Because my research deals with the relationship of art to theological issues regarding place and space, I come across a lot of artists who integrate issues of place and spirituality into their work. In this post, I wanted to introduce you to the work of Deborah Haynes and reflect on some of the issues she brings up in regard to place, art, and spirituality.
“In my view, place in an ontological category. It helps us define ourselves and our existence. Place tells us who and what we are in relation to where we are. For me, this is not only a philosophical point, but an artistic and religious insight as well.”
By defining place as an ontological category, Haynes is asserting that in order to be, we have to be somewhere. We are physical creatures that exist in physical places. Because of this necessary connection, places inform everything we are. We can’t know ourselves except in relation to place. This philosophy of place undergirds her entire way of thinking, including her religious understanding of the material world and the way she engages with it through her art.
Most of her work involves carving words onto large stone slabs and placing them in the natural environment. For instance, [This] Place is a five-foot tall standing stone placed on her own property that explores the idea of “becoming native to this place,” an idea she borrows from the agrarian writer Wes Jackson. By creating such a prominent and permanent addition to the landscape, Haynes reflects her submission to it, her desire to just be there and become a part of it.
While [This] Place reflects her general attachment to the place, some other stone works engage specifically with what it means to interact with the landscape in an artistic way. In Vocatio, a small stone that sits at the entrance to her medicinal garden, Haynes explores what it means for an artist to be “called.” For her, a large part of this involves reconciliation with the material world. She says:
“For some artists, developing a sense of vocation may mean moving away from the immortal artifact and toward transient processes. But to treat art as an activity that establishes new relationships in this mysterious context of life, especially to treat artistic practice as a connection between one’s spirituality and the land: this is what it means to speak of vocatio.”
Many of her artworks are made for her own spiritual contemplation, placed around a perambulatory path on her property in Colorado. She describes the physical process of carving the stone as a spiritual matter for her. The placement of the stone and returning to it daily on her walks around her property help structure a continued spiritual and aesthetic practice centered around place. These walks themselves become both artistic and spiritual as she gets to know the land better each day. She alters the landscape with her artwork and gardens, and contemplates the presence of God she sees imbuing all of creation. “My art is the visual and verbal narrative of this land, including the practices I undertake each day. My life is my art.” By understanding her daily life practice and relationship to place in artistic terms, she is saying something about the nature of human relationship to the material world. We are all makers; we are all makers of place. And this insight, as she said earlier, is both artistic and religious.
So what can we learn from Haynes’ description of her relationship to place through art? Is the way we live in relation to physical places an artistic matter as well as a spiritual one? How should we understand the spiritual nature of our engagement with the land? If you are a practicing artist, how might a deepened relationship to place affect your work?