Coming Alive

By: Martha Jane Petersen


Startling doors of synchronicity and Providence have swung open for me as I have found people and opportunities in the area of my bliss. I met Penelope Starr at an art and creativity conference in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 1993. When we ate our box lunches together, I pondered why a passion for art making had gripped me late in my life, in my fifties. She shared a story about her mother I never forgot.  Her mother  had told her children that when they left the nest, she was going to “fly away.” At age 60 she became a professional photographer, a career that lasted 20 years. I have hugged that story deep within my heart and retrieve it when I question the direction of my life. 


In the years following the encounter with Penelope I became the artist who was struggling to be born. For a while I explored painting. However, I didn’t find my “voice” until I delved into art quilts at Penland School of Craft, beginning in 1996. Art quilts arise from my imagination, not a book of quilt patterns. They adorn a wall, not a bed. Traditional quilts always challenged me with their precise measurements and stitching. In art quilts I found the freedom to tear fabric, make collages, impose layer upon layer, hand stitch with embroidery floss, and embellish with beads, cording and even natural objects.  


I have continued quilt making steadily in and among pastoral and domestic concerns. Just the right person casually met in a workshop helped trigger a new design.  A rare visit to a particular fabric store solved my dilemma in quilt composition.  An acquaintance in Georgia opened the door for me to show my quilts when I moved to North Carolina. I am amazed at this juncture how my art has developed and been viewed, not only where I live, but also in Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.


My pursuit of visual art has not been a constant onward and upward endeavor. Bumps in the road invariably confound my journey. Initially, when I was viewing it as a calling, my spouse considered my engagement in art as a hobby..  He clearly was not the biggest obstacle on this new path. It was I who manufactured one hindrance after another. Guilt deterred me more than once. Who was I to find joy and energy in my studio when I clearly knew of suffering, needy people out in the world? How could I isolate myself from obvious need? I have met many artists who wrestle with these questions. I have come to believe, though, that artists nurture a hunger in the soul as much as others feed hungry bodies.  When I can feed the spiritual hungers of others, they in turn will serve in capacities that I cannot. The world will notice the difference. 


Another hindrance arose when I felt that, without a formal degree in art, my work would never be good enough to appear in public. I debated about going for a Masters in Fine Arts. I relinquished this struggle upon finding many self-taught artists around me – artists who exhibited, sold their work and were known. Many quilters I discovered are self-taught, as I am by attending workshops and quilt guilds which offer inspiration and instruction. 


I have also realized that different stages in life may call forth different gifts and interests. I am free to embrace each one at my doorstep, knowing I cannot do them all. At one point I became a nurse and served for 16 years as a Presbyterian mission co-worker in Taiwan, Ghana and Nigeria with my husband. I became an ordained Presbyterian minister upon our return to the U. S. I formerly pursued writing, and wrote a novel, poetry and articles. Later, I turned my back on writing in order to welcome art into my life.  Ignoring one gift at the expense of another, however, generated no small amount of misgivings since I remembered Flannery O’Connor saying, “A gift is a considerable responsibility.” What gifts may next emerge? Who knows. In my seventies, I still ponder: What does God want me to do with the rest of my life?


Passion has led me into the gift of art, and I believe it will continue to lead me into what God would have me do. I used to think that God’s longing for us consisted of doing the hard and odious thing, something totally against our grain. No more. I resonate with Frederick Buechner’s guideline for finding one’s vocation, which he says is that place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. After all, God endows us with that deep gladness and that energy plus treasured gifts to point us in the right direction. We have no choice, really, concerning the gifts given to us. We need only to honor them, cultivate them to the best of our ability, and share them with the wider community. When color, design and artistic composition appeared on my horizon and created a passionate response I knew I had to follow it.


My vocation lies in ministry, art making and more recently, a return to writing of a memoir about my journey into art.  I have struggled with balancing and integrating these efforts in my ongoing life. On two occasions I served churches in an arts ministry, and today I am part of an arts team in a local Presbyterian church. Presently, I preach twice a month in my husband’s tiny church. Juggling all these roles along with the concerns of family life requires me to protect that sanctuary of quiet and solitude where I write and make quilts.  I find that no part of my life needs to be an obstacle to another; rather one part can vitalize the other.  It means taking turns in the use of one gift and then another. My life at times resembles a crazy quilt, full of surprises and ambiguities. I view my quilts as an integral visual part of my usually verbal ministry. I therefore prefer showing them than selling them.  When I show them, groups have asked me to talk about them and my creative process. This, along with leading workshops and retreats on art and spirituality, enables others to recognize their artistic longings and claim them.


When I am designing a quilt – juxtaposing these fabrics and that combination of colors – I am involved in a discernment process. I try various compositions, sometimes for days at a time. I look for a rush of rightness in the design that brings a great A-ha! welling up from within.  I feel an excitement and pleasure when I discover new ways to embroider metallic threads braided with satin cording, or embellish with beads of stone or glass, or include paper stamped with images.  When an experimental, original design expresses what’s in my imagination and  comes together and works, I am reassured that an inner energy has led me to a good resolution.


When the design is complete, I listen to music as I assemble the quilt, sitting, stitching and beading. I enter a contemplative space in which I feel enfolded by a holy presence. The activity becomes the equivalent of a sit in meditation when I experience the Creator’s energy inspiring and supporting me, both in designing and assembling. When people ask me where do my ideas for quilts come from, or how do I begin, I can honestly respond “God only knows!”


For me, art making has become a spiritual practice. I cannot not do it. I am impoverished if I omit it. Because of my privilege to create art, I smile more. I intentionally notice things. I have a buoyant bounce in my steps. I expect surprises. The energy I have seems to increase my energy. I take care of my body, for I want this venture to last until I am at least eighty, along with Penelope’s mother. Everyday, I wake up overflowing with gratitude.


When I spoke with Penelope almost fifteen years ago, I had asked why I was being pulled toward art. Now I would say that this gift was given to endow my older years with zest and vitality. Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that. Because what the world needs is people who are alive.” Indeed. In my bones, in my heart, I feel I have truly come alive through creating art. It must be apparent to others. My spiritual guide once said to me, “I don’t know if God is doing art through you. But God is certainly doing you through art.”


Thanks be to God.                              


Martha Jane Petersen, an ordained Presbyterian (USA) minister, although retired,   preaches and leads worship occasionally, writes, creates art quilts, and assists art endeavors in local churches and the Presbyterian Conference Center in Montreat, NC. She lives with her husband in Black Mountain NC; her email address is

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker