West Coast Quaker artist Cynthia Large came to her explorations of faith through her study of art history. She met the saints through medieval and Renaissance paintings “that possess a crystalline clarity of surface detail and a narrative strangeness that has never been surpassed,” she says. Her series Holy Mischief portrays “the lives of the most restive and unruly figures in the history of religion.” These egg tempera and oil paintings, set within carved mahogany frames, feature figures such as Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich and Christina of Liège. Christina of Liège, or Christina the Astonishing, was a popular saint who was not formally beatified. Catholic writer Tony Staley says that “she stands out from the canon because her life . . . is not held up as an example to be followed. . . . It seems that she served the people of Liège as a wailing manifestation of their hidden consciences, laying bare their dark secrets and vices.” Legend has it that at her funeral mass she flew up out of her coffin and perched in the rafters of the church.
Having struggled with a rare cancer that offered little chance of recovery, Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman has navigated his way through questions of belief and death. His cartography begins early in his life with the story of his grandmother and elderly great aunt. During his early adult years, Wiman lived in a trailer in the yard of “the big house” where they lived.
From Daily Cross (clockwise from top left): Sand Cross, Apple Cross, Bunker Cross, Phila Cross.
Gerda Liebmann’s Daily Cross began on Facebook. Soon other photographers expressed interest in participating, and Liebmann began posting the global community’s photographs of crosses. “At first, this Daily Cross project felt like a form of visual play. It was fun and challenging to find crosses on the street, in stores and in nature. . . . But soon the project took on another dimension. Looking for the symbol of redemption in the world began to feel more and more like seeking evidence of redemption itself.” The collective act of finding “that stark symbol of the Christian faith” is also each photographer’s journey to God, through Christ on the cross.
"I am not strictly a realist,” says Los Angeles artist Madeleine Avirov. “Where traditional oil painting is mostly about exteriors, speaking to us by way of what it refers to rather than by the way in which it envisages, I have, since childhood, been driven by a faith in the mysterious forces that allow me to enter my subjects. To be present, in other words, to other modes of being. The goal is not only to show ‘things,’ but also the soul of the thing, whatever it is in the middle ground that makes us go toward this thing and not that. Some of the works read like hallucinations—real and unreal together, some elements way out of normal scale.”
Vermont artist Jerry Geier’s sculptures often feature commonplace moments and ordinary people. Even the material he uses—terra-cotta—reflects the most common of elements, earth. In this representation of the Last Supper, in which Jesus’ back is to the viewer, Geier captures a moment of companionable humor. Trust and appreciation are on the faces of the disciples. But clearly something else is also going on. Arms stretched as though in embrace and blessing, Jesus is the one who faces the window, the curtains blowing. “The window shows a breeze, which I see as a symbolic breath of fresh air, new life, perhaps the Holy Spirit flowing in,” Geier writes. “It all takes place in a modest little house of some kind, with wooden floors and simple walls.”
While many artists seek to convey a sense of the layers of suffering and anguish in the Passion of Christ, few consider what the medium itself conveys. This life-sized sculpture appears weightless, and it radiates light and lightness. “In the context of my artworks,” Scala writes, “the use of partially transparent wire fabrics allows the examination of the underlying structure of the subject. By shaping Christ’s image into a hollow form and introducing gold to the surface, the sculpture takes on a transparent and yet reflective character.”
Artist-musician Chris Taylor writes that he was driving home one day, with his thoughts spiraling “into stress and sadness.” A truck pulled in front of him with the message “Jesus loves you” written on it. At first he thought, “What a cruel cosmic joke.” His next thought was to pray the Lord’s Prayer. “So I prayed the whole thing, top to bottom. Forgot I even know it . . . how simple and all encompassing it is.” He then produced the prayer in visual form.
I see [making] portraits as a way to say hello to one another,” says Bryce McCloud, artist-in-residence at Room in the Inn in Nashville, Tennessee, and leader of the city’s arts project “Our Town.” (The project and his residency are sponsored by the Thomas P. Seigenthaler Fund for Creativity.) McCloud’s work with the homeless community—and the larger Nashville community—is a way of introducing neighbor to neighbor. “Art can bridge the gap between class, culture and condition in life. It has the power to bring us together. . . . We begin to see that no man or woman is truly a stranger.” The workshop participants used paints, ink stamps, charcoal, cut paper, fingerprints, brushes. Then the images were translated to letterpress prints in McCloud’s shop Isle of Printing.
The idea for Girt came to Lanie Gannon when she saw Serbians fleeing their war-torn villages “with nothing but what they had strapped on their backs and what they had strapped to their wooden carts.” All that is left is the person, the head bound to the cart that moves into exile. “The head is a mystery that can never be solved, an eternal puzzle, vested with all the questions that I wrestle with. The head or bust is a crossroads where external, social and internal realities meet and mingle.” She understands her work as an artist as “offering yourself as a witness to something you’ve heard or seen in cases of wrongdoing.”
In the paintings of Tim Okamura, a Canadian artist working in Brooklyn, the hip-hop urban landscape becomes part of a contemporary icon. An urban setting that seems neglected, empty, disruptive or marginal frames the “sainting” of people. The images speak of courage, honor, strength, integrity, loyalty. King, in which various disciples, questioners or saints engage with a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., is a kind of urban station of the cross. The image also alludes to iconic images of Veronica’s veil, which according to legend displayed the shape of Jesus’ face. Graffiti appears in Okamura’s paintings as a kind of calligraphy, as though a story is being written around each person. The scrawl that frames each image further ennobles the center figure.
In her mixed-media paintings, Sheila Mahoney Keefe combines abstraction with sparse representation—a table, a flower, a door. By paring down details, she provides room for prayer and imagination to enter. Her paintings reflect spiritual postures—reception, transformation, openness, resurrection—and take us beyond ourselves. Beneath Within brings to mind the words of St. Patrick’s Breastplate: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.”
LePage combines his delight in graphic design with his dogged intention of reading scripture. The result is a website and graphic design that’s playful, reverent, irreverent, provocative—introducing biblical stories and themes with graphic power. Says LePage, “When I read the Bible now, I’m using my imagination to play a movie of what I’m reading—what it looks like. Maybe most people already do this, but everything I read, I got into the habit of combing for anything visual. Now, I’ve begun to think visually: What does the lion and the lamb look like?”
In 2010, David Kevin Weaver traveled to Israel with camera in hand, seeking to trace the life and journey of Jesus. He also traveled with a specific goal: to create a photo essay narration of the Gospel of John using contemporary life on Israeli streets. The Gospel of John, Photographed (Four Line Media) collects 170 color and black-and-white works from the original 3,400 photographs. Weaver writes, “I had a very clear vision of the finished version of this book—the Gospel as a story, without the chapter and verse numbering as found in the Bible, and with modern photos interpreting key names, places and concepts of John’s writing.” It seems fitting that the word photograph comes from the Greek words for “light” and “to write.”
Jake Weidmann found his true calling when he learned there were only nine master penmen in the world. Now a master penman with the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH), he is best known for his combination of artwork and script calligraphy. In Sea of Script Weidmann returned to a script style developed in 1840 by Platt Rogers Spencer. Spencer created the first American style of penmanship: ergonomic, simple, and based on the natural movement of the hand. It was a style theologically informed, as Spencer reasoned that the forms and movements of nature made by the Creator—organic forms and the movement of water—could be imitated. In Sea of Script, Weidmann pens a friend’s poem in rhythmic and crescendoed script.
Martin Erspamer’s work is shaped by his life of prayer at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. “Images,” he says, “are formed through scripture or the chant of a hymn that floats in your head and then comes back visually. My life as an artist is enriched by the monastic life. There are certain times of day for prayer or reflection, so a certain reflective quality is built into this life that helps the process of the artist: examining, seeing things in a lot of different ways.” By cutting into and removing portions of the top layer of a tinted lacquer laminate on acetate, Brother Martin creates delicate graphic lines that are reminiscent of woodcuts. He is influenced by Romanesque art, and also by 20th-century printmakers with religious sensibilities, notably Corita Kent and Eric Gill, as well as German Expressionist printmakers and painters like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde.
Before it was installed, the cross outside St. Peter's Catholic Church in Manhattan traveled 4,500 miles across the U.S. on the bed of sculptor Jon Krawczyk's pickup truck. Inside the cross are pieces of paper containing prayers of loss and hope written by schoolchildren, firefighters, police officers and religious leaders. St. Peter's had been the home of the WTC Cross, an iconic I-beam from Ground Zero. When the I-beam was transferred to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the church commissioned a new cross. Says Krawczyk: "The cross will be polished to a mirror finish so each and every onlooker will see himself or herself reflected in it, hopefully thinking about those who sacrificed before them, and then considering what their own sacrifice will be. But before they think, I want people to see the beauty first, the beauty of existence, the beauty of the cross, then remember the destruction and find a better way." For more information visit stpeter9-11cross.blogspot.com.
Through a regional arts grant in 2001, photojournalist Christine Rucker explored Hispanic, African-American and Anglo congregations in the Pentecostal tradition. What Rucker discovered beyond immediate differences of language and ethnicity was that "the power of their faith is identical." Among the images she captured (which can be found at christinerucker.com) is Worship, where the laying on of hands is seen against a streak of fluorescent light.
Wes Sherman's abstract work, inspired in part by Olivier Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord), is on exhibit at Grace Church in Newark, New Jersey. In January this piece of art was rearticulated musically, as organists Joseph Arndt and Michael Hey played Messiaen's work and invited the audience to engage both visually and musically. Sherman's collaboration with Grace Church is one in a growing number of cross-genre collaborations taking place in arts and faith communities. Sherman's nativity scene is informed by Piero della Francesca's The Nativity (1475) but rendered in an abstract and contemporary vision—something like Messiaen's music, which gives traditional musical forms contemporary and mystical expression.
Passersby linger outside Old South Church in Boston, where the grounds—designed by gardener Jim Hood—offer a visual witness to the life of the church. During the bleak winter months, a stick garden maintains a profound presence. Carpenters create "whips" of spruce, 7 feet tall, covered in shades of red opaque stain, to form an abstract sculpture resembling red osier dogwood, which is common in New England. The shock of color provides a promise that a nearby sign articulates: "The garden is also a proclamation of our faith, that beauty will spring from barrenness and form out of chaos, life out of death. Here in the coldest and darkest time we make bold to proclaim that spring and life are on their way."
When I started the work,” writes video artist/photographer Eija-Liisa Ahtila, “the aim was to do a remake of the annunciation paintings with moving images to see what this powerful image in our culture would turn out to be and what it would mean in present-day Western society.” The result, The Annunciation, is a three-channel multimedia installation exhibited at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. A mixture of stills of familiar paintings of the annunciation and acted scenes—with angels, a patron, donkeys, Mary, cultural Christmas snapshots and layers of angel wings—creates a layered narrative. In the 33-minute installation, Ahtila’s work runs through cultural allusions and histories, moving in and through the natural and supernatural.