• Emily Ott

Is art prayer?

Apparently I’m late to the podcast craze, but I figure you can’t be a true New Yorker unless you have headphones in 99% of the time in public spaces. How else could we avoid human interaction?! Sometimes I think this lack of connection is sad, but I’m not sad when I’m listening to an awesome podcast! When I ride the subway, when I walk to work, when I’m waiting in an audition holding room, I am usually engrossed in riveting conversations through my magical white ear cords (even though they are usually in a tangled mess).


The podcast I am currently obsessed with is Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations. I never really took in the wisdom that is Oprah Winfrey until this point. Honestly, all the prior exposure I’ve really had to Oprah was as a six year old when my mom would watch Oprah’s talk show around 4pm. You see, I would wait…and wait…and then rejoice when it was over because that meant I could watch “Arthur,” which was the next show on the channel. Great show. Anyway, in SuperSoul Conversations, Oprah has conversations with some of the most fascinating and influential people focusing on their understanding of the world and our place within it. Some major themes that are often covered are spirituality, the essence of soul, wellness, and self-awareness (all of which are my favorite light-hearted cocktail party talking points). In one of the episodes, Oprah quotes Rainn Wilson. You know him. He’s Dwight on “The Office”, but also he’s a super interesting dude with a very insightful perspective on his art. Rainn says, “Art is prayer”. He sees no difference between the expression of creativity and the communication with the divine. After I heard this quote recited by Oprah’s famously soulful voice, I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea. Do I see my artistic outlets as a form of prayer? Am I a “real" artist if I don’t?


I grew up in the Catholic faith, so to me, prayer was always something that was structured and the opposite of creatively stimulating. To pray was to recite the Rosary or go to Mass. However, with this new perspective on what prayer can be, I started thinking about how my artistry has in fact been a huge part in the formation of my spirituality. I focused back to my roots in Church. I didn’t sit in the pews as a little girl; I sat with the choir as early as five years old! My dominant form of art today is in fact singing…interesting correlation I think? When I sing, I feel like I can communicate in a way that is so much richer and fuller than just speech. I use my voice because frankly the act of singing makes me happy, but also because I can share that joy with others in performance. I still love to sing in Mass with others. It's one of the primary ways I feel spiritually connected to something bigger than myself.


Maybe Rainn is talking about art as prayer because it is meant to be shared. Art may be the result of an individual artist’s idea, but ideally it is created to make an impact on the world and to shift perspective for many. Art is visceral and experienced. At its best, it draws in a community of people who are also touched by the emotion communicated by the artist. In a way, this is what prayer is too. It’s a way of expressing the immediate earthly experience in communion with others to better understand the bigger questions about our purpose/existence. This is what every single major world religion attempts to conceptualize as well. That is the common thread! All religions, all genders, all races seek to better understand our world, and usually when we all work together in that quest the best art is made…and the best praying.


When art is made by the people and functions for the people of all places, languages, and backgrounds, it is spiritual. I had an experience at a small art gallery in downtown Manhattan this week that continued my thoughts on this idea. A friend of mine invited me to go to a gallery opening for an artist named Jarrett Key at the La MaMa Galleria. I had no knowledge of his work prior to showing up. Jarret’s exhibit entitled HAIR PAINTINGS AND OTHER STORIES is work mainly includes large white canvases that are adorned with abstract strokes, splashes, and strikes of black paint. When I first saw these paintings I was so intrigued by the lack of structure and order. It seemed guttural, organic, and unplanned. I stood there in front of the canvas, like I have so many paintings before and wondered, “What was his process like making this? What was he thinking about or feeling?” In this moment of wonder, suddenly I heard a cry over the mingling crowd. “Heavenly Mother!” Jarret parted the crowd of people observing his work with overalls on and two buckets of black paint in hand. He continued crying out chants to “Heavenly Mother” and asked for patience and love. He sang of being worthy. It reminded me of the section of the Catholic Mass. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. Through his art, I think that Jarrett was praying in his own way. He stood in front of a blank white canvas and put his long hair up in a ponytail at the top of his head and proceeded to pour the paint over him. He was completely covered. His chants continued as he moved about the space making marks on the canvas with his own body and hair specifically. I couldn’t help but think that Jarrett was creating with the heavenly creation of his own body. He was using his hair, to make a personal representation of his thoughts and feelings. It was raw and truthful and full. It was like modern dance had met song had met painting. The performance and visual art were married.


It was so beautiful to observe Jarrett create one of his masterpieces right before my eyes with such commitment and connection to the spirituality within. The experience of seeing an artist in process is so rare because by default we are consumers who want to see the product of the work above all else. Perhaps the most powerful moment though was when Jarret’s twin brother in the audience started responding to his calls with the same words back to him. It was a call and response between brothers who had a similar upbringing, but two separate voices and stories to offer up in the space. I felt so grateful to be in that room to see this connection. Observing Jarrett work within such deeply personalized process in public was nothing short of amazing. I left the gallery with a feeling much like I get after I talk to a dear friend, take a beautiful walk in nature, or sing at church. It was prayer.


#prayer #spirituality #art #creativeconversations

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