Updated: Jun 25, 2022
“…the pilgrim's first yearning is in the heart, deeply and inwardly, sometimes for years before the outward journey begins.”
—Dr. Shirley A. Kukawa-Holbrook
Yearning and longing, are words that characterize my younger life, though the sad child-me was not aware of it. Little did I know that in my thirties, this longing would bloom into a search for the spiritual, and my work and passion for the arts eventually led me to a quest for the spiritual in art in our time. It was the beginning of a wonderful adventure with more surprises. First, wearing my gallerist/curator hat, I connected with many artists working in different forms, and I was certain I would eventually find the approach or the genres in art that would most speak to my sense of the spiritual—perhaps one that would speak in the same manner that others were also discovering. One illuminating experience is what I called “Doing Art For the Earth.”
And then came the biggest surprise of my life! In 1986, I was called to speak as an artist. Right away, my language, as well as the forms I chose to work in, had a spiritual bent: Ritual. Pilgrimage. I always referred to The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande as a ‘ritual performance’ and the book that described my ritual performance was titled riveries: Pilgrimage to the Rio Grande. Certainly, the river where I did my monthly performance for seven years was new territory for me. Born in Paris, where I lived until I came to America at age 25, I had not ‘played’ in rivers as a child.
“Pilgrims are persons in motion passing through territories not their own—seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way.”
—H. Richard Niebuhr, Theologian
I was a person in motion walking down an unusual landmark, a dry riverbed. I began in the endangered Santa Fe River, a tributary of the Rio Grande, walking my way to the Great River. I put a lot of intention and attention in my steps and let the “spirit’s compass” be my guide. Such a compass does not arise from the intellect. It is more an inner knowing that you trust and surrender to. Things happen, and then the next and the next… not unlike walking. As crazy as it may sound, you begin with a great trust in your path, and then it clarifies what this inner guidance was about; eventually, there is something you learn from the experience.
The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande was followed by The Most Precious Jewel. Both works involve repetitions over many weeks or many months, even years, not unlike walking. Then, there were the works formally conceived as pilgrimages, Pilgrimage to the Wild and Allons Les Enfants, whereby children, sick and tired of the state of the world and adults’ non-actions, take off for the wild. With their little bundles hung from their pilgrim staffs, they are off for solace and inspiration.
“I suppose that is why pilgrims always make their journeys: to learn, to participate, to uncover new understandings and to generate new commitments.”
—James A. Michener, Pilgrimage: A Memoir of Poland and Rome, 1990
I was not seeking anything. It was more an inner prompting I could not not heed. My “feet-on-the-ground-spirituality” (a term coined by Jan Sutch Pickard of the Iona community) is in fact part of a growing art genre, The Walking Arts. With Rivers Run Through Us (2012-2020), my dear collaborators, Valerie Martinez and Bobbe Besold, agreed that walking the whole length of the Santa Fe River (54 miles) was the best way to launch our project, which was meant to rally our community’s care and commitment toward protecting our dying river. As artists, we were making a special line drawing with our feet, which was laden with our love. “A line is a dot that went for a walk,” (Paul Klee).
Wikipedia defines “pilgrimage” as a person’s journey or search for a new or expanded meaning about their self, others, nature, or a higher good, to which I’d add “a connection that transforms living.” This reminds me that before, I titled my book “The heartist’s Secret,” it was called “The heartist: When Life and Art Become One.”
Pilgrimage is a universal impulse. Think of our ancestors who walked for untold generations as they migrated out of Africa. Study many of the religions of the world (Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism) and see that pilgrimage is a spiritual tradition, sometimes imposed, as in Islam. See the growing popularity of secular pilgrimages today. This walking as searching is in our DNA. Start walking, your steps imprinted with your heart!