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Working with wonder

TheoArtistry researchers James Ursell, Michael Thames, and Jen Schmidt have experimented with a variety of techniques and approaches to the concept of ‘wonder.’ Here, they discuss the nature of their project, their perspectives on working in creative collaboration, and how TheoArtistry has influenced their relationship with art.


Our TheoArtistry project began with the word ‘wonder’. We began by tossing back and forth ideas on how ‘wonder’ is portrayed in art, philosophy, religion, and culture, realising that our differing perspectives offered a multitude of ways we could approach it. Eventually we decided to think about the process: the initial spark, the formation of a question, and the build of interest. As we’ve brainstormed together but created apart, we decided to reflect on this process as individuals.

1. What sparked your interest in the TheoArtistry project?

James Ursell: Prosaic language fails to do justice to the profundity of religious experience (or, indeed, any intense or life-changing experience). I’ve long been interested in whether and how art can better express, communicate, and help one to understand such experiences.

Michael Thames:Art’s enormous potential for meaning-making and truth-telling has fascinated me for quite some time. The TheoArtistry project provides for a bifocal engagement with theology and the arts, exploring both theory and creation – an irresistible opportunity for a person such as myself.

Jen Schmidt:I wanted to be a part of the active conversation between artistic practice and theology that TheoArtistry offers, and was further interested in the inclusion of non-divinity students and their additional perspectives.

2. How have you found the collaborative process?

JU:We’ve had some fascinating discussions and I’ve learned a lot from Michael and Jenna, both of whom are inspiring and humbling artists in their own right.

MT:It’s certainly different kind of collaboration to what I am used to, but one which positively stretches and engages. I’ve often left our meetings genuinely excited about our discussions on wonder, even rushing to find someplace where I can either write out my thoughts or contemplate how to best artistically express them.

JS:I’ve enjoyed the discourse with James and Michael, and I think it’s offered some really intriguing ideas on the concept of wonder and questioning in the human psyche, and how we can not only chase those ideas but express them artistically as well as academically. We’re coming from different religious and philosophical backgrounds, and I’ve enjoyed hearing their takes on these ideas.

3. How has the project informed your artistic practice?

JU:I’m not actually an artist, but have found the collaboration process very inspiring.

MT:In photography, you can only ever work with what is in front of you. But all art, and especially theologically valent art, doesn’t just depict—it gestures. I am always trying to learn how to better capture any given scene’s character as I see it. My TheoArtistry experience is helping me to better tap into that deeper part of my own soul which responds not only to wonder but also the object toward which it points.

JS:It’s helped me try to think about how people read poetry and see art from a non-artistic view. I’ve always approached art as how am experiencing it—wanting to note the process or technique behind it. But wonder often eliminates that initial response of the creator and demands us to simply be in awe, and that asks for a different approach when you create that kind of art yourself.

Ultimately, our collaboration revolved around the rich discussions we had with one another about the academic, artistic, and social projects already done on ‘wonder’, and our own growing contribution to those.

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