By Melanie Lee
Author, “A Year In Sedona~Meeting The Muse At Wisdom’s Edge”
(February 26, 2018)
There are moments in our lives, there are
moments in a day, when we seem to see
beyond the usual – become clairvoyant.
We reach then into reality. Such are
the moments of our greatest happiness.
Such are the moments of
our greatest wisdom.
— Robert Henri
Not long after setting up our swanky new art studio in the garage, Louis and I got an invitation from our friend Sedona Rabbi Bernie (“More joy, less oy!”) Kling to join a group of modern day pilgrims who met monthly in homes for an interfaith service and potluck. It sounded like fun and we needed to start meeting some new people, so on the appointed day I whipped up a splendid Waldorf salad to share and off we went with a festive an colorful quartet of apple, celery, raisin and walnut. It was a stunning example of culinary art if I do say so myself and the cooking muse would surely have been pleased.
Hosts for the home liturgy that sunny Sunday morning were painter John Warren Oakes and his wife, poet Libby Oakes, both of whom, from my point of view, had apparently been residing at wisdom’s edge for some time now. The focus was on the subject of prayer, not an intellectual exploration of spiritual supplication and reception, but more a creative literary review of the origins, styles and traditions of spiritual communication through the ages. Quietly illuminating and instructive, it offered plenty of inspiration for approaching the ancient subject of call and response — prayer — in a whole new way. I would ponder the implications of the service in days to come, but for now I was interested in getting better acquainted with our hosts.
I saw John perched near one of his paintings, an intriguing abstract with an unusually enticing display of geometric shapes and rollicking colors that presented a delightful coherency with his shirt. I walked over to get a better look and saw two gorgeous riots of lavenders and purples laughing and shouting good energy into the room as John announced that lavender was his favorite color. “Lavender is very spiritual,” he said knowingly. When I nodded and asked him to tell me more, he proceeded to relate the story of a remarkable painting experience he’d had some years back.
It seems that John and Libby had worked together some years back to create Meditations On The Holy Cross, a gorgeous boxed set of twenty five meditation cards. John’s abstract images of Christ on the cross were accompanied by Libby’s commentary, written passages which she described as having been intuitively received during meditative walks. Listening to John talk, I recognized he was telling me a story of having been a spiritual traveler seeker who had at one point experienced a profound life reset, finding his his muse on a very long road that began years ago that ended at wisdom’s edge when he and Libby had moved to Sedona.
He’d been an art professor for some forty years in Kentucky and studied before that at prestigious art schools. But a process of surrender, transformation and rebirth had been initiated when he found himself stepping away from an artistic paradigm defined by traditional education and training emphasizing rationality and planning. After undergoing a period of large scale reorientation, he started to paint in a completely new way with Meditations on the Holy Cross, a remarkable example of what happens when one surrenders to the call of the art spirit.
John said The Holy Cross series (which found a home at the world renowned Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona), had originally started taking shape in 2008. By 2011 there were some two hundred paintings and eight hundred drawings which were strikingly different, he said, from anything he’d ever done before and that he was completely mystified when images seemed to appear out of thin air as if by magic while the muse whispered long and loud in his ear. The resulting paintings were far beyond examples of mere self expression, the focus of much of his previous work. Instead, this new work was about surrender, with John becoming a kind of channel for imagery and representations that poured out from a place he’d never seen or been before.
Some of the paintings were wildly abstract, while others, more traditionally executed, spoke of a sweeter, quieter transformational experience. It was the project of a lifetime, he said, one that would change him forever as it played out over the next several years as his quest for a new relationship with the muse continued. He expanded his creative boundaries by studying famous artists’ paintings of the crucifixion, then taking an icon painting workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Later, he and Libby would travel and live for a time in numerous spiritual sites including Glastonbury, England and the soul of nowhere, the Arizona desert. There, like some ancient Bedouin, he settled into an extended time of deep meditation and after a period of intense soul searching, found that his usual rational, carefully planned approach to painting had fallen away altogether. Now the painting focused not so much on product as process, as he experimented with attempts to represent the energy of the living Christ and portray new life resurrected and reconstituted from the old and seemingly dead. He would eventually understand this experience of artistic transformation as one of surrender to the art spirit, akin to a process of death and rebirth into his new life as an intuitive painter. The art he would create now was marked by a softer, more fluid and highly receptive approach.
John’s story was one of transformation, the kind of timeless tale that has always offered hope and succor for those on the path to wisdom’s edge. Hearing it, I felt renewed, even blessed, having learned a new way to understand the true meaning of prayer.
There are infinite possibilities for finding intuitive and deeply personal ways to communicate with the divine, the real message of John’s story. Full of insights about rearranging the life of the soul in order to fling open the doors to perception, this was a story for creative hearts everywhere in search of their muse.
Melanie Lee is an award-winning writer, editor, artist and author. Growing up in Texas, she read mostly biography and autobiography and dreamed of being a writer who could help inspire others to meet their muse by honoring beauty in everyday life. She holds degrees in languages and journalism and was a features editor and columnist, writing everything from lifestyle stories and business news to profiles of entrepreneurs, artists and inventors engaged in the creative pursuit of right livelihood. She lived for ten years in Northern New Mexico where she was creator and director of Sojourns Writing Workshops of Santa Fe.
At the second half of life she moved to Sedona with her husband Louis Michalski. She met her muse anew, took up painting, became a yoga teacher and avid hiker and wrote “A Year in Sedona~Meeting the Muse at Wisdom’s Edge“, available on Amazon.com or from the author. She can be contacted at
P.O. Box 1419 Sedona, AZ 86339 or email@example.com
Thank you Melanie for this gift on my birthdate.