Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 1

Last month I attended the biennial conference of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Celebrating forty years, CIVA is a membership organization made up primarily of studio artists but also other arts professionals—curators, gallerists, administrators, educators, critics, art historians—as well as collectors, theologians, and church leaders. As a writer about the arts working independently out of my home in Maryland, sometimes I feel disconnected from artists themselves, so five years ago I joined CIVA to plug into and invest in this community of believer artists. The large conference that CIVA organizes every other year, each time in a different US city, is an opportunity to meet and talk with artists, to see what they’re working on, and to worship and pray with them. It’s also a weekend chock-full of amazing talks, panel discussions, breakout sessions, exhibitions, and other activities.

In a series of blog posts, I’d like to share some of the art I encountered at the CIVA conference. All photos in this post are by me, Victoria Emily Jones.

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I arrived a day early to participate in a CIVA-sponsored Sacred Spaces tour of the Twin Cities with Kenneth Steinbach, a sculptor and a professor of art at Bethel. The first stop was Bigelow Chapel, designed by Hammel Green & Abrahamson at the commission of United Theological Seminary in 2004. As Ken warned us in advance, the chapel was recently sold by the seminary to a charter school, who will not be using it as a worship space and will be removing its one overt Christian symbol (the inset cross) as well as renaming it. Because of the changeover, the chapel was in a bit of disarray when we visited, being used for the time being as an ad hoc storage space, but I was grateful for the chance to see this acclaimed work of contemporary religious architecture before it fully succumbs to its fate as a secular meeting room.

I first learned about Bigelow Chapel through the book Visual Theology: Forming and Transforming the Community through the Arts (reviewed here, with annotated chapter list). Ken read us the vision statement of this ecumenical Protestant institution—“a generous and welcome seminary where all—trailblazers and traditionalists, questioners and yearning spirits—explore the boundless possibilities of a loving and beloved community”—and we discussed how the design reflects that vision. Symmetry and linearity, for example, can be associated with authority, rigidity, so this chapel is notable for its asymmetry, an uncommon feature in church design, as well as an open floor plan that accommodates different traditions and styles of worship. It’s also curvy, feminine, womblike; a series of translucent maple wood panels sweeps up the wall and over the ceiling, casting the sun’s warm glow inside the space. Some people on the tour expressed a sense of being enveloped in God’s love.

Bigelow Chapel
Bigelow Chapel, New Brighton, Minnesota

Bigelow Chapel

Another mentioned how the cross is far too subtle, almost unnoticeable, and seems to recede; it’s certainly not a focal point as it typically is in other Christian worship spaces. Ken pointed out that the cross was intentionally positioned next to a clear window that looks out into a central garden, suggesting the idea of deep incarnation; nature is itself part of the space, and Christ’s redemption is for all of creation. One person noted how the large green shrub outside, when illuminated by the sun, is reminiscent of the burning bush of Exodus and therefore calls us into an awareness of how God might be speaking to us.

Bigelow Chapel cross

Ken also told us that student worshippers used to stick written prayers between the chapel’s wall-stones, much like at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Several such pieces of paper were still there, wedged in the cavities of the masonry.

Bigelow Chapel (prayers)

Bigelow Chapel (prayers)

It was sad to me to see this building losing its original function as a Christian worship space. The impetus for the sale was the seminary’s relocation from New Brighton, a suburb, into the city of St. Paul, where it believes it can be of better service to the surrounding community. View more photos of Bigelow Chapel at https://www.kirkegaard.com/827.

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Next our tour group visited the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, where we spent time inside a James Turrell Skyspace titled Sky Pesher, 2005, a subterranean concrete chamber with a square aperture in the ceiling that frames the sky. (The word pesher is Hebrew for “interpretation.”) Turrell calls himself a sculptor of light; light, he says, is his medium. His work is influenced by his Quaker faith, especially the doctrine of the Inner Light. Quaker worship gatherings consist primarily of silence, a time of corporately waiting on the Light, which is God, who dwells within us as wisdom and guide. I did find the environment Turrell built especially conducive to stillness and listening. Quakers say that silence is not a void, it’s full, and I found that to be true as I opened myself to encountering God in that space.

Turrell, James_Sky Pesher, 2005
James Turrell (American, 1943–), Sky Pesher, 2005 (detail), 2005. Pigmented cast concrete, concrete, paint, cold-cathode lighting, computerized dimming device. Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Turrell, James_Sky Pesher, 2005

I actually really cherished sitting there in silence with the group, ridding myself of distractions as together we simply turned our gaze to the wonderful gradients of blue stretched out above us. Out of interest in and respect for the artist’s Quaker spirituality, I took the opportunity to commune with God in “wordless thought”; instead of me talking to God or about God, I let God talk to me.

I expressed my particular enjoyment of the experience afterward to a colleague, who was surprised that, because of my fascination with biblical imagery and its possibilities in worship and devotion, I should be so moved by a sacred space that lacks any imagery at all, other than open, undefined sky. It surprised me somewhat too! Continue reading “Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 1”

Roundup: Norman Rockwell updated; snow-crystal photography; Good Samaritan icon; and more

Freedom of Worship by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur
Hank Willis Thomas (American, 1976–) and Emily Shur (American), Freedom of Worship, 2018. While Norman Rockwell’s illustration of the same name contains specific representations of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, this reinterpretation goes even further to include Islam, Native American spirituality, and Sikhism.

NEW PHOTOGRAPH SERIES: “The Four Freedoms” by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur: In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that people in all nations share Americans’ entitlement to four basic freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This famous speech became the basis for Norman Rockwell’s set of four illustrations, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, that have become some of history’s most iconic representations of the American idea.

Artist Hank Willis Thomas and photographer Emily Shur decided to reimagine these scenes with a cast that’s more representative of American diversity. One of the eighty-two final images they created is published on the cover of the current issue of Time magazine. It and others will form the backbone of a national billboard campaign by the nonpartisan organization For Freedoms to encourage civic engagement. “We believe that if artists’ voices replace advertising across the country, public discourse will become more nuanced,” their website says.

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IN CONCERT: Eric and I went to see brother-sister folk duo The Oh Hellos (Tyler Heath and Maggie Heath Chance) in Baltimore earlier this month and had a great time. My favorite song from their set list was “Soldier, Poet, King,” which describes Jesus’s coming in all three roles—perfectly appropriate for the upcoming Advent season! Jesus, the Word of God, comes to tear down Satan’s kingdom and establish his just rule in our lives and world (1 John 3:8bRev. 19:11–16). The final verse affirms Jesus’s status as Messiah, the waited-for “Anointed One,” and celebrates his power marked by humility, even unto death. The blood he wears into battle is his own.

 

There will come a soldier
Who carries a mighty sword
He will tear your city down
O lei o lai o lord

There will come a poet
Whose weapon is his word
He will slay you with his tongue
O lei o lai o lord

There will come a ruler
Whose brow is laid in thorn
Smeared with oil like David’s boy
O lei o lai o lord

The Oh Hellos’ nationwide tour continues through the end of the year, so visit their website to see if they’ll be stopping near you.

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NEW ALBUM: Crumbs by Liturgical Folk: Liturgical Folk (previously here and here) released its third album this month, which “build[s] on the themes of eucharist and the mission of the church to bring peace and reconciliation to the world.” The title comes from the track “Prayer of Humble Access,” a verbatim setting from the “Holy Eucharist Rite I” in the Book of Common Prayer that alludes to the story of the Syrophoenician woman.


Most of the song texts on the album come from that traditional Anglican prayer-book and were set to music by Ryan Flanigan, though a few texts are contemporary. “Lord, Lord, Lord,” for example, was written in the wake of the August 9, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and amid the subsequent escalation of racial tensions in the country. “As a privileged, white, middle class, American man,” Flanigan wrote,

I felt for the first time in my life the systemic injustice against black males in our country. What I found most troubling, besides death itself, was the response of some white, privileged people to the shooting, particularly the response of some Christians on social media and the News. When we should have been mourning with those who mourn, confessing our fears and sins, and seeking reconciliation, many of us turned a blind eye or, worse, assumed a posture of defensiveness and denial. I wrote this song as a corporate confession of sin to God and our fellow men, a plea for God to forgive us and restore our broken trust with him and with those we’ve failed to love.

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WORLD’S FIRST SNOWFLAKE PHOTOS: “The Man Who Revealed the Hidden Structure of Falling Snowflakes”: Maryland saw its first snow of the season this week, as did most of the East Coast, which means Twitter saw a flurry of snowflake images! The Smithsonian posted about Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1865–1931), whose perfection of innovative photomicrographic equipment and techniques (which included chilled velvet and a turkey feather) enabled him to photograph thousands of individual snowflakes without their melting, providing valuable scientific records of snow crystals and their many types.

The first person to photograph a single snowflake, . . . Wilson A. Bentley used a microscope with his bellows camera—plus years of trial and error—to get a photo of one flake in 1885. But he didn’t stop there. Bentley went on to take thousands more, . . . which helped support the belief that no two snowflakes are alike. In 1903, he sent 500 prints of his snowflakes to the Smithsonian, hoping they might be of interest to our Secretary. The images are now part of the Smithsonian Archives.

Snowflake photo by Wilson Bentley

Snowflake photo by Wilson Bentley

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BALKAN ICON: “Transforming a Parable: The Good Samaritan”: Run by David Coomler, a museum researcher, Icons and Their Interpretations discusses aspects of traditional Russian, Greek, and Balkan iconography, inviting people to submit photos of icons for identification of subject or meaning, and translation of inscriptions. Recently he wrote about a fourteenth-century Serbian Orthodox fresco that, like many of the church fathers, promotes an allegorical reading of the parable of the good Samaritan. In this interpretation, the man en route to Jerusalem is Adam, or Everyman, who is beaten by demons; the priest and the Levite represent the law of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron, which cannot help the wounded man. But the “good Samaritan,” Jesus, stoops down to save, carrying the man not on a beast of burden but on his own back, to an “inn,” the church. He hands two “coins,” the Bible and tradition, to the innkeeper, and promises to return. See further image details and commentary at the web link above.

Good Samaritan fresco (Balkans)
Parable of the Good Samaritan (see bottom register), 14th century. Fresco in the narthex of the Patriarchal of Pech, a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Kosovo.

Good Samaritan fresco (Balkans) (detail)

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OBITUARY: Christian composer Kurt Kaiser dies at 83: On November 12, Kaiser passed away at his home in Waco, Texas, after a six-decade-long career in composing, playing, arranging, and producing Christian music. A Gospel Music Hall of Famer and a progenitor of CCM, he’s best known for his song “Pass It On,” but I know him for “Oh How He Loves You and Me,” two renditions of which are posted below; the first is a solo performance by Vanessa Williams with gospel piano accompaniment by Richard Smallwood, and the second is performed a capella in four-part harmony by Kaoma Chende with the use of overdubbing.

The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s “The Agony” and Bryant’s “Blood of the Vine”

A staple of English literature curricula, George Herbert (1593–1633) is one of the best religious poets of any era. Born in Wales, he studied rhetoric at Cambridge University, becoming fluent in Latin and Greek and beginning an avocation of writing verse. After a short career in oration and then politics, he shifted courses to become a pastor. He was appointed to a small rural parish near Salisbury, where he served for only three years before contracting tuberculosis at age thirty-nine. On his deathbed he gave his friend Nicholas Ferrar a manuscript of all the poems he had written throughout his life, telling him to publish it if he thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” and if not, to “burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God’s mercies.” Thankfully, Ferrar chose the former, and The Temple was published posthumously in 1633. It has been in print continuously ever since.

One of the poems from this volume is “The Agony,” a meditation on the suffering that Christ bore out of love for humanity. Below I will walk through it stanza by stanza, and then I will present a new partial musical setting of it that makes intertextual connections with scripture. I will conclude by sharing a once-popular artistic motif, the mystic winepress, that visualizes one of Herbert’s metaphors (a metaphor developed by early theologians, such as Augustine and Gregory the Great).

Christ in the winepress
Christ in the Winepress, Austria, ca. 1400–1410. ÖNB 3676, fol. 14r. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library), Vienna.

“The Agony” by George Herbert

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states and kings;
Walked with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove;
Yet few there are that sound them—Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,
His skin, His garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like,
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

In the first stanza of “The Agony,” Herbert comments on man’s dogged pursuit of empirical knowledge. We develop tools for our trades, then use them to “measure,” “fathom,” and “trace”—to explore the heights and depths of our physical environments, the ins and outs of the world’s political systems. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but we ought not to neglect the “two vast, spacious things” that are most worthy of exploration: sin and love. These truths, unlike others, are apprehended not by amassing and analyzing data but by simply beholding. To know sin, Herbert says, look to Gethsemane: see Christ crushed. To know love, look to the cross: see Christ pierced. See, and taste. The Lord is good.   Continue reading “The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s “The Agony” and Bryant’s “Blood of the Vine””

Eat What Is Good (Artful Devotion)

Wine and Bread by Alexander Antonyuk
Alexander Antonyuk (Ukrainian, 1971–), Wine and Bread, 2015. Oil on canvas.

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.

—Isaiah 55:1–2

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SONG: “Christ My Treasure” by Castle Island Hymns, on Castle Island Hymns (2013)

 


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 13, cycle A, click here.

A sweeping vision of all things made new

This Sunday’s reading in the Revised Common Lectionary is Revelation 21:1–6, in which John describes the renewal of the entire created order:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.”

Jesus’s resurrection was the beginning of a new creation that starts with man. Paul mentions this in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” But whereas Paul is talking about individual renewal, the renewal that John envisions is all-encompassing, touching everything—“an external order in full correspondence with the new nature,” in the words of Alexander Maclaren.

Theologians disagree on whether the “new” in this Revelation passage indicates that the present heaven and earth will one day be destroyed and then newly created, or rather that heaven and earth will one day be utterly transformed, made new in nature or quality. I hold the latter view, and it appears that American artist James B. Janknegt does as well.

Make All Things New by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), Make All Things New, 2005. Oil on canvas, 48 × 96 in.

Janknegt’s painting Make All Things New shows the risen Christ standing triumphantly over the pit of death and under the blessing hand of God, sweeping up the things of earth into a whirlpool of color. Birds, balls, and bicycles; musical instruments and charcoal grills; plants and houses, pets and people, mowers and swing sets—all are on their way to the New Jerusalem. Beauty, work, and play.

Also present in the cosmic swirl are a loaf of bread and a glass of wine, symbols of God’s broken body and spilt blood, the activators of the new covenant. These two objects are evidence on multiple levels that God does indeed transform: he transformed the shame of the cross into glory, and at the Communion table again and again he transforms common, earthly elements into means of grace.

I appreciate Janknegt’s portrayal (through the upside-down skyscrapers at the top of the painting) of heaven coming down to meet earth as it did in the beginning, a biblical truth that has far too often been misrepresented in Christian art, music, and teaching. The restoration of the union between heaven and earth is pretty much the Bible’s main theme—one that’s beautifully explained in The Bible Project’s video on heaven and earth in terms of overlap between two spaces. We won’t eventually leave one space to fly over to the other; instead, heaven and earth will become the same space.

This is a vision that we are called to live into now! As new creations, we orient ourselves around the risen Christ, and we practice resurrection wherever we go. This can mean anything from turning vacant lots into gardens to beating guns into farm tools (literally!) to building wells in villages without access to clean drinking water to fostering or adopting an abused child to supporting a friend through rehabilitation. Where there is death, we bring life.

Make All Things New is a picture of what God has started to do in the world and will one day accomplish completely, at which point we can say along with him in praise and celebration, “It is done!” In the meantime, let’s join him in his work.

This painting is available for sale on the artist’s website and is also offered as a print.