Gina Rose Halpern’s paintings are colorful, often exuberant works that incorporate references to many spiritual traditions, from Christianity to Buddhism to the nature religions of the world’s indigenous people. For Halpern, her work is not simply decorative or expressive but a form of healing. The 51-year-old El Cerrito artist has a career as vibrant and colorful as her paintings. She is an interfaith minister, teacher, and therapist who believes in the literal healing power of art.
The spiritual dimension in Halpern’s art goes back to her youth. In 1976, at the age of 25, she was well on her way as an accomplished visual artist with a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design when her career came to an abrupt halt. She was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
During that time of terror and confusion, she underwent a near-death experience and had the first of what she came to call her “transformational” dreams. The joyous figure of a child appeared to her, laughing and dancing.
Halpern set about capturing the dream on canvas. It was the beginning of a spiritual journey for her, and of a career dedicated to art as a healing medium. “My dream life has informed everything I do,” she explains. “The intention of all my work is healing.”
“Dreams Manifest: Manifest Dreams,” an exhibit opening Sept. 8 at Seventh Heaven Yoga Center, offers a 20-year retrospective of Halpern’s work. The watercolor, gouache, and pastel drawings range from geometric mandalas to fantastic images of human, animal, and plant life.
Some viewers may detect echoes of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who depicted her physical and mental sufferings with images of bodies riven by thorns, or opening up to expose internal organs. Halpern’s “Animal Allies” shows the figure of a kneeling woman whose body seems cleaved by jagged lines. In fact, Halpern’s work comes out of her own experiences with illness and death. But Halpern’s paintings are not driven by psychological anguish. They reflect a more optimistic, spiritual approach that embraces life and death, suffering and joy. The figure in “Animal Allies” has a nerve line that runs up her spine and out her hand, where flowers bloom from her fingertips. She is attended by the ministering figures of an owl, a coyote, and a rabbit.
A non-practicing Jew, Halpern began her spiritual quest by “reading the Bible from page one all the way through,” eventually being baptized as a Catholic. In time, she migrated to the Episcopal Church and was ordained as a minister. Later she expanded her studies to all the world’s religions. Today, she is the director of the Chaplaincy Institute, an interfaith seminary based in Fairfax in Marin County that encourages people to integrate their religious beliefs and their work.
Along the way, Halpern worked with hospitals and health care facilities, creating art for cancer patients and teaching art to the sick. She traveled and taught in India and toured Russian pediatric hospitals with maverick doctor Patch Adams. A series of mandala paintings she created in 1987 is still used for meditation and healing at the Commonweal Center, a facility that offers alternative treatments for cancer patients.
The Chaplaincy Institute, which Halpern co-founder with two other ministers in 1998, is the culmination of her mission to integrate the healing arts and spirituality. Halpern’s dreams take substance as art; for others, she says, the call may be to political or social action. It’s not just individuals who need healing, Halpern observes; it’s the world.
With the anniversary of Sept. 11 looming, Halpern says, she feels her work to be increasingly important. Lately her dreams have been of “healing the world through beauty.”
“In our culture people often look at art as decoration,” she says. “I’m going back to the original purpose of art as spiritual service.”
Halpern’s work serves as the backdrop next Wednesday for a Sept. 11 commemoration at Seventh Heaven, featuring meditation and yoga. On Sept. 13, poet Tamam Kahn will read from her collection “Al Kishaf: The Unveiling.” On Sept. 22, the gallery hosts an equinox celebration and fund-raising reception for the Chaplaincy Institute, featuring music and dance. All events are open to the public by reservation.