When Ben Thomas produced his latest album, ‘Bring Forth,’ he didn’t know it would lead him here.
In the middle of creating his latest album of repurposed hymns, Ben Thomas had a revelation: art is inside everyone and, given the proper tools, everyone can create it.
For a man whose entire career had led to this moment, it meant changing direction entirely to help others let their inner artist escape.
“What if I could create some sort of space that could empower other people to create?” Thomas asked himself. “What if I could curate or create a space that would be focused on songs or recording but, at its core, focused on this act of creating?”
So he did.
But to understand Thomas’ thinking, you’ll have to go back to a time long before he was repurposing hymns for his latest album. Due to his father’s job, as a child Thomas moved frequently, from Ohio to Minnesota to Arizona, landing back in the Midwest permanently when he was 10 years old.
The result of all those moves was some major angst, Thomas says. “I had no friends, and I wasn’t the kid anyone liked in school,” he says. “In junior high I started listening to a lot of music, and the seeds of wanting to be able to express myself in music started at that point.”
Thomas had begun playing piano at the age of eight. He also joined a choir, and while his parents weren’t musicians, they encouraged his love of music. “From a very early point, this was something I did — I had a confidence in it,” Thomas says.
After graduating from high school, Thomas went to college at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, got married soon after and took a job with Young Life doing nondenominational Christian outreach. Thomas, who grew up Catholic, says, “They needed someone to play the guitar.”
His work with Young Life led him to work in two different local churches over the next decade doing youth and music ministry. But partway through his work, his thinking began to shift. “In a lot of ways, in many Evangelical circles, creativity is seen as a means to an end…whether it be getting people in the door of the church or saving their souls.” Thomas’ shift in thinking eventually led him to see that at their core, everyone from every background was made to create.
While working on staff as creative director at his church, Thomas began producing his latest album, taking ancient hymns and making them contemporary. The album was overtly spiritual, which isn’t surprising, Thomas says, as elements of his faith were always imbedded in his singing. But it was his first attempt to tap into old Christian hymns and repurpose them.
The second track on Bring Forth is called “Creator God, Creating Still.” Thomas says, “The original lyrics were inspired by a hymn of the same title written by Jane Parker Huber in the mid-1970s, the most recent of the hymns repurposed on the album.” Here is an excerpt of the lyrics — some written by Thomas, some by the original writer: “Creator God, Creating Still by will and word and deed. Create a new humanity to meet the present need. All the earth, all the earth will sing out… Great Trinity for this new day we need your presence still. Create, redeem, sustain us now to do your work and will. All the earth, all the earth will sing out.”
Thomas says that, more than any other song on his latest album, the lyrics of this one spoke directly to him about “the innate desire we all have to create, to bring something unique into the world that no one who has walked the planet before us or after us will ever be capable of bringing.” He adds, “When we do that, I believe we are tapping into something that is beyond us and bringing it to life. Some people might call that ‘Divine’ or ‘God’ or ‘Magic,’ but whatever it is, it is still creating and is allowing us to be part of that creative process…creating, healing, redeeming.”
He continues, “There’s this unspoken assumption in some strands of faith that God created the earth and all of us — bam — and then left us alone to fend for ourselves and figure God out.” Thomas believes that “misses the point that divine creativity is in each one of us. When we start to see ourselves as part of that divine creative process, we become creators who are responsible for bringing goodness and beauty and hope and redemption to the world. And when we start to see ourselves as connected to each other in all of this, we want to do everything possible to allow more of this creativity to take place.”
While Thomas began working on Bring Forth about six years ago, in the middle of recording he ran out of money. He then turned to Kickstarter to raise the rest of his funds.
Two days later, he’d raised $10,000. “It’s almost like people made the record with me,” he says.
In turn, Thomas wanted to help others unlock their innate creativity, so he began sharing what he’d been learning. “Because I was on staff at church, I shared it with the community and I spoke about it,” he says.
He shared that the most important part of his latest album wasn’t what he made but how he made it. “For me, Bring Forth was a crash course in the concepts of creation and re-creation — this idea that no art is truly original but that a fundamental part of our role as humans is to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, link arms with those around us and breathe new life into the fragments and artistic artifacts we encounter every day,” Thomas wrote on his blog. “Because each of us brings to the world a different combination of experiences, predispositions and wirings, the art we each have the potential of bringing to the world is uniquely valid and meaningful.”
These thoughts led him to one question: “What happens when we don’t create?” He shares, “I was lucky enough to be raised in an environment that fostered and nurtured my creativity, but a lot of people weren’t. I wonder how many Mozarts and Einsteins and Steve Jobs are out there who will never put their brush to the canvas and create…simply because they weren’t awake to the reality that they were created to create.” Thomas wanted to help kids who didn’t have access to the same resources he’d had as a child.
With that compelling goal, Thomas took a full-time job with an organization called Triple Threat Mentoring, a nonprofit that brings members of the community together to make a difference in the lives of under-resourced kids. In the spring of 2016, Thomas, his wife and their two children moved across the country to build The Studio with Triple Threat in their Santa Ana, California, location.
“Our goal with The Studio is threefold: Inspire. Create. Share,” he says. “We want to inspire imagination in under-resourced communities, connect them with tools that allow them to create, and then provide them a platform to share their creativity.”
In The Studio, Thomas plans to give kids tools (a recording studio, photography center and design space) plus a platform (a place to perform, a media stream and other audiences), in addition to access to the instructors they’ll need.
Thomas feels his whole life has led to this moment, although it’s completely different from the one he’d anticipated when he started his artistic journey.
Triple Threat Mentoring is faith-led but not faith-based, which is new for a man who’s worked in full-time ministry for 17 years. But this is where he was meant to be. “In a lot of ways, I see it as an evolution of my ministry,” he says. “At the deep core of it, we’re all made to create something.” He’s just there to help the next generation tap into that creativity — and then send them on their way.