Art Form Methodology

“Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand,”

–Chinese saying–


By the time I was serving in my second pastoral assignment I realized that some of my pastoral visits were exciting and meaningful while others seemed to go nowhere. What puzzled me was the fact that I had no clue as to why one call went so well and the other did not. It wasn’t until I learned the use of a guided conversation method developed by the Ecumenical Institute called the art-form methodology that I realized what gave the possibility of a meaningful conversation every time. The method is used to guide a conversation step by step from surface level objective data to the far deeper level of making decisions about our lives and turning those decisions into action..


A Medical Illustration

This method is not new. The medical profession has been using it for centuries in helping persons reach healing and wholeness in the physical and psychological dimensions of life. There are four steps to the process. First is the gathering of objective data. Secondly, feelings are probed. Thirdly, a diagnosis is made on the basis of the data from the first two steps. The final step is deciding what needs to be done.

The first step in this medical illustration includes asking questions and doing a variety of tests to determine the objective realities of the disease or physical breakdown. The second level of data focuses on how a person feels. These two types of data, when combined, create a high probability for an accurate assessment of the problem. If the patient says that his/her arm hurts and the x-ray shows a fracture of that arm bone, then the patient and doctor can move to the third level with confidence that the diagnosis is accurate. If there is a disconnect between the objective data and the feeling data, another medical specialist, possibly a psychologist or psychiatrist, is usually brought in and the process probes for new objective and feeling level data.

The third level has to do with meaning. In this illustration the meaning is the diagnosis. “You have a broken arm.” After the meaning has sunk in it is time for the fourth level to begin.

The fourth level addresses what will be done. Part of that doing will be done by the medical team. A cast will be put on the broken arm and medications will be prescribed to alleviate the pain. The second part of the doing will be acted upon by the patient. A part of the “sinking in” preparation before the doing will be for the patient to ask: 1) what are the things I will not be able to do and for how long? 2) What kind of help do I already have at my disposal to get me through this time of healing and who else will I need to fill the gaps? The patient’s doing will begin after the doctor has put on the cast and written the prescription for the medicines and physical therapy. The patient’s doing will include everything needed to address the answers to the two question listed above. It will also include taking the medication in the dosage recommended, doing the physical therapy and lining up the additional help needed during the convalescent period.

All four levels of the conversation are required to arrive at a satisfactory solution to the medical situation. Let us now look at how the art form method might be used by a church leader with a group of persons to penetrate the deeps of human experience with the hope of arriving at a sense of healing and wholeness.



A Personal Illustration

My first experience of the art form methodology was as a participant in the Parish Leadership Colloquy. It was a course designed for clergy by the Ecumenical Institute of Chicago. We gathered for lunch on the second day of the four day event. At the end of each meal the leadership always led us in a conversation. The focus for this conversation was a print of a famous painting by Pablo Picasso—Guernica.

I had seen the print before. My immediate reaction was, “They are going to ask us questions about this painting, and I am not going to participate.” The only thing I planned on saying was that I didn’t like modern art and I didn’t understand modern art. But the first question asked was, “What’s one object you see in the painting?” They asked each one of us to answer that question moving from person to person all the way around the table. By the time they got to me, I realized I could name an object that had not been mentioned. The second question was, “What color do you see in the painting?” My immediate reaction was, “I don’t see any color”, but some one said, “I see grey”. Someone else saw black, and someone else saw white.

With the next question I realized we had just moved to a different level. The question was, “What emotion do you see in the painting?” Although I didn’t answer the question, I knew that I could answer the question. The next question was, “What emotion do you experience when you look at this painting?” I could have answered that question also.

When we were asked to think of the sound we heard coming from the painting, as a group, we were told that on the count of three, we were to all make the sound we heard. A very loud combination of screams and moans came out of the group.

There were a number of other questions asked that seemed to push ever more deeply. When they asked us, “Where would you hang this painting in your home?” we were all expected to answer this question. When it came around to me, I said I would roll it up and stick it in the garage. The last question that was asked of every participant was, “If you were in a bus going by the situation depicted by this piece of art, what would you say to it?”

Six months after this experience, I realized that Picasso’s painting had represented to me a combination of disaster, chaos, and pain. I learned that the painting was created as a protest against the Dictator of Spain giving permission to Adolph Hitler to experiment with a newly created tactic called saturation bombing. The community of Guernica was chosen because it was a stronghold of the Basque forces that were a constant thorn in the side of Franco’s military. And then it hit me. When I was called upon to respond to a family crisis, it usually included disaster, chaos and pain. When I remembered what I had said about where I would hang the painting in my home, I realized what I had really said. I was very uncomfortable standing present to the reality of disaster, chaos or pain.

I then decided to do two things. First, I had to clarify for myself what it is about the “Good News” that enables persons to live a meaning filled life in the midst of overwhelming difficulties. Secondly, I had to buy a copy of Guernica and hang it next to the inside door of my church office so that I would look at it every time I left the office. Guernica would remind me of both the reality of pain and the Good News which can bring hope and healing in every tragic situation. It would remind me of the trust people had placed in me to bring a word of hope and healing to their situation.

Over the next 20 years of my ministry I was invited into countless homes to share in both the joyful celebrations and the painful struggles encountered by all of us. I also came to see why the art-form methodology was so helpful in the process of communicating with one another..

When we enter into conversation we have decided to be vulnerable. We tend to increase the intensity of vulnerability very slowly. If no one is really guiding the conversation we usually start with non-threatening comments like the weather or sports. All too often the conversation never goes any deeper. If trust begins to develop, it becomes alright to speak of things that touch our emotions—love, hate, fear and serenity. If this level of openness doesn’t frighten us we may move to a deeper level yet—meaning. At this level persons realize they have been invited into a level of understanding that demonstrates a deep level of trust. The fourth and deepest level is the decisional level. At this level we trust that the listener will not belittle our decision. There may be warnings of the possible cost of making such decisions. There may even be a sharing of some additional information which might be taken into account in relation to the decision. But as long as the decision is not designed to hurt or violate another life, the response is one of honoring the one who dared to share with you.

There is one more conversation I wish to share about my experience of this “Guernica” conversation. An adult Sunday School class met in my office at the church. A few weeks after I had hung the painting next to the door, the teacher of the class came to visit me. She told me that she wanted me to remove that painting from my office. It was offensive to her and other members of her class. I reminded her that the room was my office, but she was determined to have the painting removed. I asked her if she knew the background of the creation of the painting, and she did not. I shared the story of Franco and Hitler and the saturation bombing of the village. She then let me know that I should at least put a description of the history of Picasso’s decision to paint a “protest to the annihilation of the Basque village”.

I then realized that the power of any art form conversation resides in the ability of the participants to see their own life experience represented in the art form. If we are allowed to rationalize an art form as something that depicts the struggle of someone else, we miss the opportunity to allow the art to address our own struggle. Without the struggle there can be no healing or understanding.

Review & Commentary

  • Hello, I just wanted to post that I understood how powerful the Picasso image must have meant for you to be able to hang that painting up in your office. I am certainly not a Picasso but have been painting portraits from life and from photos over 40 years which is almost half of my life as I am now 84. I am still painting portraits and people have said that I show the soul of the sitter in my paintings. I think it is my soul that I paint. I think Picasso did too and that is what you responded to.

    • T. Mark Dove

      Sylvia, You are so right in your pointing out the dynamic which touched my life in Picasso’s painting. The stunning part of that experience was that it enabled me to realize how important it is to be open to the “soul issues” being so powerfully being pointed to by the artist and then to become more intentional in enabling “soul issues” to be addressed poetically in the sermons I preached. One of the most encouraging comments made to me after one of my sermons was given to me by an elderly woman. As she shook my hand at the end of the service she said to me, “Mark, I don’t always agree with what you have to say, but you never make me feel dumb.” Thank you for sharing with me. Mark