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Artist paints the feminine side of God

Through reading and women's group, Julie Irmer finds spiritual peace
by: John Klicker, Julie Irmer is exhibiting 35 of her painted collage pieces at Mt. Hood Community College’s Fireplace Gallery through March 31.

Julie Irmer tries not to use the word 'goddess' when she titles her paintings. She knows it's a scary word for many, and she doesn't want to turn people off to her artwork. It was a bit awkward for her, too, when she went through a spiritual awakening about eight years ago and began to consider that the Lutheran God she grew up worshipping just might have a … feminine side.

Instead, she labels her painted collages with more ambiguous names - 'Spiral Dance,' 'Solstice Offering,' or 'Cosmic Mother: Holy Mystery.' Thirty-five of her pieces are on display through Monday, March 31, at Mt. Hood Community College in an exhibit called 'Images of the Feminine Divine.'

They are the culmination of two years of work and the result of a religious transformation that began in 2000, when she joined a women's spiritual group that met regularly to study 'A Woman's Journey to God,' by Joan Borysenko.

In the book, Borysenko writes about healing women's relationships with a seemingly judgmental, exclusive God, how religion may have failed some women and how females can reconnect with God.

'I began to realize that God is so much bigger than the God of Christianity,' she says. 'We've been out of balance for so long.'

As Irmer, 54, felt her own internal life begin to shift into a more harmonious place, her artwork began to evolve too. Her images of horses (a childhood love) morphed into paintings of angels, women, mermaids, bears, moons and dancing spiral shapes.

Incorporating objects like lace, game pieces, buttons, chopsticks, compact discs and even roofing material, Irmer placed sacred images over the top, laid it all in sand and used watered-down acrylic paints - sometimes in brilliant rainbow colors and sometimes in earthy, rich tones - to bring the pieces to life.

'It's a very hands-on, creative process,' she says. 'I just love putting it all together, creating the collage, and the bright colors. My goal is to draw people in, to make people look more, look longer, to sit with the pieces for a long period of time.'

The pieces reflect the more contemplative, nurturing spirituality that for Irmer has felt like coming home.

The Northeast Portland resident loves music, her chocolate Labrador and gardening. She also has loved God since she was a little girl. But in her adult life, she found she attended church sporadically and felt increasingly uncomfortable with the messages presented.

A friend of hers operates Sacred Journey Ministries, a Portland center dedicated to spiritual direction, mentoring and the ritual of walking the sacred labyrinth.

Through her involvement there, Irmer cast off the guilt and judgment she felt had dominated her earlier religious experiences. She discarded the concepts of heaven and hell. And she was left with a profound peace.

She doesn't pray to a goddess. But she doesn't pray to a God either.

Discussing one of her paintings, called 'In the Beginning,' Irmer says this: 'In the beginning, Mother God birthed everything. … But God is both male and female. I think of it as the Divine Spirit.'

Irmer believes most mainstream churches in America have shortchanged women, putting them in their place and not allowing for celebration of the feminine. She is grateful for her own personal journey.

'I feel more free in all sorts of ways,' she says. 'Our lives are so full of fear. The first thing the angels said to Mary was, 'Fear not. Fear not!' It has been so freeing for me to just let go of the guilt and the need to 'be saved.' To tap into our inner resources as women, to connect with the power of listening to our intuition, that's a really powerful thing.'

Once in a while, Irmer attends a liberal Lutheran church in Portland, where she says she likes what the pastor often says.

'He'll say, 'The only two words that everyone in our congregation can agree on is 'I believe,' and that's what's important.' '

Going through her own paradigm change wasn't easy for Irmer, but it was liberating, she says.

'When I began to feel my world shaking, I came to a realization that was very comforting, and it's something I still think about often. God hasn't changed. My perception may have changed. I don't have to feel guilty anymore. I've had it with that. But God doesn't leave you. God will never leave you.'

Images of the Feminine Divine

What: Series of collages exploring the feminine side of spirituality.

Who: Artist Julie L. Irmer.

When: From 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. Friday, through March 31.

Where: Fireplace Gallery, Mt. Hood Community College, 26000 S.E. Stark St.

Further Reading

Julie Irmer recommends the following books and Web site on the feminine divine:

• 'Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen' by Hildegard of Bingen

• 'Dance of the Dissident Daughter' by Sue Monk Kidd

• 'A Woman's Journey to God' by Joan Borysenko

• 'A God Who Looks Like Me' by Patricia Lynn Reilly

• Labyrinth art by Mara Friedman, available at www.newmoonvisions.com