by Ann Hafften
Vonda Drees often describes her life and work as a journey. She encourages spiritual growth and enrichment with groups, in person and online in an artistic process she calls “a journey with a community.”
As artist-in-residence for the Women of the ELCA 10th Triennial Gathering July 13-16, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Vonda will share images bursting with vibrant color. She draws shapes and flourishes, sometimes abstract, sometimes recognizable. Her tools are a spiral-bound tablet of drawing paper and a handful of colored markers.
You might call Vonda’s art words and pictures. Most of her work includes text and phrases that join with color and design to make a unique expression. The boldly-lettered words almost march off the page. Vonda calls her art “journaling” and a way “to process the Spirit’s stirring in my life.” As she works, Vonda is strikingly still, yet her eyes sparkle and her fingers are busily sketching.
She started to practice her calling by journaling notes from the sermon each Sunday at her congregation, Living Word Lutheran Church in Katy, Texas. “I love to sit with questions and ponder them,” she said. Vonda is not exactly a spiritual director or group leader. She looks at issues of faith with an artist’s eye, creating visual art and inspiring creativity among the people–the communities–with whom she works.
Vonda began this work only a few summers ago after she had a chance to peek into the journals of San Antonio artist Paul Soupiset. “It rocked my world,” she said. “As I flipped through the images, a conversation was going on inside my head: `You could do this.’ Page after page inspired me…Journal after journal convinced me to declare with my heart, soul, mind and strength, `Okay, I’m going to do this,’” she said.
The journals showed Vonda the artist’s practice, his daily discipline. It took some time and “Spirit urging” to get her started, she said. “Finally it was an urge that would not let me go. I was not able to hold back. Like giving birth, it was time,” she said.
One of her first images explored a quote from Godfrey Diekmann that she heard during a sermon: “What good is it if the bread is changed and we are not?”
Reflection is a crucial aspect of Vonda’s art. It helps her process what she has heard. When Vonda is journaling, she expresses the words she hears and the way the message is resonating within her heart. “Maybe there’s a metaphor, song lyrics, a Bible verse, a question that the Spirit is prompting. I try to notice that stuff,” she said.
In 2012 the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod made leadership development its focus. Vonda was involved in the nonprofit that the synod set up to work on the initiative. They explored questions of Christian leadership, beginning with ways pastors were growing in their own faith. They also gained insight into the aspects of leadership development needed by congregations.
That journey into reflection and scripture brought about the LEAD organization (waytolead.org/), with its stated goal “to grow leaders with a deep, bold, consequential faith in Jesus Christ,” as well as various LEAD resources, coaching and immersion events.
Vonda engages leaders in collaborative art projects to teach and inspire. She concentrates on walking alongside participants as they embark on their own journaling journeys. She uses her passion for art journaling to create the images that she shares through her blog and through LEAD resources.
“Journaling has become a way for me to process the Spirit’s stirring in my life. Often another’s creative work expands my perspective and helps me ponder anew. When wild, goosebump moments happen through scripture, reflections, poetry, music and art, I do my best to listen and respond creatively,” she says.
Vonda’s blog is where she often lands and shares what she’s thinking about. It’s called “Journaling the Spirit’s Stirring.” You can visit her blog at vondadrees.wordpress.com/.
She writes, “All along I’ve told myself that as I stay faithful to this journaling practice that nourishes my soul, the way will appear, much like walking a labyrinth. And it’s happening. In addition to the product, there seems to be a hunger for the process. And step by step, we’re figuring it out together through small online groups, retreats, workshops and events.
“I cannot tell you the immense joy it gives me to sit at this holy, creative banquet table,” she said. “One thing I know for sure, I get hungry every day.”
Once, when Vonda was admiring a reflection on a lake, it dawned on her that journaling affords her the opportunity to share outwardly “so others may get glimpses of what I’m experiencing inwardly,” she said. “It stirs my soul even more to consider that my journaling is a gift of myself poured out for the world.”
“When I am surrounded by my journals, that’s my happy place,” she explained. Over time, her journals continue to speak to her, like the time a friend asked for an image of Lent’s buried Alleluia. “I remembered a similar image and went back into a journal to find it, then adapt it. In this way, the pictures are alive and continue to tell their story,” she said.
Last spring Vonda journaled her way through the Lenten journey with ELCA World Hunger’s “40 Days of Giving,” which challenged Lutheran congregations to give an extra $2 million. As an active leader in the ELCA World Hunger Network, Vonda was one of the devotion authors, submitting a unique piece of art for each of the 40 days, based on daily devotions by ELCA leaders.
Now Vonda has undertaken a new journey, moving from her home in La Grange, Texas, to Plain, Washington, in the Cascade Mountains. Vonda and her husband, Jim, are the new directors of the Grünewald Guild, a Leavenworth, Washington-based artists’ community and retreat center that explores art and faith (grunewaldguild.com/).
Vonda put her journaling practice to good use last spring when she and Jim traveled to Washington state to get acquainted with the Guild community. She wrote, “Let wonder call the soul. No doubt about it, I am smitten with the Spirit in this place. The natural and serene wonder is abundant and life-giving, and the Holy pulses with every step on that sacred ground.”
Vonda first heard about the arts community from a former Guild volunteer she met while on an immersion experience in El Salvador. “How’s that for round about?!” she said with a laugh.
“With Vonda, words and art are always moving forward as if on a journey to the next page,” said Carla Orlando, a Grünewald Guild board member.
“She will stretch the Guild with the international focus and faith values that are at her core,” Carla said. “I think she will surprise us as she leads us further, renewing our global awareness and broadening and deepening the scope of social justice here.”
“We have seen firsthand the transformative power of the creative Spirit through art,” Jim Drees said. “When experienced in community as expressed at the Guild, grace opens and connects us to one another.”
Vonda said the next step for her and Jim is a call to lead while “living the mission of the Guild `to welcome and inspire all who seek to explore the relationships between faith and art.’” She looks forward to traveling to Minneapolis in July 2017 for the Women of the ELCA 10th Triennial Gathering and all the spirit moments it will bring to her soul and to her art.
Ann Hafften writes and edits from Weatherford, Texas, where she attends Messiah Lutheran Church.