The first time I remember going to church I was four years old. The church was relocating from a small city to the nearby countryside, and it was meeting in a tent pavilion. The tent was softly bright underneath, almost shadowless with yellow sunlight diffused through the canvas and reflected up from shiny straw underfoot. That was possibly the first time I consciously experienced beauty. It is the earliest memory of it I can bring to mind. Sadly, the beauty was entirely accidental, and the new building was not beautiful by accident or on purpose. Visual beauty was not valued or connected to worship in any way. Spending anyone's time or money to design a meaningfully beautiful space would, I think, have been considered a sinful extravagance if it had been thought of at all. Any aesthetically pleasing use of Christian symbol would have been misunderstood as irrelevant to true, spiritual worship. None were used except for a "Christian flag" (an ugly thing with ugly implications, in my opinion) and an American flag, which is not a Christian symbol at all. At some point a banner of white paper (I think it was paper) was put up across one side of the cement block sanctuary with the words "For the people had a mind to work" --an uplifting snippet from the Old Testament.
Such obliviousness or ignorance of the power of beauty in church is especially mysterious to me since some of the leading, longtime congregants both appreciated art and were artistically creative in other parts of their lives. I had a wise and gracious junior-high-girls Sunday school teacher, a former fashion model, who invited our class to her home for an event I don't remember. I was impressed with the well-lit refinement of her house's decor, but most of all I remember my discomfiture over her bronze replica of Rodin's Kiss, whose subjects, naked and unashamed, enfolded each other in a graceful embrace. Yet her church, which she faithfully served, was ugly.
For my children, beauty in worship is a weekly experience. Visual, musical, and intellectual beauty are both normal and appreciated, at least by my older two, but below my own current feeling of normal remains a delighted surprise. I have been a part of this church since college oh so many years ago, but for many of those years I benefited from the artistic expression of others without appropriately valuing artistic expression in myself. I felt conflicted over it and neglected the gift that was in me. I only became an artist again because I came upon an opportunity to make money with it. When the money mostly stopped coming in, I had to figure out what my art's essential value was, which has been an up and down, roundabout kind of journey. The journey grew straight and swift while designing a silver crucifix for the new bishop of our diocese. For much of that process I sat outside in the tall grass and sunlight behind my studio/laundry room, with the wax model and a few small tools. As I reverently, gratefully refined the figure of Jesus on the cross I felt companioned by his love, warmed in my heart. I felt a fracture in me mending. My love for beauty and artistic expression were being integrated into my faith.
This enormous image, an icon of the resurrected Jesus Christ, which my church uses during our arts filled Saturday night Easter Vigil service was painted mostly by church member Janice Skivington. (The background in this picture is in a rented space, not our own building, because so many people come to the Vigil.)
About halfway through the very long, rich and exciting service, at the liturgical moment of the resurrection, marked by the words "Christ is risen" and the ringing of hundreds of bells, this painting is raised majestically from the floor. It is a time of joy and awe, an appropriately emotional experience and expression of our thoughtfully considered and chosen beliefs. I wish I had more photos from the service to share.
I'm not sure what triggered this post. I've been thinking about art more than I've been doing it this week, but I have to accept weeks like this as a normal part of my life rhythm just now. I expect next week will be better, and I'll have some things of my own making to show you.