The Mystical Neon Heart Behind @PaperCutPrayers | Sojourners

The Mystical Neon Heart Behind @PaperCutPrayers

“Self-portrait,” by Benjamin PowerGriffin. Photo courtesy of the artist.

With his knife, brightly colored paper, and the meditations of his heart, Benjamin PowerGriffin cuts “what prayer feels like, or what I yearn for it to feel like,” he said.

Last summer, the now-36-year-old Ph.D. student began a daily practice of cutting intricate designs, often with religious themes, from paper. In late August 2020, PowerGriffin started sharing his daily artwork on his Twitter account, Paper Cut Prayers (@PaperCutPrayers). The project began with him picking up paper, he tweeted in July 2021, in hopes of “creating art in the anxious depths of my healing.”

A mystical longing cuts through these simple pop-art prayers. Based on the lectionary, verses for the day, feast days, or “checking in with myself to see where my heart is,” PowerGriffin constructs vibrant paper cuts that radiate a deeper-than-words prayerfulness and presence.

Paper Cut Prayers is full of icons of saints: Augustine, Frederick Douglass, Julian of Norwich, and Hildegard of Bingen, to name a few. Some of the icons have multiple layers, like paper dolls, with colorful clothes and halos. Mary Magdalene, in an orange-red tunic, holds an iridescent water pot and softly smiles in PowerGriffin’s July 22 cut. In “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” a yellow, wavy moon surrounds St. Clare of Assisi’s head like a halo while an orange sun with sharp beams encircles St. Francis’s head.

He also creates “silhouette saints,” cutting an image from a single sheet. His silhouette cut of St. Joseph is one of his favorites; the movement of Joseph bringing down a hammer onto a table “jumped out” at PowerGriffin from the page.

PowerGriffin — an Episcopalian who lives in New Braunfels, Texas — did his first paper cut in 2013: an icon of Our Lady of the Sign for his now-wife.

Though he enjoyed the prayerful process, he didn’t devote much time to paper cutting until last year. During an isolating few months of healing following heart surgery, he realized he “needed something to focus my attention other than news or Netflix.” He picked up colorful paper one afternoon and started cutting.

“I took out the most ridiculous paper color combination I could think of, which was this really bright blue and pink and green,” he said. “I thought, what do I look like right now to myself?”

He cut a large self-portrait with hot pink skin and blue hair, his body hiding behind a lime green bush. On the neon pink face there is an aching sadness — closed eyes and furrowed brows beneath the shaggy hair and beard. And in his chest, a churning black-and-white hole-heart.

“The gnarly hole inside my chest juxtaposed with these very bright colors — it was a way to present my longing to myself,” PowerGriffin said. “To reflect on and be confronted by this longing.”

Hearts are central to PowerGriffin’s art — anatomical hearts, hearts being held in fragile hands, hearts missing from chests, verses and questions about hearts.

“Why do I disturb the heart I wish to still?” reads the caption of his July 2 piece, in which a silhouetted person sits beside a swirling teardrop pool and dips their finger into its blue center under a translucent moon.

Yellow-green hands on a pink background hold out a shimmering anatomical heart in his March 5 piece. “Please, take this, set it ablaze,” the caption reads.

“There were certain ways that I thought about my heart that increased my anxiety over putting myself out there,” he said. “As I started to cut, I had the idea: What if I let these go? What if I just send this out on Twitter, offering the simplicity of my prayer in a given day?” He said he’s been blown away and humbled by people’s response to his cuts.

Another of PowerGriffin’s favorite pieces is based on Ezekiel 36:26: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” A pink-outlined, fleshy anatomical heart is locked inside a stony, veiny wall — gray, steel-like, and symmetrical. PowerGriffin said he likes this piece because it reminds him to, in tenderness, simply share these paper prayers with others without overthinking or getting caught up in thinking of himself as an artist.

PowerGriffin said the patience required for creating each piece — slowing down, controlling his breath, easing into his body’s movements — was “essential early on as my wound healed … to be present to the discomfort and be patient with the concern that I felt for it — a lesson that went a long way in addressing the anxiety that had built up around my heart in the years prior.”

During Lent, PowerGriffin created his first Stations of the Cross, a series which features Christ’s Passion. Jesus’ vivid, red-outlined body moves through mostly colorless, abstract backgrounds. Each station is wrapped in a shimmering-yellow frame. In the image of Jesus hanging from the cross, the “wood” beams stretch beyond the frame, inviting viewers into the poignancy of this moment.

“Sitting so heavily every day with a new scene from the Passion helped color the ‘Christos anesti’ [Christ is Risen] cut with joy and thanksgiving,” PowerGriffin said. In this Easter cut, Christ’s same red body is now dazzling with a glittering halo and silvery cloak. Two overlaid blue circles with tiny sharp beams dance around him. Red wounds in his feet, Christ holds up a sign of peace.

“Every day I just give over where my heart is, where my head is,” PowerGriffin said. “It’s helped me re-learn obvious, simplistic lessons — the value in showing up is more important than what comes out of it.”

An anatomical heart’s artery-roots spread and burst into neon baby-blue wildflowers, delicate and sharp, against a strawberry-red background in his Aug. 18 piece, based on Psalm 19:14 (NKJV): “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”

“Even though [this project] is colored specifically by my heart, it’s surrounded by what we’re all going through,” PowerGriffin said. “My encouragement for others is to find a piece of your inner soil and just start tilling.”

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