Sacred Artist Interview: Matthew Whitney

By Christine Valters Paintner

I first discovered Matthew Whitney's art through the Image Journal's email newsletter. I loved Matthew's work and was delighted to find out he is also a fellow Seattleite. I am grateful to Matt for his thoughtfulness and willingness to share his insights into the connections between the spiritual journey and the creative process.

Are you rooted in a particular faith tradition?
I believe in one God the Creator, who created the world good and beautiful. I believe that human sin broke the beauty and corrupted the world, but that Christ redeemed it by the act on the cross. Thus, despite the corruption, we live in a good, beautiful world.

What is your primary medium?
I make pictures, specifically oil paint on canvas.

How do you experience the connection between spirituality and creativity?
I consider spirituality to be a very real thing -- a combination of the use of our senses with the soul to achieve awareness of that which is Good. For a long time I thought spirituality was something "real," yet beyond reality, as if it were some sort of magical, out-of-body experience, or having God appear like lightning out of the sky. Some of my paintings attempt to tackle this idea. What I've discovered for myself is that the opposite is true -- what makes us spiritual beings is simply being aware of the gift of our humanity. God created us human and he created this world for the human soul to experience. So, I find it is a natural reaction for us to be creative, and to make art about this gift of our humanity, of being humans living in Creation.

What role does spiritual practice have in artmaking?
I think spiritual practice is about being aware of our humanity. Being alive, and seeing the good in it, is spiritual practice. Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." For me it's more like, "I am, therefore I am." Or, "I like the smell of a strong cup of coffee and to see the steam rise off it on a freezing cold morning, therefore I am." Making art is a uniquely human activity -- it is about pursuing a heightened awareness of our soul, and of our place in the world. To use a cliché, it's a means to "stop and smell the roses."

What sparked your spiritual journey?
The need to answer questions of spirituality for myself. I wondered whether we were truly spiritual beings. I wonder what is True and what is really Real? I have found for myself that without God and the grace of a redeemed world, we really are just animals that bounce off one another in an existential cosmos. I simply cannot accept that. There is something higher that motivates us, moves us; something further than what we can see in front of us, but we know in our hearts it's there. Animals don't make art, and they don't practice faith. We are made uniquely and with a yearning for God. When confronted with questions about spirituality, I always quote my favorite poem, Raymond Carver's "In Switzerland," where he ends it with:

All of us, all of us, all of us

Trying to save
our immortal souls, some ways
seemingly more round-
about and mysterious than others.

We're having a good time here

but hope all will be revealed soon.

What sparked your artistic journey?
It started with an ability to draw. All through life, I made friends by drawing cool pictures. I yearned for the school projects that involved dioramas, posters, etc. However I never really dreamed of being an artist. Not to sound like a stereotypical Christian, but if I look back at the events of my life, I feel like I've been led to be a painter. I never believed that being an artist would ever amount to anything, and so I tried to find "comfortable" career paths for myself. Yet despite having worldly success in these paths, I never found any satisfaction or contentment with those careers. Events in my life kept pulling me back to the easel, and a blank canvas to cover with paint. It's there that I find satisfaction with my life.

Do you have a particular process you use when entering into your artmaking?