Artist's work takes on new meaning in a sacred space

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Up is the natural direction for the eyes to travel when entering the narthex at St. James Episcopal Church in Black Mountain. If the brilliant colors dancing through the stained glass window overlooking the adjacent sanctuary isn’t enough to draw a glance, for many, there is a quiet spiritual urge to look toward the sky.

To local artist Jean Tomaso Moore the space feels “sacred,” and the fact that her latest project, which she created over the course of 100 consecutive days, is hanging there is humbling.

Black Mountain artist Jean Tomaso Moore looks up at the 100 prayer flags she created over the course of 100 consecutive days. The flags are displayed in the narthex at St. James Episcopal Church through Sept. 8.

Moore has been creating things for as long as she can remember. Her work often incorporates the use of re-purposed materials and the Swannanoa Valley Fine Arts League member’s pieces are regularly displayed at the Red House Gallery.

“To me creating art feeds the soul,” Moore said. “It’s a great feeling to share something you’ve created with other people.”

She discovered the 100 Day Project, an international art initiative in which participants share something they’ve created on the social media platform Instagram each day for 100 days.

Many of prayer flags made by Jean Tomaso Moore can be found along a wall in the narthex of St. James Episcopal Church in Black Mountain, while most are hanging overhead.

“I thought about what I’d want to invest myself in for 100 straight days,” Moore said. “I wanted to find a way to use words that were uplifting, but I also wanted to incorporate fabric that I’d been collecting for years.”

Moore had accumulated a considerable collection of women’s vintage handmade items that she wanted to use in the process.

“In addition to making something with uplifting value, I wanted to honor the work of the women who had created these things,” she said. “So it was a merger of several concepts.”

Jean Tomaso Moore's prayer flags displayed in the narthex at St. James Episcopal Church in Black Mountain.

On April 4 she posted a photo of the first of 100 prayer flags she would create to her Instagram account. It featured the word “peace” prominently displayed on vintage fabric containing an image of pink and white flowers with pieces of patterned cloth sewed on.

The practice allowed her to reflect on that word while creating the flag.

“It was really meditative,” she said. “For me the whole 100 days was a soothing practice; it gave me this feeling of calm when I was doing it.”

The origin of prayer flags can be traced to Bon, a Tibetan religion similar to Tibetan Buddhism. The are often found flying in the Himalayas, where they are meant to bless the countryside below.

Black Mountain's Jean Tomaso Moore talks about the inspiration behind a prayer flag that she made out of an old children's sweater. The flag, one of 100 she created in as many days, contains the word "tolerance."

The flags created by Moore are not related to any specific religion, she said, but they do serve as a way to channel positive energy.

“There is just so much stuff going on politically, it causes worry among people,” she said. “I wanted to find a way to put good energy to use.”

Some of the flags were inspired by current events, such as one Moore crafted out of a child’s sweater which features the word “tolerance.”

“This old beat up kids sweater was hanging up in my studio for years,” she said pointing to the pink piece of clothing. “I was processing what was going on with the kids being separated from their families at the border and this piece said ‘make me into a flag.’”

Another flag incorporates the use of a watercolor painting that Moore’s late sister painted as a child depicting a house. It simply reads “home.”

“She painted this in first grade or kindergarten, so it’s around 50 years old,” she said. “But it made me think about what home means to different people and how so many just need a safe place to be.”

A prayer flag created by Jean Tomaso Moore featuring the word "empathy" on a piece of lace fabric is one of 100 she made over the course of 100 days.

Moore had made 98 of the flags by the time she showed them to her friend Mary Logan, who in addition to being a member of the vestry at St. James, also curates the exhibits in the narthex. She was immediately touched by Moore’s work.

“It’s not just that the words are uplifting,” Logan said of the project. “They’re on these soft materials, which is in contrast to a hard time in the world. I think that’s a deeper part of this.”

Logan approached St. James interim rector Judith Whelchel about displaying the flags in the church.

“Jean’s expression of her experience of the world can be meaningful to other people and speak to them,” Whelchel said. “I didn’t think these belonged in a basket, I thought the community should see them.”

Seeing the flags displayed together, bringing back the fabrics back to life, for the first time was a poignant moment for Moore. 

"There's all this beautiful work that these women did," she said. "And it feels like so much of this kind of work is getting lost in the shuffle in our current world, so seeing all of this here together has a powerful impact." 

Moore was "spent" after completing the project, she said, but couldn't be happier with how it turned out. 

"I think what I took away from this is that this is where I want to dwell," she said. "I want to strive to dwell in the highest of what human beings can be. I want the words on these flags to be part of my world every day."

Want to see Moore's work?

The exhibit can be viewed at St. James Episcopal Church from 9 a.m. - 3 p.m., Monday - Saturday and until 1 p.m. on Sundays through Saturday, Sept. 8.