The Call to Create: An Interview with Mary Allison Cates

Post Author: MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Communion, copyright 2009

There is one room in my house that tells much of the story. An easel, acrylic paints, a sewing machine, stacks and stacks of fabric, and print-making tools abound. My six-month-old son primes himself for crawling on a nearby blanket while sounds of my three-year-old’s post naptime jabber drift in from the adjoining room. I am a parish associate at a Presbyterian church, where my responsibilities include preaching and leading a Bible study once a month. At another church, I co-lead a study group once a week. My office space is not located in these churches. Instead, it consists of a laptop on my bed and this one room of my house where so many creative outlets vie for my attention.

Faithful questioning and grappling with mystery have always been part of my personality, as have the enterprises of getting my hands dirty and making things. Because I was raised in a church that nurtured me intellectually and emotionally, and where the folks most like me were the ministers, I grew to see ministry as a natural medium for me to be who I am.

Similarly, my desire to create took shape in my basic high school and college art classes, where I began to see drawing, acrylic painting, and print-making as potential means for expression. My lifelong exposure to my mother’s love and skill for sewing has recently opened me up to quilting and crafting my children’s clothes. In each case, I have used the mechanisms that are convenient to me to give voice to my God-given leanings. I think we all do this. If I had grown up in a different time and place, perhaps I would now be a philosopher with a passion for basket weaving!

Tell us about your rhythms and routines for creating–do you have a particular time each day or week? How do you “get ready”? Which tools (whether physical or spiritual) do you find indispensable for your creative work?

I do my best work in the mornings but there is little morning free time in motherhood. As I have shaped a vocation for myself that includes stay-at-home motherhood as well as part-time church work, my children’s naptimes have become my time to create. Sometimes I write sermons. Sometimes I paint. Sometimes I sew. Sometimes I drag out all of my print-making materials. Flexibility is my most vital tool.

Because my children are slightly less enthusiastic about their napping than I am, I worked on my last sermon in 15 minute increments for two weeks. I often stop in mid stitch or brush stroke to nurse my baby. Inclusion is another vital tool for me. My older son often works on his own “projects” while I am creating, and on weekends, I move my operation to the next room where my husband can watch football, my kids can play with their toys, and I can spread all of my stuff out on the floor. It is important that my creativity does not take me away from my family.

In what way does your art nourish or inform your ministry? Tell us about a time the two spheres converged.

I love theology and the heady exercise of trying to understand God and life. But for me, these things can only take me part of the way toward finding and making meaning. Creating art is my portal into engaging with God and life in a more emotional way. When I stumble upon mystery that is just too confounding for words, art it the way I am able to live into it.

For example, when I was pregnant with my second son, my husband and I were told that he might be born with Down syndrome. I spent the months thereafter sewing a quilt for his room, all of his baby bedding, a mobile that hangs above his crib, and countless little outfits for him. This was the way I began to know and love my little boy. This was how I came to let go of my expectations for who he would be and open myself up to whatever was to come. Because creating is so meaningful for me, I am inspired to make it part of my ministry.

While I was in college, I taught art classes (the word “teach” is a loose term in this instance) in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Looking back, I can see that what I was really doing was pastoral care. The art component allowed us to transcend words.

When I was in college chaplaincy, many students with whom I worked were wonderfully engaged in academic pursuits and social service projects, but the heart piece was missing. I led servant leadership classes on creativity and spirituality. Students were very receptive to the opportunity to participate in a drum circle, craft hand-made journals, plant herb gardens, and play around with paint.

In my current vocation as a mother and an parish associate, I enjoy imparting creative modes of expression to my older son. We cook and paint together often. Perhaps these things will lead him back to God and help him live into the mystery one day too. I recently put on an Advent art show in one of the churches where I work. Members came out of the woodwork to display their “spirit-inspired” works, and it was gratifying for everyone to get to know a bit of each others’ interior worlds through their creations.

What is the biggest challenge to your pursuit of art, and how do you work to overcome it?

When I have a sermon to write, I don’t allow myself near the sewing machine and other creative sirens in my upstairs room for fear that there will be too little time to write. I end up missing the hands-on act of making things. When I am on a sewing tear, I do very little writing, and I begin to miss the intellectual part of me that studies and crafts sermons. I have yet to find a way to sustainably engage head, heart, and hands in the same act. For now, I just alternate and hope for the best.

What advice do you have for people who would like to pursue art but aren’t sure how to get started, or are feeling stuck?

Divorce yourself from any expectations you might have about the final product. It’s about the process. Everything we know about what makes art “good” is merely a social construct. If we are made in the image of a Creator God, then the mere act of creating is very, very good.

Who are your creative mentors and inspirations?

My mother, the Gee’s bend quilters, untrained and naive painters everywhere, and Anne LaMotte’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. Also, the Bloomsbury group (Virginia Wolf and her husband, sister, and artist friends who lived together in England) are my inspiration for the aesthetics of my home.  They covered every surface of their home with art, including the pottery colander light-fixtures and the murals painted on the side of the bathtubs!

A final question from Barbara Brown Taylor’s writings: What is saving your life right now?

The present moment. This is such a sweet time for my family. My boys (my husband included)  are such easy reminders of life’s miracles and the abundance of love. Left to my own devices, I am a worrier and a planner, but ministry and creativity push me into the present moment again and again, which is such a needed gift.


Image by: Mary Allison Cates
Used with permission
3 replies
  1. suzanne
    suzanne says:

    Yes. Yes. and Yes. Thank you for sharing so much of your creativity to us. To know you is to know your creative spirit, and I appreciate having the words that you’ve articulated here. You’re always so inspiring, and I enjoyed having your art in our Feast Festival as an extension of your ministry to others! Thanks, Mary Allison!


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