Artist Sarah Shepley poses with her Chakana series at Gallery 302 in Bridgton. Jane Vaughan / Lakes Region Weekly

BRIDGTON — After 25 years working as an artist, Sarah Shepley was moved to create an arts ministry to offer “spiritual care through art” in Latin America. 

Shepley is the current guest artist at Gallery 302, 112 Main St., where her collages are on display.

She first worked as a full-time wholesale retail jeweler before becoming interested in bookmaking and printmaking, returning to school and becoming ordained as an interfaith minister. 

“I kind of had these two parallel lives, if you will,” she said, speaking of her involvement in both art and faith. “I wanted to serve. I always had this sense of wanting to develop an arts ministry, but I didn’t really know what that looked like.” 

As someone who had always loved Latin American cultures, she began traveling, first to Cuba in 2012 and then to the Dominican Republic. 

The defining moment came when she pulled some of her art supplies out of her backpack and began creating art with local children. 

“I felt like I had just died and gone to heaven,” she said. 

Shepley spent two years learning Spanish and traveling, first to Colombia and then to Ecuador. She taught in orphanages, schools and communities and began establishing her base in Ecuador. 

“In Ecuador, they really have very little or no art at all in the schools. Often, if there is a project, the parents have to buy the materials. The materials are very difficult to find. It felt like a natural fit for me to serve in this way,” she said. 

In 2016, she established the Ecuadorian Arts Initiative. She visits the country for six weeks each winter, brings art supplies and teaches art to communities.

She is clear that this is not a mission trip: “It’s a project where I provide art and art supplies and connection. It’s also a way of offering spiritual care through art. Kids love it. When they see the supplies coming, they are just beside themselves because they don’t have access to that.”

Shepley explained that art has been a therapeutic part of her own healing, as it creates “a container in which I can place a lot of my life experience that I can’t make sense of in any other way.”

She tries to provide the same experience to these Ecuadorian children. 

“I just show up as a willing, loving person with the materials,” she explained. “When I’m working with the kids in the orphanage, I’m not asking them about their stories. When we’re doing art, some of the stories come out. I feel so honored to be holding space for even just a moment of a child expressing something that they might not express otherwise to somebody. So I try to make myself a safe container for them.” 

Shepley says the images and colors in her works were inspired by her time in Ecuador.

Shepley’s Chakana series, a group of mixed-media collages, is on display at Gallery 302 until July 18. 

She said the pieces came out of her time in Ecuador, and half of the proceeds from their sale will go towards the Initiative.

This is her second time being a visiting artist at the gallery. 

“Her technique is completely different from what we have (in the gallery),” said Molly Mains, chairman of the Program Committee for Gallery 302. “It’s extremely meaningful because it’s the result of her travels.” 

Shepley lives in South Paris and teaches printmaking and bookmaking classes in Maine. She holds in BFA in Ceramics from Portland School of Art, now Maine College of Art, and was ordained through The Chaplaincy Institute of Maine in 2011. 

She said she looks forward to continuing her work through the Initiative, including bringing the works of Ecuadorian children back to the U.S. to sell. 

“The world is hungry for a deeper connection and one that has meaning, so this was sort of my own way of doing my ministry without walls,” she said. 

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