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Studio artist and art educator Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk reflects on art and risk-taking as well as creating safe places for risk through sacred spaces pedagogy. She also explains her fondness for vessels and pokey things.

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For more background

Here is Jo-Ann’s faculty page on the Calvin University website.

One of Jo-Ann’s money plant pod vessels

To view more photos of Jo-Ann’s art work, go to her artist page.


Debra Rienstra: Today, I’m talking with Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk, professor emerita of art and art education at Calvin. Jo-Ann is here today to talk about how the arts help us create places of refugia and how the classroom can be a sacred space. Hey, Jo-Ann. Thanks for being here today.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: It’s good to be here. Thank you.

DR: So, we’re meeting today on Calvin’s campus in my office. We were going to meet in the art gallery, but it turns out there’s a convention of young girls and their church counselors here. The GEMS convention is over-running the art gallery. So we’re going to take shelter here in my office. So Jo-Ann, you retired in 2018. And what courses did you teach while you were still at Calvin?

DR: So you retired in 2018. What courses did you teach while you were at Calvin? 

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: My largest job was with the art education program that I was directing and basically worked with students from their freshman year through their final year in certifying them in becoming art teachers. The other areas include numbers of studio courses–mixed media, etcetera–but I think one of the largest delights that I’ve had over the last several years is working with the Artist Collaborative students and working with DCM–Discerning Christian Mind: Truth and Reconciliation, The Artist Response is our title–and there’s a 1 and a 2. 1 is here at home and 2 is out there somewhere, in this case Indonesia.

DR: Yeah, we’ll get back to that in just a minute. But now you’re retired. What are you focusing on now?

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: I’m still teaching as an adjunct and I’d like to do that for a little while yet. But I’d also like to continue with working with my grad students.

Essentially after 40 years, I’m really looking forward to spending a great deal of time in my studio and producing work that has been sitting on the back burner for some time. I have a lot of ideas and I just would love to see all that come to fruition.

And again, it doesn’t have to be completed. I want to probably model, the most for my students, that it’s the process that’s important.

DR: Well, we’ll look forward to whatever you do come up with, too.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Yes, I keep saying to folks, after 40 years, I’m finally in my studio full-time. Although of course nature and life tends to take over. So I’ve just …

DR: Nature takes over.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Yeah, I’ve had some refugia time just in the last two weeks, being up north in the Upper Peninsula and spending time with those things that I feel passionate about and feed me when it comes to my own artwork.

So travel does become part of the picture, but I’ve still continued to teach. I’ve been teaching as an adjunct the last year and will for this next year as well.

DR: Here at Calvin.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Here at Calvin, to continue just to sort of ease the process of change. But in particular I have been focused on creating work that comes out of a special seminar that was held last year in China. And that is being currently staged and will be traveling to a number of different universities and colleges. And I just got the work done for that. So that’s kind of where I am in the space I am right now.

DR: Wow. It doesn’t sound like you’re resting much.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: No. No, although it’s still a kind of rest, you know, it’s a rest, it’s restful, but it’s also… my term would be sanctuary, but there’s an element of sanctuary in that kind of work and also the space that I choose to do it in. So yeah, it’s been rewarding already.

DR: Tell me about that sacred spaces pedagogy. So it seems like you were behind that phrase and that program. Tell us about that.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: It’s a program that comes out of sabbatical–literally sabbatical–about nine years ago. Debra Buursma visited me in the gallery and said, you and I need to do some talking about sanctuary.

DR: And Debra Buursma is our colleague in the communications department.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: No, in the education department.

DR: Education department.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Right. And it just blossomed from there. We decided we wanted to investigate places that we thought were providing sanctuary for their students within classrooms. We went through that investigation for a number of years and started to build presentations out of that, numerous presentations. Then we started to write a number of different articles that we completed. And further than that, started to offer seminars to… our first seminar, the first pedagogical summit, was for K through 18 folk teaching at all levels. And the last one that we offered this past summer was for higher ed in particular to take a hard look at how we can provide sanctuary in our classrooms, but also why we should be doing it.

DR: So what are students needing sanctuary from or for?

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Right. Well, first of all, especially in the arts, in my mind, the arts provide a place for risk taking. But for most of us, risk-taking is a very scary place, and I believe that you can provide a classroom for that type of risk taking. And have been trying to do that for a number of years and it became a bit of an “aha” moment about 9 years ago that possibly others might be very interested in thinking through how to provide that for your students. Debra and I have talked a lot about how we can use objects, text, and actual actions within the classroom to provide that kind of safety for the risk-taking and for the allowing, so to speak, of diverse elements and diverse positions, diverse types of learning, diverse types of even teaching to occur in the classroom. And we’ve done some lovely work around that. We’ve also seen it happening in a number of different classrooms.

DR: Give us some examples. Tell us a story or two.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Well, so I… this is an imaginary classroom right now. This is something we started with some time ago thinking about. But if we truly believe that the Holy Spirit is with us within the classroom, why do we not have objects or text telling us this, so that we immediately receive this type of comfort, type of knowledge of our surroundings.

So we had, we have envisioned, and we played around with this a little bit, is to bring in sailcloth canvas and to literally suspend that from the ceiling and with a fan have that move a little bit. And actually explaining to our students why this would be present in our classroom space.

DR: Just a reminder of…

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: It’s just a reminder, exactly.

DR: Spiritual reality.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Exactly. And that this doesn’t occur only in our sanctuaries on Sundays, but that this occurs every day of the week and should be occurring every day of the week.

So that’s just an example of it, but it can happen in very minute, tiny ways. So for example, I’ll bring a leaf into the classroom, something that I saw as I was walking to the classroom, and talk about some of the intricacies around that. I will bring in a couple of pieces of cottonwood sticks, open them up and show how gorgeous the radiating movement inside those sticks actually is, and to think in mathematical terms in the art classroom about the inside of that twig or stick that you pick up. The cottonwood…

DR: If you need cottonwood sticks…

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Exactly.

DR: I have some for you. I’ve never thought…

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: And we have a yard full of them in the same way. And I… just, it’s interesting because I talked with an acquaintance years and years ago, and she said, you know, my backyard’s my laboratory. And I thought, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly what it is. I mean, I consider my backyard broader than just the backyard, but that is the laboratory and that’s where I’m finding the things that I need to be able to express and talk about the things that I think are important to learn in the classroom.

DR: What is the connection between sacredness and risk? It seems to me a very intriguing connection.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Well, all about… our faith journey… if it’s real, requires significant risk taking. And I used to think that, you know, I’m just… as a child, I’m happy to be a Christian and this is the place I want to be and why wouldn’t everybody want to be a Christian.

I am wondering sometimes whether my own students come in with that type of attitude within the classroom just because they have been sheltered in some ways, in ways, perhaps, that we want to kind of bang up against. But at the same time, in order for real learning to occur, we need to be able to step back and say, okay, this place is safe for you to do that.

But at the same time, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be unpainful or that it’s going to be smooth going. No. In other words, we’re here together as a family, as a community, and if we take a look around us and we look for the glimmers there that shows that God is with us, then we should be able to step into that type of risk-taking where we can actually speak to each other about subjects such as the huge ones: truth and reconciliation.

And if Calvin is very interested in justice issues–and I believe it is–then our classrooms have to become those kinds of spaces where we can do that. And I believe that through the arts but also through seeing–I tend to think of the artistic way of looking at things is truly a matter of seeing and seeing deeply–it doesn’t mean that you’re going to come up with something that the world would consider beautiful, but it does come up with something that the world would consider very important or that all of us would understand to be something we need to learn. And I believe it comes that way through the arts.

DR: I suppose that it is common to imagine the Christian life as one of finding a status quo and keeping the status quo. But what you’re suggesting is that the Christian life is always one of coping with change. This seems obvious when you say it. Change, trouble, even crisis. And so to have these places that feel safe, where we can do the exploration we need…

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: In an area of safety in order to be able to then move on, go to a place like Indonesia or South Africa or Northern Ireland and tackle some of the very things that are very painful for the world.

And, you know, we’re supposedly the salt. And how do we act that way unless we’ve also experimented doing that in a place of safety with each other.

DR: Yeah, we’ve been talking about refugia as these little pockets where life-giving practices are preserved or taught, and where these little micro-countercultures can then grow and overflow and spread, especially in the face of crisis or threat.

So they’re not just hiding places or escapes. They’re like seed beds, and very much in the way you’re describing the classroom. So what is it about the arts in particular that can help us create and maybe operate within spaces like that? 

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: I’m going to go back to the notion of seeing. I think the arts push us to think and see deeply. And that may not create a product. It may not create something of beauty. But it creates something that’s life-changing and not… this is an accumulation, I believe, in the sense that, you know, the pot that I make on the potter’s wheel today may not be life-changing in and of itself, but it’s the process of thinking through deeply and seeing deeply and generating this type of work, whether it’s through the visual arts, music composition, through playing music, through dance. All of those things, when you’re working on that level, I believe that you start to move into life-changing.

A life-changed person, perhaps, is the best way to put it. It may take you into some dark places, but I think that, you know, if you’re recognizing that God has these glimmers everywhere around us, and these glimmers are often in the mundane, right?

We step on leaves all the time. We don’t think twice about their glory. If we can think about those God glimmers, then that gives us then the protection that we would have to step forward to helping someone or to dealing with something that could be painful or is something that is necessarily having to be dealt with.

I think our classrooms are kind of laboratories, to that end. My pathway has been through the arts, but I know a lot of scientists that I’ve met who have come to that same conclusion of how to see and think deeply. And that’s why I think I keep gravitating back to working with elements of nature in my work and that’s why I’m using the porcupine quill and why I’m using pods and things that I find, constantly.

And I even delight in, for example, working with the cottonwood twig because most of us want to discard that and say, ugh, that’s not worth anything. Maybe it’s worth a lot.

DR: I’m glad to have a new way of thinking about cottonwood twigs, which I wrangle quite a lot in my yard. So tell us a little bit about what happens when you take Calvin students in the Artist Collaborative, which is a cohort program that we have here at Calvin where incoming students, about 24 of them, apply to be part of a group who is tasked really with student leadership in the arts, across the arts.

And you were the one of the founders of that program and you’ve continued to nurture it along. And part of that program is to take students to Indonesia and to introduce students to the connections between the arts and justice. So what happens when you put a bunch of Calvin students on a plane and you take them to Indonesia where you have many connections, fellow artists, fellow educators. What happens?

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: I think what happens for the kids–and I call them kids. I will call them kids for the rest of my life, I’m sure of it–my students, adult students, who go on these trips with us, having gone through the process of that DCM–Discerning the Christian Mind course, Truth and Reconciliation–we spend a lot of time thinking through what it means to meet up with the stranger and how to be hospitable.

How to think about gathering in and being able to speak to commonalities. But at the same time grapple with issues, but not going in as North Americans often do, going into a place and saying, oh, I know what you need. I know exactly how you need to solve this problem.

Instead, going in as artists and saying, teach me. Tell me what I can do to help what we have problems with back home. And so with the arts we talk to people of a different country who are very, very different than us in many ways, but who often have strong faith, many of whom are Christian, and we find that it’s their hospitality that makes us feel at home.

Now, what is that all about? So it’s that conversation that happens between strangers. It’s the commonality of thinking about the arts and what the arts can do for us. It’s also understanding, I think–and this is why I love history–it’s going back into the historical component, because historically the arts in Indonesia have been very, very nurturing. And they take great delight–in fact, they teach the arts, every school kid gets taught all the different art forms–it’s like the country lives on the art part of society, of culture.

And honestly, I think we deal with it in the reverse process. So we say no, we don’t have enough money. So let’s get rid of the music and the art programs, and, you know, let’s try to get some money and then maybe someday in the future we can add it back in as a luxury.

They do not see the arts as a luxury. They see the arts as life-giving and as absolutely necessary to move forward. A lot of that has to do with faith. It has to do with a number of different faiths, too, because, as we know, there’s a large majority of Muslim folk in Indonesia. And perhaps even more importantly a number of Hindu folk who really see the process of nature as something that needs to be nurtured and developed and artistically thought about. And I think kids start learning and seeing some, make some connections, and it’s been proven to us through their diaries, journals that we asked them to write. And it’s profound what they learn.

And it just takes us coming out of our shell, you know, in a way coming out of our protection but being prepared in that protective space and then moving on into these spaces and using some of these qualities that we’ve learned to reach out to the stranger, to start to learn about what they can tell us about living life.

DR: What could we learn from Indonesian artists and art educators about using the arts to create these spaces or about… I don’t want to say using the arts, but about integrating the arts into our ways of coping with larger justice issues.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Well, I think that one thing that I think the students also recognize and that maybe we still have a long process of learning, and that is that dependence of life on the arts, that the cultural piece is so critical to living that they can’t separate out art from something else.

So they’re not saying, okay, you know, I’m a painter and therefore I am an artist and therefore… I mean, there’s some element of that, but generally speaking everyone is involved in the arts. Everyone is somehow incorporating the arts, whether it’s through their ceremonies, through their community events, I mean, at any given moment you turn a corner and there is another beautiful art something that’s been created by the community and for a very specific purpose for the community. So I think that’s for us a big step. I think North Americans don’t think that way.

DR: We’ve overly professionalized art, probably.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Exactly. And we don’t think about art as something that every person needs to be involved in or as every person has a natural ability to do. We think of the arts as, oh, it’s going to cost us several million to have that in our house.

DR: A decorative luxury.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: A decorative luxury, exactly. And I think that’s where art educators come in–and this is why I’ve tried so hard to work with my own students–is to think differently about how important the arts are and how it needs to be incorporated in every aspect of our lives. Indonesia isn’t the only place.

DR: Of course.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: South Africa does the same in profound ways.

It’s just… again the arts are seeped into everything, including their professionalism and including even the business aspect of daily life, which is quite something to witness when you come out of something that doesn’t. Or a culture that doesn’t really think that way.

I think if they go back into their depths, they would probably say oh, yeah, it’s really important. Because statistically I could probably tell you that most parents tell you that they do want art for their kids.

DR: Sure.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: But what is it that they’re really wanting? And I think that’s the teaching that still has to occur. And hopefully, through this sacred space pedagogy work, it’s not just going to be art teachers who work on that on that level but every teacher working on that level. I don’t think you can be an artist unless you’re a scientist and I don’t think you can be a scientist unless you’re an artist.

DR: Well, literature comes in there somewhere.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Arts. Absolutely. 

DR: It’s the literary art.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: The use of words.

DR: I think all of us think that our disciplines are essential, of course.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Right, but also, they’re so interrelated.

DR: Yeah.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: I spend a great deal of time using literature in the classroom with whatever arts is going on. If I’m going to talk about arts as visual art, you can’t separate the two because it’s all about metaphor and story.

DR: Yes.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Right? The music that we play, the art that we make, the literature; it’s all about metaphor and story. You can’t pull them apart.

DR: So I wonder if we could think about arts as—based on what you’ve learned in Indonesia and South Africa—and this year the Artist Collab went to Ireland—to think about the arts as a way to mediate community.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Mmm-hmm.

DR: I don’t think we often…

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: I don’t think we think that way.

DR: …conceptualize the arts that way, in a way to tell ourselves our own stories and to shape our own stories. And that’s a form of… it’s not refugia, exactly, but it’s a way of creating pockets of refugia that then can have that influence beyond the little pocket that we create.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: I think that if I ask for your story, I helped build some refugia for you, but also for me, because we are storytellers and you’re acknowledging me, I’m acknowledging you. And giving someone a name, we know, is very, very critical in any kind of environment. And if you’re naming me by allowing you to tell my story, that’s huge in terms of learning.

DR: And there are different ways to tell it. There’s the artistic ways of music and visual, even dance.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Dance, drama. Yes. All of those ways. And it can just be around the fire at night in the middle of the woods telling the stories, right? Those are critical, and the bonding and communication that comes out of that.

DR: So tell us about your own work. You work with fabrics, fibers, small natural items like cottonwood sticks, as you mentioned. Thorns, quills, seed pods. My favorites among your work are those gorgeous money plant pot vessels. They just glow. They’re beautiful. You make these little knitted cocoon things. Why are vessels so important for you? 

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: I think for me as a child already I was very much struck to think that Christ is in me and that I, in fact, am a vessel. We’re all bodies. We are all vessels, and we have all been marvelously shaped and formed. So the vessel from very early on has always been of great interest to me. The shape of it, the fact that it holds something, the fact that it can hide something that it can help you explore something, that you look into it, you can be protected, if you were inside of it. Just the very fact that we walk around as vessels, to me makes it very important to be thinking about that form.

And so very, very early on already I was making forms like that. I can remember sitting in the backyard when I was a kid and doing that kind of work.

But again, I think I also then realized that my backyard was kind of like a laboratory and that there were all of these things that were so wonderful and then I started to realize, hey, these are all things that are glimmers. These are all things that are telling me something. And if I look deeply and if I listen deeply, what does that tell me. And so then I started to incorporate this work into my own artwork.

And for me, I’m a collector. I love to… every time I go out I love to collect little stones, little pods, little things that kind of inspire me in terms of vessels, and then try to think of another way to present that same form in using something that that I love to touch.

So fiber for that reason has always been, texture has always been very, very important. But at the same time, I love to play with the riddle of it. So in other words if I’m making something like a vessel out of a money plant pod or numerous pods, what’s that all about? Like, what is it? Is it clay? Is it something else? So the mystery around it and then to come up to it and then realize it’s so very light. Oh, that’s confusing as well. And I like that interplay of trying to discover what it is that the item is made out of. So that’s part of it.

Another part of it is when I was first starting to teach back in the early 90s–actually was the early 80s, but this happened to me in the early 90s—I had discovered I didn’t know how to pray anymore. I couldn’t.

I was so busy and so filled with the necessities of life that I wasn’t praying. And in the only way I could make myself still enough was to keep my hands busy. How ironic. So I needed to be still and I had to have my hands busy in order to become still, and lo and behold I started praying. So a lot of the work is very meditative.

DR: I think a lot of people share that quality, needing to have hands busy.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Something to settle. So it’s very meditative to work with these materials. It takes time and it sort of, I think, refutes the notion that we don’t have time for anything anymore, that we can insert into our busy, busy schedules.

I had to take time in order to make these items and I felt compelled to make them, for whatever reason. I think that was God speaking.

DR: What’s the attraction of the pokey things, the quills and the thorns?

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: For me the vessels became places of sanctuary, and the pokey things were the things as we read in the Psalms, you know, Lord, protect me from the arrows that are being shot at me, protect me from these, you know, from the swords, et cetera.

And I started to think about how those pointy things on the outside are actually protecting us inside. And I just started to kind of develop that. Now, having said that, I started using a lot of thorns, but for me, you know, the crown of thorns is, you know, I mean, it’s supposed to be gorgeous and it’s supposed to be a piece of jewelry and it’s digging into the head.

Now, what is it about thorns and crown and safety and refuge and not having safety that compelled me to start thinking about these vessels being enclosed by these types of things.

DR: It sounds like you’re interested in the paradox of all of these things: the lightness, the firmness…

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: The light and dark, yes.

DR: It’s open, but it’s a vessel.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: It’s closed at the same time, correct. Yeah, open, shut. Yeah, definitely. And I’m also very intrigued by shadow/light. So most of the items that I make cast a shadow. And it’s that space in between the object and the shadow that I’m very, very interested in.

DR: So I’m fascinated by the thought of those very delicate and beautiful and light vessels as a metaphor for the kind of refugia that we’re talking about. They have form, they’re very beautiful, they’re open, but in the end they aren’t meant to be like cement.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Right. They’re meant to be flown into the air and just kind of dissipating right? That’s how they spread their seeds. And moving forward.

DR: What are the most beautiful places of refugia for you right now? 

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: For me, the little things, the little spaces, the tiny, tiny little spaces talk to me about the cosmos. And so for me the refugia is in, you know, walking along and all of a sudden you hear a leaf moving. And it’s not because the leaf is moving by itself, but there’s some little creature that’s down there moving and being protected by this leaf.

And that to me signals, you know, God glimmer, but then further than that, it signals the wider expanse of this cosmos. And I love the interplay of that kind of thinking. And so for me I can find it almost anywhere, the refugia, but I will say that having just spent two weeks in the north, I don’t think there are many places anymore that you can get that ultra quiet and the ultra simplicity, of the beauty…

DR: And you’re speaking of Northern Michigan,

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Northern Michigan. Yes. Canada is like that too. But according to this area in northern Michigan, that’s the end of the world. There are signs everywhere that tell you that that’s the end of the world.

They forget that Canada is on the other end of the water. You are now way, way out, so far out that you have nowhere else to go.

No. No, that’s not true. But in any case, it is so isolated and so beautiful in the sense that it’s quite untouched. I think those are probably the elements that really excite me, that make me feel like, okay. Everything’s alright.

It isn’t to say that I won’t find these in things in beautiful architecture. It’s not that I won’t find them in, you know, sanctuaries as we know them. But I think we find them in these small glimmers most of all.

DR: I love this idea of walking around as if a little place of refugia, by the work of the Holy Spirit, is always traveling with you.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Right.

DR: Yeah.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: And I would like to think that each one of us that have been given the job of working with students, that we also provide that for them in some way. Won’t be for all of them–it never is–but I’d like to think that that’s possible.

DR: I think we all hope for that.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: Yeah.

DR: Yeah. Thank you so much for talking with me today, Jo-Ann.

Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk: You’re welcome. It’s a delight.

DR: I appreciate it.  

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