Weaving Ministry and Art

Which came first? The ministry? Or the art?

For the Rev. Julia Weaver, the answer is easy.

“Art definitely brought me into ministry,” Weaver says. “In my 30s, I went through a transformational period. I was fortunate enough to be an at-home mom with two young children and had time to look at my art and move from observational art to art that comes from inside – a very spiritual journey.”

Today, Weaver, a UCC minister, is pastor of arts and community at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Madison, where she oversees the Backyard Mosaic Women’s Project, which provides a safe space for women coming out of incarceration to explore their spirituality and develop their artistic skills. Hundreds of women have passed through the program since it took up residence at St. John’s in 2010, and mosaics they created are displayed prominently around the church property.

Before COVID made in-person work impossible, the project served about 50 women a year. Although the pandemic has been “horrible,” Weaver says, it has allowed Backyard Mosaic to rethink the way it will serve the women once in-person work becomes possible again. On the horizon are more collaborative work, commissioned pieces and more one-on-one time with the women – “a little more quality time,” as she put it.

Art was her calling until, Weaver says, “Unfortunately, I read Thomas Merton’s ‘Seven Storey Mountain’ and ended up in seminary.” She credits one of her professors at the Pacific School of Religion for showing how art and theology could go together. She was ordained in 2009, the same year she received her doctor of ministry degree.

“I don’t see how you can be an artist and not have a spiritual direction,” Weaver says. “For me – and I see this a lot with the project – there’s a visioning process, which is a prayer process. There’s also a working with your hands, thinking differently, sharing differently.

“This occurs thinking about the image you’re creating and what it tells you in return. It’s God’s love . . . that still small voice.”

It’s no coincidence that the artist and her favorite medium share a name, as she explained in a follow-up email.

“I had been pondering a name for myself for several years,” she wrote. “It was during a painful divorce that I decided to choose a name that reflected who I was. Only later did I find out there were Webers on my maternal & paternal sides. Weber is the German equivalent of Weaver.”

Weaving is a metaphor for her ministry, too. “We’re weaving lives together,” she said in the interview. “Sometimes it unravels and you have to spin it back together . . . fixing and mending. It’s kind of what we do with our lives.” She is, by all accounts, a gifted mender of lives.

Cara Erickson, who was the first formerly incarcerated woman to arrive at Backyard Mosaic, says her relationship with Weaver transformed her life.

“I looked up to her and found a lot of healing and reflection in the time I spent with her and the wisdom she shared with me,” said Erickson, who holds degrees from UW-Madison and Madison Area Technical College. She now works as a graphic artist and is a consultant to Backyard Mosaic.

Madison artist Marcia Yapp, also a consultant to the project, said Backyard Mosaic provides something many of the women are unfamiliar with: a stable community.

“When you have someone that listens to you and is compassionate with you – and it’s not just Julia, they connect with one another, too,” Yapp said. “They can help each other, they can give advice. That benefits everyone.”

Erickson said the project helps remove women overcome the shame that accompanies incarceration or battles with addiction. “It gives women in the program a space to heal with other women, but also through art and creating something that’s bigger than oneself,” she said.

To support the program, send a check or money order to: Backyard Mosaic Women’s Project, c/o St. John’s Lutheran Church, 322 E. Washington Ave., Madison, WI 53703. Write “Project RESPECT” in the memo line.

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