Featuring a variety of contributors and perspectives that address the dynamic intersection of Christian faith and the visual arts.
A Conversation about Codex with Filmmaker Micah Bloom
When I was a child, my parents instilled in me a reverence for books. Books couldn’t be stepped on, sat on, or abused, because they contained something mysterious and powerful. Beyond their mere physical composition of wood fibers and ink, they played some indispensable role that demanded respect and preservation. In a magical way, they were carriers of that which was irreplaceable; they housed an intellect, a unique soul. None was more protected than the Holy Bible, and to cause damage to its substance was to denigrate its message. In our home, books were elevated in the hierarchy of objects; in their nature deemed closer to humans than furniture, knickknacks, clothing … upon these impressions I was moved to enter a unique relationship with some displaced books.
In 2011, my family and I moved to Minot, North Dakota, and while riding my bike to work each day, dodging debris from the recent disastrous flood, I came upon these books, hundreds of them, out in the open, exposed to the elements, battered by wind and rain. They hung in the trees and were strewn throughout the landscape. These books were like human bodies. Bodies scattered across the streets, neglected in ditches, battered on the rails . . . shamefully exposed, as if from a great disaster . . . a genocide, a pogrom. Moved by this grim sight, I commenced on a new journey that would become Codex, and the metaphor of the discarded body directed each successive step.
In an April 15, 2010 interview, Krista Tippett, of Speaking of Faith spoke with forensic anthropologist Mercedes Dorretti regarding her work identifying remains of victims from Argentina’s Dirty War (1970s). Dorretti, an Argentinian, speaks of her task of uncovering and identifying victims while bringing healing, closure, and justice through reparation to the surviving families.
Ms. Tippett: It strikes me, when I talk to you and I read about the work you do, you don’t reverse the indignity that was done or the horror that was done, but in some ways somehow what you’re doing is a counterweight to it. I mean, you’re making death matter, which somehow is a statement that life matters.
Ms. Doretti: Exactly. It is so much the work for the living . . . I was also more impressed at the beginning by all the dead part of it. It took me awhile to understand how this is so much connected with the people that are alive and to dignify the death of the victims.
Ms. Tippett: What about this process, though, of individuals reconciling these losses within themselves? And I suppose that if it happens with one person, perhaps it affects families and communities. I mean, in Argentina or elsewhere, have you believed that this work that you were engaged in with people of finding and identifying and at least putting the bones to rest of their loved ones, that that made a difference in terms of how they came through this in the long term?
Ms. Doretti: Yes. Yes. Frankly, that’s one of the main reasons why we do this work. 
Justice is a challenging project when pursued years after the criminal events, and still more challenging in the wake of a natural disaster. Who is to blame for all of the catastrophic destruction, irreparable losses, and lingering darkness? How do we make right when no one did anything wrong?
- Feryedoun Faryad 
Codex is a multi–media artwork involving film, photography, and installation. In some way it addresses injustice through compassion, grief, and redemption . . . an attempt to bring bearing to St. John’s words: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
 Laying the Dead to Rest: meeting forensic anthropologist Mercedes Doretti,
Speaking of Faith (now On Being), Amercian Public Media, April 15, 2010
 #74, Feryedoun Faryad, Heaven without a Passport, Red Dragonfly Press, 2006Micah Bloom is an artist. He grew up in Minnesota, earned an MFA at the University of Iowa, and teaches in North Dakota. Married for 11 years, Micah and Sara share four delightful daughters, and they all love to make things. Bloom’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and he directs the multi-media art project: Codex.
Restoring Dignity to the Homeless Through Art
On Skid Row in Los Angeles, there is no art, and you have to squint pretty hard to see the beauty. I am a balancer, so when I walk through places like Skid Row or homeless shelters, I think about what is needed, and most of the time there is more than enough food and clothes to go around. What these communities do need, however, is to feel human again.
At heart, I have always been a simultaneous artist and philanthropist. I didn’t want my passions to be separated, and so I have always sought to holistically combine them. This project, called Sacred Streets, does that in a way I have been trying to imagine for years.
Sacred Streets is all about bringing beauty and dignity to a community that rarely ever gets it. I want to know the people from this community on a personal level, and the best way I know of connecting with them is to make portraits. To draw a person, in person, is for me a means of being present and attentive to the dignity in them.
While sitting with someone eye to eye for hours, and taking the time to capture their essence in artistic expression, an intimate exchange occurs— they are releasing themselves, baring their lives in an act of transparency, and in turn, receiving a deep and meaningful expression of their being. As I go about this work, I have seen a certain dignity restored in a person in a way that would’ve been difficult to achieve simply through words and impossible to achieve through a hand out. I want to help them feel human again and artistic engagement definitely has the power to do that.
I further this effort of restoration by drawing the portraits on reclaimed objects that are meant to tell a story parallel to the people depicted, a story of being found again and renewed. As the portraits come to completion I integrate shapes, symbols, and materials that resemble traditional images of saints and icons you would see in a cathedral, usually placed as altarpieces or objects of veneration.
If I were ever to try my hand at a recipe for bringing justice to the world, I think my base ingredient would be “feeling human.” That is one thing I think we all deserve, and if it is missing, so is justice. Artists have the power to replace this missing piece because the center of our practice is bringing beauty, renewed meaning, and yes, dignity to the world— things that are intrinsic to humanity.
– Jason Leith
Sacred Streets will be premiering this Thursday in Los Angeles. For more information on the project and opening, go to sacredstreets.org.
Jason Leith is a graduate of Biola University with a BFA in drawing and painting, a minor in Bible and Business and a graduate of Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute. He resides in Southern California where he leads Saddleback Church’s Arts Initiative, Ex Creatis.
Haiti: Beyond the Ruins
Thoughts from CIVA Artist Bryn Gillette about how his art has been impacted by his experiences with suffering in Haiti.
I’ve been painting my prayers for Haiti for over eight years. What began as a starving artist’s meager offering to support the education of orphans, slowly grew into a large scale prophetic plea for God’s heart and destiny over the entire nation of Haiti. I believe it’s my calling to capture glimpses of God’s heart for the beautiful and broken people of Haiti, to show what’s been, what is, and what could be (should be). At its best moments, I feel my painting becomes a thin space between my prayers for Haiti and the canvas, between the hard truths of physical reality and the redemptive possibilities of Divine presence.
In 2005 I painted twenty-one 5″x7” watercolors and sold them to fundraise for the school entry fee of orphans in Haiti. My friend and contact, a once Haitian-orphan himself, was trying to raise the miniscule annual school fee of $50 per student for the twenty-one orphans in his care near Port-Au-Prince. I remember my sense of disgust, confusion, and anger over the injustice of this small cost while life in Fairfield County, Connecticut unfolded around me with such lavish abundance in every area of life. “Our kids pay twice that much for their first-day-of-school outfit while these poor Haitian orphans need just to GO to school!” I combated my sense of helplessness with the only asset I felt I had at the time: my brush. What I didn’t realize then was that this simple act of solidarity was my catalyst to begin a Kingdom assignment. For the past eight years, my artwork has been the framework and platform for me to engage the world in a conversation of “stewardship”: what has God given us, and what are we doing with it?
For the past three years I have been working on a series of twelve door-sized panels titled “Haiti- Beyond The Ruins”. It began as my own reaction to the destruction of the 2010 earthquake, and has grown into a broader discussion of, “What does it take to rebuild a nation?” The first five images are my visual digestion and reaction to the ruins of Haiti, not only the ruins of the 2010 earthquakes, but the greater “ruin” that predated that natural disaster and still remain today. The last seven panels, many of which are still in process, parallel the “Seven Mountains” or the “Seven Spheres of Influence” that it is said are needed to reform and change a society [Bill Bright of Campus Crusade and Loren Cunningham founder of YWAM]. These are: Education, Family, Government, Business, Religion, Media, and the Arts.
It’s my goal to finish these paintings and begin a tour of the work to institutions of higher education and cultural influence, where this new body can serve as a catalyst for conversations about first world stewardship, and the rebuilding of broken nations. I had naively hoped to finish these pieces while the public conscience was still focused on Haiti. I have since learned that now, more than ever, we need artists to keep issues before us that the Media has discarded. More than the work’s need for time to evolve, I have found it was my own heart that needed the time to grow and change with the weight of the subject. “What does it take to rebuild a nation?” If it’s anything like building a painting, it takes time, love, and a lot of hard work.Bryn Gillette earned his B.A. in Visual Art from Gordon College in 2001 and his M.F.A. from Western Connecticut State University in 2009. His family began the non-profit, TeamOne:27 in 2008 to further their advocacy for Kingdom restoration in Haiti, the subject of much of Bryn’s artwork. He is currently a full time art instructor at Trinity-Pawling School, and an active member of Walnut Hill Community Church where he can be found painting live on stage most weeks as part of the worship team. Bryn and his wife Kirsten will celebrate their 10th anniversary this summer, and live with their three children in New Milford, Connecticut.
To further explore the interaction of justice and the arts, join us at our Biennial Conference, JUSTart this June. Also, look for more of Bryn’s writing and art work in our forthcoming issue of SEEN Journal.
Art Review: The Play Project
This post is the first in a series of snapshots meant to capture artists whose work engages issues of justice in one way or another. Check back weekly as we prepare for a larger discussion of art and justice at our biennial conference, themed JUSTart.
In a warm, faithful chapel on the grounds of a Benedictine monastery in Hingham, Massachusetts, the congregation of Church of the Cross Boston engaged in an expression of art and play. A diverse body of doctors, theologians, musicians, social workers, engineers, teachers, students, retail workers, veterinarians and others, together dropped to their knees around a raised altar and played with children’s blocks building structures large and small. Purposed piles of blocks were marked out at various stations around the center, and groups formed to make castles and fortresses, sky rises and small villages. As blocks inevitably fell, the sound of wood crashing on the hardwood floor was met with a collective echo of “Aww!” Care was placed into every inch of the tiny building project; while great heights were attempted with a combination of intention and abandon, joyful expression, and raptures of laughter.
The chapel’s modern architecture was complemented by the sharp edges of the temporary miniature structures that grew into the natural shape of the space. There seemed to be a sacred pull to get on one’s knees in awe of the sovereignty of God and the beauty of His holiness. Vaulted ceilings and gilded images of Mary and Jesus and of St. Benedict carrying his Holy Rule emphasized this draw. Stations of the cross painted in simple yet solemn pictures on the sides of the chapel walls served as essential reminders of the season of Lent. A solid, wooden cross with a painted image of Jesus on one side and a carved image on the other provided a visual reminder of Him on whom the purposeful play was centered. Worship music, experimental jazz, and pre-recorded scriptures and quotes played in the background. In this space a body of believers was able to, as John Milton stated, leave off the soul’s “severe schooling” for a while and engage in “delightful intermissions”. In this intermission, the participants were present in the space while simultaneously shuffling aside their titles and accolades, and with child-likeness, created structures made by assembling 1,400 wooden blocks in a corporate act of worship.
“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-4, ESV)
The foreman, creative visionary and worship leader of the Play Project, Shannon Sigler, knows well the “re-alignment, surrender, and, ultimately, welcome childlikeness” there can be when the serious weightiness of adulthood encounters the imaginative, faith-filled make-believe of a child at play. As an artist, a theologian and a mother of an energetic toddler, Shannon has immersed herself well with the “mental reorientation” that occurs when approaching Christ with childlike faith. Her experiences playing with her son Eli provided a new frame of reference for what it means to be a child in the presence of God. This proved very evident in how she involved the congregation in an earnest, communal act through the creation of a sculpture. On the purpose of the project, Shannon states, “This playful experiment, as I call it, will seek to discover an affective side to a community’s engagement with God. It will call those of us living in a very intellectual city into a place of light-hearted play. It will encourage a childlike embrace of the things we can’t quite wrap our minds around. “
“Good liturgical art is art that serves effectively the actions of the liturgy…” Nicholas Wolterstorff (Art in Action)
The end of the retreat offered time for reflection on the retreat as a whole and, specifically, the Play Project. Rector Mark Booker thanked Shannon for taking the risk, a risk in inviting the church to worship through playing with blocks. One parishioner noted that the whole group participated in joyful activity as beings made for creativity. For two hours on a sunny Saturday, one church actualized an art installation, not as professional artists but as blithesome children. Light danced in through the great windows onto the cream colored blocks of rudimentary shapes, and they were molded by mature hands into one sculpture made for one purpose – praise of the Father. Members of Church of the Cross for these moments reimagined worshipping Christ while shifting the paradigm from that of busied, burdened adults to the wonder and unquestioning faith of a child. For those two hours, a faithful little kingdom of natural wood blocks stood as a fixed reminder of how Jesus calls us to enter into His Kingdom – simply, joyfully, purposefully.
– Micah McDonald
The Play Project was an art installation created by the Church of the Cross Boston Community at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, Massachusetts. The project served to draw the congregation into an expanded expression of worship while encountering deeper levels of childlikeness in relationship to God and each other. The project was funded by a Kickstarter, and the 1,400 building blocks were donated to play centers via Horizons for Homeless Children, serving Boston’s homeless youth population.Micah McDonald is a writer and poet who resides in Boston, Massachusetts with her husband, Neal. Her poem An Exploration of Caritas received an Honorable Mention from Utmost Christian Poetry, and her current project is a poem series on faith and hope in an urban setting. As a former arts council member at Hope Chapel in Austin, Texas, Micah gained a burden for artists in the church and for God to be glorified through art in the church. Shannon Sigler is an artist, theologian and mother living and working in Beverly, Massachusetts. Shannon currently serves as CIVA’s Associate Director. Read more from Shannon here.
Singing of God and Grief in the Midst of Tragedy
As I sat in front of the TV watching the horrific scenes of the marathon bombing unfold in front of me, I couldn’t evade the question of “what will we sing this Sunday?” This may sound crass or trite, but as a music minister in a congregation located blocks away from the bomb site, my mind easily moved to considerations about coming together as the body of Christ on Sunday. We’re in Eastertide—the season of the Christian year when we celebrate Christ’s victory over death and the grave. It may seem like a no-brainer—sing joyfully about the empty tomb and the hope that is ours, in Christ, of resurrection—but somehow that doesn’t seem to give space to the real grief that permeates my adopted city of Boston.
One of the criticisms of “contemporary worship” following 9/11 was that the style of worship provided no space for real lament. I would suggest that this is not a problem merely limited to “contemporary-styled” services. Whether it be the so-called “happy-clappy songs” of some brands of “contemporary worship,” or the saccharine, humanistic sermons that will be given in many mainline congregations this Sunday aimed at inspiring us to love our neighbor better in light of this tragedy; our North Atlantic congregations often seem unable to provide space for grief over the world’s pain and sin within our worship services. If we are to be faithful to the gospel and also honest about this moment we must lament, and we must proclaim the hope that is ours in Christ.
Our Song Is a Response to God’s Mighty Acts
So how do we hold in tension the empty tomb while wrestling with the anguish of the present age when we come together for worship? The history of Christian worship provides us an answer. The early Christians were marked by a distinct understanding of the Triune God and history. Through the incarnation, the eternal Logos entered into time. By His suffering, death, and resurrection, Christ decisively acted in time, and by His ascension, now holds time together. Christ, the Lord of time, now sits at the Father’s right hand interceding for the world by the Spirit. This fundamental principle—that God’s mighty acts are the foundation for our faith and worship—was as important for the early church as it was to the Hebrew people. And, like the Israelites, the early Christians understood worship to be a response to God’s action, not a shamanistic forcing of God.
Let me clarify what I mean by worship (particularly music in worship) as “response.” In the “already-but-not-yet” age in which the church operates, the church is called to function sacramentally—that is, manifesting to the world the world’s past, present, and future existence in the light of the crucified, risen, and ascended Christ. Musically, this might be understood as thanksgiving, but it is a particular kind of thanksgiving, one that is much more than a vague appreciation for God’s goodness. It is a thanksgiving which is rooted in the rehearsal of God’s mighty acts. This is something we see in the Old Testament. Consider, for example, the “Song of Moses/Miriam,” from Exodus 15:
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD :
“I will sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
The horse and its rider
he has hurled into the sea”
(Exodus 15:1, New International Version).
The song continues with a recounting of God’s deliverance of the Israelites through the Red Sea—which becomes the content for praise and thanksgiving. While the majority of the “Song of Moses/Miriam” is concerned with what God has done in the past, the song ends with a proclamation of God’s revealed (future) promise to the Hebrews:
You will bring them in and plant them
on the mountain of your inheritance—
the place, O LORD, you made for your dwelling,
the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established
(Ex. 15:17, New International Version).
This is merely one example of a consistent biblical emphasis which provides a foundation for music in the church. God’s accomplishments in the past and His promised action in the future serve as the essential foundation for the song of the church.
Crying “Kyrie” and “Maranatha”
But what do I do on Sunday with the real, present grief that my city is experiencing? The second facet of music as a “response” is the dual, ancient cry of the church: “kyrie eleison” and “maranatha”—“Have mercy, Lord!” and “Come, Lord Jesus!” Such a response acknowledges that Christ is our only hope in the midst of a suffering world. This dual petition is founded on God’s activity. The mystery of the ascension is that Christ has already achieved victory over the future. Obviously, this is not to say that the future has already occurred, but the church lives in the certainty of a promise (Christ’s return) that has been revealed. Thus, when we cry, “Lord, have mercy!” we do so in certain hope of God’s future action, the final coming of our Lord.
This is more than a distant, passive hope in what is to come. We must also understand the priestly function of the church in the midst of the “already-but-not-yet” tension. The music of the church, like prayer, assumes that our pleas for mercy are not simply deferred to a distant future, but somehow allow us to participate in the current work of the Spirit. Grounded in the truth of what God has done in the past and promised for the future, the church is invited to freely participate in the work of Spirit in ministry to a broken world through prayer and action. The point is essential: music which responds “kyrie eleison/maranatha” to events like the marathon bombing, functions as intercession and is anything but passive.
Singing the Story, Crying Out to God
So as I continue planning music for worship this Sunday, I in no means seek to obscure the hope that is ours, in Christ, of a final day when He will return; neither do I want to gloss over the horrific events that happened this week by failing to provide space for my congregation to sing out our grief. My aim is to choose songs that rehearse the story of God’s mighty acts in Christ, while crying out “Lord, have mercy!” and “Come Lord Jesus!” I do so in the certainty that Christ not only hears our prayers (sung and spoken) and guides our steps during this trying time, but that He will indeed return and make all things new in His everlasting Kingdom.
Matt SiglerMatthew Sigler is a Th.D. candidate in Liturgical Studies at Boston University where his work has focused on the history of Methodist worship as well as lyrical theology. In addition to being a student, he has served for the past twelve years as a music minister in the church. He is currently the worship pastor at Church of the Cross Boston.