Artist’s gifts unveil a conversion story of love in Jesus

On Sarah Norton’s second day of college, someone asked her to join a Bible study group. It was the beginning of one of many conversions. But at the time, it just seemed like a way to meet people.

“I needed friends, so I said, ‘OK,’” she said.

Norton, now 33 and the mother of four, as well as the artist owner of Conversion Street Studio, originally went into college as a vocal music major. She was Catholic, but even though she had gone to Catholic school, she perceived her faith as “rules to follow, not a relationship.”

In college, she dropped her faith and started partying. When someone from FOCUS Campus Ministry invited her to join their group, she went along with it, purely for the social aspect. She went to weekly Bible study but didn’t always attend Mass.

It wasn’t until a year in, when the leader asked her to join the ministry as a leader, that it started to get personal.

“I had to come early to college campus, and all the Bible study leaders were going to daily Mass and praying, and they had a joy about them. I wanted that. So I followed them,” she said.

Twelve weeks later, in her sophomore year, she was at Mass and looked up, and she saw Jesus.

“It was him. He gave my whole life to me. I’m gonna give my life to him,” she said.

That process wasn’t seamless. Norton slowly chipped away at the partying lifestyle she was leading and learned how to take her faith more seriously. At the same time, three years into her studies as a music major, she realized that music wasn’t meant to be her life. She ended up with a liberal arts degree and “one hundred minors in music.” And she took a few art classes.

Norton also felt the pull to make good on an inheritance of sorts she had gotten back in fourth grade.

Discovering her style

“A family friend died, and her mom was an artist. For whatever reason, I inherited all of her oil paints, thousands and thousands of paints,” she said.

When she changed her degree, she decided to try to make use of this gift. She only had a few art classes under her belt, but quickly discovered she had a love for color and an aptitude for painting.

“I felt like I was dancing when I was painting, and I still do,” she said.

After college, she married her husband (also a FOCUS missionary), and he introduced her to a sort of hidden Marc Chagall museum in D.C.

“This opened my mind,” she said. “I love that he had his own style. I love his floating people. And he was so good at color. And I loved how strongly his Jewish heritage came out, how his religion came out in his art.”

Norton began to paint in earnest, learning through online tutorials, and often following the practices of prayer she learned in FOCUS. In the lectio divina, she said, you meet Jesus in Scripture, intentionally imagining the scenes as described in the Gospels.

“I was pretty on fire,” she said.

Encountering God and motherhood

She and her husband had their first child right away, and then life shifted.

“The flame didn’t die, but it changed: Having a baby, and going from a Holy Hour a day, to what felt like nothing,” she said.

She also struggled with postpartum depression and the inescapable foggy mind that comes with the exhausting demands of motherhood.

After her third child, she decided that just getting by was not good enough. She dove deep into intensive mindfulness therapy, and after about a year, her life turned around again — and so did her relationship with Christ.

“I was able to accept all the messiness of being a mom, and I also accepted who I was. I’m a confident, compassionate person, and I have a lot to give, and a lot to do, and I love being a mom,” she said.

When she first truly met Jesus in college, she encountered him as her Lord and Savior, and the relationship was personal and intimate. But motherhood drew her back to Jesus in a more profound way, “in a way with fire and passion,” she said.

“He was the one who saved me. He still is. But now, I encounter him with a lot more going on: With my children and my husband and family life, in all that fullness and messiness, and also in my misery and in my weakness,” she said.

The flame came back, and now that sense of depending on the Lord because we don’t have it all together is central to her faith.

Sacred art and conversion

“Everything around me is out of my control, and I just need [Jesus] so much,” she said.

She has continued to pray while imagining Jesus in Scripture, and she paints what she prayerfully imagines.

“That is so big in my art now. I do that same kind of prayer,” she said. She describes this practice, learned back in her FOCUS days, as a familiar muscle that she’s thankful to have.

Resurrection series
The Resurrection Series

Norton hopes that her artwork might help other people meet Jesus as she did, no matter where they are in their lives.

“I believe that if you’re making sacred art, it should be a means of conversion, of growing in love of Jesus and encountering him,” she said.

Norton doesn’t have a studio or even an easel to paint on. Three years ago, when the family moved into an open-concept home, she resolved to paint every day, right on the kitchen island.

“The kids run around me while I paint, and sometimes I say, ‘Do you want to add a little swipe of color to the painting?’” she said. Sometimes her four-year-old and seven-year-old sit on the counter next to her as she works, and they all set to work with their own paper and paints.

Promptings of the Holy Spirit

There is another kind of messiness Norton tries to accept, even when the kids aren’t putting their mark on her work.

She called her “Annunciation” painting “a work of the Holy Spirit” because the composition of it was accidental.

The Jeweled Annunciation

“I was sponging and ran out of dark blue. The light area coming down on Mary was not covered, but that was clearly the Holy Spirit,” she said.

She realized it was meant to be.

Norton tries to hear the prompting of the Holy Spirit through her failures. She often scraps paintings or paints over them several times and tries to receive these struggles as a prompt to take another tutorial on perspective, composition or whatever needs more work.

“It’s Jesus saying, ‘Sarah, this isn’t what I wanted you to do,’” she laughed.

She even shares her failures, as well as the works she’s happy with, on social media. One recent attempt was supposed to be an icon-inspired image of St. Joseph the Worker, and she envisioned it full of flowing patterns.

“I kept going at it and forcing it, and it just turned out wonky and weird and not cool,” she said.

Journey of conversion

She thinks Jesus was telling her it wasn’t what he wanted. But she shared it because this is what conversion looks like: A process, a journey. That’s partly why her online store is called “Conversion Street Studio.”

“I’m very much a city person, and I think of encountering Jesus on the sidewalk, walking down a city street. We’re all on this path, this journey,” she said.

The Annunciation

It’s a journey that might take her in unexpected directions, and she acknowledges that she’s still just beginning her voyage as an artist, and is open to many different influences, from Chagall to Caravaggio.

“It’s a temptation as an artist to draw inspiration from something that is safe and has been done before,” she said.

“I draw inspiration from Chagall. It’s not going to be safe. But it’s an engaging reason and being human with, hopefully, an encounter with Jesus.”

Norton’s dream commission would be a painting of the call of St. Matthew.

“Jesus comes back and he’s like, ‘Follow me,’ and one line later, Matthew left everything and followed him. I feel like it’s what Jesus asks of all of us, daily, on the hour, on the minute: Follow me,” she said.

This post Artist’s gifts unveil a conversion story of love in Jesus appeared on Our Sunday Visitor.

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