Spirit Guide

The Canton Museum of Art spotlights works that have been shaped by faith.

The works are bold and personal. In many cases, they are born of struggle, sorrow and the hope that even life’s worst travails ultimately give way to strength and growth.

Beginning Dec. 5 and continuing through March 2, the Canton Museum of Art is spreading that message with two compelling exhibitions. “Sacred Voices” showcases works by 37 artists from around the world who symbolize their personal doctrines in a variety of mediums. A companion exhibit, “Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible,” offers a new look at the sacred tome by way of 160 illustrations, hand-drawn between 2000 and 2011 by scribes and calligraphers spanning the globe.

“In choosing the pieces for [“Sacred Voices”], I was looking for artists whose beliefs are embedded in their creative process and who convey a distinct spirituality,” says the exhibit’s curator, Michele Waalkes.

“But,” she adds, “it’s not about differences. It is about how faith inspires art, and how art can also inspire faith.”
We asked four artists featured in the exhibition to share the sources of inspiration behind their art.  

From Many, One
On the surface, all seemed idyllic. Anne Shams had a happy marriage and two great kids and enjoyed a fulfilling career as a social worker. But it wasn’t enough.

The Silverton, Ore., artist had earned a bachelor of arts degree in painting at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But she’d relegated her talents to the back burner as the day-to-day challenges of life intervened.

A decade later, Shams was paying the price. Her days and nights were filled with discontent.

“When you’re a creative person who doesn’t exercise that creativity, it comes back and bites you,” she reflects.

As her depression deepened, the young mother sought the advice of a behavioral therapist. His diagnosis was startling: Shams was in the midst of a spiritual crisis. As she reviewed her life in the doctor’s office, that analysis started making sense. Raised in a strict Catholic community in California, the artist had chafed against what she considered to be severe ideology. The disenchantment grew when Shams entered her teens.

“I became more thoughtful as I grew older,” she recalls. “I knew it was a big, wide world out there, and my world seemed too confining. It just seemed like God was so much bigger than my church.”

Shams took her therapist’s advice and began exploring other faiths. She visited Mennonite meetinghouses, Jewish tabernacles and Buddhist temples. She studied Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

“I was amazed to learn that so many religious beliefs are universal in just about every faith,” she says. “One that is particularly important to me is a Jewish mystical principal about how we understand the nature of God. It’s the idea that there are two divine polarities — power/judgment on one side and compassion on the other. When judgment overcomes compassion, evil enters the world.”

Her acrylic painting, “Balance,” puts that perception into perspective. In it, Shams incorporates traditional symbols of Judeo-Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths associated with love and power. Harmony in nature as a centering force is depicted by a sunflower, a rose and ocean waves.

“I hope the painting encourages all who see it to think about expressing more empathy and compassion in their daily lives,” the artist says. “In doing so, we contribute to our own peace of mind, as well as the peace of the world.”

Calm and Comfort
Peace. It’s a subject He Qi never tires of portraying in his paintings. The source of inspiration: The New Testament, particularly John 13:1-17 — a passage in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.

“Think about it,” the Roseville, Minn., folk artist muses. “If only masters would realize that they should be serving their people, and that those of us who are more fortunate should be serving the poor, what harmony there would be.”

He, a former professor of art at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, spent his formative years living in the Tibetan countryside to avoid the radical forces spearheading Communist leader Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s and ’70s.

The youth became captivated with images of Madonna and Child painted during the Italian Renaissance.

“It was such a comfort seeing these pictures,” the artist recalls. “Much of my work is based on the colors and shapes in them.”

He hopes “Washing Feet,” which the artist painted with an acrylic color wash on Korean art rice paper, will be memorable to all who see it.

“We are living in a world that is not so peaceful,” he reflects. “Many people who worship on Sundays say, ‘Peace be with you.’ We really need to live what we say the other six days of the week.”

Bird of Paradise
Peter Gould always searches for truth behind the headlines — especially when it comes to forming opinions about aspects of the religion he’s devoted to. For the past decade, the 31-year-old Sydney, Australia, graphic designer has been a Muslim. Much of his multimedia work reflects the attributes of the Middle Eastern faith he believes are universally beneficial.

“We’re all living busy lives, so we often rely on media for information, which is usually negative about Islam,” Gould explains. “Many of us have passed judgment on Muslims without meeting any or delving a little further than what’s in the news.

“I used to be,” he adds, “one of those people.”

But Gould’s view changed when he befriended followers of the faith while a student at the University of Technology in Sydney.

“I began to see that Islam’s peaceful attributes were something very beautiful in their lives,” he says. “I couldn’t deny it also felt right to me, too.”

As he honed his graphic design skills, Gould was also drawn to the intricacies and eloquence of the written word in Arabic.

“I saw a visual feast of Islamic heritage and creative traditions I hadn’t been exposed to living on the other side of the world in Australia,” he says.

After graduating, Gould traveled the world, visiting Morocco, Turkey, Syria and the Alhambra Palace in Spain. Along the way, he stopped to soak up Islamic architectural styles and fuse his talents with the lettering that hasn’t changed much over the centuries.

For “Peace in Flight,” Gould melded modern with traditional. The mixed-media digital work incorporates contemporary typography with timeless Arabic calligraphy: An airborne dove is comprised of variations of letters spelling “salaam,” the Arabic word for peace that’s often used as a greeting.

The image, Gould explains, serves as his plea for harmony.

“There’s a line in the Koran that, paraphrased, says: You shall have your religion and I shall have mine,” the artist reflects. “I hope everyone who sees ‘Peace in Flight’ views it as a beautiful way to celebrate not only our differences, but the things that bring us together.

“We might have different spiritual traditions,” Gould adds, “but at the end of the day, we have so much more in common.”

Time of Reflection
Sadness can beget solace. Painter and sculptor Tobi Kahn experienced that epiphany a decade ago as his mother was dying of pancreatic cancer.

“She was an amazing person, a refugee of the Holocaust who made me what I am today,” the Long Island City, N.Y. artist recalls. “My mother really understood my desire to be an artist. She never made me feel like I should be a businessman, lawyer or doctor.”

As Ellen Kahn’s life ebbed away in the hospital, the depth of her misery increased. Her world eventually deteriorated to the point where everything she smelled seemed unbearably unpleasant.

So her son, who had commemorated each of his mother’s birthdays with drawings and photos he’d created, bestowed one final gift: Kahn filled the hospital room with his acrylic paintings of chrysanthemums and buttercups in the hopes that his mother’s olfactory memory would recall the flowers she loved.

“I wanted something beautiful and comforting to come out of this unbearable experience,” says Kahn, explaining the sentiment he believes is a doctrine for living.

“Good things and bad things happen in life to everyone, whether we’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or whatever,” he continues. “And you have to learn how to deal with it. I believe we’re all on a journey, and I think we should use that journey in the best possible way to think about what we’re doing and where we’re headed.”

The artist’s sculpture, “Shalev” (which means “quiet, at ease” in Hebrew) mirrors that mantra. The piece is designed to make passersby pause, reflect — and breathe.

“I live in New York, so I’m always running around, always busy,” says Kahn, a professor of fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. “When I need to relax, I seek out a place where I can be one with my thoughts. A place that will take me out of myself.”

He hopes all who see “Shalev” will see their own quiet island reflected in the bronze.

“People often ask me what my work is based on,” Kahn says. “But I see myself as a conceptual artist. What’s important to me is what you see in the work and where it takes you.”

The Canton Museum of Art
1001 Market Ave. N., Canton, 44702, 330/453-7666, cantonart.org
Hours: Tues.-Wed. 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Thur.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Sun 1-5 p.m.
Admission: $10 adults, seniors and students $8