Spiritual Art Journaling classes bring art and faith together, says instructor

STURGEON BAY — Paper taped to the tables, tubes of color, pots of water, clean brushes waiting to bring images to life — it looks like an art class. But it’s more.

Once a month at St. Joseph Faith Formation Center, eager participants take part in what amounts to Lectio Divina — holy reading and meditation — using art and written words. The class is called Spiritual Art Journaling, and for most of the women gathered this particular day, combining journaling with art is something new.

Nicole Herbst, left, demonstrates the basics of watercolor painting as Jeanne Schopf, center, and Carol Devault look on. Herbst offers a Spiritual Art Journaling workshop at the St. Joseph Faith Formation Center in Sturgeon Bay as part of the adult faith formation program. The next class is Sunday Sept. 22. (Monica Sawyn | For The Compass)

Nicole Herbst, who has taught art in the public schools for 25 years, first started this process with high school art students to teach them how to create images based on thoughts, phrases and quotes that reflect what lives within them.

The high school setting doesn’t allow for specifically religious input from Herbst, like Scripture, but she said students of faith often introduce those elements on their own. She has seen students look deep within themselves and work through problems, some of them as dark as suicide.

“This gives them the chance to express themselves without judgment, to sort out their own thoughts, ideas and feelings,” Herbst said.

She brings her art education background to these classes, but she also has a master’s degree in pastoral ministry and is certified in youth ministry.

“I love my faith and I love art,” she said. “This is a way of bringing it together.”

Herbst’s personal project started as a nutritional journal and turned into a spiritual journal. She decided that what worked for herself, and for her high school students, could work for others in a spiritual context. So, at her suggestion, spiritual art journaling classes were offered through the Tri-Parish Faith Formation Program in Sturgeon Bay. It started this past winter, and shows no signs of slacking off.

“I teach a new art technique each time,” Herbst said. “I ask them to bring an image they like, or a quote they like, and I always urge that they bring a Scripture passage.” Sometimes they all work on a theme.

Some bring song lyrics, or phrases clipped from the newspaper. One woman brought a recipe from her grandmother. Another is turning hers into a gratitude journal. Each session starts with prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to guide them in hearing and expressing God’s voice. Quiet music provides a soft background, but Herbst encourages some silence during the class.

“We live in a time when people are uncomfortable with silence — I’ve especially noticed that with my high school kids — but silence helps us reflect and meditate on our lives, and helps us hear God,” Herbst said. “We need silence.”

The participants have learned about bullet journaling and making collages, about balance and composition, about textures and colors. Some people come for one class; some have been to all of them so far.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a dozen participants, including Herbst’s third-grade daughter Cora, were learning the principles of watercolor. Step by step, she showed them how to wet the special paper, and how to add color using various kinds of brush strokes. These were the practice sheets. They would move to the real thing later, each producing a visual reflection uniquely her own.

Then they add words to their work. Some may use lengthy quotes, others limit their image to only a word or two. In the process, Herbst said, they’re learning to meditate.

Although Herbst puts notices in area bulletins about the workshops, she has also set up a Facebook page called Spiritual Art Journaling. It includes pictures of finished work and announcements about upcoming sessions. She said the fact that a few dozen people have already “liked” the page is an indication that people have a need to meditate, reflect and create in a spiritual context.