Articles

Arts Course Reaches New Heights

Aug 25, 2020

Featured image (above): Mary Sullivan (California) created this image and poem inspired by Bahá’u’lláh’s metaphor of Black people as the “pupil of the eye” of humankind.

by Anne Perry

Perhaps it was the pandemic and the increased online educational opportunities. Or perhaps it was because we spent so much time refurbishing our course, The Bahá’í Faith and the Arts. Or maybe it was the particular mix of learners. Whatever the case, we reached new heights with it in its recent incarnation. 

One aspect that made it so successful is that we had a group of Pakistani youth (yes, young Bahá’ís living in Pakistan) who joined us, along with artists from Canada, Australia, Spain, and various places in the US. Thus we had young and older, western and eastern, a mix of artists and scholars from various places. And during the course, we had creative programs related to the Martyrdom of the Báb that we shared. (One learner with a radio and television background—Victoria Jones—had produced a piece in a studio that amazed us.) 


Peggy Caton and I had taught the class together several times. When she suggested an overhaul of the course, I groaned. We had already spent so much time putting together the readings and resources.  And we had taught it several times as a successful course! But she was absolutely right; we needed to pare down the readings and add more videos and art. She was thinking of the students. I was thinking of all we (I) wanted to include.  

Our learning objects were these: 

* Explore what the Bahá’í writings say about the arts.

*Explore various aspects of the arts in relation to religion in general and the Bahá’í Faith specifically.

*Create dialogue about questions and topics raised in each unit.

*Inspire the participants and others to develop creative capacity and talent through such avenues as devotionals, deepenings, and presentations; and to concretize them through an optional project such as a research or reflection paper, a slide presentation, or an artistic project (song, poem, essay, painting)

The objectives actually became more clear as our focus became more centered on essential texts and on examples of art created during the pandemic and how resilient and creative artists actually are. 


Peggy and I knew each other, but not well. I had some vague notion of her as a musician; she had an idea of me as writer and dabbler in numerous art forms. But somehow this time we came much more aware and appreciative of each other’s strengths. She—interested in the more personal and experiential aspects of student response—and I, interested in the ideas expressed and conveyed—became a solid working team, with a great deal more respect and understanding of each other generated by the experience. 

For one, I noticed that Peggy would respond with depth to each posting. There were hundreds of posts in our course! She was exhausted at the end. I would fit my responses between many other projects and classes I had  going on. She dedicated herself to the class, and I learned to keep up with her pace. But here’s where we came together—with each other and with our learners—on ZOOM!  

Mary Sullivan presenting her artwork
Mary Sullivan (California) presenting her artwork on Zoom

I was doubtful about it when she set up the times in two time frames, aware that the Pakistani group could meet with us at one time and our Australian at another. But what happened—a synergy that left us all wanting more—was that the Pakistani youth joined us at 5:30 am when they needed to, and our Australian, on at least one occasion, joined us in the middle of his night.  Our learner from Spain did as well; I’m not sure where he fit in time-wise with our Zooms. 

One would think that two and a half hours would be way too long on Zoom, but not with this group. We had six sessions in which we had planned presentations and discussions, but we also had spontaneous chanting, singing, playing, displaying of artwork, and life-giving connection. I had never experienced anything quite like it! We all dreaded the moment when the Zoom call would be cut off, never ending it willingly. 


We didn’t need to encourage learners to do a final project, as most of them were already engaged and sharing work that qualified. In this atmosphere, we did not need to reiterate the course objectives; they were being met naturally through our discourse and creative exchange. 

Victoria Jones (from Maryland) wrote and recorded a creative and well-delivered talk on the story of the martyrdom of the Báb, in a professional studio. It stood out as an example of excellence in an online Holy Day program produced by the NOVA Bahá’í Center in Virginia (see below). Victoria’s 8-minute talk starts a little more than 11 minutes into the video.

Martyrdom of the Bab – Commemoration from the Northern Virginia Bahá’í Center 2020

As no one wanted the course to end, we set up an Art Discussion Center through Wilmette Institute, to continue the dialogue and invite others to join us, along with a Facebook group.  The course is over, but the results will extend far into the future, as we keep posting things we want to share! 

So, in these times, we make the best of what we can do. But in that sometimes we find the BEST we can do. Our neighborhood is the world! We perceive ourselves as learners as well as teachers, as muses as well as artists. I imagine points of light around the world, connecting through the arts in context of our Faith. I cannot think of anything better. 

Contributors

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Shahan Bijnouri

Shahan is from Pakistan and he is sixteen years old. He is "a student of sciences who, loves every kind of art and expression." Shahan joined the course as a member of a study group consisting of seven youth, led by Maha Waheed Neakakhtar.

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Mary Sullivan

Mary Sullivan lives in Anaheim, California. She considers her artistic talent "a gift of grace from God that helped me through very traumatic events in my life." She says "Once I became aware of this spiritual endowment the question I've always held on to is 'What does Bahá'u'lláh want and need of this talent?'" She thinks of herself as a conduit for what needs to be expressed in art form.

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Hedi Azadi

Hedi is a retired engineer who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He says he is "always doing acrylic painting and/or Persian calligraphy (my style)."

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Stephanie McLeod

Ms. McLeod grew up in California and has been a Bahá’í for most of her life. She credits some of her artistic talent to a maternal grandfather who was an architect and a mother who was a very good artist. She took a few art classes over the years and did an occasional acrylic painting. Now retired from nursing, she feels drawn to create once again.

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Anne Perry, PhD

Professor, The Art Institute of Dallas

After two interdisciplinary MA degrees, I pursued my PhD in Aesthetic Studies, with a focus on both art and religion. I teach writing, humanities, and film and art appreciation at the Art Institute of Dallas and two community colleges, as well as serving as an instructor for the Wilmette Institute. I have published essays, fiction, poetry, and biography and recently created a publishing avenue, Nine Petal Press. With my husband Tim Perry, I created the documentary film, “Luminous Journey: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in America, 1912” and am now working on “‘Abdu’l-Bahá in France” as well as a book about poet Roger White. Among my favorite research subjects are ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s travels; Sarah Farmer and Green Acre history; women and peace; intercultural understanding; and the arts. Listen to Anne’s interview on ‘A Bahá’í Perspective’ podcastSee Faculty Bio

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Margaret (Peggy) Caton, PhD, PsyD

Ethnomusicologist

My interest in music has led me to pursue different fields of study, through instrumental performance, ethnomusicology, music therapy, movement therapy, psychology, and shamanic practice. This began with focusing on music in and of itself, as a form of creative and aesthetic expression. Over time I became more aware of its therapeutic uses, as well as its role in culture, including the culture of musicians themselves. While studying ethnomusicology, I was inspired by the times we lived in then to see music as a means for unifying different peoples. Through studying Persian music and living in Iran, I became acquainted with how many mystics viewed music as a means of elevating the human spirit. The classical musical system there evolved as a kind of transformation tool, combining mystical poetry with a complex modal system designed to be flexible enough in performance to include inspirational and improvisational aspects according to the mood and needs of the situation. My background in psychology, including many years studying Jungian psychology, has further convinced me that the arts in general, and music in particular, indeed does have the power to act as a bridge to reach and work with the unconscious, the archetypal and metaphysical worlds that may often elude the everyday speech of the conscious world. Shamans and many mystics have known the power of music to enrapture, cure, and transform. Shamans used music as a bridge to the spirits and the ancestors, to the world of Jungian archetypes, as a means of dialogue with this meta-world, and in so doing enact a form of active imagination that can bring unconscious symbols to the light of consciousness and to use this process to foster individuation, a term applied by Jung to personal development. My current interest in the Seven Valleys of Bahá’u’lláh is as an elucidation of this alchemical process that has been practiced in different forms and then written about for millennia. My music and psychology background has thus led me to working with the arts as a means of facilitating psychological and spiritual growth.See Faculty Bio

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