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Art from Ugliness by Mandy Smith

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Art from Ugliness by Mandy Smith

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


A few years ago our family went on a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion trip to my homeland of Australia.  While there, my husband had many meetings about jobs there so, after fifteen years away, I gave myself the luxury of calling the sea and the kookaburras mine again.  But after we returned to our life in inner city Cincinnati, and heard that the job had fallen through, I fell into a dark place.  The simplest tasks took all my energy and I could hardly get out of bed.  The part of my soul which waits and hopes shriveled into a bitter lump.  And all around me, instead of birdcalls and beaches, I found urban ugliness.  As I walked the sad streets, my beach-combing habit continued but instead of shells, I filled my pockets with bits of broken glass and rusty bolts.

Around this same time, a friend asked me to make art for his inner-city counseling center.  I wanted to make something hopeful but not sugary sweet, honest but not cynical.  It had to acknowledge both brokenness and healing because the kids who visited the center would see right through any attempts to gloss over the challenges of life and certainly didn’t need any more darkness than they already had.  So the natural medium for the art was the growing pile of junk by my back door.  With a bit of care and a lot of glue, green wire twisted its way into leafy tendrils and smashed amber tail-light covers were reborn as golden sunshine.  And somewhere along the way I got dragged into the whole rebirth thing.  The habit of forcing myself to find beauty and meaning in brokenness leaked over into my life.

But the story goes on.  While I was working on these junk creations, a young woman in our community (I’ll call her Sophia) was savagely attacked in inner-city Cincinnati.  Her sister visited me and tearfully shared her family’s story and suffering.  In the weeks following the attack, Sophia was too distracted to read and too disturbed by violent images to watch TV.  Drawing on the healing I was beginning to experience, my first question to her sister was “Does Sophia make anything?”  As I looked at the city around me, a city with a struggling school system, ongoing racial tension and more than its fair share of pollution, I knew I had to make the process available to others.  And so I created a city-wide art project which I called The Collect.  

For two months, all Cincinnati was invited to drop pieces of junk (we called them "artifacts") at local coffee shops.  Cincinnati responded with bike wheels and sunglasses, doll parts and Christmas ornaments.  Somebody gave an entire collection of watch-bands and someone else emptied out their camera lens case.  People provided stories with their pieces:  “This is a shoe that walked me through my college years.”  “This is the rusty hoop that tripped me up and made me smash my teeth on the pavement.”  Then I gathered all the "artifacts" and laid them out for one of the most unusual parties ever to take place in the basement of a church.  Seventeen artists had finger foods and mingled as they picked through what looked like the remnants of a very dismal yard sale.  In their eyes, the rusty jetsam became teapots and aliens on bicycles and all manner of marvelous things.  And off they went, with boxes of junk under their arms, with the summer to work their magic.

In the Fall, my church’s cafe hosted the most motley and meaningful art-show I’ve ever seen.  There was a delicate porcelain doll torso with a corsage made of old keys, a concrete table inlaid with a tiny nest filled with jewel-like eggs and a purple foot-bridge made of an old shoe.  The grand finale of the month-long show was an auction event with free food and live jazz where all the proceeds went to ArtWorks, an urban youth art program.

There was no doubt that the artwork positively glowed with the message of brokenness reborn.  But, of course, for me the best art from ugliness was the faith and friendship that was born in broken human hearts.  At least, in this broken, human heart.  Throughout the course of the six-month project I’d heard so many stories and made so many friends.  In the eyes of junk-collectors, café owners, and artists, I’d seen a dogged determination to find meaning and beauty.  It became apparent to me that the greatest work of art was the community that had formed around all this resurrection until eventually Cincinnati once more was safe and, to my surprise, home.


Originally from Australia, Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church, a campus and neighborhood congregation with its own fair-trade café in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today publications and the Missio Alliance Blog and the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry and Making a Mess and Meeting God. She is also the creator of The Collect, a citywide trash-to-art project. Mandy and her husband Jamie, a New Testament professor at Cincinnati Christian University, live with their two kids in a little house where the teapot is always warm.

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Grace in the Mess by Leah Renee Chambers

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Grace in the Mess by Leah Renee Chambers

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This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


I remember sitting at an unknown burrito place with a good friend, perched at a hightop table, feeling so desperate. After several years of trying to get pregnant, undiagnosed infertility, and a failed bout with foster care, I had almost completely lost myself. We were trying to have an important conversation, about me, about us, and all I could think was, how is my face

Is it appropriately sad? Is it too sad? Am I scaring her by revealing too much? Am I sitting up straight enough? Am I holding my head right, are my gestures normal? Do I seem erratic? Should I tell her I’m not doing ‘fine’? Is this going to be the end of us? Does she still want to be friends? Does she see me as a diminished version of myself? But, wait. Was that self really myself? The one from before? If not, does that mean that THIS, this now, this self is myself? Because, oh God, if that’s true, what do I do now?   

Navigating life had always been easy for me, but it seemed desperately hard now. 

"Breathe" by Leah Renee Chambers

"Breathe" by Leah Renee Chambers

It seemed to me that all the ways I used to interact with friends, family, and God, had shifted without my permission—shifted to the point where the logic of them failed. Before, I would say this and they would say that, we would spend time talking and our friendship would grow. After, I would say something and they would respond strangely. We would go out to lunch and I would cry in the car afterwards, doubled over with tears and slashing pain. 

With friends, they would ask how I was doing, and I would freeze. I would try to be honest, but I never knew whether to answer for that particular moment, for the week, for my life? I would scare them sometimes. They really just wanted to hear that I was better, that things were looking up, that God was giving me peace. I wanted to tell them those things, but I also wanted to be truthful. I would try to be honest. Try to let them in. Try to be gracious in my pain. But most times, I would just get a side-arm hug and a “hang in there” as they walked away…as if I was radioactive. I knew that no one knew what to say, but I longed for them to say just that—that this situation was awful, and terrible, and I didn’t deserve it. That it was okay to be broken, okay to mourn, okay to be in the “middle” and not at “the end.” I wanted them to carry hope for me, assuring me that I was mendable, and my mended self would be breathtakingly beautiful. 

Mostly I just wanted them to say that they would be with me…no matter how ridiculous or awkward or broken I got. 

With God, I would try to worship. Try to pray. Try to read my Bible. Try to ask. Seek. In the past, that would have “worked,” and I would have grown closer to Him or found peace or hope. But in the midst of this clouded season, nothing seemed to do the trick. I wasn’t readily finding what I had always found in the past, and I also was thinking things about God that weren’t quite in line with the way I had thought before. If I remove myself from the standard faith responses of my younger self, what is left? What do I think God says? What promises can I cling to? What does it mean to have hope…real, godly hope? How much does He care?

All questions I couldn’t really answer. And God didn’t seem to be getting any closer while I floundered. 

"Grace" by Leah Renee Chambers

"Grace" by Leah Renee Chambers

One day, while walking through San Francisco on my morning commute, I had this urge to write a poem. So, before I could really think about it, I snapped a picture of the rainy street corner in front of me, typed three lines of un-rhyming verse onto it, and posted it to Instagram. 

And my soul breathed. 

In that single moment, I gave of myself fully. To myself I offered a valid space to be, without explanation, detailed analyses, or caveats. To others I offered a glimpse into my pain and my creativity. To God I offered an invitation, a longing, for Him to find me exactly where I already was. 

Startled and excited by that brief sensation of lightness, I started desperately looking and writing. Every day I would take a picture and attempt to put words to this life I was in the midst of. Many were dark, some were bright, and a few didn’t make any sense to anyone but me, but they were all true. 

Slowly, slowly, God found me there. I would see something that brought me joy, or I would hear a whisper of hope as I wrote a poem about my pain. I could physically feel the tightness start to loosen, and my soul seemed slowly won over by gentleness. I started to feel gratitude. And I started seeing, feeling, and sensing grace. 

I believe that was God doing His work…while I practiced offering myself, in gratitude and grace.  

A Practice

Take a moment today, to find your own glimpse of hope and beauty and truth. You don’t have to go anywhere special—stand in your kitchen, on your street, or under the sky. Breathe. And then look, and appreciate what you are being offered in this moment.

"Awake to Hope" by Leah Renee Chambers

"Awake to Hope" by Leah Renee Chambers

Stand there, and consider how you feel.  

How does your body feel? Is there a lightness in your feet? A heaviness in your chest? Do you feel grounded? Does your breath flow smoothly in your lungs?

Stand there, and look around you. 

What do you notice? What stands out to you? What do you hear? What is beautiful in your eyes? What isn’t beautiful? What does it offer to you? What might God be saying to you?

Take a picture and write a few words. 

The picture can be anything—your feet, a shadow, the sky, the corner of a cabinet. Try not to judge what words come up for you. Write them down. Appreciate them for what they are. Give thanks, and allow yourself to accept grace.  


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Leah Chambers is an artist and creative in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her poetic works call attention to the beauty and hope that exist in spite of the darkness. Find her at ontheflypoetry.com and on Instagram as @leahreneechambers.

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