. It was as if all of the training I had undergone had peeled off and I was painting from a place that lacked a definitive explanation. I couldn’t tell you the why of it, I only knew it was what I was supposed to do. That doesn’t mean I erased what I had learned-I still have a conceptual foundation based on ideas that have clung to my work all along-I just didn’t rely on knowledge but more on spirit. My work became more intuitive, abstract and, ultimately, satisfying.

It also became more spiritual. Not in the physical manifestation itself but in its creation. In my studio I encountered a kind of communication with God than I could not find anywhere else. As I worked, I found I would ease into a sense of suspended time-a kairos. I poured out my frustrations, my prayers and soul longings without the use of words. Would I call the work I am doing now ‘good’ within the context of the contemporary arts culture? Probably not. This said, the work I do now is infinitely more valuable to me as a person-it possesses meaning and purpose in a way my previous work did not.

My understanding and appreciation of the role of religion and spirituality has evolved. I use to argue the intrinsic necessity in application of both within the context of the contemporary art world. Through the experience of how my own development as an artist has transpired, I have come to value one over the other. The larger argument of religion and spirituality in art has roots that date back all the way to the reformation but I will speak only from where I stand at this point. My work itself is neither Christian nor non-Christian. It is certainly not religious but could be categorized as more spiritual - but, being abstract it can be argued that it is neither. It possesses qualities that only express themselves through individual interpretations. No one comes to a work of art without bringing their own experiential narratives to the interpretation process and, therefore, the work will be defined not by whatever intent I put into it but rather what they bring to it themselves.
Bookend, 2017, 24" x 24", oil & mixed media on carft fabric

Thank you very much Susan for your contribution to our discussion on Faith and Creativity.  Thank you for telling us about your experiences and your thought processes in creating your art.

Next time: A guest post from Valerie Sjodin


  1. I love the change. The evolution into something not necessarily "perfect" but true to who you are shows a greater understanding of who God wants you to be. Love your work!

  2. Wow! Wonderful article. Many good thoughts. I also believe my art is a form of worship.


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