Sumi Painting, Chi, Creativity and the Spirit


In the past year or two I have been digging into my artistic side by taking watercolor classes. Last fall, I signed up for a workshop called “Sumi and Soul” by Yuming Zhu, a professional artist who was born in China and currently lives in Seattle, Washington. I received so much from the experience that I signed up for another two-day workshop this spring with the same teacher.

Artist Yuming Zhu at Sumi painting workshop, 2011, Bloomington, MN--photo by Julie McCarty

Painting in the Chinese or Japanese way is quite different from the European style. In sumi painting, one holds the brush differently, and uses materials that more closely resemble ink and tissue paper than oils and canvas. Rather than painting with just your hand or arm, it is more as if your whole body is painting, from your own “center of gravity” someplace deep in your body. The philosophical or spiritual underpinnings are different as well, something the teacher mentioned in a gentle way, here and there, without harping or preaching.

Julie trying out Sumi painting at Yuming Zhu's workshop at the Bloomington Art Center in Minnesota--2011

My experience of the workshops with Yuming was very positive. As a writer, I am often too tense or perfectionist, which blocks the flow of words onto the paper. The Sumi workshop helped me to view my writing in a different way, to open up myself to letting the creativity flow more freely without fear of making “mistakes.” This fear is a real block to creativity, and “Mary Francis” (what I call the “good little Catholic girl” inside me) needs to let go of these fears.

 One of the many things I learned about in this workshop was the Chinese concept of chi, a word that means something like “energy” or “life force” in English. Here’s what says about chi:

Ch’i (also spelled Chi or Qi) is a fundamental concept in Chinese philosophy and culture. Found in Chinese traditional religion but especially Taoism, Ch’i literally means “air” or “breath,” but as a concept it refers to the energy flow or life force that is said to pervade all things. (Read more here or also here.)

On the second day of Yuming Zhu's workshop, students arrived with energy--photo by Julie McCarty, 2011

The concept of chi intrigues me. Because I follow Christ, the idea of chi made me think of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit moves, creates, and breathes in us. In fact, in the original bible languages, the word “spirit” is the same is the word “breath.” It was “spirit” that God “breathed” into the first human in one biblical Creation story.

Too often, Christians think of God as rigid, stable, unchanging–and I’m sure there is certainly the element of stability and permanence in the best sense in the Divine Being we Westerners call “God.” I don’t deny that truth. However, on the other hand, the Spirit is called Creator Spiritus, the divine Spirit that Genesis tells us “hovered over the waters” during the creation of the cosmos. This Spirit of God is alive, dynamic, moving, active. Jesus compared the Spirit to the wind: you do not see it, or where it is going, but you know it it there.
Yuming Zhu's painting demo, Bloomington Art Center workshop, Spring, 2011--photo by Julie McCarty
I wonder what would happen if Christians of today took Creator Spirit seriously, that person of God known for movement, action, creativity, and breath. Would the Creative Spirit bring about something new? Something beautiful? Something prophetic, that is revealing truth and compassion?

I wonder, dear reader, what good things might the chi within you or me, our inner energy, want to create today? What newness of life might the Spirit of God want us to bring to birth this week, this year? How might we live the Resurrection of Christ, that image of energy, bursting out of the tomb, right here, right now in this moment?

Note: To view artwork by Yuming Zhu or find workshops, visit his website  or on Facebook,

Praying with “Migrant Mother” using Visio Divina

On the website Patheos, Presbyterian minister Tim Mooney writes about a prayer form called Visio Divina, a way of praying with sacred art or other images. Visio divina (“divine seeing”) models itself after lectio divina (“divine reading”), that time-honored Christian way of thoughtfully meditating on Scripture. (Read more about visio divina here.)

 Artwork and religious symbols often draw me into a quiet, reflective zone, so I decided to give visio divina a try and share my experience here at the Spiritual Drawing Board. Just so I wouldn’t have too many preconceived ideas, I looked for an image not usually found in churches, and decided upon Dorothea Lange’s 1936 photograph called “Migrant Mother.”

 Experiencing Visio Divina

As the article on visio divina recommended, I set aside 20-30 minutes for the process. After asking the Holy Spirit to guide my prayer, I spent a little time just observing the various parts of the picture:

  • The woman’s sleeve is tattered. She has no make-up and there are wrinkles near her eyes.
  • Why do the children hide their faces? Are they ashamed to be seen?
  • The baby on her lap is wrapped in an oversize garment and has dirt on his or her face.

 The woman looks to be 40-something, but I know from my reading that her name is Florence Owens Thompson, 32, married mother of seven children. In this photo, taken during the Great Depression, she is sitting in a three-sided lean-to canvas tent. (View other pictures taken that day here. )

These facts make me think about the economy of today and people who suffer around the world, especially the homeless, many of whom are children. I imagine the faces of other migrant women of various races and ethnicities. Would I feel the same empathy for each of them as I feel for the woman in the picture?

 After praying for the grace to love all people with equal intensity, I focus my attention back on the picture once again. The woman’s expression haunts me. She may be worried, but she is determined. I think she is going to do whatever it takes to feed her children. With her hand placed under her chin, she reminds me of Rodin’s bronze sculpture The Thinker. Yes, I decide, she is indeed a strong woman, a brave woman, dead set on caring for her hungry children.

 I wonder, did Mary, the mother of Jesus, ever look so strong and determined? She, too, was a “migrant mother,” on the move with Joseph, first traveling as a pregnant woman to Bethlehem, then fleeing to Egypt to save her child from death, and some years later to Nazareth. Did the Holy Family ever experience hunger pangs? Surely Mary must have felt this same fierce love and deep resolve to do whatever was necessary to care for her Child.  

 Why have I never seen this look of strength and determination on the face of Mary in statues or paintings? Wouldn’t Mary have been radically committed to do all in her power to fulfill God’s will? Wouldn’t her love of God have been strong? Are these characteristics of Mary portrayed in sacred art but I just didn’t notice?

 Come to think of it, wouldn’t God have the same type of parental concern for us? Could we imagine the Divine Face looking something like this woman, in terms of her strength and determination? Doesn’t God love us as much—no even more—than the very best of mothers?

Observing the Results

Sometimes we think of Scripture as comforting, but the Word of God also challenges us to become more like Christ. I think the prayer form visio divina has the same potential. After the above prayer time, I observed myself feeling less whiney about my own inconveniences and more grateful. I found myself intentionally smiling at people who look “different” from me. And, when writing this post, I recalled that the Hosea 13:8 compares God to a mother bear, who expresses fierceness if her cubs are threatened or taken away. 

Spiritual Aerobics –Try visio divina yourself, using whatever image or artwork you like. Many musuems have artwork available online. For visio divina directions, click here.