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 cofounder, 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.
As you were working through your own misconceptions about vocation, what key ideas shifted for you, besides this sense of unified calling?
Well, even an entry-level understanding of vocation helped me right away. The Latin word vocare (“calling”) implies that there is a caller, and so it’s God calling me to make art. He not only approves of or permits my art; more than that, my making works of art—my taking time in the studio—is an act of obedience. One of my friends says that it never occurs to people that making art is “fulfilling all righteousness” [laughter]. That is true. We have to obey any call that God calls us to, and it does not matter whether other people understand it or not. Of course, I want to help other people understand what I do, because I’m an educator and human and a believer, but it doesn’t matter if other people approve of my obedience to God. I answer to God.
Also, God’s command to “be fruitful multiply and to have dominion over the earth” is really important for artists, because God commanded us to take the natural resources in this earth that he created and to create culture, to create artifacts, as Andy Crouch calls them. So the way that plays out for me personally is … when I walk into the studio, I am standing in front of a canvas that is made out of linen, which is a fabric derived from flax, a plant that God made, right? So when he created flax, he knew—because we believe he’s an infinite and personal God—not only that this resource would be adequate and a good use of it would be linen, but he also knew specifically that Michelle Radford was going to paint on a canvas.
Focusing on that cultural mandate also explains some of the tensions that we feel between community and creation, because the call to dominion is bound up with the call to reproduce, and so it’s really all right there. Leaf is hosting a workshop on this topic titled “Women and Vocation.” Why do you feel the need to speak specifically to women about vocation?
Well, women often feel the burden of caregiving, and that’s not to say that men don’t also function as caregivers. But women often at some point will have the responsibility of caregiving. It requires an enormous amount of unscheduled time, and it’s very pervasive in the way that it affects every other vocation that a woman might have. Also, women live through many different seasons. Their lives change quite a bit as they and their vocations go through shifts. So they may spend some time at home and leave gainful employment outside the home. Or they may leave something like art making for a while, because there’s not enough energy or time for it. When these vocations come and go, we often struggle with identity.
You’ve talked about the complications women can face in pursuing a vocation, but I also wonder how embracing multiple vocations enriches each of them. How are you a better artist because you are a mother, and vice versa?
I hate drawing a line between women who are mothers and those who aren’t. But I’ll tell you this: When I went to art school, my MFA was a really intense program, and when I came back, I realized that I had become a brain—I valued this really specific set of cerebral skills. But the physicality involved in motherhood, the embodied experience of it, yanked me back to my humanity because it made me live in my body again.
When we allow our lives to be multifaceted—and not just through motherhood, since not all women are called to be mothers—when we allow ourselves to be involved in community of any kind, when we submit to the servanthood of loving others, and when we’re willing to lay down our lives for other people, we’re actually becoming more human, because we’re becoming more like the perfect human, Christ. Having multiple facets to my life allows me to have a richer experience of life, and it allows me to have something to say through my art. You cannot separate who you are as a person from what you make as an artist. It’s totally connected. And perceptive viewers, I think, will notice that, too.
In light of your journey and where you are now, what encouragement would you give to those who are struggling, especially artists who are mothers?
Well, this is what I wish someone had told me: You are still the same person. I didn’t recognize myself; I didn't recognize my body; I didn’t recognize my personality; I didn't recognize my skill set. I wasn’t using it, so I was afraid that it was gone forever. I remember being terrified, too, that I could not recognize beauty anymore. Before having children, I would go outside and notice all the things around me that were beautiful, and I would be so nourished and fed by those things in nature. That wasn’t happening after I had all these babies, and I was really scared that I had lost my capacity to recognize beauty. So I would say, “You're still you.” Your skills are still in your brain, even if you're not using them now. They can be unearthed again.
I would also say that this stage felt like it was forever, and I didn’t realize how fast children develop. Women used to say to me, “This is just a season,” and that infuriated me. The response in my head was, “Well, seasons don't last 18 years. They last three months. So this is not a season.” I wish someone would have said, “This will change, and you will begin to do some of these things that you miss.”
And here’s another thing: I had friends that encouraged me just to make whatever I could. So just try to create, even if it feels inconsequential. I made note cards for a while—postcards, little collages. I also had to surrender to using my creativity in non-fine art ways. So for a while I made bento boxes for my daughter. And some women would say, “Oh my goodness, you must have so much time to be making bento boxes.” And I was like, “No, this is my studio time.” I had to find a medium or an outlet that was doable for me then.
How can Christian communities or churches support artists, and what do they lose if they don’t?
People in the church can support artists by acknowledging that their work is not just a hobby—it’s not just “me time” or it’s not just “therapy”—but it’s real work. Artists want to know that they have a place in the church, that their creativity and their faithfulness to their calling is seen, and that other people are trying to understand them, even if they don’t fully understand them. They want people to ask questions about their work. They want to share what’s happening in their lives through their work.
What do we lose if we don’t? For one thing, we lose a really important metaphor for what God does and who God is, because he is a designer; he is an artist. We’re also losing an understanding of a whole group of people to whom we’re supposed to be ministering. The artist in your local church or the artist in your life is giving you a window into the way that a huge group of people in the world may be operating and thinking. And why wouldn’t you want to understand another human?
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