This summer, the Leaf Institute of Art and Vocation, a nonprofit aimed at integrating art education, vocational formation, and the Christian faith, opened its doors in Greenville, South Carolina. Located in the growing arts district of this mid-sized Southern town, Leaf’s faith-driven mission sets it apart from surrounding studios. Its co-founder, Michelle B. Radford, is an educator and studio artist, as well as a mother to young children.
Instead of viewing motherhood as a barrier to her artistic calling, Radford has learned to embrace the inherent tension between the work of raising a family and the work of creating fine art—a tension that in many ways undergirds the vocational focus of Leaf Institute itself. CT spoke with Radford about the vision behind her new project, the struggle between community and creation, and the subterranean logic of her multiple callings.
What’s the significance of the name, and what do you hope to accomplish with the organization?
We have a two-part focus: We are providing classes, workshops, and one-on-one coaching for those who want serious training in drawing and painting and art and design. And then we also are holding events and discussions, trying to provide resources for those who want to integrate their faith and their work.
The name “Leaf Institute” comes from J. R. R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.” Niggle is a painter, but he has a hard time completing a large painting of a tree because he is distracted by his neighbors, his civic responsibilities, and his own idleness. He ends up not finishing the painting, and in the afterlife, he’s ushered into a world that contains a tree, a real tree, just like the one he had imagined and tried to paint. He realizes that it’s part of a whole world with other trees—some of which still need work. So there’s a vision of the eternal significance of vocation, and there’s also a lot to learn about community, even though we sometimes feel like community and making art are in tension.
What about your experience as an artist makes the conversation about vocation a natural fit? Why did it make sense to you to talk about calling while training artists?
Sometimes people ask me when I became an artist, and I would say, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t think of myself as an artist. As a child, I was always making things out of trash and working on crafts. But I never thought about the words vocation or even identity until I had twins. My daughter was just under two years old when my twin sons were born, and everything just burst into chaos in my life. I didn’t make any artwork for about eight months, and I started to question my identity. I didn’t know who I was anymore. Not only was I not making art, but I also felt guilty for desiring something that would split my attention away from my children.
There is a message out there that making art is inherently selfish—that to be an artist, you have to create boundaries around your artistic space. But there’s also this idea that being a mother is inherently selfless. And that’s the reason that we often feel tension between the two—because they are opposite. And so the solution for that, “they” would say, is keeping enough selfishness that you can drive yourself in your artistic practice. But for a believer, selfishness has moral implications, even if it seems like it’s for a good purpose.
I was praying and begging God to show me an answer to this, and a friend recommended to me Andi Ashworth’s book, Real Love for Real Life. I read it, and that’s how I began to think about vocation. I ordered every single book that I could find on the topic. And that opened my eyes to the fact that all of us have more than one vocation, but they all have a single purpose: to love and serve and care for our neighbor. I began to realize, too, that my vocation as a mother and my vocation as an artist had the same person—God—calling me. There’s a unity to my different vocations.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Hannah Anderson