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Exhibit explores spiritual tensions through art

Wyatt Massey
Frederick News-Post

Hutchings exhibit

Artist Nick Hutchings uses his prayer sketchbooks to show the tension of spirituality. Photos by Wyatt Massey

Spiritual tension is central to making sense of the world, and making good in the world, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in his book “Beyond Good and Evil.”

“The tension of the soul in unhappiness, which cultivates its strength; its horror at the sight of the great destruction; its inventiveness and bravery in bearing, enduring, interpreting, exploiting unhappiness,” he wrote in the late 19th century.

Nietzsche’s view on tension can be applied to faith, which provides a structure of sense to the blessings of life, as well as the results of life’s most devastating evils. The paths of faith are never similar. The quiet feelings of hope must face down the assault of doubt. For every boisterous praise service with large crowds and pumping music, there are moments of silent, solitary prayer. The faithful make sense of both.

Nick Hutchings, professor of visual and performing arts at Mount St. Mary’s University, uses his art to wrestle with and make sense of that tension. He felt particularly strong while drawing a picture of the sea. He struggled to make his art reflect exactly what was shown in the picture.

“Here was this image of the sea in a fraction of a second that was captured and it’s never been the same, nor will it ever be the same,” Hutchings said. “Here’s this perfect moment that I can’t capture. I keep failing at it every single time.”

This spiritual wrestling with one image expanded into an entire exhibit — “What We Know in Part” — on display at Mount St. Mary’s University in the Williams Art Gallery through Dec. 7. The exhibit includes ink drawings on paper, wood sculptures and fiber optic lights.

Many of the pieces show a search for spiritual balance, Hutchings said.

“I think drawing is a great discipline in doing that because it often is a balance between observing something and expressing something. And, we’re trying to wrestle between these spheres,” he said.

Hutchings had always been drawn to artwork, but he put that interest aside shortly after graduating from Texas Tech University and traveling to Costa Rica to do medical missions in 2003.

“I thought that was going to be my place or my call, out in the jungles and out doing that stuff,” Hutchings said.

Instead, the experience offered new perspectives on having a faith without materialism and offered a deeper understanding of God. The trip broke many of the structures Hutchings had grown up in through the Methodist Church in Dallas-Fort Worth.

The strict rules and order of the church can become barriers for people in their understanding of God. People become too focused on the little rules and miss the larger message, Hutchings said.

“We strain out the gnat and miss the camel,” he said.

Hutchings returned to art and used the practice to reflect many of the internal faith struggles he felt. He has taught at Mount St. Mary’s for six years. His work reflects how doubt creates tension and darkness for the faithful. One piece is used as separate drawings to create an image of a raging sea.

God speaks to him in that place of spiritual wrestling, a wrestling between the spirit and the mind, Hutchings said.

“It’s always been that place of wrestling for me — wrestling with my faith, wrestling with things of revelation that I may be understanding in my heart or in my spirit and not in my mind.”

Other pieces in the collection represent moments of spiritual clarity — like a song coming on the radio at the perfect time with the lyrics someone needs to hear in that moment. God speaks in small, profound ways, Hutchings said.

“Often we are so caught in distraction, we are so caught in judging with our eyes, that we miss the whisper that we hear in our hearts,” he said.

Shelbee Holcomb, a junior majoring in psychology and minoring in art, said she was drawn to the authenticity of Hutchings’ work. The vulnerability he offers in pieces such as the sketchbooks is an example to others on how to deal with difficult ideas.

“Nick has helped me with my spiritual battle this year,” Holcomb said. “Everything he’s told me made it all click and helped me avoid evil, in a sense, the evil of the world and all the distractions.”

The 12 sketchbooks, on display for visitors to flip through, are the most vulnerable piece in the exhibit. They are also the pieces that ask the audiences for the most time. People are encouraged to sit on the cushions and flip through the sketchbooks Hutchings used as a form of prayer.

The other pieces in the exhibit are larger meditations on what grew from those sketchbooks.

Other pieces in the exhibit — such as a sculpture of two bent and knotted ax handles — drew inspiration from classic Bible stories or themes. Hutchings’ work reflects the importance of the 12 tribes of Israel surrounding the Tabernacle. One piece captures the story of Ezekiel entering the river to pray. In another, Elisha is drawing the ax head out of the water.

The largest piece, placed behind a curtain to darken the space, is a seven-circle arc with each circle of light growing bigger from a singular light beginning. The piece represents gazing out into the world and expanding the mind from a basic truth and the ability to turn away from the expanse to return to that basic truth — in Christianity often referred to as the mustard seed of faith. These tiny moments guide us, Hutchings said.

“These moments that transcend the things we can rationalize are like the stars in the sky that kind of navigate us to turn around home, to the coming of the dawn,” he said. “It’s almost like we’re following those things.”

Wyatt Massey
Frederick News-Post