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”

The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 11:6–9

This passage describing the peaceable kingdom of the Messiah was, according to biblical scholar John F. A. Sawyer, popularized by the Quaker preacher-artist Edward Hicks, born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in 1780. He painted it sixty-two times during his career: predators and prey lying down together in harmony, and a little rosy-cheeked child—the Christ child—leading them.

Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks
Edward Hicks (American, 1780–1849), Peaceable Kingdom, 1834. Oil on canvas, 29.6 × 35.5 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

When Edward was just eighteen months old, his mother died. His father was unable to support him financially, so he sent him to board with family friends David and Elizabeth Twining, who exposed him to Quakerism. From ages thirteen to twenty Edward lived with local coach maker William Tomlinson, for whom he worked as an apprentice, developing a talent for ornamental painting. When his apprenticeship ended in 1800, he went into business for himself, now painting with decorative motifs not only carriages but also signs, furniture, and household objects. Some of his signboard compositions would later prompt commissions for easel paintings.

During this time Edward was attending religious meetings with increasing regularity, becoming an official member of the Society of Friends in 1803. But he encountered criticism from many of his fellow Friends for his choice of vocation, which was at odds with the Quaker values of simplicity and utility. Painting is a worldly indulgence, they said. Taking their rebukes to heart, Edward gave up painting for a time and tried his hand at farming, but this venture was unsuccessful.

Edward struggled to reconcile his love of painting with his faith; he was passionate about both. In 1811, at age thirty-one, he set up a painting shop in Newtown, Pennsylvania, and also became a minister, which meant that he was often called away to other states to preach. Quaker ministers were not paid for their services, so it was necessary for Edward to maintain a source of income to support his wife and four (soon to be five) children.

“Of all the types of paintings Edward produced during his lifetime, none was repeated as often or with greater attention to change and refinement than the Kingdom pictures,” writes Carolyn J. Weekly in The Kingdoms of Edward Hicks, the catalog for the major exhibition she organized in 1999 for the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. Edward pursued this subject not for commercial reasons (records suggest that he gave the Kingdom paintings as gifts to friends and family) but to express his yearning for unity and peace, especially in light of the 1827 Hicksite-Orthodox schism within the Society of Friends, the first in the denomination’s history. (Edward’s cousin Elias led the liberal faction that split from the mainstream.) His Kingdom paintings reference the schism through a blasted tree trunk, which doubles also as a reference to the “stump” of Jesse out of which Christ sprung up (Isaiah 11:1).

Only a few Peaceable Kingdom images before Hicks’s time have been documented worldwide, among them an early nineteenth-century engraving designed by Richard Westall. Hicks borrowed directly from Westall in his “Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch” compositions, replacing the Christ child’s loincloth with a little jumper suit fashionable among Friends at the time.

westall-richard_the-peaceable-kingdom-of-the-branch
The Peaceable Kingdom of the Branch illustration by Richard Westall, from the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, Virginia. Engraved by Charles Heath for The Holy Bible (London: White, Cochrane & Co., 1815).
Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks
Edward Hicks (American, 1780–1849), Peaceable Kingdom, 1822–25. Oil on canvas, 30.3 × 36 in. Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. The inscription on each of the corners reads, “INNOCENCE – MEEKNESS – LIBERTY.”

The Branch paintings are referred to as such because they show a child holding a grapevine, an allusion to both the fruit-bearing branch of the Tree of Jesse from Isaiah 11:1 and the blood of Christ that we partake of at the Lord’s Supper.   Continue reading “The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks”