Identify the Evocative

Nancy Chinn’s hands-on model of Theological Reflection

“Start with a feeling, a memory, a yearning. Those are the three kinds of categories that work, and a story. The art is grounded in the story, not as an illustration, but as a way to remember the feeling.” —Nancy Chinn

I asked the extraordinary artist, Nancy Chinn, if she would share the method of theological reflection that she employs when working with church art committees to produce art for worship. She explained that her method is a variation of lectio divina, the traditional Benedictine practice of reading, meditation, and prayer on a single passage of scripture.

“Begin with a gospel story, or other passage from Scripture. Read it aloud and silently with the committee.” Chinn suggests that when reading a passage, the key is to tease out a personal memory and allow whatever feelings that arise to come forth. Participants are then encouraged to journal about the stories, feelings, memories, or yearnings that the passage called forth.

The next step is to invite the participants to share those stories and then, give them a name. Giving our stories a name is important because within that title are the clues for creating evocative art. For example, if the memory that emerges recalls a time of insecurity the participant might simply name it Fear. Fear is abstract; it is a quality of line; it is a shape. For Chinn, the shape of fear is something very large coming down on something small. This is an exercise that delves into the realm of abstraction.

At this point quick sketches are made, but again, these are abstract, non-illustrative and done without a writing instrument. Nancy provides colored paper and glue sticks and instructs the group to express the feeling with an arrangement of torn paper. This is a challenging exercise which furthers abstract thinking because it does not require technical skills. “We are limiting color (construction paper is available in 18 colors), and using torn paper—not art skills or drawing.”

This is a prayerful exercise. Chinn observed that during this process, participants generally don’t talk, and they don’t giggle. It’s also time-bound. Each person has to decide which color wants to work with them, not which color they think ought to start the process. They have to ask the color, “Which color do you want to have as your companion?” Chinn laughed and called this her “quirky California idea” but immediately followed this by saying “it’s amazing what comes up- a raw sketch based in scripture passage.”

When all the sketches are completed the gospel story, or other passage from Scripture which they began with is read aloud once more. A large scroll of plain paper is laid out to represent the story line. Each person then places their sketch on the scroll as we come to it in the story, and the image emerges from the collective experience.” It’s breathtaking.” Chinn says. “It’s always so amazing to me.”


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