Blog | Mary Abma

In the fall of 2011, I was commissioned by Forest City Community Church, London, to create a series of works for the wall of their atrium. The proposal I had submitted, to create a series of seven meditations that touched on our inward spiritual journey and on our journey out into the world and in community was accepted. For two years, I worked as I do on all of my series, focusing on creating works of great depth and integrity, remaining faithful to my own artistic practices, while fulfilling the goals set out in my proposal.

In the fall of 2013, the works were completed. They were installed at FCCC on December 5, 2013.

This short blog will give some background and insights about the artworks; however, my intention is only to suggest ways of approaching the works, not to instruct the viewer about how to interpret them.


Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud andsunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I don’t want to say too much about this piece, other than that it was done without a drawing. The paint was put on blank gessoed boards. This work is intuitive in contrast to the five central works in this series, which were crafted over a very long period and with much study and thought.

This painting does incorporate symbols that you will see repeated throughout the series:






2013-12-09 1:22 PM

Milagro Prayer Shawl #1

In the spring of 2012, I began to work on an outdoor installation. Our grapevine which had enfolded our deck for twenty years had suffered a great shock due to a very early bout of warm weather, followed by a heavy frost. All of the growth that had begun this year, had died. Despite all of the tests we did to determine if the vine had any life in it, we could find none. Spring had come to the rest of my yard, but the vine remained dry and brown.  I was inspired  to make an artwork out of the vine. For this artwork, I invited people I knew to make or to find a small object that they would associate with a prayer (milagro) and then hang it on the vine. The goal was to cover the vine with visual representations of an entire, diverse community of prayers. Objects came from all over Sarnia, where I live, from London, where the artwork now resides, and from as far away as South Africa!

In July of that year, the vine sprouted back to life. This natural act became symbolic of healing and the vine became a living metaphor.

After a year and a half, I brought the installation indoors and fashioned it into a prayer shawl, inspired by the shawls that some church groups make in prayer for those who are in need.

Click here to see a video of this artwork.


2013-12-09 1:13 PM

If We Walk

The painting of the labyrinth positioned in the sky and along a road was the first piece I did for this series. It was also one of the last to be completed. For nearly a year, I looked at the painting, pleased by it and yet unsatisfied.

Finally, I realized what the problem with the painting was: I had never walked a labyrinth. I liked it as a symbol of journey, and I felt secure in my bringing the image out of the personal, spiritual realm and down to earth, but to be honest, I had nothing invested in this concept, personally. I had read a lot about the history of the labyrinth. I knew that a labyrinth was NOT a maze--that one could not get lost in one. I knew that this particular labyrinth is set into the floor of the Chartres Cathedral, where people have been walking it since the middle ages as a substitute for pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I knew that the labyrinth was an older symbol adopted by Christians, and also by others. I knew the labyrinth intellectually, but not experientially.

I had another problem. I really didn’t think that the labyrinth experience was one that I could possibly appreciate as an experience. I knew that there is a labyrinth of this design next to Trinity Anglican Church, in Cambridge, where my brother is priest. In fact, his church put it there. So I went to Cambridge to walk the labyrinth with my sister-in law.

Gillian told me that I should enter the labyrinth with a question on my mind and that by the time I reached the centre, God would provide the answer. I’m sure I gave her a ‘look’ when she said that. I know for sure that I was skeptical. Things just don’t work that way. But because I wanted to understand the labyrinth experience, I did ask a question: “What is the labyrinth all about?”

And so I began to follow the labyrinth. Right away, I became annoyed. My “spiritual” experience was interrupted by the drone of traffic on the street next to me. Car radios blared music, some with a heavy beat. Chainsaws nearby were cutting down trees, and a building nearby was getting a new roof. Worst of all was the loud swearing and coughing of a group of men near the church. When I reached the middle of the labyrinth, I expressed my frustration to Gillian: “This is the WORST place for a labyrinth! It isn’t meditative at all! And the worst is that group of men over there with their swearing and their soupy coughs.”

Gillian agreed that it is very noisy. Then, looking over at the group of men, she said, “They’ll go inside soon. They’re just waiting for the soup kitchen to open.”

When she said those words, I felt as though I was physically struck. My entire perspective changed and I said, “I take it back. This is the PERFECT location for a labyrinth!”

And so I added fragments of the path, painted onto soil--the grit of the journey.


2013-12-09 12:40 PM

Preparing for the Journey (Boat With No Oars)

There is a story in the Celtic tradition of St. Brendan and his followers, who by following Christ’s leading, stepped into a boat and set off. The boat, which had no oars, carried them to destinations unknown. This story is symbolic of a journey of faith. The destination may not be known, but the journey is not aimless.

I photographed an antique rowboat with no oars. In it, I placed objects, such as three stones, honeycomb, antique nails, etc. From this photo, I made a lumen photograph--a photograph which is developed by being exposed by the sun. The boat is on the water among images of grape leaves.

Next to the boat with no oars is an antique valise filled with objects. I approached this part of the work with humour. As I hunted for antiques to fill the valise, I asked myself this question: If I were to take a spiritual journey, what would I bring along?

Included in the valise are the following:

apothecary’s balance


pocket watch with no hands

wooden flute

used nails


glasses with case

oil can

oil lamp


starrett speed indicator


spirits made by Benedictine Monks



What would you include?


2013-12-09 11:47 AM

In Communion

When I was working on “In My Own Back Yard”, I became acquainted with a local beekeeper. His passion for bees was infectious and I became increasingly interested in bees and in what they symbolize for us on many levels. The most potent of these symbols for me is that of community. Of course, these days, along with an appreciation for bees and all that they do for us, come feelings of fear and sometimes helplessness in the face of the number of honey bee deaths each year.

I used honeycomb for three of the pieces in this series. In this painting, I had a communion serving tray set into the top of my painting board. These trays are used in some churches to serve the communion wine, or juice. I am fascinated by the symbol of communion, or eucharist. Eucharist means “Thankfulness” and this tradition is one in which interaction between us and God is centred around the symbol of a meal taken in community. The communion symbol is also one which brings together images of life and death.

For this painting, I fashioned communion glasses out of honeycomb. They are set in a tray covered with beeswax.


2013-12-09 11:28 AM

Sicut Cervus (As the Deer)

Detail without plexiglass. Click images to enlarge.

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God. (Psalm 42:1)

This artwork took two years to complete. There were many stages to the creation of the piece. In order to express the various versions of Psalm 42 over the years, I turned my thoughts to music. The psalms were meant to be sung and so I searched out the oldest accessible form of this song. I found a plainsong (Gregorian Chant) version. I do not know when it was first sung this way, but plainsong chants are nearly as old as Christianity itself. I found a version that was likely penned in the 13th century. I asked a musician to sing this version of the psalm. As he did this, we recorded the waveform that his voice made. Whether or not sound waves go on forever in theory, I was playing with the idea that songs, stories, traditions, and expressions of belief were initially transmitted primarily by sound and it fascinated me that hundreds or even thousands of years after a song is first sung, it can be reproduced and that the we can hear it as others have for so many years.

Even though the recording of the chant was one of the first steps I took, it was the last to be included in the artwork.

The next thing I needed to find was a player piano roll version of the praise song, “As The Deer”, which was popular from the 1980’s until the present. I chose a piano roll because it is historical. To me, it represents one of the first ways in which songs were reproduced mechanically. These rolls were punched out by machine and fed into a player piano. They were mass produced so that anyone with a player piano could hear the same song, played the same way. Words appeared through a little window so that the listener could sing along. Of course, player pianos were out of vogue by the time “As The Deer” was written, so I commissioned a piano roll from someone in New Mexico, who still had the machinery to punch them out. In order to do this, a person had to play the song on a keyboard hooked up to a computer, then save it as an mp3. This was then emailed to New Mexico where it was transformed into a piano roll, which was then mailed back to me. I found this tension between old methods and new, and between the tangible and intangible to be fascinating.

Once I had the piano roll, I stencilled the words of the song alongside the notes as they appeared on the roll.

I added one more reference to ways in which we record music to the piece. Underneath the piano roll are four CDs, the latest technology to be declared passé--and one of the last that we could actually touch. It doesn’t escape me that we now save our music on “clouds” on the internet. This is almost as intangible to me as sound waves.

Around the piano roll, I simulated stained glass. The symbols are fairly obvious. Look for mirrored concepts, top and bottom, left and right.

The last step was to etch the waveform of Sicut Cervus onto the plexiglass that would hang in front of the piano roll. The light in the room casts a shadow of the waveform onto the piano roll.

To hear a version of the same plainsong chant that was captured by this waveform, follow this link:




2013-12-09 9:43 AM


This painting was completed after all of the other works had been finished. Conceptually, it ties in with “If We Walk” and “Preparing for the Journey (Boat With No Oars)”. Like the boat with no oars of Celtic tradition, driftwood embarks on a journey solely by being carried along on the water. It journeys without a clear destination; however, the journey does have direction--towards shore. Along the way, the wood is washed. Hard edges are softened; what began rooted to the shore is set free to follow the water to an unknown place.

The watery course is veiled--shrouded in mystery.

Once ashore, a pear tree sprouts from the driftwood.

Antique nails, bent and rusted from use and re-use long ago, stretch along the edge if the painting. They, too, appear to have found rest.


2013-12-09 9:10 AM