Roger Hutchison: How finger painting became a communal Christian practice
Participants in The Painting Table process explore prayer and self-expression at the 2015 Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina.
Photos courtesy of Roger Hutchison
By gathering people to pray and to paint, a lay professional in the Episcopal Church has created a process in which children and adults can explore the Passion story -- and their own.
His grandmother’s old table -- splattered and splotched with paint -- was the inspiration for Roger Hutchison to create a process of praying with paint, he explains in an interview.
Hutchison, the canon for children and family ministries at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina, has led many groups through this process of self-discovery, including people in Newtown, Connecticut, still recovering from the Sandy Hook school shooting.
“It’s not about the final painting. It’s the process. It’s that healing, that talking, that listening, that learning from each other,” Hutchison said. “That’s the process.”
Hutchison, the author of “The Painting Table: A Journal of Loss and Joy,” spoke with Faith & Leadership about how he has adapted this practice for Lent. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Where did the idea of the “painting table” come from?
During the day, I’d seek out quiet time or a place of prayer. That doesn’t come easily when you’re working, even on Sunday mornings.
And I found myself sitting at this table in our home. It belonged to my grandmother, and some of my earliest memories of love and earliest memories of what it was like to pray and talk were at this table. And she would share her cooking with us, which was her art, which was her greatest gift. Around the table, we would speak prayers, and hungry bellies were filled.
And we [children] would often hide under that same table and listen to the stories that [the adults] would tell. I would watch the feet of my grandparents as they stood side by side washing dishes and talking.
So really, it was my first memory of church.
This table came to me when she died, so we put it up in a bedroom. It’s just an ordinary table, but that space became something extraordinary.
It’s like an altar of remembrance and healing, with splashes of color and tears. I found myself there, creating art. The table became covered in paint.
I decided to share that with others here in Columbia. And then it just spread, this idea of the painting table.
Q: Were you already a painter?
Growing up, I would paint. I’m self-taught.
One night, around this table, I decided to put my brushes down. I think brushes, for me, became a separation. Now all I do is finger-paint. And in the painting-table process, I often do not put brushes out for folks to use. There are reasons for that.
It’s not about the final painting. It’s the process. It’s that healing, that talking, that listening, that learning from each other. That’s the process.
Something holy happens, for me, in that process. And I wanted to share that with others. One evening, I just sat down, wrote this little short story of the painting table and shared that with Church Publishing.
Q: How did you begin to share it in the community?
I’m married to a kindergarten teacher. My day off is on Friday, and I would be invited to come paint with the children. I would not use a churchy language in a public school setting, but I would often talk about telling our stories, sharing stories that we all need. And we all had something to offer and to share.
And during that time, I began to form this idea. I would look out across the room and see these children gathered around these tables working on their artwork. I could see the joy that they had, the laughter, the talking, the fingers working.
And then I was invited to travel to Newtown, Connecticut. I went in May of 2013 and painted with children at Trinity Episcopal Church. One of the children in their congregation died in the school. And their children were seeking a way to communicate about this and talk about this, as were the teachers.
From that moment, it changed the trajectory of what I feel that I’m called to do. That’s when I caught my breath and knew that it was becoming something bigger and more important. After doing it on a low-key basis around the community, that’s when it began to take wings in a different way.
Q: You’ve also developed a Lenten practice.
I love stories. Children just come alive when these stories are told. And there’s something about adults that we often lose that joy and the thrill of the story. Again, just to put your hands directly into it and get messy and tell the story and be a part of the story just makes it real in a way that I think for a lot of these people it has never been.
And when we get to the Lenten conversation, it gives the participants the opportunity really to put their fingers into Jesus’ body and into the story as they’re creating different images and different parts of the Passion and the Stations of the Cross.
Q: I think sometimes people have a hard time connecting Lenten discipline with their connection with God. Does this practice help?
For these folks who have taken this on, it is a lot bigger than chocolate or giving up sodas. They take part in the routine and the ritual of coming into this space each week with this community, seeking, searching, trying to understand and enter into the story.
Again, I go back to that tactile aspect. You are entering into the stories that we read so often, that we listen to, but for some powerful reason, these stories then become alive when you are there trying to record the story in color with your fingers.
I think this is an ancient thing, in a way. People have been quilting around tables forever. This is not anything new. But for these people, for a lot of them, it’s become the first time that they’ve ever entered into the story so fully.
Q: How does it work?
In the beginning, I send out an invitation for the whole congregation. Usually, we have a group of 12 or 15, and we meet for an hour and a half before our Compline service on Thursdays during Lent.
Because it helps folks to have a little bit of a structure around it, we focus on the Stations of the Cross. At the end of Lent, as part of Holy Week, we will have each created a Station of the Cross.
For the first couple of weeks, I let them begin this process of painting and getting an idea what it feels like, and then allow them or invite them to take a station that they want to explore.
I’ve had some pretty powerful moments. I had a young mother working on this piece -- Mary’s standing at the cross, and Jesus is on the cross. And she does a painting of the cross and then puts a heart in the center.
She’s painting with tears coming down her face. I pry a little bit just to make sure she’s OK. And she shares with the group that she has had a miscarriage.
This station spoke to her in a way that she could never verbalize. But it helped her to be able to try to translate that or tell that story in paint, where she couldn’t do it verbally. So for her, it was a very healing process. She entered into Mary’s being as closely as she probably ever had before.
That’s just one glimpse of how this takes place.
Q: That’s beautiful.
That’s just one of many. Each one of the stations -- there’s a reason somebody has chosen it.
Then for the congregation, we set these up in a room just off of where we have a labyrinth. And these stations are on display for folks to use the week of Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday.
Q: Does that go against the idea that the product doesn’t matter?
The first couple of times we did this, we never had a plan of sharing the work. What I’ve discovered, though, is that people said they wanted to share it.
I never say to the group, “Here is our goal. This is what we’re going to do.” That’s always part of the invitation at the beginning. And everyone always wants to do it.
But that’s why we do [the process] over time. I mean, if I had one meeting and I said, “By the end of this meeting, we’re going to have Stations of the Cross,” it would never work.
But when you do it over a period of weeks, the trust is there and people then feel more comfortable with the tools. Over time, they begin to see this as something that they can offer as a gift to the congregation.
I would say it is one of the highlights of our Holy Week, when this work is put out for folks to use as their prayer practice during Holy Week. We put notebooks out, a journal at the end. People can write their reflections or their thoughts.
There’s something about the childlike quality of so many of these pieces that is accessible to people. And there’s no judgment. I’ve never felt any.
So [the display] does go against my whole idea of the process as the most important. But in a situation during Lent like this, it still is the process. And part of that process is discovering that this is something I might want to share with my greater faith community. That’s why this is, I guess, a little bit different.
Q: I love this notion of people engaging in a deeply personal experience, but in community. I mean, in some ways that’s what you do at church every week.
Exactly, right, hopefully. Just as we gather together each week around the altar, around the table, I found that it’s important that in this process, you’re in a community.
Part of the process is you answer the invitation, and then you come. You don’t know the group. It always is a group of people that you wouldn’t necessarily find yourself with all the time. It’s often intergenerational, which I think is beautiful. So when there are young children in the midst or there are teenagers working with their moms, those kinds of things -- to me, that is what church is. Just like church, for me, was in my grandmother’s kitchen.
We gather in this room. We light a candle. We begin to experience praying in color. We get to know each other.
I love watching what happens around the tables. The conversation begins, and people start to get to know each other. There might be a common connection, or their stories may interact or intersect in a way that they did not know before.
You have a common focus, yet it’s an individual focus, yet you’re invited to the table. You have a seat at the table.
The skill level doesn’t matter. It is very Eucharistic in nature.
I don’t give a lot of instruction. It’s a little bit of self-discovery for all of these people.
When they get frustrated or they’re disappointed with their work, I ask them to put it aside, start something new, or get up, go for a walk, go sit for a minute if you need to -- find a spot in the cathedral -- or go walk on the labyrinth.
You can’t travel the Stations of the Cross without some anxiety, so that’s part of it. But there’s also some safety within a group gathering -- we support each other.