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Roxane B. Salonen, Special to The Forum , Published March 29 2013

Art, faith pairing is often transformational

FARGO – Having grown up in a devout Christian home, Karin Larson decided after high school that she’d had her fill of faith.

So when she entered Concordia College to study dietetics, she let that part of her life “mellow,” placing it on the backburner.

Eventually becoming interested in nutrition and exercise, she graduated and worked for a time in that field before going back to school to pursue her first love, art.

It was during this return to school, while on an art-history trip in Italy, that Karin experienced a prompting of the soul.

“We visited Rome and Florence and a couple other villas and cities along the way, and it was my encounter in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica where I was just enamored and feeling emotions that were beyond words,” she said. “I felt compelled to fall to the floor and cry. I was totally in awe.”

Though it would take years for her to understand the full significance of this experience, the emotion-filled moment became one to which she would return frequently, and proved significant in her faith journey.

Immediately, she knew she’d rediscovered her life’s calling through art.

“I realized that when art and architecture is portrayed in truth and beauty, it can captivate and touch the soul beyond words,” she said. “For me, in that moment there was a connection with truth and beauty that inspired me to want to know more about the power of art.”

Her search led to other questions – about the artists behind the paintings, as well as the connection between art and beauty, and consequently, beauty and truth.

As she further pursued those questions, the answers that came led her squarely back to Christ.

Currently, Karin works as a religion and art teacher at Fargo’s Sullivan Middle School, where she tries to ignite a love for art and faith in her young students.

Her mother, Vicki Larson, along with friend Doreen Kennelly, works as a co-director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church, Fargo.

The two have organized several events at their parish centering on the confluence of art and faith, including a recent Lenten gathering that included music and a meditation on Rembrandt’s final piece – a painted depiction of the well-known biblical story, The Prodigal Son.

Several happenings inspired the idea, Doreen said, including praying lectio divina, Latin for “divine reading,” a meditation on Sacred Scripture. She also was influenced by the book, “Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation,” by Josef Pieper.

In the book’s preface, Pieper writes of his intentions to clarify “that music, the fine arts, poetry – anything that festively raises up the human existence and thereby constitutes its true riches – all derive their life from a hidden root;” one “turned toward God and the world so as to affirm them.”

In other words, said Doreen, “God is in all that he’s given us, and particularly he’s present in truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s at the heart of it all.”

“And art that reflects that draws us to God,” Vicki said.

“I think part of this exercise is helping people to become aware of when their hearts are moved,” Doreen said. “Because of the way we live our lives, we don’t often take time to notice that, and that’s where God speaks to us – in the recesses of our heart.”

Choosing Rembrandt’s last painting as a Lenten reflection was purposeful.

“At the heart of Lent is God’s desire for us to know how much he loves us,” Doreen said. “The Parable of the Prodigal Son is in every cycle of the church year, so we’re very familiar with it, but the story also inspired Rembrandt.”

She said the event was intended “to facilitate an opportunity, using art and music, for people to have an encounter with God and come to know more deeply his love and mercy.”

As artists, what we create reflects our interior, according to Vicki. One artist she knows, after a conversion experience, saw a direct correlation to this change of soul in his work. “He realized he wasn’t depicting beauty before and he desired to reflect God more in his art,” she said. “When you reflect God, it will always be beautiful.”

That doesn’t mean art must always be cheery, they agreed. But even more somber renderings, like the crucifix or pieta, contain beauty within.

Thankfully, one doesn’t have to be a formally trained artist to benefit from and appreciate art or art-focused events such as those they’ve organized.

“God created us as sensual beings. That’s how he communicates to us,” Doreen said. “Art also can be very healing, both for the artist who creates it and those who experience it.”

Readers can reach Roxane B. Salonen at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com