Stephen Roach, "The Breath & the Clay" 2018, and Starting a Creative Arts Community
Creativity is exploding across the church, and there are a number of influencers quietly leading the charge. Stephen Roach is one of them. A Greensboro native, some of his early recognition came directing the band Songs of Water. But in 2014, his work expanded with the launch of The Breath & the Clay, an annual gathering in North Carolina now attended by artists and creatives around the world. He’s also the host of Makers and Mystics, a new podcast exploring faith and creativity.
A few months ago, I spoke with Stephen about how The Breath & the Clay began and where it’s headed.
Stephen: My background is primarily music, but I also travel and speak on creativity and the relationship between art and faith. Several years ago, as I was traveling to different cities around the world, I recognized a common hunger in people to understand these connections between faith and art. During this time, my pastor and friend Matt Peterson asked if I would host a weekend event for artists in the area. He said, “This doesn’t have to be a church event. I would just like to provide the space and foster something for the arts in our area.” This approach resonated with me, and so we put something together in a few months time. My wife and I came up with the name The Breath & the Clay, which has since become our brand for the community and the yearly gathering we host every March in North Carolina.
Our first gathering in 2014 drew about 150 people, which was surprising for us given the short notice and lack of promotion. When we saw the interest, we knew we needed to pay attention because we had something special in our midst. My good friend John Mark McMillan participated in our second gathering and encouraged us that The Breath & the Clay was tapping into something unique and needful for a lot of artists. He encouraged us that we had been given an important stewardship. So I took that to heart and began to develop it beyond a local event. We did a third gathering in 2016 and then a fourth in 2017, and the community has continued to expand each time.
One of the aspects which sets apart The Breath & the Clay is a standard of excellence we aspire toward. From beginning to end, we treat our time together as a curated work of art. We seek to provide an environment where we can be inspired by great works, and we want to encourage people to believe that anything is possible.
Stephen has since traveled around the world, speaking to creative communities that make up the annual gathering in North Carolina. I asked him what he’s noticed creatives are hungry for, and how The Breath & the Clay is responding.
There are a lot of communities who want to get connected with others, so I think that's the next step for me – helping to provide a greater context for this exploration. I’m traveling to more creative communities and encouraging them in their creative pursuits. The yearly gathering here in North Carolina seems to be becoming kinda like the mothership gathering where everyone I’ve connected with throughout the year comes together. That's kind of, in a nutshell, where I see things headed.
For instance, I just returned from a speaking trip to Philadelphia and other cities in the Northeast. Everywhere I went, there were these little pockets of amazing creatives. They were all going after their various art forms but were also hungry for leaders and fellow artists to affirm their work or just give them permission to go for it. They had a lot of questions and wanted to connect with other like-minded people. I see The Breath & the Clay becoming more of an international community, giving a space to explore these questions on a larger scale and providing a context where we connect with others on similar journey.
The Breath and The Clay draws creatives of all kinds: professionals, hobbyists, entrepreneurs, influencers, and those who are simply curious. Everyone is integrated.
One of everyone’s favorite part of the gathering is the art gallery we host. We have musicians playing and choreographers performing and baristas making pour overs. Local artists and teachers host smaller, more hands-on workshops. Sometimes we invite potters to bring their wheels and throw during the main sessions. We have a live painting coordinator who brings together about 10 different painters who paint during the worship times. We like to provide a space for people to get their hands dirty and not just listen to good speakers.
One quality which characterizes our community is what I call the art of reconciliation, although I don't promote it as that in public. I've been gathering people from all different sides of the faith spectrum, and it's been pretty amazing to see. For instance, last year I invited a Roman Catholic art professor and a Kentucky-born charismatic storyteller as our two keynotes. There may have been very few places to see these two types of perspectives in the same context. But this kind of cross-pollination is much needed, especially within the church. Creativity tends to be a place where everybody can put their weapons down and listen to one another or find common ground.
If someone came to you and said, "I want to start a creative community in my area,” what advice would you give?
I would say, open the door, step out and host something. If you want it to be for Christian artists specifically, I would get the word out and just host an event – whether it's in your home or in your art studio. Gather four or five of you together and begin to create a space for it. All we did was create a space for it, and the hunger was already there.
Another important part is being active with your art in the larger community, whether in an online community or the city you live in. One idea we've talked about is doing a spoken word night in one of the pubs here in town, maybe once a month. It's usually those types of settings where you can give what you have, and people start connecting.
I'm still figuring it out, because I'm an artist myself. I'm still doing my own work as well as hosting the community. But this is a fun time for sure, and it’s inspiring to see so many people get free to pursue their work.
The Breath & The Clay 2018 takes place from March 22-25 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. To learn more or register, visit www.thebreathandtheclay.com.