Praying In Art: Soul Healing Through Creative Expression

By August 9, 2018

One Wednesday afternoon in late fall 2017, Associate Pastor Dr. Len Delony was doing some of his regular visits to people from our congregation whose family has let us know that they were in the hospital. One of his stops that day was to visit with Jo Ann Durham, a longtime church member who was recovering from a difficult stroke. 

As they visited, Len was reminded once again that healing is something that happens for people on many levels. As Len has long known and studied (this was actually the topic of his doctoral thesis), the hearing and telling of our “soul stories” is a timeless form of care that lies at the very heart of healing.

During that first conversation, Len learned about Jo Ann’s love of art — as well as her own artwork, including special series of paintings of angels that began long ago through her own brokenness and need for healing. Over the next few months of visits while Jo Ann continued in rehab, her own “soul story” began to unfold:

When laying down an acrylic wash in preparation for a new painting, Jo Ann Durham got the answer she was yearning to find. Her son, John Lee Durham, had recently died, and in her grief, Jo Ann, an accomplished artist, had turned to her painting for solace. And as she painted, she was praying aloud, “Oh John, where are you? I just wish I knew that you’re alright.” 

The Angel of Faith and Hope painting

When she glanced down at the canvas, she saw the unmistakable outline of an angel that had somehow appeared while she was smearing paint around, praying, and talking aloud to John. “I just wanted so badly to know that he was alright,” she remembers, “and then this angel just showed up, right there in the paint — it just kind of came out of nowhere.” She smiles. “I took that as a sign that he was alright.”

After putting the painting aside for a while, Jo Ann came back to it one day, once again marveling at the appearance of the angel in that moment of her deep despair and questioning. “Looking at the angel again, I decided to airbrush around the central figure in gold,” she says, “And I decided to call it ‘The Angel of Faith and Hope,’ because it came to me as a reminder that death is not the end; it is the door to heaven where we will all be reunited.”

Captivated with this unexpected image and its reassuring message, Jo Ann then had it printed on small notecards, and she then made a practice of sending these cards to other parents whose children had died. “I sent them to parents in Columbine after the shooting there,” she says, “as well as the victims of the shooting here locally at Wedgewood Baptist Church.” Jo Ann said that from that point on, whenever she learned of a child dying, she’d send the parents one of these note cards with a simple message of encouragement, sharing with them this message of hope.

A Ministry Grows to Foster Healing and Inspiration

Then, as others saw and learned the story of this card, they began to place orders. “I tried to always keep a few extras around, so I’d have them if I needed to send one,” she adds. While the original Angel of Faith and Hope painting always remained with Jo Ann, prints of it have found their way into all kinds of public and private settings, including the Choir Room at FUMCFW where it hangs along with another of Jo Ann’s paintings — an angel inside a Celtic cross. Because of this unique experience of prayer and the healing that came with it, Jo Ann’s Angel of Faith and Hope painting was also featured in the 2013 book by Barbara Ganim, Art and Healing: Using Expressive Art to Heal Your Body, Mind, and Spirit.

The Angel of Faith and Hope painting with some of Jo Ann’s notecards

Soon after Jo Ann’s Angel of Faith and Hope notecard became known, our then director of Children’s Ministries, Cynthia McElrath (now Fisher), invited Jo Ann to come and work with the children during the Sunday School hour to paint angels that would later be placed on a large canvas to hang in our second floor Children’s Wing. This creation by our children under Jo Ann’s tutelage then also became a note card — used first as a Christmas card, and then later as a blank notecard.

Over the years that followed, Jo Ann produced a number of paintings that also eventually became notecards, and her work and style became recognizable to all who knew her. Through many years these cards have been treasured by those who received them, either from Jo Ann or, later, from others who used this soulful vehicle for delivering a note of comfort and encouragement in a time of struggle, grief, or loss.

“I later did a series of crosses,” Jo Ann relates. “Starting with the Celtic cross, which I think is very beautiful.” Jo Ann says that she first became fascinated with the Celtic cross when she visited Ireland many years ago. “I went into the old part where they have a very, very old cemetery and the ruins of St. Kathryn’s monastery,” she remembers. “All the old Celtic crosses there were very interesting to me.”

Jo Ann says that what happened next was a surprise that only further fueled her interest. It sparked the inspiration for a new painting theme she would follow for the next few years. “As I walked through there I saw my maiden name, Fanning, on a Celtic cross from hundreds of years ago,” she says. “That was really a blessing. I knew I was Scotch-Irish, but seeing that Celtic cross with my maiden name on it inspired me to paint these Celtic crosses.”

From Early Calling to Professional Achievement to Soul Story

Jo Ann Durham’s fascination with art and painting began at age five when her grandmother, Callie Elizabeth Fanning, took her into the fields surrounding her rural East Texas home to paint bluebonnets. Entering her first show as a teenager in 1944, Jo Ann became connected with a local art community in a way that was very supportive of her early work. 

From that first show to JoAnn’s many accomplishments in abstract painting, where she used universal symbols to demonstrate her interest in the mysteries of the universe, she was eventually included in five Who’s Who in Arts lists, both in the United States and England. During her career she exhibited her art in the Belgium Grand Prix, in Paris, France, in the Grand Palais in the Salon D’Automme, in the Society International Des Beaux Arts, and the US France Art Show. She also exhibited works in the United Kingdom in the US Wales Show at the Cynon Valley Museum in Aberdare and in Cardiff at St. David’s Hall.

Jo Ann’s painting in the FUMCFW Choir Room

In addition to these exhibitions and shows, Jo Ann won awards in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Washing D.C. as well as internationally in Canada, Lebanon, and West Africa. Her works have been published in “American Artist,” “International Artists,” “Manhattan Artist,” “Women Artists Datebook,” “Women Artists International,” and in the books, Creative Watercolor, Art and Healing, The Art of Layering Visual Journeys, Art of the 21st Century, Journeys to Abstraction, and Splash 8, a collection of America’s best contemporary watercolors and unique insights.

During her astonishing career Jo Ann earned four grants as an Artist in Residence with the Texas Commission of the Arts. She was awarded the NSDAR “Women in the Arts Recognition Award” for lifetime achievement in the visual arts. She was a charter member of the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. where a file on her work is kept in its Library. Jo Ann also served as a past president and former board advisor of the International Society of Experimental Artists. A 1956 graduate of Texas A&M University Commerce, she was honored for her career in art in 2015 as its Distinguished Alumni.

Parlaying all this achievement and recognition in the art world into selfless service to the local arts community in Fort Worth where she made her home, Jo Ann served as a member of the TCU Fine Arts Guild and Tarrant County Arts Alliance, and she was one of the four founders of the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. In 1979, with the assistance of the late Dr. Charles Ogilvie, Jo Ann started the art shows hosted at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. 

If you would like to see and experience Jo Ann’s prolific and amazing body of work beyond what is hanging in our church, you can find her paintings in the permanent collection of both the Fort Worth Public Library Downtown and the Sulphur Springs Library. In addition, three of her paintings are in the permanent collection of the Fort Worth Woman’s Club; fifteen of her paintings are in the permanent collection of Texas A&M Tarleton; and twenty of her paintings are in the collection of Texas A&M Commerce.

On June 5, 2018, Jo Ann left this world to enter that “door to heaven where we will all be united,” after a lengthy and earnest battle to recover from her stroke. We are so grateful that she was able to share this story — and its special message to artists and non-artists alike — as we celebrate Jo Ann’s life, her accomplishments, her example, and her inspiring spirit of generosity to others, especially to those who grieve.

Read this story and more in CONNECT Magazine | 2018 Issue 2

CONNECT Magazine is your source for the stories of our FUMCFW Faith Community — and how each fits in with our Healthy Plate Discipleship. Pick up your copy in the Main Office and Welcome Center or read it online.

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