Vanessa Sadler Talks to Scott Erickson

Peace Talks host, Vanessa Sadler, and Scott Erickson leave nothing off the table in this sometimes irreverent but always sincere conversation about art and life. Scott explains why jokes are sacred, why he prefers to talk about Good Friday instead of Easter Sunday, and the reason he will never create a picture of Jesus.

Vanessa Sadler: As a spiritual director who’s trained in Ignatian practice, what I love [about your performance art] is that you use it as a discernment practice of contemplating death. I’m curious about what drew you to this particular framework of performance art within the visual art that you already create.

Scott Erickson: It’s something that I had to go through, meaning it came out of my own life. I had this experience where I ended up just bursting into tears and crying on my bathroom toilet and not really knowing what was happening. And then I realized I was grieving the death of a dream, meaning I was starting to get in touch with who I think I’ve always wanted to be in the world. I think I’m much more of a performing artist. And I never really engaged in that. At the time I was about to turn 40. And I thought, “Is it over?” That’s the big question moving into any kind of second half of life. Is it too late? And I was grieving that. So I started developing spiritual practices, mental health practices, to deal with my grief. And they started to work for me. I just kept doing these things. And then I eventually heard the Spirit say, “I want you to start talking about this stuff.” And so I wrote all these notes down. I made it into talks. I started doing these talks. And they really resonated with people. 

I think we all would agree that life is a miracle. We have the math for that. But we also know that there are days the miracle really sucks. And if there’s a giver of that miracle, does it have anything to say about the suckiness? When I look at the sacred texts—Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Psalms—there’s all kinds of laments and regrets like, “My life ended,” “The walls are destroyed,” “I’m lost in the woods,” etc. And I wanted to take what I was learning and deliver it in an artistic and fun way. Because clinicians get very clinical in how they deliver information. Science is really good at explaining why everything’s happening, but it doesn’t explain why I’m crying on my toilet. You know what I’m saying? It doesn’t explain why I feel a certain way or the mysterious parts of it, or our prayers. And so that was my attempt to build that. 

VS: Let’s discuss your use of levity and humor when talking about heavy issues like suicide and death. In your iconography, there’s actually a good bit of whimsy to your work. 

SE: For me, I think tragedy and comedy are like sorrow and joy, light and dark—they’re all bedfellows, and you can’t know one without the other. My friend is a speech coach and I was talking to her recently, and she said, “Scott, theologians should do comedy because theologians take themselves too seriously. You know who doesn’t take us too seriously? God.” 

VS: You’ve taken your works Stations of the Cross and Stations in the Street into various communities. And recently you brought the Last Seven Sayings of Jesus into a prison. I’m curious about what you witnessed there and your thoughts on initiatives bringing people together and fostering these peacemaking dialogues in collective spaces.

SE: One of the things that visual art has the ability to do is be an excavation tool. Meaning it gets to the deeper conversation. Prayer is not our words and songs and poetry. Prayer is this ever-present interior conversation that you’re having with existence and the Giver of existence. And these word prayers, music prayers, image prayers, they help excavate things for you. Have you ever read a passage in the Bible, underlined a part of it, and come back to it a year later and underlined a different part? What happened? Did the words in the Bible change? No, the conversation in you changed and the art excavated a different part. So the visuals, they allow an excavation of that conversation with God. 

Easter is about the power of God. Good Friday is about the worst parts of being human. I’m always a little hesitant to speak to the power of God, because I’ve only witnessed it adjacently. But I can speak from authority about the awful parts about being human. The hope and the grace in that practice is that Jesus knows what it’s like to be the awful parts of a human. And when those parts are illuminated in my own story, I can remember that God is not unfamiliar with those places in my life and there’s grace there.

VS: I’ve heard you speak about not purposefully imposing the image of a white male god as a representative of the work that you create. Thank you. As a woman of color, I really appreciate that. Could you speak to the importance of that?

SE: I used to say that the two things I won’t make pictures of are Jesus and crosses. I didn’t want to create pictures of Jesus because it took me a long time to deconstruct the white Norwegian picture I had in the Scandinavian church I grew up in. And I think the cross is a very important symbol, but I also think culturally it’s very muddled right now. I don’t know if anybody even knows what it means anymore because we see pictures of Mother Teresa wearing it, but it’s also in the logo of the KKK. The cross is seen on celebrities, on beach bags, bedazzled on coats and shoes. It’s everywhere, so it doesn’t mean anything anymore. 

There’s a good practice I follow as an artist: just because you can use every color doesn’t mean that’s helpful. Giving myself limitations and boundaries is actually really helpful in creative work.

So I challenged myself to try something else, to go deeper. With Honest Advent, I wanted to make something that looked nothing like the brand of Christmas that we know of. And I wanted to make a book about incarnation. If I’m going to find God in the midst of Christmas, it’s through the vulnerable aspect of incarnation. I’m not a woman, but I’m married to one. I witnessed three pregnancies and three births. The birth process is way more risky and vulnerable than is usually depicted. But I remember when we were pitching this book and one publisher said, “What does this white dude have to say about the incarnation?”

A lot of unhelpful stuff was created by white men. So to counteract that, I want to propagate something better. And I’ll step out of the way when I need to and let other voices speak. What is toxic about white supremacy and Eurocentricity in the storytelling is the arrogance. I don’t want that. I’m very thankful for my friendships and people who’ve walked alongside me and helped me learn those things and have those perspectives.

VS: It’s been such a treat to have you. Thank you so much for joining us, Scott.


Scott Erickson is an artist, author, performance speaker, and creative curate who mixes autobiography, mythology, and aesthetics to create art and moments that speak to our deepest experiences.

He is the writer and performer of two one man shows: “We Are Not Troubled Guests” and “Say Yes: A Liturgy of Not Giving Up On Yourself.” He is the co-author of Prayer: Forty Days of Practice and May It Be So, the author of Honest Advent and Say Yes, a Spiritual Director to brave women and men, and a professional dishwasher for his food blogging wife.

Scott lives in Vancouver, WA and is most loved by his wife Holly and his children Anders, Elsa, and Jones.


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