An Eternal Quality

By Matthew Wheelock

At the beginning of March of 2020, just before the nation and the world began shutting down due to the pandemic, I was able to realize a long held desire to visit the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY. My wife and I had planned to visit the Abbey one afternoon and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University the next day. While our visits to each were brief, they made a lasting impression and especially informed the direction I saw myself going with creative projects. 

My spiritual and creative journeys seem to have been closely intertwined throughout my life. I had gone from chanting with the devotees of the Hare Krishna movement as a teenager to sitting silently with the Quakers, as well as entering into the deep quiet of the Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox church. I grew attached to certain images and themes in all of these paths: the two headed clay drum called a mridanga, used in the Krishna Bhatki tradition; the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, prayer ropes and the veneration of icons in the Orthodox church; from Quaker spirituality and later Centering Prayer, a love of silence in many forms. I began experimenting with drawing and touching on some of these themes, especially ideas of rhythm and repetition, back in 2015. Using a kind of spontaneous process, I connected lines on the page. Patterns emerged, but also nods to experience. More recently, I’ve committed to a series of ‘prayer rope’ drawings. While these pieces do have a visual beginning and end, I’ve also understood them to have an eternal quality. Seeing that kind of changed everything about how and what I do as an artist.

I’ve never felt quite comfortable with labeling myself as an artist, often feeling like I lacked natural ability or a solid grasp of quality mediums. I preferred to work in crude styles and embraced imperfections as a by-product of improvisation, so perhaps not mistakes at all. I may have lucked out never having to rely on creating art as a full time job (I’ve worked in grocery stores for the last 25+ years), and I think that fact helped me feel the push to change what happens before and after I create art.  Acknowledging the simple nature of what I create,I try to keep the art accessible, with an emphasis on connection not transaction. Which led me to decide that starting in March of this year, each month I would donate all sales of artwork to different groups and organizations. I have a good friend at the St Joseph St Francis Catholic Worker house here in Cincinnati, so that seemed like a natural place to start. I plan to donate all sales to St Lydia’s House in April, another community associated with the Catholic Worker movement, that works to offer stability to women and children in crisis. This has begun to feel like a real adventure, as I work to pull myself out of the center, and pull others into a stream of quiet acknowledgement. Do we see and hear one another?

Despite my reservations in thinking of myself as an artist, I do wish to express my gratitude for the many artists’ whose work have become wonderful companions to the communities that they sprang from or became associated with. I’m thinking of Ade Bethune and Rita Corbin and their work for the Catholic Worker newspaper. As well as Emory Douglas’ work with the Black Panther Party. More locally (Greater Cincinnati) I’ve been inspired by the work of Megan Suttman, Brianna Kelly and Ashley McGrath, whose work uniquely celebrates nature, Spirit and community. 

I’ve long tried to engage my creative life with a contemplative spirit, but I feel like I’m just beginning to explore how it might be used to connect with other people in deep and meaningful ways.

Matthew Wheelock lives in Cincinnati, OH with his wife and three children. When not wandering the aisles of the grocery store he works at, he can be found drawing, putting together zines of his friends’ writing, and hoping to spend a lot of time out in the garden. Check out his art here.

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