Bette Dickinson is a visual artist with a passion for merging her art and faith. This week’s interview explores how she does it with practical advice on how to understand failure and discover the freedom to create!
Bette Dickinson is creative communicator based in Traverse City, Michigan with her husband and two boys. Her paintings, writing, and speaking awakens the soul through beauty and wonder. In her work, she facilitates a space for her audience to experience God through visual parables of the spiritual journey. Whatever subject matter she chooses, she seeks to unveil the eternal realm, allowing the viewer to ponder the unseen.
Dickinson received her Bachelors of Art from Western Michigan University, and her Masters of Divinity from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. She is also ordained in the Reformed Church in America and currently serves with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Spiritual Formation, developing creative resources for the soul. She is also a soon to be published author with InterVarsity Press with her first book Making Room in Advent: 25 Devotions for a Season of Wonder which include her paintings and writing on Luke 1-2.
A: So thank you so much, Bette, for joining us today. I’m really excited to learn more about who you are as an artist and what you do. So I figure we can actually just start there. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do as an artist, kind of, what all of that entails?
B: Yeah, thanks Aubrey! It’s an honor to be here and a part of this. So the kind of art that I do is mostly painting, but it’s also linked in the work of spiritual formation. So I’m on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as an assistant director of spiritual formation and some of the work that I do in my job with InterVarsity but also on the side and how they merge together is actually creating paintings that help people lead them deeper into the presence of Jesus and help them grow in their spiritual formation. So I love thinking about the spiritual journey and ways that we can convey that in art and lead people, almost like visual parables of the spiritual journey for them to kind of enter into and kind of gain traction on their spiritual experience.
A: I love that so much. How did you develop that idea? How did this come about?
B: You know, I…in college, I would often in my prayer times have images that God would give me for my own spiritual life, metaphors like a seed growing under the soil or a ship that’s been kind of shipwrecked and God stripping that away, or in the Scriptures I just really loved Jesus’s images for the spiritual life. And so, kind of halfway through my career with InterVarsity I felt God tell me, “I’ve given you these images of the spiritual journey. Now I want you to actually paint them and invite people into that journey with you because it translates to other people’s spiritual lives, as well.”
A: Yeah so did you study painting in school? Have you always been a painter? Is this something more recent?
B: Yeah you know, I’ve always been an artist since I was little. I loved to write and paint and when I was in 2nd grade I wanted to be an author and illustrator of children’s books, which…it turns out I’m not too far off. I do a lot of accompanying my writing and painting together, although I typically do it for adults these days.
But I did study, I was an art major in undergrad at Western Michigan University but have always just had a passion for all kinds of arts. I had a hard time deciding between film and creative writing and visual art, and so yeah! That’s just how it’s been in my life.
A: That’s great. So how did InterVarsity and this painting project come together for you?
B: Yeah, you know a big part of it was like I said, I was just kind of on this prayer retreat and just felt like God wanted me to get started on my own, on my own time, and most of the work I create on my own time. But recently I had a sabbatical and God just really challenged me to go even deeper and to see the ways that the ministry work I was doing with InterVarsity and the things I was creating could meld together and to create experiences for people using my art. And so, while on sabbatical I actually even applied for the job I’ve been in now, which has really allowed me to the freedom to kind of work with the resources that I create on my own time and then use them in staff formation with our staff at InterVarsity.
A: Got it. So did someone help you to realize that you were artistically gifted?
B: Yeah, well a couple people come to mind. First was my Uncle Matt who, he still performs as an opera singer and he now teaches at a small college teaching voice. And when he would come to visit I would help him with his lines and he also was gifted in all kinds of art mediums. He taught me how to paint, and I remember we’d go camping or something and we would just paint the trees and the sky and he really helped cultivate that in me. And like I said when I was in 2nd grade I had a teacher who just really encouraged me and said, “you could be an artist or a writer,” and so my parents were very encouraging of those gifts, as well. So thankfully, I know not every artist has this experience, but I’ve been very thankful that I’ve had parents who encouraged that over the course of my life and just saw those gifts in me and called those out, as well.
A: Yeah, and I really love how you’re taking these artistic gifts and actually joining them into this kind of non-artistic job in a way that’s so creative and amazing to me, and I’m wondering, what are the highs and lows of that kind of experience?
B: Yeah you know, it’s interesting because I think for a long time, and I know a lot of Christian artists feel this way, is I kind of dichotomized my ministry life or my faith life over here, and my art life over here. And in various stages of my life God has continued to challenge me to bring them together. And so for a while in InterVarsity I was doing a job that really wasn’t engaging my art very much at all, and kind of looking around to see okay, ministry looks this way and it’s done this way so I better do it this way, and kind of shape-shifting to be whatever environment needed me to be. But it wasn’t until really sabbatical like I said that I think God gave me a lot of creative breakthrough. I went through The Artist’s Way book if you’ve ever read that. That’s an incredible resource that helps artists get unstuck in their creative life.
And I went through that and just felt like God was kind of trying to help me uncover some of those lies or some of the things that were keeping me from creating and keeping me from really owning my voice and owning the contribution that I can give the world as an artist, and just challenge me to start doing it whether or not I had permission. I think a lot of times we wait for permission from somebody, you know, whether it’s a supervisor or it’s a parent or somebody in whatever field we are. We feel like, oh I can’t do this or it’s not legitimate unless somebody asks me to do it or says I can.
And over sabbatical I think God just gave me the freedom just to do it, just to start creating and see what would happen. And that’s when He really started to open the doors, is when I started taking those risks and those steps to create.
A: Yeah. Are there times then when you’ve experienced failure with that? It sounds like this has been really successful overall and really a blessing, and something that God has called you to do. But are there times when you’ve experienced failure? And how have you kind of handled that?
B: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think, you know there was always failure that you experience as an artist when you’re first learning your craft, you know. I remember, I was just thinking about this the other day, creative writing classes where I was testing out some ideas and if you’ve ever been a creative writer in a creative writing workshop you just get slammed by [laughs] your peers sometimes! And I just remember feeling like, oh, they don’t like my work. I can’t, I guess I’m not good at this, or I guess I can’t keep going, and so in some senses I think there were times that I maybe tried to morph to be somebody else’s version of success. Or, rather than going back into my own craft and just making it better, saying okay well, this, my voice, or what I bring, isn’t valuable in this environment so I’m either not gonna offer it or I’m gonna offer it in a different way that they want me to give. And so I think that, unfortunately, that happened for me when I experienced failure. But I think even a bigger aspect for me that I started just talking about, of how I experienced failure was actually the failure to try. And the failure to not actually believe that my gifts have value and that the things that God wants me to create can actually make an impact in people’s lives and so I think more than anything the failure in my life has been the failure of just starting to believe more in what other people want of me and being free from that.
A: Yeah, absolutely. That’s such a powerful idea that if you’re not trying then you’re already kind of failing. You’re failing to do anything at all, which is a failure in and of itself, which isn’t necessarily what we typically think of, so that’s a really really great point. Thank you for sharing that.
B: Yeah! Yeah, I mean, it really depends. Failure is defined by how you define success, right? So, you know, if you define success as performing at the Met or getting your artwork featured in a museum in New York or selling a certain number of prints or whatever then most of the time you’re going to feel like a failure.
But I think if you can define success more as staying true to the work that you feel that God has created you to do, and actually committing to that and staying true to the artist path then failure looks different.
A: Yeah. To that end, do you have any advice for young artists, either kind of visual artists like you or other types of artists who may be struggling with these types of fears of trying at all, or having their work not be appreciated when it comes out? Any of the things that you’ve struggled with – what would you tell them?
B: You know, there’s some advice that Rainer Rilke gives in his book Letters to a Young Poet where he talks about how the best thing that we can do as artists sometimes is actually to look within instead of always looking around to see what are other people doing or am I doing it right compared to them or am I being successful as we talked about as the way the world defines it or as the way that my typical career path defines it. We’re never going to find ourselves and the true voice that we have and the unique contribution that we have to give, and it really requires us…I think true creative work, the best creative work is an overflow of who we are and it’s an overflow of something that is really handcrafted within us, so it’s not going to help us create our best work if we’re always looking around and comparing ourselves to other people or saying, you know, I should be more like this or I should do it this way. But to actually turn inward and to create that space almost in solitude and silence of discovery and allow the work to emerge from within naturally.
A: That’s so great. Well thank you so much, Bette, for your time…
A: …and for all of these words of wisdom and we will talk to you again soon hopefully!
B: Yeah! Thanks, Aubrey!
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