Featured Artist #20: Marilyn Freeman

Marilyn Freeman

Reverence

Marilyn Freeman creates video work that is contemplative and quietly evocative. “Reverence” is one piece from a series of six video works that comprise a series she calls CinemaDivina. We asked Freeman to respond to a few questions about her inspirations and her process.

NL. “Reverence” is one piece from a series of video works titled CinemaDivina. What is your inspiration for this series? Who do you imagine your audience to be, and what would you like them to take away from their experience of this work?

The inspiration for CinemaDivina comes from an ancient prayer practice called lectio divina that uses scriptural reading in a structured, repetitive process, to cultivate spiritual insight. CinemaDivina is the name I’ve given my contemplative videos and films, and it also refers to a method of screening the work. The films are short pieces created to help foster contemplation, reflection, and inspiration. I create each of the CinemaDivina pieces through a lectio divina process for a lectio-type screening process. The CinemaDivina screening process translates the lectio divina prayer process into a filmic paradigm.

About 6 or 7 years ago I acted on a desire to study prayer as a practice and I found guidance from a monk—a sister at a Benedictine Monastery near where I live. I’d met Sister Mary Giles by chance months earlier when I was at a weekend-long writing workshop hosted at St. Placid Priory. The workshop was otherwise unrelated to the Priory but at lunchtime we dined with the monastery residents and I found myself in the middle of a conversation with a nun. I was raised a Catholic and had long since left the church. I hadn’t really talked with a nun since grade school. I was aware of feeling nervous and curious, and I asked her what she did there—day in and day out. She said she was a spiritual director. I vaguely recall she described other aspects of her work, but all I heard was this spiritual director thing. I quizzed her about what that meant and as she talked I became aware of a growing impulse. Fast-forward from that 8-top table in the Priory dining hall to several months later when I sat in a small private room with Sister Mary Giles. I told her I was agnostic, I didn’t have a spiritual practice, but I wanted to learn to pray, as an adult, in a contemplative way, and I wanted to learn from her, someone for whom prayer is central.

The thing I remember most about that first session with Sister Mary Giles was her description of lectio divina and being immediately enthralled. At our second session she guided me through my first lectio divina practice using a few lines from a Rumi poem I’d brought (instead of using scripture). That first lectio experience brought me to a very deep and joyful place, and amazingly quickly. The inspiration for CinemaDivina came to me immediately afterwards. As I sat in my car before leaving the Priory, I said to myself, out loud, I could do this with video and film. And the words “Cinema Divina” came to me at that moment. It took me several years to unpack exactly what that meant and to arrive at the place of creating the videos.

I followed the urge further to deepen my prayer practice and that led me to developing CinemaDivina, and that also brought me unexpectedly and directly to its audience. I am now a long-term retreat practitioner at the Priory’s Spirituality Center, which has become a kind of development lab for my CinemaDivina work. I am the fortunate beneficiary of the mentorship of the Center’s Director, Sister Lucy Wynkoop, who is a highly respected practitioner and teacher of lectio divina. And the participants of retreat programs there constitute my “authenticating audience.” (This term, “authenticating audience,” first jumped out at me in the context of intercultural cinema through Laura Marks’s The Skin of the Film. In that book Marks credits Toni Cade Bambara with describing African American women as the authenticating audience of the film, Daughters of the Dust.) Retreat practitioners come to the Spirituality Center inviting a contemplative, if not mystical, experience. That spiritual intention is extended to the CinemaDivina experience. Retreatants watch CinemaDivina films in a structured, repetitive practice that invites insight, contemplation, reflection, and inspiration. CinemaDivina exists because of its authenticating audience.

I am moved by the growing interest in CinemaDivina within the visual and literary arts contexts. Having “reverence” featured on ninthletter.com is an honor. Last month another CinemaDivina piece, “hope” was exhibited in a show at New York City’s Powerhouse Arena. It’s both humbling and thrilling that CinemaDivina is resonating beyond its original audience. I hold the same hope for all its audiences—that the films help foster contemplation, reflection, and inspiration.

NL. You describe yourself as both a writer and a digital media artist. Can you talk about how and why you fuse these two modes in your creative work? Do you see particular significance and/or advantage in producing CinemaDivina as a series of videos as opposed to written texts?

It is true I have described myself as a writer and digital media artist, but increasingly I see myself more accurately as an interdisciplinary, experimental, process- and time-based artist. I work primarily with the moving image these days: directing, shooting, and editing video, scoring sound or silence frame-by-frame, making work for the screen and for installation. The recorded word is often central to my work. I write for the page, the stage, and the screen—fiction and creative nonfiction. My creative life emerged first through writing. Then came theater: acting and directing for the stage along with dance and choreography, all with an emphasis on experimental, original work. Writing, or perhaps more accurately, narrative, permeates every thing I do, either textually, verbally, aurally, or through visual language. I am deeply interested in the theories and transforming nature of autobiography and self-representation, and in relationships between the personal and transpersonal in contemplative practices and contemporary art. I’m interested in interrogating the themes that call to me without being restricted to certain media or forms, rather through experimenting within a clearly articulated creative process.

CinemaDivina pieces are short, experimental videos and films designed through a contemplative process for an embodied kind of awakening practice. The sound—whether voice, waves, crickets, or bombs—and the silence, and the visual mixes combine to offer an aural and moving image meditation. As an aural/moving image series CinemaDivina brings the prayer practice off the page, into the air, the ears, and the eyes at once, stirring perhaps a kind of emotional and maybe visceral contemplation—one that affects the mind, body, and spirit—an integrated experience.

NL. Can you talk about your interest in, relationship to, sound and silence?

I tend to think sound is the most important aspect of video. As film, television, and online audiences, we’re so accustomed to sound accompanying film and video, the absence of sound can be alarming. Silence can wake us up—is something wrong? We fiddle with the volume. Or silence can, especially when it’s not anticipated, draw us in, and create an intimate, internal experience. I’m interested in that, the intimacy of silence in an unexpected context. I find the rhythm of sound and silence in contemplative practice can help bring about a kind of gradual deepening, a spiritual intimacy.

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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