South Carolina artist’s “Painting Table” helps Newtown heal

Artist Roger Hutchison, Canon for Children’s Ministries at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, S.C., was invited to help facilitate an arts therapy workshop in Newtown, Conn. after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. Hutchison had written a book, “The Painting Table: A Journal of Loss and Joy,” about the innovative group activity he uses with parishioners to blend art therapy with mindful spiritual practice. Hutchison’s story is featured on the Huffington Post blog. We asked him to share his experience with us:

On December 14, 2012, the unthinkable happened. Twenty children and six adults were killed when a lone gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

It was a beautiful Friday morning; my day off. I will, on occasion, spend my Fridays painting with children in local schools and on this day, I had spent the morning with children at Hammond School in Columbia, S.C. There were bold colors and lots of laughter. The joy of childhood was palpable.

Little did I know that at that same time I was working with school children in Columbia, sheer terror and tragedy was unfolding in the hallways and classrooms of a small-town elementary school in a community called Sandy Hook.

What happened on December 14, 2012, brought the world to its knees.

I am the Canon for Children’s Ministries at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, SC. I am in my 16th year at the Cathedral. I’m a husband and a father.

I am also an artist.

I paint at my grandmother’s table, a table I once played under as a child and on which I enjoyed vibrant and delicious meals. The table became a Eucharistic symbol for me. It is the place where I go to paint, pray, and remember.

It has become such an important place for me, that I knew I had to invite others to the table.

In late March of this year, I received an invitation to travel to Newtown.

Sue Vogelman, the Director of Christian Education at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, was looking at how she might gather the children to talk about faith and God and what happened and was struggling to find ways to make this happen. Trinity Church, Newtown, is a congregation that serves many families with children who attended Sandy Hook Elementary. Ben Wheeler, a child of the congregation, was one of the children killed.

“The children are very resilient, but as time goes on they have been asking a lot more questions, faith questions, questions about God and death,” says Sharon Pearson, a Christian educator in Connecticut.  “Many of the Sunday School teachers are also parents. Having their children come to church and asking these questions in the context of faith has been difficult. Parents are looking for support in answering those questions, because they have those questions, too.”

On Friday, May 3, we pulled into Newtown…and I fell in love.

We had arranged to have two “Painting Table” sessions – one for children and families, and one for adults only.  We expected that there might be 20 or so people who participated, but when it was all said and done, some 50+ children and adults joined in.

My painting table is an actual table, but the idea of the Painting Table is more than a wooden top with four legs. It is about the invitation. It is about sharing our own sacred stories.  It is a safe and holy space where conversation, prayer, and healing can take place. The canvas, paper, and other assorted art supplies are the simple tools that help bring us together.

While there is grief, sadness, and loss, there is also hope.  There is an opportunity for celebration as we gather together, break bread, talk, and are welcomed. Whether it is through cooking, painting, or Eucharist, we come together to remember.

The end result of The Painting Table is not the painting that is created. It is the conversation, sharing, and listening that takes place around the table. It is one mother comforting another mother as they both grieve for their friend who lost a child. It is about the conversation I had with a 3rd grade girl who told me she had had a really bad day.  Her painting was dark and frantic. I listened to her for a little while – then encouraged her to paint another one.  The second painting was a bit more colorful. She took her two paintings and smashed them together.  When she pulled them apart, the darkness had lifted. I could see light and love and a beautiful smile.

The Painting Table is also about the conversation I had with a young mother who told me that she feels guilty sometimes that she still has her children. She shared with me what it was like to take her children home on that tragic day – passing house after house with state patrol cars in the driveways.

And sometimes the Painting Table helps us express our gratitude for life, as well. We are created in God’s image so at the very center of our being is that need and desire to create. One does not have to be a “trained” or a professional artist to do this. Have you ever watched a child coloring or painting? There is an authenticity and holy joy in that very moment.

I am often asked what inspired the idea of The Painting Table. My Grandmother inspired me. Her kitchen table became my painting table. When I sit at my painting table, I can still remember the love that she shared. Her love took the form of fresh tomatoes and bright green okra, black berry cobbler and chicken and dumplings.  My love takes the form of swirling colors smeared across canvas.

It really comes down to love.  Just love. Isn’t that what it is all about?