They were asked to show that which cannot always be seen — one’s relationship to a higher power.
So one artist wove a loose basket out of wire, its many strands and twists signifying a journey rooted in Judaism.
Another artist burned the image of a woman, eyes heavenward, into a piece of birch wood, painted it bright colors and called it “Blind Faith.”
A third submitted a large geometric design of circles that were all white except one that was red. He called it “Alone,” which is exactly how he felt years ago when he announced his disbelief. He is an atheist.
A unique exhibition called “Envisioning Spirituality” at Hot Shops offers a window into the spiritual lives of 32 artists. It opened Dec. 1, during Hanukkah, and continues after Christmas, through Sunday.
Omaha artist Dorothy Tuma curated the exhibition, which includes a black-and-white photograph she took of snow-covered trees at Walnut Grove Park in Millard.
The image evokes stillness and calm — the characteristics Tuma says are necessary for her own spirituality and for her creative process.
“You create from the quiet,” she said.
You also can create when you’re not sick, when you’re not lying in a hospital battling infection as she was several years ago.
Tuma, now 69, had fallen ill in 2007. A severe infection spread through her body and hit her brain. She suffered memory loss and might have died had the infection continued. It took a year for her to recover.
As she slowly got better, Tuma thought of a theme that consciously — and sometimes subconsciously — entered her work. Tuma is Catholic and had worked for Catholic institutions. She took pictures for the Catholic Voice, assisted on the annual Cathedral Arts Project flower festival and served as principal photographer for the major renovation of St. Cecilia Cathedral. Her photos appear in a 2005 book about the cathedral called “The Beauty of Thy House.”
People would tell her that everything she created had a religious element, and she’d shrug and say something like: Yeah. That’s who I am.
But it made her wonder where inspiration lies for others, especially those of other faiths.
“I wanted to ask more people,” Tuma said. “Maybe other people would like to examine their center of creativity and name it.”
Tuma wondered what would happen if she asked explicitly for works dealing with spirituality. She decided to sponsor a show and called Project Interfaith, a local nonprofit that seeks to build bridges between people of different faith backgrounds, to help her solicit submissions.
She got 125 pieces from 52 artists. Tuma and Omaha painter and printmaker Lori Elliott-Bartle chose 32 pieces. They made their selections, in part, because of connections they saw between various pieces.
As you might expect, each work in the collection is as different as the artist. And takes on the subject of spirituality range from the literal — a gold-painted Virgin Mary, a mixed-media Jonah and the Whale, a painting of Hindu god Ganesh — to the very figurative.
Take a sculpture called “Conscience.” The red-painted metal shape standing 3 feet off the ground is a human shoulder blade. Inside the shoulder blade are black and white balls. The shoulder represents how the artist, a self-described skeptic, bore the weight of questioning his conservative religious upbringing. The balls represent the various scenarios that require the conscience to act.
Then there’s “My Most Important Self-Portrait Yet #1 (my anxiety is real my gender is constructed).” This artist sewed a photograph of himself onto the corner of an otherwise blank piece of paper. He used red thread and left the still-attached needle dangling.
“I currently don’t identify spiritually,” he wrote in an explainer that runs with the exhibition. “I don’t think there exists a term that truly describes my beliefs.”
The exhibition includes nuanced works that are neither overtly religious nor overtly anti-religious.
One work, called “Passage,” features a red circle painted atop a yellow background and flanked by heavy brown rectangles.
“Are those doors?” I asked Elliott-Bartle, the artist who painted it.
She said yes and then choked up. Her stepfather, to whom she was very close, had died. Elliott-Bartle, an agnostic, said she wanted to express her grief, express the comfort that our loved ones give us.
“The things I was working on felt real trite and unimportant,” she said. “I wanted to try to paint what I was feeling and thinking about.”
Tuma saw something in “Passage.”
“Can I tell you what I see?” she asked. “I see the light beyond.”
The three of us walked around the gallery, poring over the works and reading the artist statements.
Here was a photograph of the Dome of the Rock, a stunning and contested piece of architecture in Jerusalem.
Here was a mixed-medium sculpture of the city of Jerusalem created by an artist who used to live there. The miniature city rotates. Quotes from Scripture are embedded, and this one from the Book of Psalms is an instruction for the viewer: “Walk about Zion, go around her, count her towers, consider well her ramparts, view her citadels, that you may tell of them to the next generation.”
Then, in the center of the room, was a giant, rusted metal sculpture holding colorful flags, on which prayers had been written.
The piece was a Christian take on the ancient Eastern practice of hanging small flags with symbols or prayers outside. The flags were meant to wave in the wind, sending prayers through the cosmos.
It was a fitting symbol for what Tuma is trying to do.
Each piece of art, revealing the thoughts and desires of the artist, is a prayer of sorts. These prayers hang here for you to see and experience and carry on.