One of the things that brings me the greatest joy is that I am able to call Mara Schasteen my friend. She’s an up and coming artist based in Sheridan, Wyoming who trained at the knees of Mike Wimmer at Oklahoma Christian. When we found each other in lower Texas, we were young mothers buried under diapers and three squares a day. But even then, with all the frenetic child-rearing happening, we took hold of each other and clung, stubbornly. Barnacles, we were. My memories of the young mom years swim around in my head, usually murky, but sometimes uncannily clear.
Like the time Mara and I sat in my driveway with our fussy children, reaching for anything that would improve the mood, and suddenly Mara jumped up and began to perform a Broadway-worthy number, in a perfect Carol Channing voice, jazz hands and all. And it was more for me than for the babies, who wouldn’t get the irony. Don’t get me wrong, the baby days were delicious and juicy for us. We both loved every minute, even the bad ones, but you know how it is. It’s hard and frustrating and incredibly tiring when you’re there. Mara and I centered each other and kept it real.
Life intervened, as life does, and there were more babies, a lot of moves around the country, and some significant heartache. Before we knew it, we’d been out of touch for too long. Out of touch, but not out of mind. When I began writing Glass Girl I set it in a small town in Wyoming, envisioning Mara tucked into her small town in Wyoming. I made my main character’s mother an artist. I named a character Annie (maybe remembering Mara’s second-born fondly). I tried to capture the laid-back, independent spirit of Mara, the consummate Wyoming-bred girl.
One of my favorite paintings of hers became the inspiration for a pivotal scene in Perfect Glass.
And, look at this incredible portrait of her baby girl…
Eventually Mara and I reconnected and it is, in the way only true friendship operates, just as it was. And she’s painting, successfully, and I’m writing, and we’re in touch often. I try to channel her so often when I write about recognizing and celebrating beauty. It is what an artist does, after all. And she’s a master. Artists are given an extra measure of whatever it is that recognizes God’s creation and reflects it back. They have different eyes. And, at least for Mara, art is absolute ministry.
I asked Mara several questions recently and her answers struck me as a powerful reminder that we are all His priests and our efforts to understand and interpret this world in relation to the next are worthy. Anything that draws our attention to what really matters—the eternal things—shimmers with holiness.
What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
I’m not sure you could have presented me with a more difficult question! I’m thinking of the scenery all around me in Wyoming, my favorite flowers, beautiful works of art. But what I go back to again and again are the sleeping faces of my children when they were newborns. Now that is something I could truly stare at all day long – and I did so many times!
On the flipside, what’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen?
Images of the Holocaust come to mind. Those images of death, abuse and starvation are a very tangible symbol of what evil looks like. And, it’s interesting to me that I see people (in some form) as both the most beautiful and the ugliest things I have ever seen.
You’ve told me on many occasions that the only thing you want to capture in people is kindness. Tell me about that.
What else matters if someone isn’t kind? Not even a strong faith in God matters much to others if that person is unkind. Because we were created by a loving being, surely there is kindness to be found in all of us. It is something easy to understand and should be celebrated whenever possible. A portrait which fails to draw out even a glimmer of kindness in the sitter may as well never be painted, as it would serve no important (or heavenly) purpose.
What place does beauty have in our understanding of God?
I am glad you asked this question because the answer is the cornerstone of my life’s work as an artist. As I have taken time to focus on my vision or this gift of art I’ve been given, I have meditated on Philippians 4:8-9 (MSG).
Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.
Beauty matters. To celebrate truth and beauty – the best, not the worst – has been my purpose. We find God when we experience love. As with love, we find God in beauty. To focus on the beautiful in all its variations leads us to find Him again and again, from many different directions, giving more fullness to our understanding of His remarkable personality.
What does it feel like when you see something you have to paint?
Frustrating! I say that with an implied smile on my face. If I could actually drop everything and paint when I see something I just have to paint, I might feel excitement or elation. But with four young children to care for every day, I don’t usually have the luxury of painting when the inspiration hits me. I have to tuck those little memories and observations in my pocket and keep them fresh and spontaneous for when I have time alone to work. I do a lot of “looking” in the meantime. I have treasures of things stored up in my mind for later.
How is art a ministry?
I am just now figuring this out for myself. Years ago, when I knew I wanted to be an artist, I would ask myself, “How do I serve the Lord as an artist?” My limited human creativity always provided answers like: illustrate Bible stories or praise God in the titles of your paintings. And those weren’t bad ideas, but they didn’t thrill me, either.
Somewhere along the way, God opened up some doors for me that I would have never imagined were effective ways to serve Him. One of the most important opportunities I have has been to share my artistic processes with other artists all over the world through the Internet. Since my work and my belief in God are intertwined so tightly, I can’t help but talk about my faith as it relates to my work as an artist. So here I am, talking Christ to Muslims, Hindus and atheists. I have never been met with opposition, rather, those who disagree do so quietly and those who are interested want to know more. I am so blessed to have been given a way to make art my ministry.
If you had a chance to paint anyone or anything in the whole world, who or what would it be?
Oh, to have Jesus come sit for me in my studio for a portrait! Imagine the kindness that would overwhelm me. I’m sure I would never be able to actually paint a single stroke in that scenario, but it would be a great excuse to get to spend time with Him in the flesh.
Name three things you cherish.
1) Quiet time
2) A brand new piece of oil primed Belgian Linen
3) The Holy Spirit’s presence on earth
Thank you, Mara, for using what God gave you to show us the beauty in this world. I’m blessed to see what you see!
Visit Mara, and take a look at her incredible work, at maraschasteen.com!