You are here

Four painters explore spirituality through art

Detail from "Solitude in St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna" by Connie Halliwell.
The Rev. Sharon Sheridan Hausman
Detail from "Solitude in St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna" by Connie Halliwell.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people across the world to shelter in place, many have turned to the arts for entertainment, solace and inspiration. The VOICE Online is profiling some of the many artists in the Diocese of Newark and sharing examples of their talents. This week’s article features four of our diocesan painters.

Debra Cook

Member, Grace Church, Nutley

For Debra Cook of Bloomfield, the artist’s journey and spiritual paths increasingly have intertwined and deepened each other.

Her art journey began in childhood.

“I started when I was 7,” she recalled. “I have a picture that my mother saved. I drew a bagpiper sitting on a rock. I drew his plaid kilt and everything.”

From there, she took every art class offered at school, served as arts editor of the school yearbook, attended the Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts. As a mother, she created artwork and displays for her children’s school and Scout functions. At her Presbyterian church, she directed Vacation Bible School every year. In 1996, she opened the Renaissance Art Studio in Bloomfield.

Then circumstances changed at her church, and she began praying to find a new church. In 2010, she attended a Christmas pageant at Grace, Nutley, where one of her students was performing. The church contains a series of early 1900s murals on canvas by English artist Clinton Balmer that are mounted on the ceiling of the nave and the end wall of the chancel.

“I thought I was walking into heaven, with all the paintings on the ceiling,” Cook said. She told her husband, a Roman Catholic, that all she wanted for Christmas that year was for them to attend Christmas Eve service at Grace together. “That spring, we both joined the Episcopal Church.”

Cook began exploring liturgical art, learning how to write icons and do illumination. “My spiritual journey just keeps getting deeper and deeper into liturgical art,” she said. “It’s so exciting.”

Sometimes, she paints in reaction to current events, such as when ISIS beheaded a group of orange-clad Coptic priests in Libya in 2015.

“Sometimes that happens. I just get the feeling, and I have to do it,” she said. “I feel like the Holy Spirit is speaking to me. Rev. Pam [Bakal, Grace’s rector] sometimes calls me a mystic.”

She hasn’t yet painted anything in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, in what she calls a “behold moment,” she posted on Facebook about how to “chalk your walk” with positive messages, and people in several surrounding towns followed her suggestion. She also posted about creating a rainbow picture to hang outside after hearing from her daughter in Germany about people creating rainbows there and in Italy. And she is giving her grandchildren online art lessons.

Cook closed Renaissance after eight years, switching to teaching art lessons at a home studio. In 2018, she launched Amour Colour de’Art. She teaches art lessons at her house, leads Advent and Lenten art workshops at churches, and holds wine-and-cheese painting parties at churches, including as a fundraiser for congregations. In January, she led children at a diocesan Prison Ministry workshop in painting a mural of themselves that was displayed at Diocesan Convention. At the wider church level, she is a member of Episcopal Church & Visual Arts (

Cook works in a variety of artistic media, including doing photography, but she sees herself primarily as a painter and likes working in acrylics best. “I do like colored pencil, too,” she said. “That’s what I do botanical art with.”

Melissa Hall

Rector, St. James, Upper Montclair

For the Rev. C. Melissa Hall, the COVID-19 pandemic spawned a rebirth, of sorts, for her painting career.

In 2008, she and a now-retired Diocese of Newark priest, the Rev. Judy Baldwin, began a weight-loss endeavor of walking together daily alongside the Hudson River in Hoboken, where Hall then lived. They began noticing old pieces of logs and lumber and other wooden detritus.

“These beautiful pieces of wood were washed up along the river. We started to collect them. We didn’t know why. This went on for about a month and a half.”

Then Hall’s partner, Fran Lapinski, said: “Enough! What are you going to do with all this?”

“I said, ‘I’m going to paint on it.’ She said to me, ‘You don’t paint.’ And I said, ‘Well, I will.’”

Thus River Bones was born.

“I started to paint on these pieces of wood and started to make things out of it,” Hall said. “I’ve got a piece upstairs. It’s like 6 feet long and 4 feet high. Someone had written on the back of it: ‘Take me home.’ So I did. I still do it.”

Over time, she expanded into painting on other surfaces, from conventional canvas to unconventional plastic torso forms from bathing suits, which she turned into five women’s faces and heads called The Bad Girls of the Bible, depicting women including Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.

She prefers working in acrylics, both for their quick drying time and because “they have a mind of their own,” she said. “You start to push them around. They push back.” And something new and different than the artist imagined emerges.

A medical condition that affected her eyesight changed her painting style.

“When I started to lose my eyesight, it was distressing because, the preciseness of the art – I could not do that anymore,” she recalled. She began painting with bigger, bolder strokes.

One day, she created a painting “by accident.” She used red and blue – “not necessarily colors I’d put together.

“When you look at it, they’re women. They’re women dancing. When it happened, I couldn’t see it. I was just kind of slapping paint on there.”

But her daughter Katherine looked at the finished product and said: “Look at all the women you painted!”

“If you just relax and let it happen, the Spirit comes through you,” Hall said. “The Spirit handles the creativity.”

Entering Holy Week, Hall was awaiting the Spirit’s prompting.

Two Sundays earlier, she and Lapinski had gone for a walk in Montclair. “I said, ‘Let’s walk down the train tracks.’ How insane is that? It was that feeling of everything had stopped... nothing was usual.

“We walked down the train track from one station to another. Along the way, what did I find but these huge spikes, lots of them, that they use to put the rails into the ground, and these enormous screws.... I’ve started to collect them. I have about 14 of them. They’re in my backyard.”

“Every day, I go out, and I lay them on the ground, and I arrange them, and I look at them, and I’m waiting for the Spirit to say, ‘Oh, do this.’ I think I’m going to paint them.”

“It is ‘found art.’ I just don’t know what it will be yet,” she said. “It’s River Bones all over again.”

Connie Halliwell

Member, St. Peter’s, Morristown

“I’m not really painting spiritual topics or anything, but I do have to say, when I really get into it, it’s kind of a meditative process,” says Connie Halliwell. “It puts you in a reflective zone.”

Halliwell has been entering that “zone” for many years, and exhibiting and selling her work for four decades. She started painting as a child and majored in fine arts at Tufts University. She found her favorite medium – watercolor – while taking an adult school course in the late 1970s.

“I always come back to watercolor,” she said. “I just like... the light effects you can get with it.” It also has a practical side: “For most of my adult life I was painting in my dining room, and I didn’t want to have the mess and the smell of oil paints in there.”

Halliwell took several watercolor classes with the adult school instructor, a retired artist from Picatinny Arsenal. After awhile, he pulled her and several other students aside and said, “You people really should go into an art show.”

Halliwell followed his advice. She earned her living as a school teacher, spending 25 years teaching mostly sixth-grade social studies at the Long Valley Middle School. But in her free time, she began entering art shows and taking additional classes and workshops.

She volunteered for eight years as a watercolor instructor at Heath Village Retirement Community, where she now lives. She served in various roles, including president, with the Art Association in Roxbury and is an exhibiting member of the Essex Water Color Club.

After retiring from Long Valley, she joined – and for awhile coordinated – an informal group of artists who would gather at various outdoor locations to paint. They visited sites from historic Waterloo Village in Byram and the Cooper Mill in Chester to Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morris Township and the Convent of St. John Baptist in Mendham.

“That was a good experience, painting on location,” she said. “That really, I think, improved my painting. I wouldn’t often finish the painting [on site], but I’d at least have a watercolor sketch to bring home.”

Typically, Halliwell photographs a location she wants to paint, then does preliminary black-and-white sketches at home to “get it the way I want, and then I’ll do a bigger drawing.

“Some people can just go out there and just start painting, and they do it all in one sitting. I’m more one that will plan ahead and do a preliminary drawing and transfer it, especially if there’s buildings, because I want the [right] perspective.”

While she paints various subjects in different styles, she tends toward realistic paintings and especially enjoys including buildings in her artwork, she said. She likes the interplay of lights and darks and shadows. “I’ve just always been intrigued by the way light hits on surfaces,” she said.

Those buildings have included St. Peter’s, her long-time parish in Morristown. Her late parents also were members, and she first painted the church as a present for her father. Later, she sold prints of the painting at art shows at the church. She also painted the church on commission for a parishioner.

While many of her paintings feature building exteriors, she painted a view of the inside of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna after a trip there in 2005. The acrylic shows a man sitting in a pew and praying, light streaming through the windows behind him.

“It was one of my favorite paintings I’ve ever done,” she said.

Lynne Bleich Weber

Rector, Atonement, Tenafly

The Rev. Lynne Bleich Weber was attending an eight-day Jesuit retreat in Gloucester, Mass., when her art and prayer life connected in a powerful way.

These summer retreats, which she attended annually for several years, “were just profound spiritual experiences for me in a beautiful setting,” she said. In her free time, she sketched watercolors of the ocean and surrounding area.

One day, one of her spiritual directors asked: “Have you ever used your art in your prayer life?”

The idea made sense, Weber said, “particularly with Ignatian spirituality, because it’s all about the imagination. It’s all about entering into the biblical story and imagining yourself there.

“I started to do that that year. It was a wonderful experience,” she said. “I have to admit, I’ve had a hard time doing that when I’m not on retreat. There was something about being in that beautiful setting and spending all that time in prayer and, whether it was while you were praying or when you were dreaming, it all sort of flowed together. [It’s] much harder to do when you’re home and working.”

Still, some of those art-prayer experiences continue to resonate. On one retreat, during an “imaginative prayer” exercise, she experienced the story of Nicodemus meeting with Jesus by night in a new way – “very, very different from the way I had interpreted it or understood it before.”

“It was Jesus and Nicodemus caught up in the Spirit.... Like whirling dervishes, they were dancing together. Jesus was going, ‘It’s the Spirit.’ Nicodemus was saying, ‘Oh, I see!’

“I had to find a way of painting that.”

Years later, “I don’t always preach on it exactly that way,” she said. “[But] it’s impossible for me to preach on that text without thinking about that experience and looking back on that watercolor that I did.”

In worship, she sometimes invites parishioners into the creative process, by offering a painting station or providing them with pieces of paper to color or write on, based on a sermon’s theme, and placing them all on one canvas.

Weber has created art most of her life – beginning with drawing as a child and painting in high school – but not always consistently. As an adult working in advertising and busy at church while living in a small place in New York, “I went a lot of years without painting.”

But working with a clergy coach “really made a big difference for me,” she recalled. She learned to set aside time for self-care, including painting and taking retreats. In 2010, she spent two months on sabbatical in the British Isles and France thanks to a Lily Foundation clergy-renewal grant.

Weber creates mostly oil paintings, but sketches in watercolor when she travels. During the sabbatical, “I did a lot of sketching and watercolors.... It really inspired me for a long time.”

Last fall, she signed up for an art class as she resumed painting again after a hiatus necessitated by family obligations.

She enjoys participating in painting classes. “Everybody has a different style. Everybody has a different experience. You sort of encourage each other.”

Right now, she’s “trying a little bit of everything,” from still life to abstract art, she said. “I’m sort of trying to figure out whether I want to continue in the style I was working on after my sabbatical, or if I want to try some new things.”

One constant remains: her focus on the sky. “My landscapes are about 5/6 sky and 1/6 land,” she said. Looking through sabbatical pictures on her phone, every other photograph was of a sky and clouds, she said, “all the skies I wanted to use as resources for paintings.”

“That’s still something that really moves me,” she said. “It still just draws me in. I call it my heaven and earth series.”

Gallery of Artwork