On Making Art In, For, and With a Community

By Catherine Kapikian

As a site-specific artist, I thrive on commissions from diverse religious sources: churches, military chapels, hospital chapels, meditation spaces, and religious conference sites. Within these venues, for the last three decades I have enjoyed designing complex works which the resident community then fabricates.

Kapikian-1Engagement with such a process—the actual making—affirms an integral aspect of our humanity. We are born in the Imago Dei, the Image of God. The book of Genesis begins with God calling creation into being and thereby defines one of the attributes of our Maker. This capacity to create—a reflection of our divine image—is granted to us as a genetic endowment. Too many are robbed of this capacity by such things as poverty; ignorance and/or misunderstanding of the attributes of a creative mentality; rejection of the creative process when complexity in a frustrating, chaos-producing stage of the creative process overwhelms; and fear of the unknown. Creativity is, after all, the resource with which we usher new meaning into our world.

Kapikian-4From a cultural perspective, benefits accrue in this kind of undertaking: encounter with a hands-on, meditative process implicit in the “making” and appreciation for slow, deliberative, face to face communication, out of which solutions and sustaining stories emerge. The latter offers opportunities for the numinous (Holy Presence) to break through. These benefits stand in sharp contrast to today’s preferred cryptic and truncated forms of doing and communicating in our secularized culture.

From a theological perspective, participants encounter another language that communicates spiritually. This non-verbal vocabulary and its syntax (elements and effects of design and their resident power to communicate) are alien to many. The ability to “read” a visual work happens in an on-going, educational, and hands-on process that begins when I take the oversight committee in tow to visually “read” (see) their site. By installation time, the community understands how a visual work of art communicates theological proclamation.

When I am commissioned for a site-specific work, I submit my creative process to a democratic process, and I am aware of the implicit hazards of such an undertaking. At the very start of my engagement, I describe the potential hiccups or pitfalls to the oversight committee. Once everyone’s acknowledged these possible risks and trust is secured, I am given the go-ahead, granted autonomy and then start my design process. Once fabrication commences, this thicket of interconnectedness provides a context for issuing forth grace, hospitality, love, shalom, and peace. Our mutual efforts to create together are life-enhancing, and the work becomes the work of the people from whom emerge—and through whom endure–the stories of the making.

Kapikian-2The accompanying images are of two separate recently completed installations. The first, in the sanctuary of Pullen Baptist Church, Raleigh, North Carolina, is comprised of two pieces, each 19 feet x 9 feet x 5 inches and weighing 2,000 pounds; together, there are 26 painted canvases inserted into two, three-layered wooden traceries. Every piece in this installation is fabricated (made, painted, and constructed) by members of the church except for the laser-cut letters, cut from ¼-inch plywood. The Home Depot mixed 180 colors according to my specifications. Color chips (with numbers) were attached to each of my full-scale drawings. The designs for these works were the consequence of many interpretive discussions of seven major themes relevant to the church.

Kapikian-3The second installation, housed in the Garden Chapel (previously known as the Wilson Chapel) at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, is called Tree of Life. This 18 feet x 15 feet x 5 inch-piece replaces a dreary, out-of-scale, gold velvet dossal cloth.The fifty-three colored canvases inserted into the multi-layered wood tracery were needle-pointed by volunteers from the student body, faculty, staff, and alumnae.The Tree of Life is a salient symbol to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, the needle-pointed inserts based on a design that mimics infinity, a concept important in Islam. For the non-believer, the Tree of Life is a comforting symbol of strength and resilience echoing the towering trees visible from the chapel’s windows.

Catherine Kapikian, Founder and Director Emeritus of the Henry Luce Center For the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, is currently its Distinguished Artist-in-Residence. Her book, Art in Service of the Sacred (Abingdon Press, 2006) with accompanying DVD of “before” and “after” ecclesial spaces “performs a valuable and much-needed service to communities of faith by showing us how art helps us to encounter the sacred and opens the way to experiences of transformation beyond the realm of words.”


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