One afternoon, a young woman sat in my office asking about art classes at the seminary. Trained as a lawyer, she told me that she had been working for a program that provides essential services—health care, legal aid, food, and shelter—to homeless people. She said that she believed passionately in the work that she was doing, but that she came to realize that the most important part of the program was not filling these practical, immediate needs, but rather the art experiences that were also made available to the clients. Given paint, clay, or other materials, and the time and space to explore what they could do, the people became more than the sum of what they lacked. They remembered who they were at the deepest, most spiritual and honest level, and opened to the truth of their shared humanity. Now, my visitor told me, she wanted to learn to make art herself, to find out how to tell her own truth in visual art.
The need for art is not secondary, to be filled after people are adequately fed and housed, but rather a primary part of what it means to be human. Art is not only, or even primarily, about making one’s surroundings more attractive, or adding ornaments to an already satisfactory life. Art is an important pathway towards knowing oneself, of communicating that knowledge to others, and becoming an integral part of the human community.