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Finding the Connection Between Art, Faith

Milwaukee Zen Center/Twitter

From paintings to music and beyond, faith has inspired artists for as long as art and religion have been around.

That's just what happened to two leaders in Milwaukee's arts community, who shifted their professional lives in past years to become leaders in their faith communities. 

Tonen O’Connor was once Sara O’Connor, the managing director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.  She is now resident priest emerita of the Milwaukee Zen Center. 

Mohammad Isa Sadlon, formerly Christopher Goldsmith, retired from his position as executive director of the Milwaukee Art Museum and is now executive director/CEO emeritus of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee.

But Sadlon says it was never that his faith and his art were completely separate.

"I had this very intense religious life. Well, I had an even more perhaps intense artistic life, both of them operated side by side," he says.

O'Connor agrees, drawing on her own faith tradition.

"Buddhism suggests that everything in the world is related to everything else, there's no one special place you go off to for religious experience, as opposed to the rest of it, there is no rest of it, it's all part of your life," she says.

In fact, O'Connor was introduced to Buddhism through her work with the Milwaukee Rep, which in the '80s toured Japan frequently. In her travels, she came to spend a night at a Zen temple, an experience that profoundly affected her.

"I was astonished, I didn't know anything about it," she says. "It was the atmosphere of sincerely, it was a private experience that I had that had to do with time, and the fact that there was something powerful there that I was totally unfamiliar with."

Both agree that their experience as leaders in the art world have helped them in their faith communities. Sadlon says being a faith leader is not about using a top-down approach.

"It's consensus building, but you're not really being directive," he says. "You're really kind of like the mother duckling trying to herd everybody in the same direction and protect them from harm."

The two will share the stories of their journeys as featured speakers later this month at the first annual “Faith Connections” event held by the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee.