Artists transform conversations into creativity

25 Feb, 2016 | Italy
Lauren O'Shea
Larissa plays music in Italy at Incarnate, the artist training programme of OM Arts.  Photo by Lauren OShea
On a Friday afternoon, all 26 artists from the OM Arts Incarnate training and discipleship programme in Italy loaded up into buses and headed into the nearby town of Isola del Gran Sasso, charged with a united purpose: to cultivate meaningful conversations with the local people.

As part of the Incarnate programme, the artists were asked to intentionally have deep discussions with locals and to create works of art in response to what they experienced. The following stories are just a few of the ways these artist-missionaries were impacted by interacting with local Italians.

Card games

Heidi Salzwedel, a visual artist from South Africa, wasn't intimidated by the language barrier she would face while conversing with the Italian people. In fact, she said she was quite excited by the assignment because she truly enjoys talking with strangers.

"In some ways the language barrier actually stands in your favor because you end up only saying what you need to say," Heidi explained. "You only communicate what needs to be communicated, and people are aware of the barrier so both parties are working to overcome it. I actually think it creates a deeper connection sometimes because both people are working together to push past the barrier," she shared.

Heidi prepared herself for this assignment. Before embarking into the town of Isola, she created a notecard that said, ‘I want,’ and an additional five notecards that said, ‘financial security,’ ‘to be loved and understood,’ ‘to have a peaceful life,’ ‘to have satisfaction in my job,’ and ‘to know God,’ respectively. Each had the Italian translations on the back of the card.

She intended to ask the people she met in town to place the cards in order of importance to them. Her hope was that this research would lead into a deeper discussion.

Heidi met a man in a local cafe and asked him if he would put the cards in order of their importance to him, citing research as the reasoning behind the exercise. Other men in the cafe laughed at him. They must’ve wondered why this foreign woman was asking such strange questions, she thought.

"I didn't feel intimidated, and I waited until he answered the question,” Heidi said. “I think it helped that I first arranged the cards in order of importance for myself.  I said that mine was to know God. The man eventually said that his priority was financial security. He had studied economics and had studied to be an advocate before opening the bar that he was running. Obviously, it makes sense that he chose financial security because of the background he comes from," she stated.

The conversation didn’t go much further due to the language barrier, but Heidi plans on going back into the town and repeating the research. Next time, she will bring her two Italian friends to translate for her. She is eager to explore further conversations about humanity and the things our souls long for.

Heidi is going to use these conversations as source material for a greater body of artwork she intends to title, “Want.”

"I think [the concept] might have come out of conversations with friends who are not Christians about the insatiable need to satisfy desires, whatever they might be. Food, physical intimacy, and other wants are so much stronger when you don't any concept of eternal hope, because you're empty,” she shared. “I've just had lots of conversations with people where it struck me, the fact that I didn't feel empty. I still feel sad, angry or happy at times - those same emotions that everyone feels. But, that feeling of emptiness is not in my life because I'm not empty. It doesn't mean it’s easy, there are obviously difficulties in being a Christian, but I'm not empty - that I can guarantee. Whereas a lot of people are.”

When words fail

Larissa Meier is an extroverted North American musician who doesn’t usually struggle to find words to express herself. While the task of engaging an Italian in deep conversation didn’t stir up any anxiety within her, it did present obstacles.

She and two other artists wandered into a boutique and began to look around. They started asking the shop attendant simple questions about the merchandise and the attendant took the opportunity to dive into deeper questions.

"We were just asking questions about how much things cost, but the woman took things further. She began by asking where we were living and why we were in Italy,” Larissa said.

Her friends spoke more Italian than she did and were able to answer the attendant’s questions, so Larissa had to take a more passive role in the conversation.

"In a situation like that, I would normally start engaging immediately but, since we had to use a phone to translate everything we wanted to say I had to step back and just observe for most of the conversation. Yet I was still able to engage because she was so eager to engage," she said.

The woman introduced herself and started talking to the girls about her family and what her life was like.

“Even though I couldn’t understand every word she was saying, I knew she was trying to relate to us. I could tell she was seeking community, friendship, just someone to share with," Larissa continued.

Connecting with locals on a personal level encouraged her to consider the music she writes from a different angle.

"I was able to see the beauty of the individual and it really empowered me to personalize the songs I write. I learned to consider the perspective of just one person, as an individual,” Larissa said.

Child-like joy

A local baker gave Katherine Villegas, a dancer from Costa Rica, a free taste of some Italian goodies from her shop. Katherine was so touched by this gesture that she set off to buy the baker something in return for the kindness she had shown her.

"The baker was so nice to my friends and I and we wanted to do something for her. We found a flower shop and there we met an older woman, her name was Eva. She reminded me of my grandma,” Katherine said.

Eva began asking Katherine and her friends questions such as where they were from and why they were in Isola, and then she started talking about her own family.

“I don't know how, but she opened her heart and she started to tell us that she was really sad and worried because her business isn't doing very well. It was shocking because we knew we couldn't do much to help her other than to buy some flowers that we could give as a present to the baker.”

Later that day, Katherine was considering the different conversations she had in Isola and Eva kept coming to her mind.

"I was praying and asking the Lord what He wanted me to create out of this experience. I really felt Him telling me that wants Eva to feel like a kid again. You know, kids don't worry about money, or what they are going to eat or if tomorrow they are going to sell enough flowers to make ends meet.”

Katherine’s conversation with Eva inspired her to create a dance that captured the playful, joyous spirit that children have.

“Even if she is an older woman, God sees [Eva] as His child and He wants her to play and be happy. I really want to represent Eva being joyful and to show that she can return to the place where she is, but she can be at peace and not stressed anymore. Hopefully, one day I can show her the dance!"

Pray for the artists participating in the Incarnate programme of OM Arts as they continue to engage the people of Isola, Italy and demonstrate God’s love to them.


Lauren O'Shea is a journalist from the United States. She is a communications intern for OM Middle East North Africa, currently on assignment with OM Arts during the Incarnate programme, and is dedicated to telling the world what God is doing through global missions and the arts.

Credit: Lauren O'Shea · © 2016 OM International This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

OM’s role in the Church is to mobilise people to share the knowledge of Jesus and His love with every generation in every nation. OM pioneers and leads initiatives to redeem lives, rebuild communities and restore hope in over 110 countries.

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