Interview with Dr. Maria Fee | May 1, 2023

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Matthew: Well, hey everyone! We are so thankful and blessed to be talking to Dr Maria Fee right now in an interview. I am in Columbus, Ohio. Dr. Fee, where are you at the moment?

Maria: I’m in Queens, New York.

Matthew: Yeah? It’s a sunshiny day there?

Maria: It is a beautiful day. I’m looking at all these flowering trees out my window. It’s spring!

Matthew: Yeah, same! Same here. Well we are excited to chat with you today. You are an educator and an artist and a theologian with a PhD in Theology and Culture from Fuller. Wow! I’ll just start with that. I was saying earlier that I know a lot of people with doctorates and a lot of people with MFAs, but very few—and maybe just you—who has an MFA and a doctorate.

So, tell us a little bit about those three areas of your life and what do you enjoy doing. I like this question—maybe it’s a little bit cheesy—but what are you doing when you feel most alive? So, we’ll start with that.

Maria: What am I doing when I feel most alive? Um, I’m either making something or I’m appreciating something that someone else has made. That’s when I feel most alive. And usually that [making something] is the form of art or I’d like to just encompass that whole thing—that area of making—with the aesthetic, with the poetic. And so that’s when I feel most alive.

Matthew: Yeah.

Maria: And of course, that’s giving space for the Divine to show up, right?

Matthew: Yeah, absolutely.

Maria: Yes.

Matthew: So, what is your MFA in, and your doctorate; and and how do those work together for you?

Maria: Okay, so first was the MFA in painting long long time ago. I became a Christian and then I had this burning question: “Why is it that the experiences—this aliveness that I’m feeling in when I’m under the spell of the poetic—why is that different than the same thing [that] happens when I’m close to God, and why is there no language for that within my religious community? Why are those two mutual exclusives?”

And so that’s why I went back and I got a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies and an M.A in Theology: Just to figure out—just to get some basic theological training. I started working for an Arts Ministry, and all that just didn’t resolve my questioning. It actually posed more questions and that’s why I went back to get my PhD in Theology and Culture. So, the cultural part for me is Art. It’s combining or conjoining theological reflection with artistic reflection.

Matthew: Yeah, I love that. I’ve always heard that people learn best when they have a burning question that they really want to be answered and so you fit that bill perfectly.

Maria: Yes, and that’s what artists are doing: They’re investigating. They’re exploring. They’re asking the question:” Why? Why not? What if?” Theology does that. Art does that. So, I’m not sure why those two things are are not always being utilized together.

Matthew: Yeah. Well, before we dive any deeper into that—which we could talk about for a long time—Dr. Fee, you are connected with Spark and Echo Arts, in the past as a commissioned artist, but now also as a board member. So, can you just quickly tell us about how did you find out about Spark and Echo Arts? And why did you be decide to become a board member?

Maria: Oh, I got connected with Spark and Echo more than a decade ago when Emily and Jonathan were just—I think at that time they were getting their non-profit—I don’t even remember where they were at or what stage— but it was pretty early! And my colleague, Kenyan Adams, and myself—we were leading an Arts Ministry up in a pretty large church in New York City. So, we had a lovely lunch with Emily and Jonathan and that’s when I first became acquainted with them. But even as a professor doing theology and art courses, I would always steer my students to what Spark and Echo was doing as a model and also as a platform for their own theological—you know—introspection or examination or exploration.

Matthew: Yeah, great! So, then as a board member—how long have you been a board member?

Maria: Like a month? [Starts laughing]

Matthew: Oh! Yeah, okay.

Maria: I just got on board. [Laughs some more]

Matthew: But you don’t become a board member without believing in what what the organization’s doing. Tell us about that. What do you like about it and what would you like to see move forward?

Maria: Okay. Um, I have worked in several Christian institutions: mainly educational ones—you know, adjunct teaching—whatever, and churches. For myself, personally, I’ve witnessed—I’m a Protestant—so I’ve witnessed a faith with the propensity to be based on head knowledge or conforming of the will and it being an individual piety. And those are fine, I guess, but what is really needed are places to experience faith formation. Not to ‘know’ about faith, but to experience it—to have an encounter with God and with one another. Art can totally navigate these transactions—these Divine-human, human-human, human-to-place interactions. So that’s what motivates me to be a part on the board: is that Spark and Echo invests in artists who are creating these kind of poetic spaces to reflect and to enter into the narrative—into the biblical narrative.

Matthew: Yeah, that’s beautiful. We are twice a year in the midst of a fundraising campaign, and so that’s another place we are at the moment: looking ahead at late spring in the summer. You believe in what we’re doing. What are some reasons for people to contribute? What are reasons for people to help us financially to reach some of these goals that you’re talking about?

Maria: Sure. More than ever, right now we need the kind of spaces that art provides. I’m talking about actual, physical, tangible places—but also the kind of internal rooms within us where the Poetic reaches in and connects us to our souls, connects us to the souls of others, connects us to God, to the Divine, connects us to the world that God created, and so yes we need what artists can usher us into.

Matthew: Okay, yeah, I understand. Good, good, good! What do you like about being a board member? Sometimes be being a board member to the average person could sound boring or—you know—like a job to do. What do you like about it?

Maria: Well, I’m going to be selfish about it. I mean, in a way—you know—it gives me a platform to practice what I’ve been studying and doing, and that experience and that wisdom (or that kind of perspective as you will now) could be exercised; and that’s why I want to be on the board. I like to be on the board. So, that’s my main reason is to share—to be a part of a community that cares about the same things that I care about.

Matthew: Yeah!

Maria: That’s really valuable.

Matthew: The doing of it. It’s not just the philosophy. It’s part of your life now in action.

Maria: Yes, exactly. Exactly!

Matthew: Well, I promised I would do a little quick speed round just to get to know you in a different way Dr. Fee. I’m going to ask some really quick questions. I’m limiting you to one word! You can give a one-word answer.

Maria: Ah!

Matthew: Here we go with your favorite sweet treat. What do you like?

Maria: I’m really into dates lately. [Maria and Matthew both laugh.] They’re really sweet.

Matthew: I imagine you’ve been to a lot of museums in your life. Name a favorite. What’s a favorite museum of yours?

Maria: Well, I’m sorry my dissertation topic is Theaster Gates. He set up this cultural space in Chicago. So, if you’re in Chicago, please go to Stony Island Arts Bank in greater Grand Crossings in the south side of Chicago.

Matthew: Yeah! And if I’m not mistaken, this is the basis of a book that you’ve written. Is that correct?

Maria: Yes! Theaster Gates is my dissertation subject, but through his artworks I kind of construct a Theology of Hospitality. So, by looking at his work and what he’s been doing, he helps us to address God as being hospitable and therefore we should follow through also on these acts of stewardship and care and reviving people, places, and things.

Matthew: That’s beautiful. We’ll come back to that. And back to my list! A place you want to visit that you haven’t been yet.

Maria: You know, I just moved back to New York—to the east coast. I have yet to go to Beacon DIA, and that is on my list to do—to take a day to go up there and look at the art up there.

Matthew: Nice! And a favorite place that you have been to, maybe that you want to get back to.

Maria: Yeah, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of—yeah—you can go and go and go and see new things every single time.

Matthew: Yeah, I had the same issue with The Institute of Art in Chicago, so every time I went [there was] something beautiful and new. Favorite biblical character?

Maria: Hagar. [Delores] Williams’ account of Hagar in Sisters in the Wilderness: remarkable.

Matthew: Nice!

Maria: Yeah!

Matthew: Good! Well, getting back to the bigger picture, just about you as an artist: What’s the first time that you thought of yourself as an artist? Which, in my case, took a long time! I would say maybe I was 38 years old. That’s the point [when] I got an MFA and I thought I had the confidence to utter the words “I am an artist.” But for you, what was what was the first time you thought of yourself as an artist?

Maria: What you’re saying hits me as well. There’s the creativity or the creative investigation stuff that I love—always loved doing. I can remember making mud pies. Is that the first time that I thought I was an artist? Maybe when my kindergarten teacher hung up an image that I made of our dentist. Back then we had dentists in schools. [Maria laughs]

Matthew: Wow, yeah!

Maria: [continuing laughing] You know, was I an artisan then? Did I think of myself as an artist? I really did struggle even after an MFA of: “Am I an artist? Because I’m not showing. I don’t have a dealer. I’m not teaching art at a university level.” Those were the gates at the time of what it means to be an artist. So, I’ve had to grow into belief—in my belief as an artist. It took a long time: probably longer than 38 years old. I had to broaden the definition of what it means to be an artist.

Matthew: Yeah, I understand what you mean for sure. We are going to look at a piece of art that you’ve created. I think that people are interested in the idea of like: “What is the process? When you work with Spark and Echo do you read a passage and an idea comes to you, and then you put that idea down on paper with whatever medium?” I know it’s not that simple, right? And that’s not certainly not that linear, but I’m going to add this to our screen here for just a moment. [Matthew starts showing Dr. Fee’s painting, Panegyric.]

You created this some time ago, right?

Maria: Oh yeah! A long time ago—more than a decade ago. Gosh. That’s probably 2010 that I created that.

Matthew: Yeah.

Maria: A painting—when I was still painting. I’m doing more 3D work now. So, uh, okay, to your question of the process: “Do you find a…”

Matthew: Yeah, for Spark and Echo, do you—of course you can choose a passage—but maybe, you know, maybe you already have an idea for a passage, or maybe you read through the available passages and something comes to you. Do you remember how it went for you for this?

Maria: Sure. Well, here’s the thing: Making things gives me the space for my head to ruminate and so the things that I’m ruminating on could be multiple, but theologically at that time I was really wrestling with this idea of the One and the Many. How could we be one body, yet each one of us are particular? So, I was really struggling with how, in at the time as an Evangelical, the ‘many’ meant ‘cookie cutter.’ “We all have to look the same.” The One meant that we all had to be the same, think the same look the same, sound the same. And so my paintings were a way of allowing for diversity amid plurality, and the image of one-in-the many allowed me to do that. Paul talks about that. Paul’s body-life that he talks about in Corinthians, and he expands on that: “We need evangelists, we need teachers, we need—you know—the prophetic” in order to be one body with many different parts. Those are the things that were going on in my head as I was making this body of work. And this is what the visual manifestation of all those ideas [looked like].

Now, sometimes, I don’t even know what I’m doing. I’m just playing. In the studio I’m making work and I might hear a lecture or read something and I’m like, “Ah that’s what I was struggling with!” The work kind of went ahead of me to show me something that I was striving towards, if you can understand that. Sometimes the work was prophetic in that it was moving ahead of me—uh—before my thoughts. It was pre-verbal!

Matthew: Well I know it’s a possibly dangerous question to ask an artist to explain their art. I understand that, but do you mind, if we’re looking at this image together? It’s symbolic for some reasons, for sure. Can you go a little bit down that road and and help us frame what you were thinking?

Maria: Yeah, the circular Motif, the organic nature—all those—the circuit, the circles, are organic. They represent the organic. “Organic’ means fluidity and flexibility, growth. So, they all have that, those connotations, but the circle for me, in my mind, also represented a body—you know—the One. And I love it how, with paint—because of the plasticity of paint—and the movement and you can rub out or you can paint over—how the One in that’s always—it’s not fixed, right? It’s transformed. It could get nudged here, formally, on the flat surface. So, I also love the idea of working and reworking a painting, the process of it. That is also representative of how we live in community life: that it isn’t simple, that it is rough. So, all these things are at play through the visual. The concept and the form meet together to kind of collide with these ideas.

Matthew: Yeah. The the color palette is so vibrant. Can—I’ll just ask one last question about that: the the colors that you chose. How do they fit with the spiritual truth?

Maria: Ah, well, maybe they fit more with my personality. I think I allow myself to be really playful. I could play when I’m an artist. That’s not necessarily true in my real life, like, my family says I don’t have a sense of humor because I’m always so serious. [laughing] So, I think for me the color is one way of representing that Joy. Yeah, even though there’s a lot of strain and reaching and work, the joy comes out of a lot of pain.

So, I think for me, it’s really important to have that. Like, the hand? The hand, the dripping, the mess is part of play. The toning, the intensity of the colors are really important. It’s hard for me to get rid of the color. I love it.

Matthew: Oh, I love it, yes. The color is so vibrant and beautiful and speaks to exactly what you’re talking about. That’s beautiful. Alright, I’m gonna switch [the image] back out of the screen and just ask you some of your influences. You’ve transitioned a little bit from painting into, um, I’ll call it more 3D work.

Maria: Right, right.

Matthew: How did you make that transition and who’s been an influence in your life?

Maria: Sure! Uh, I made the transition basically because I am an educator and a theologian. I have very little time to have a wide block of time to make art. A painter really needs that wide amount—that big chunk of time—to respond and to do the process, right? I didn’t have that luxury. So, I had to shift into the collage mode. I work on paper and this allowed me to do little parts—15 minutes here, an hour here, four hours here. It allowed me to kind of break up those time limits so that I can build things instead and construct things. That’s one reason I went into the 3D, but I also found that I loved layering. Through paint, I love seeing the previous iterations of the painting come through and so I felt like that had space in a way. So, I started making that space real, and the paper allowed me to do that. So, that’s how I got into it. I would love to next go into installation work. Maybe it will happen. I just had to show up at in Seattle. Getting there—pretty close [to] doing installation work. So, of course the Astro Gates is a huge influence, not just in the forms but in the concepts of why I make art.

Matthew: Could you explain that term for us?

Maria: Sure! So, formally he does so many things so I can’t— He’s an installation artist. He’s a potter. He does performances. He is a social practice artist. He has dinners—you know food and buildings are part of his medium. But his philosophy is that it takes the material to talk about or to understand the immaterial, and also that the hand is really important. The process of making things, the process of building, the process of labor informs you in such a way—it gives you a kind acuity of wisdom. And so the hand is really important for me and Theaster Gates has given me articulation of of why that is important. He has this pedagogy of the hand [that] he calls “freaking the pot.” He’s a potter, so—you know—you have to make 10,000 pots in order to get that handle right, right? So, that practice is just as important and vibrant in being an artist.

So, formally, conceptually, I love the work of Howardena Pindell. She was a Black artist in the Black Arts Movement in the 70s and only now coming to light. She uses again the circular. In her early work she used the circular—the circle—as a concept, again, not only the organic but the ritual cutting and making and using that to refer to more African ritualistic cutting and the process of making. So, I’m very much informed by her work; and also the installations of El Anatsui from Ghana/Nigeria; Leonardo Drew, a New York artist; I love the LA artist Lauren Halsey who incorporates community in her work; and I love the installations of Sheila Hicks. Then, the earlier female artists, Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse Hessa, and their understanding of the domestic and the hand-building are just as necessary in their in their artworks.

Matthew: Yeah. Yes, there’s nothing new Under the Sun. In a way, I have found as an artist, we are taking from all that we have experienced. That’s wonderful.

Maria: Yes! I mean, it’s the same thing with theology. Theologians are in conversation with other theologians—usually dead ones. But, in the same way, artists—I’m always in conversation. Visual conversation. I make my students recognize who they are visually and conceptually in conversation with when they’re creating their thesis project because we don’t create out of a vacuum. We have to acknowledge that our creativity is borrowed and stolen. Even when we think about our colonial past—I mean, yeah—literally stolen. So, these things we have to be aware of. And, you know? That’s the nature of art.

Matthew: I heard the phrase: “The most creative person is the one who hides his or her sources the best.”

Maria: Oh boy, I don’t know! That’s a Woo! We’d have to unpack that one.

Matthew: Let’s end with this, which I think is a really important question, is: Why is Art important to people of Faith, or why should it be important to people of Faith? I recently read an article by the president there at the institution near Moody. He was talking about how the church sometimes discourages artists by—you know—always wanting art to be celebratory, or always wanting art to be clear in what it is and what it’s trying to accomplish, not paying artists very well. He created this pretty long list of things. Why is it important to the Church or why is it important to people of faith that they encounter art, experience art, or maybe even make art?

Maria: Oh man! It will take all day for me to answer that question. I just did a workshop with pastors—eight pastors—about a year ago.

Matthew: Did you?

Maria: Yes. It was my covert way of getting pastors to experience art-making. Because you can know about art, right? But to experience making it and experience—[and] learn how to look at it, that’s a different thing.

Matthew: Yeah.

Maria: All eight [pastors] at the end—[I] had to interview them—were amazed that they were creative. They thought creativity is in the realm of the Artist. So, for them it gave them a creative voice that they didn’t know that they had, and by doing so it empowered them to let others have that same creative voice. So, that is the number one reason why it should be in our seminaries. Seminarians should be learning how to not only address that creative voice but unleash it within the congregations.

Matthew: They found that they had a creative voice, but I’ll push on this button: Why is it important for a person of faith to know that they are a creative person or have a creative voice?

Maria: Um, because art, like the scriptures—and the scriptures are literature, it’s a piece of artwork—it causes us to deeply reflect on our human estate. It helps us to remind us that we’re human. But it does so with exposed hope. So, when we are in the midst of good art, we want to respond in some way. It causes us to act.

When we’re in the middle of listening to good art or making good art—why we need it right now is that it it builds resilience build resilience.

Matthew: It builds resilience!

Maria: Yeah, it builds resilience. It reminds us that we are human, and that we have, you know— If you can make something—a product—like Gates says, it teaches us that number one: we have the capability to create, to make something out of the world, including a mess. If you take dirt from the ground and add some water and make it into a vessel, that informs you in a way: that it doesn’t take much to make a lot to make something big and grand. We need to remember. We need to have—that that muscle needs to be exercised and that has been long neglected in Western World. You know, art programs are the first to be cut out of schools. That depletes the imagination. That depletes our creative ability and innovation. So, we need the experience of making art to remind us to be human and remind us that we have agency.

Matthew: Yes!

Maria: It also is a form of communication. It informs us of other people. It allows us to have empathy. Like, if we read a story or see a dramatic play or something that, it puts us in someone else’s shoes.

Matthew: Yeah.

Maria: Therefore we have to be transformed. The Liturgy is a work of art. I mean, the Table, our Eucharist, our Baptism, were meant to be pieces of artwork that causes us to reflect on our state so that we can change.

Matthew: Yeah.

Maria: These were dramatic acts that we do corporately to acknowledge our brokenness amid God’s love.

Matthew: Yeah.

Maria: That is transformational. And so these are all the reasons why we need art. We need art not to know about God, but to feel Him and encounter God. And one another.

Matthew: Yeah!

Maria: And the world that He created!

Matthew: Well, you made me think of the painting that you created. That’s exactly—I’m putting it back on the screen—that’s exactly the kind of thing we’re talking about. This had a name, by the way. Do you remember the name of this particular piece?

Maria: Not at all. [She laughs.] I do not remember.

Matthew: Okay, no problem.

Maria: [Continues laughing.] Probably—I don’t know—“The One and the Many.” Probably something like that. I don’t know.

Matthew: Well, I’ll ask a final question—just bringing it back to Spark and Echo, and your place on the board and your leadership. We’re thankful for that, Doctor Fee. Thank you for partnering with us, for sure! What are some of your—what’s a hope that you have for spark and Echo moving into the future?

Maria: Um, wow. A hope that I have is that it could be a platform to all the things that I expressed about art just now. That Spark and Echo would be the platform for other people to experience that, and for other people to invest in it through creative works.

Again, it’s a resource that I pointed to my students. So, I think it’s a wonderful resource for institutions, Christian institutions, professors. I use it as a meditation—devotional time before classes. So, I could see the potential of this being in educational institutions; but on the secular side, it is an investment in a literature that historically artists have responded to.

Matthew: Yes.

Maria: So, it needs to continue that long history of artists invoking a Biblical imagination or a Biblical worldview, or even expressing a view that might be a different view, but somehow there’s something in the narrative or the story that is intriguing—that needs exploration. So even in a secular way, that hears a piece of Western history, that is important. Artists are still need[ed] to respond to it. We need the artists to respond to it because it needs to be unpacked and different dimensions of it need to be seen in different ways than what traditionally has been seen.

Matthew: Yeah! Dr. Fee, thank you for your time.

Maria: Yes!

Matthew: And I’ll say it again: Thank you for your service to Spark and Echo Arts. We’re so glad to have you aboard, no pun intended. [They both chuckle .] Blessings on you today and your beautiful art making and the theology that comes so closely with it.

Maria: Thank you, Spark and Echo! Thank you, Matthew!

Matthew: Yeah! Blessings to you. Take care.

Marie: Bye.

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