Nurturing Craft in an Age of Content: An Interview with Anna Elkins
This is the tenth in our series of interviews with creatives who stay craft-focused in an era of easy-to-consume, shareable internet content. Our aim is to explore the tension of art versus entertainment, empowering readers to find, nurture, and stay true to the stories inside of them. Enjoy!
Poet Anna Elkins had us at her poem "The Fig of It," which contains a beautiful line that reads almost like a prayer: "Make my life this: / a ready harvest / given, taken, tasted." All of Anna's work is a warm invitation to live that way--taking our art and holding it out as light before a world where hope has seemed to dim. We're inspired by Anna's perspective on art as an opportunity to explore the space between the natural and supernatural, and we think you will be, too.
Upwrite: You're both a poet and a painter. How do the two disciplines—working with your heart and your hands—inform and empower one another?
AE: A wonderful question. Poetry and painting are both heart and hand practices for me. My best creations start in the heart (spirit), move through mind, and enter this world via my hands (body). I borrow from Watchman Nee by saying we are spirit, mind, and body—in that order. Poems or paintings that start in my mind are far less powerful than those that start in my heart and then move through the editorial/critical strengths of my mind.
All of that is the starting point to how the two disciplines inform and empower each other. Einstein called it “combinatory play.” He often credited his time on the violin with breakthroughs in physics, and many artists and scientists throughout history have embraced a cross-disciplinary approach to the creative process.
As a poet and painter, I love words and images, and I often combine them. Words can shape metaphorical images or literal ones. Images can turn to words. It’s my kind of alchemy.
Upwrite: Your bio calls you a "traveling artist." How does consistently changing landscape and culture affect your creative work? Do you find yourself integrating cultural nuances from places you travel in your poetry and paintings?
AE: Travel is grand. You can step out of your comfort zone for days or months and see the world from an entirely different perspective. It took me a while to learn to translate that perspective into a meaningful piece of writing or art or both.
A café napkin fluttering beneath a coffee cup in the Peloponnesian breeze might not have much significance on its own. But, follow the fascination—sketch it, describe it—and that napkin might find itself in a watercolor, or it might trigger a poem set in a Slovakian paper mill.
For many years, I didn’t travel with a camera (pre-smart phone era). But I would “photograph” a place in words and sketches; I jotted down in-the-moment notes and sketched things that caught my attention. My souvenir rules at the time: bring home only what fits between the covers of your journal—something I still largely practice, with the exception of an occasional memento. I’m happiest coming home with written or visual stories, in whatever shape they choose to take.
Upwrite: Your poem "Sky Song" is a compelling invitation to hope even in hardship. These lines in particular strike me: "Let's sing it even when it hurts— / even when the blood runs, / even when the fire burns, / even when. / Let's." Can you share a bit about what it means to be a prophetic artist? What role does hope play in that vocation?
AE: I didn’t even know what “prophetic art” meant until my parents told me about Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM) in 2008. I looked into it, and found that artists were painting during the worship services, and people were encouraging others in and out of the church with works of art. The next year, I left my teaching job on a small island in the middle of a big ocean, moved to Redding, California, and soaked up as much prophetic art as I could.
Eventually, I created a day-long prophetic art workshop called Eyes of the Heart. In it, I define prophetic art as creativity + prophecy—a total oversimplification, of course. But it helps clarify the essentials of prophetic art: we are all creative children of the Creator, and the gift of prophecy is for encouraging and comforting—essentially offering hope. When we use the gift of prophecy to call forth that which is not yet seen, we are seeing with the eyes of our hearts. We are looking through the lens of hope.
Upwrite: Painter Makoto Fujimura has a quote we love: "Culture is not a territory to win, but an ecosystem to steward, a garden to tend." How do you think artists tend the garden of culture? How do you want to challenge artists of our generation?
AE: Ah, Makoto Fujimura. I first discovered him through his book, Refractions, which I devoured joyfully. And I first encountered the concept of tending the garden while studying at the theological center, L’Abri, in Switzerland many a winter ago. Years after that, I realized that I could be a “gardener artist” when I read Bill Johnson’s book, When Heaven Invades Earth.
I’m consistently asking myself: if we are to live and desire “on earth as it is in heaven,” how do we tend the garden in the arts? How do we partner with God to do so? Since we all have different interests and gifts, I think the answers are as marvelously variable as we humans are—which is part of our challenge: for each of us to find, learn, and implement our giftings. This is an individual and collaborative challenge.
I’ve created a resource for prophetic artists: PropheticArt.Info. The tagline is “Bringing Heaven to Earth.” When I first heard about prophetic art, I couldn’t find much about it. What should I read? Who was teaching it? If anyone is interested, check out that site, and let me know what I should add. If we all follow our interests and share what we find, we’ll be better able to tend the garden of culture.
Upwrite: We're always seeking to build a community of hope-hungry artists whose craft models both discipline and joy. Which writers, publications, or other resources are resonating with you most right now?
AE: I love that phrase “hope-hungry.” For a long while, I felt like I wasn’t finding (m)any poems or images that acknowledged hope. Instead, I found words and images that wallowed in cynicism, self-indulgent irony, and/or general darkness. I’m all for walking into the darkness…but only if we’re looking for what Leonard Cohen famously called the cracks that let the light in.
Here are a few places I’ve been enjoy the light and/or peering through the cracks:
· I just finished reading Gregory Wolfe’s Intruding Upon the Timeless, a collection of his prefaces to Image Journal over many years. I’m excited to finally attend Image’s Glen Workshop in Sante Fe next summer—a delightful, arts-and-faith gathering.
· In Search of Duende, Federico García Lorca
· Ruminate: Chewing on Life, Faith & Art (a quarterly journal)
· Breath for the Bones, Luci Shaw—one I revisit often.
· Pablo Neruda: I find myself returning to his last collection of poetry, The Book of Questions
And a few titles from my never-ending “to read” list:
Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain
Models of Revelation, Avery Dulle
Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil
The Heart of Matter, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
We'd highly recommend a deeper delve into Anna's work--we love her poetry collection The Space Between, which can be found on Amazon, among other retailers. You can also visit her website and find her on social media @artwordspirit.