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Learning to Look Around: How Artists Help Us Find a Home

As they work at the boundaries of existence in the already but not yet, artists both place and displace us, all the while creating spaces in society in which we might hope for new creation.

—Jennifer Allen Craft, Placemaking and the Arts

My family calls me “the one that left.” In fact, to this day, most of my family—both sides—lives within a 150-mile radius of my hometown in North Louisiana. There’s always been something sacred in my family about our Southern placed-ness. The food, the culture, the beliefs, and of course, the people. But I met a man from Alabama, and we both had big dreams. Thus began a new family journey: sensing God’s call in new places together.

Artist and activist Lucy Lippard has dealt with concepts of place in her work for decades. She writes, “Travel is the only context in which some people ever look around. If we spent half the energy looking at our own neighborhoods, we’d probably learn twice as much.”1 It was only in my teenage years that I came to realize that not everyone “looks around” as much as I do.

I am the kind of person who was born looking around—my sense of my own visual connection to the world is strong. I think many artists have this sensibility. Perhaps this is why I have always felt at home in nearly any location. I am easily placed because I give much attention to places. Don’t get me wrong—I love my hometown. I know it backwards and forwards. I can recall smells and breezes and the best hamburger steak in history (my mom’s). I know the swing sets and secret cut-throughs, the mothbally closet smells of my elementary friends’ houses, and the creaky bleachers of my high school gym. I belonged there. Not always because people welcomed me, but because I was deeply aware of the place. Lippard explores this special experience of locality: “The lure of the local is the pull of place that operates on all of us, exposing
. . . our spiritual legacies. It is the geographical component of the psychological need to belong somewhere, one antidote to a prevailing alienation.”2 The thing is, I have experienced nearly every place I’ve been in this same way. My sense of placed-ness does not discriminate. I always discover home in new places. Looking around can indeed be a link to our spiritual home and an antidote to alienation.

Written By

Shannon Sigler is the executive director of Fuller’s Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, where she leads a team of artists and scholars in developing resources and building relationships to serve the church and culture. She is a PhD student at the University of Manchester, where she is exploring a Wesleyan theological aesthetic. She earned her master’s degree in theological aesthetics from Asbury Theological Seminary, as well as a master’s degree from Boston University in arts administration. Find her work at ShannonSigler.com.

As they work at the boundaries of existence in the already but not yet, artists both place and displace us, all the while creating spaces in society in which we might hope for new creation.

—Jennifer Allen Craft, Placemaking and the Arts

My family calls me “the one that left.” In fact, to this day, most of my family—both sides—lives within a 150-mile radius of my hometown in North Louisiana. There’s always been something sacred in my family about our Southern placed-ness. The food, the culture, the beliefs, and of course, the people. But I met a man from Alabama, and we both had big dreams. Thus began a new family journey: sensing God’s call in new places together.

Artist and activist Lucy Lippard has dealt with concepts of place in her work for decades. She writes, “Travel is the only context in which some people ever look around. If we spent half the energy looking at our own neighborhoods, we’d probably learn twice as much.”1 It was only in my teenage years that I came to realize that not everyone “looks around” as much as I do.

I am the kind of person who was born looking around—my sense of my own visual connection to the world is strong. I think many artists have this sensibility. Perhaps this is why I have always felt at home in nearly any location. I am easily placed because I give much attention to places. Don’t get me wrong—I love my hometown. I know it backwards and forwards. I can recall smells and breezes and the best hamburger steak in history (my mom’s). I know the swing sets and secret cut-throughs, the mothbally closet smells of my elementary friends’ houses, and the creaky bleachers of my high school gym. I belonged there. Not always because people welcomed me, but because I was deeply aware of the place. Lippard explores this special experience of locality: “The lure of the local is the pull of place that operates on all of us, exposing
. . . our spiritual legacies. It is the geographical component of the psychological need to belong somewhere, one antidote to a prevailing alienation.”2 The thing is, I have experienced nearly every place I’ve been in this same way. My sense of placed-ness does not discriminate. I always discover home in new places. Looking around can indeed be a link to our spiritual home and an antidote to alienation.

Shannon Sigler (headshot)

Shannon Sigler is the executive director of Fuller’s Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, where she leads a team of artists and scholars in developing resources and building relationships to serve the church and culture. She is a PhD student at the University of Manchester, where she is exploring a Wesleyan theological aesthetic. She earned her master’s degree in theological aesthetics from Asbury Theological Seminary, as well as a master’s degree from Boston University in arts administration. Find her work at ShannonSigler.com.

Placed-ness and the Incarnation
(How Leaving Makes a Home)

There is a specificity and an intimacy that comes from being placed—a camaraderie of shared customs and experiences. God did not create us for an abstract world where we float around as concepts of people thinking about concepts of flowers and foods and ocean scenes. Since the creation of time, humans have been deeply placed beings—within our communities and our own skin.

The Incarnation speaks to us about God’s own value of place and expands our understandings of the sentimental interpretations we often give to our localities. (Did you notice how many adjectives I used to describe my hometown?) The paradox of the Incarnation is that God became dis-placed so that we might be placed. The pastor and poet Charles Wesley put it best: “See the Lord of earth and skies/ Humbled to the dust he is/ And in a manger lies.”3 As imitators of Christ, we are placed more deeply and truly by becoming displaced. Wesley continues, “Emptied of his majesty/ Of his dazzling glories shorn/ Being’s source begins to be/ And God himself is born!” God makes his home with his people, and we are called to make our home with God, wherever that might be.

Shannon Sigler House Gallery Crop

When we carry our sense of incarnational placed-ness with us into unfamiliar territory, we carry a sort of “kingdom home”—an ability to thrive, whether in our hometown or in exile. We learn to look toward the new creation with sanctified eyes, and we seek the welfare of the place to which we’ve been sent in the in-between. We begin to “look around,” as Lippard states, at our new locality, revealing value. As God contracts to fit all of his glory into our world, our perspective of this world expands with love and grace, anticipating the new heavens and new earth.

Placed-ness and Art (Look for The Ones Who Look Around)

I’m not from Seattle, but Seattle is now my home. The work I’ve done with the Brehm Center began locally, here in the Pacific Northwest. In many ways, I believe the success of the Brehm Center’s work here hinges on our placed-ness. We’ve run an artist-church residency program for the past five years, focusing on building relationships between local congregations and local artists. Our curriculum is enculturated for the particularities of the Pacific Northwest.

In October 2019, I transitioned into the role of executive director for the Brehm Center. I’ve been lifting my eyes to the horizon beyond Seattle to see all of the people we serve in the United States, and globally. With this broadened perspective, I’ve grappled with how to serve our artists and churches well in all locations. (Consequently, I feel dislocated.) But “the dialectic between space and change can provide the kind of no-man’s-land where artists thrive,” Lippard reminds us.4 The Brehm Center exists in this “no-man’s-land.” We exist in intersections: between worship and art, between faith and culture, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, between your hometown and wherever God has called you. Creatives thrive in this displacement. Slowly, I’ve begun to see the Brehm Center as a resource for cultivating placed-ness in our individual communities.

In her book Placemaking and the Arts, Jennifer Allen Craft notes that, as Christians, “we are the ones whose place is simultaneously not of this world, and yet we are called to fully entrench within the world for the sake of those who are spiritually homeless.”5 Artists do this well. We “fully entrench,” for better or for worse. In this new season of leadership with the Brehm Center, I’ve felt God whisper, “Look for the ones who look around.” The Brehm Center is uniquely positioned to seek out and equip those in our communities who have the spiritual gift of sight—the gift of fully entrenching, even in “no-man’s-land.” We are called to equip the artists.

Shannon Sigler House Gallery

In an increasingly displaced world, with the rise of online learning and our current isolation birthed by the coronavirus, the arts can help us to see the beauty in our specific spaces—whether in a new, far-flung city or in our own homes. Our artists, in demonstrating and calling us toward a sanctified vision, can help us “look around” in places where we find ourselves, cultivating a new, deeper sense of home. With the Holy Spirit’s help, the arts teach us to turn alien spaces into welcoming places. We want to provide resources to help one another understand our exile, too, as a kingdom home.

I do still miss my hometown, especially now in the midst of quarantine, not knowing when I might return and hug my nephews and eat my mom’s hamburger steak. But I’m encouraged to find home where I am, and to run a center with the privilege and hope of supporting you all—pastors, worship leaders, songwriters, painters, chefs, dancers, and all creatives for such a displaced time as this. Can we look around together?

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