As a lifelong artist, Maggie Nelson began to notice some similarities between her experience in Quaker worship and her approach in the studio.
I have this thing that I do when I’m in the studio, that I think I also should maybe say to myself in worship more often, that is: banishing judgment. I always think of it also with hands because I also draw hands a lot. Just like, “Get out. Go out the door, and I’ll tell you when you can come back in.”
How Quakerism Influences My Artistic Process
My name is Maggie Nelson. I live in Portland, Maine. My pronouns are she/her/hers. I go to Portland Friends Meeting, and I’m an artist, and I also coordinate the young Friends program of New England Yearly Meeting.
I think the turning point that happened for me was when I started learning more about Quakerism. I had been making art my whole life, and I started—I was starting to realize that the way I am… the way that Quakers talk about listening for some inner voice, or the voice of God, or the voice or the divine—that actually feels a lot like something that’s really familiar, which is trying to figure out what to make.
A Focus on Listening
I had thought a lot about how do I set myself up so I can best listen. For me with art, that would look a lot like paring down any sort of elaborate process or materials or anything like that. I just wanted to be able to make marks or images and have there be very few barriers from head to paper or head to canvas or whatever I was working with. And I think about how there’s so many ways to worship. In Quaker worship there’s still a million variables but you have your body and your voice and that’s kind of it. And so we have these limits, but we can go to a million different places. That’s helpful for me to set the boundaries and build this container that I think is really necessary. After that, it’s like, okay, I’ve built the house, and now I just have to step back and let it be filled.
I feel like it’s so common to see people trying to draw who maybe don’t draw that often who are just like, “Oh this is terrible.” And I’m like, “You’ve only drawn, like, two lines.” And they’re like, “Well it’s terrible.”
You can never know where you’ll go if you’re constantly assessing what’s given to you. If you’re constantly sitting in worship and holding what you have in your hands and judging it, then where are you going from there? So I think that process of banishing judgment and seeing what comes out of that is the really spiritual process.
Being Comfortable With Not Knowing
It feels kind of like when you’re in worship and there’s like a million messages. Only after the fact do I try to be like “that person meant that” or “this is how I’m going to relate to what this person said.” I think it’s acknowledging that it’s from God and not from you. It allows me to be like, “I don’t know what it means.”
…which is my favorite thing to say about what I’m making and my favorite thing to hear when kids are making stuff. When I’m like, “Hey, what are you making?” And they’re like, “I don’t know.” And I’m like “Good.”