Minister of Art
For Jolene Nelson, art is a way of life.
Her ability to express herself through visual art, poetry, essays and spoken word have given her a spiritual outlet for self-examination and helping other people.
She has taught, created and even ministered as a clown in a prison system in Illinois (yes, you read that correctly).
We sat down with Jolene to learn more about her art, passion, and faith.
You've been doing art for over five decades. When did spirituality become a factor in the art you created?
I'd been in church my entire life, but it wasn't until I began to look at creation in a completely different way, and understand that we, as women, are a part of that, that things began to change. I used to have problems believing that women were created by God because I'd been taught in my home and in my community that women were inferior, an afterthought. It limited how I created as an artist.
It wasn't until I went to a prayer seminar with Leanne Payne, a fantastic author, that I started to think of things differently. At one point, she stood up, and I can't even tell you the hostile feelings I had toward her. I knew nothing about her except that she was an author and that she was affiliated with Wheaton College. I remember folding my arms, feeling like a block of ice, and thinking there was no way she would say anything that would pull me in.
When she got up, she made a few introductory statements, and went onto say that we would be looking at the feminine and masculine aspects of faith, and that some of us were thinking that no matter what she said, that some of us were determined to be a block of ice- my exact thoughts. It was true! People were focusing on the red finger nails instead of the words.
So many women take on dominant, male characteristics when they approach faith. It was at this seminar that I began to realize that God had created me as a woman, and that didn't make me less- it made me blessed. That's when my art began to be impacted.
What differences did you see in your artwork after that?
These changes in me began to manifest themselves when I was offered a position at a Baptist school teaching art. I was a plugged in popcorn popper. I was filled with joy, excitement and anticipation; I felt like I was walking on water. I realized that in that moment, the plug to my machine was Jesus Christ and the power was the Father. I was popping out love. I realized that our very presence can be a form of worship.
My true spiritual awakening was what I saw it doing to other people. I literally brought a popcorn popper into the class and informed the students that we would be creating allegory art. These students stood up and created these masterful metaphors for their lives and their faiths. One boy described himself as a pick-up truck, roaring onto the scene with an engine that purred. People immediately affirmed the self-definition. See, for them, and me, art was a way to better know themselves, and the better you know yourself, the more you can know God.
Here's the thing. Regardless of what people told me, I had, at that point, convinced myself that I couldn't draw. I had told these students they needed to sketch these metaphors, and yet, I couldn't draw myself. I prayed to the Lord, asking him to guide me. I poured my heart out, and it was like the Lord had flipped a light switch in me. I began drawing everything in sight. Everyone saw the difference. I suddenly found myself featured in art shows for the top 250 artists in the region. Once I realized that I could just follow the pencil and be lead, everything changed. I realized I was an artist for the first time, and I owned it. My art was praise. I was glorifying the Lord.
How has art brought you closer to God?
I am completely in the presence of God at all times; I know that. When I draw, I go beyond feeling it. It's this utter understanding and awareness that I am one with him. It's helped me explore my relationship with God, and my relationship with me. I began to draw my feelings.
I ended up in a two year stint at the Teen Crisis Unit at Alexian Brothers Hospital. With the art therapy, I could go in and be completely transparent, and what would happen is these kids on the units would be such a mess, working for weeks without breakthroughs until this art work would change things in them. It would awaken something for them. This healing through art was helping them gain healing through Christ.
For myself, I am so grateful to God for giving me this artistic ability. I know that without it, I would not have made it. Not just for myself, but for my ability to help other people, I am grateful. I believe that art is the language of the soul. It's a form of prayer.
You're obviously very deeply connected to Christianity. Do you believe that this art-faith connection can manifest for people of different faiths? Have you seen it happen?
Oh, definitely. I worked with a great deal of Muslim men in the prison system. We respected each other's beliefs, but one young man made a point that has stuck with me. He told me that one expression had become universal between my Christian expressions and the expressions of the Muslim men: love. That universal language among faiths has made the ability to artistically express faith, praise and prayer a communal experience.
After I left the prison ministry I had been working in, I entered what can only be referred to as the “dark night of the soul.” I was lost until I met a woman who, in a Starbucks of all places, witnessed to me. No, not in an Evangelical Christian sense. She was a deist, but her testimony and connection to art as a medium helped me to fight through that dark night of the soul to a place where I could connect again.
What would you advise for people looking to find a spiritual connection through art?
I would advise them to become silent. Take time, and be silent. Look around and see the art around them. Be silent. Take it in. Remember that it's not a matter of doing, but a matter of being grounded in who you are. See, the thing is, I can teach someone to draw in 20 minutes. The spiritual connection comes in how we see. Let the art minister to you.
Interested in learning more about Jolene or her artwork? Contact her at
This article is part of a series of interviews with spiritual experts from a wide breadth of areas. The goal of the series to help us all learn a little more about different faiths, prayer practices and spirituality today and yesterday from the mouths of those who study it religiously (no pun intended).
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