Published December 19th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Hasna Sal, artist, landscape architect and poet, is sitting in one of the pews of Westport Presbyterian Church on a weeknight. Sal is telling me why she, a Muslim-raised native of India, is in love with Jesus Christ, though she’s not a Christian, not a Muslim anymore and not a member of any institutional religion.
She draws a deep breath and exhales this: “When I see Christ it just connects very deeply within me. In Christ I feel it’s so pure. To me, I am so far removed from organized religion. I really am. But he’s the one figure that connects very deeply to me — not for anyone else, not for society — but every time I read about what Christ says, what Christ does, it really connects.”
This love affair with Jesus shows up in her fiercely beautiful glass artwork, much of which in the last few years she has dedicated to the female victims of human trafficking, including several pieces that were on display at the Westport church, home of the Westport Center for the Arts, when we spoke there a few weeks ago.
In fact, one of the most prominent displays of her work can be found in Lykins Square Park at East 8th Street and Myrtle Avenue in Kansas City. That multi-panel outdoor work, which was done in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity of Kansas City and the Lykins Neighborhood Association, is described as the first exterior memorial in the nation for victims of human trafficking.
As she said in a November radio interview about her new book, “Poems in Glass,” and her Lykins art: “This work is a compilation of two years of work that emerged from my experiences with the world of human trafficking and my interactions with victims of trafficking. It’s a journey I fell into about a year and a half ago when I met the first survivor … at Lykins Square Park. I learned so much from them. I was inspired to create a memorial for them.”
An example of her Christocentric focus is her “Nativity Triptych,” a three-panel, colorful depiction of the Holy Family — Jesus, Mary and Joseph — on display at the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth. But even when she’s not creating something distinctly Christ-centered, her work is meant to be deeply spiritual, and much of it, even the art honoring victims of human trafficking, still finds profound resonance in the life and teachings of Christ.
Although Jesus is Islam’s second most important prophet, it wasn’t through her Islamic childhood that she encountered the Christ she came to love. Rather, it was in Catholic school in India, to which her parents — she calls them “very progressive” — sent her.
As a girl, she says: “Christmastime was the best time for me, but not because I got gifts. I never got gifts. I’d stand before the manger in my school and just stare at it for hours. There is Christ just born. And the animals are there. And Mother Mary is there praying. And Bethlehem is looking on and the stars have come and angels have come. When something beautiful happens it brings the whole world together. Do something beautiful and the world will just come together.”
That is what she tries to do in her glass artwork and in her writing, including her newly published book, in which she describes her life’s work in poetry and prose and in some of her sculptures, which are featured in photos.
As she explains in the book: “I choose to concentrate on social reform. I allow color and light through glass sculpture to articulate my narrative. The phenomenological responses to layers of filtered light and shadow in the environment are my rhetoric. I identify myself as the raconteur, bringing to light stories that are overlooked or forgotten or uncomfortable.”
Whatever she does in the way of glass artwork, prose or poetry is marinated in her personal search for spiritual truths that are authentic and convincing to her without needing to be convincing to anyone else.
“Islam is a very, very structured religion,” she says. “Everything is about rules. And I just feel that there is so much in every religion — though not so much in Christianity but more so in Hinduism and Islam — that is bound so much by rules. And I can’t help but wonder who makes these rules. It can’t be God.”
Sal, 49, one of the artists chosen to have her work displayed at the new Kansas City International Airport, is married to a physician who practices at Advent Health and has a 16-year-old son. She admits she worries about how that child will navigate the theological landscape of the United States, but is convinced that the answer is not to be found in religions that care more about rules than they do about people and beauty.
Rejecting all that structure as “truly baffling,” she made it her goal simply “to find humanity. I don’t have profound words like a great theologian to say but I just believe that the rule of life is simplicity and if you can be kind, be kind, and if you can just help one another, help one another.
“Through my art, I’m going to use it for the greater good of humanity.”
Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” Email him at email@example.com.