Placemaking and the Arts

Editor’s Note: We’re excited to have Jennifer Allen Craft, Associate Professor of Theology and Humanities at Point University in West Point, Georgia, as one of our break-out session leaders for ARE WE THERE YET at Bethel University in June. In anticipation of her session, please enjoy this interview on the topic of Jennifer’s new book, conducted by CIVA member and friend, Paige Medlock Johnson.

Placemaking book cover (1)Book Review: Placemaking and the Arts: Cultivating the Christian Life
by Jennifer Allen Craft
280 pp. | Published October 30, 2018 | IVP Academic

PM:  Tell us about your new book. What is the premise? Who is the audience? How did you become involved in this project?

JC: In addition to articulating the theological significance of place more broadly, I’m particularly interested in the ways that visual art can influence and permeate our everyday lives. In that vein, I argue that one thing art does is foster various forms of placemaking, cultivating a sense of place, and becoming both a context and catalyst for renewed, hospitable, hopeful dwelling in the places of our lives together.

This is an academic book, with numerous references throughout, so the primary audience is an academic one—particularly those interested in art, place, and practical theology. However, I think wider audiences in the church with such interests would find the book approachable and readable.

I began this project as Ph.D. dissertation at University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In many ways, the book emerged out of my own homesickness and thinking about the ways in which our attachment to and dwelling within places is of important theological significance.

PM:  How do/did you envision this book being used—in what capacities and with what potential?

JC: I think the book could serve as a good accompanying text for a course in theology and the arts, at either the senior undergraduate or graduate level. I’m writing from within that world of “theology and the arts” or “theological aesthetics.”  I’d also like to think those in the placemaking movement more broadly, whether from city-planning or from church perspectives, would find the ideas useful for imagining the ways in which art factors into our practices of placemaking in the world.

PM: Coming from this perspective, how do you situate the current state of art in a theological context (or theology in a visual arts context)? 

JC: Where interdisciplinary dialogue is concerned, I think it’s important to see that we all speak from our own place, as it were. I write from the realm of theology, though as one who has always loved the arts and been artistic myself. I see a lot of promise for the ways art has gained a renewed focus within a theological context. I think we’re seeing a lot more churches interested in integrating the arts in creative ways into a liturgical context, and theologians are also thoughtfully engaging with the arts to flesh out complicated theological ideas in new ways (Jeremy Begbie’s exploration of music and Trinitarian doctrine is one relevant example here). I personally gain so much theological insight about the world by looking to the arts. As far as the current state of theology in a visual arts context, I think art has always been more inclined to engage with theology than the reverse. Artists look to the world around them and creatively put materials or ideas together in ways that reflect a wider theological or philosophical imagination. Art opens us up to new ways of thinking that, very often, produce theological insight or more ethical dwelling in the world.

PM: This is key. There is an opportunity for shift in perspective that can unfold in the way we live and interact. What void exists in the discussion on art and theology/faith that this book addresses?

JC: I think the topic of place is certainly new to theology and the arts discourse. While there has been a fair amount written on a creational and incarnational approach to the arts—one that takes into account the physical, embodied way that we make and engage with art objects and experiences—I take that one step further to suggest that it is precisely the placed nature of the arts (and artists!) and the site-specificity of artistic making that can lend us theological insight into our relationship to the world, our calling within it, and our imaging of Christ’s work in the world.

PM: Why is it significant to talk about a sense of place—Artistically? Biblically? Socially? Ethically?

JC: We are always in a place. We can’t escape it as embodied people. As such, I think contemplating all those practices in place that are already implicit or tacit can help draw our attention to the ways in which we are living well, or poorly, and perhaps begin to help us to change our habits within them. Sense of place is really about our love of place, which filters into all our actions there. So as sense of place draws together all those habits we do in places, along with how we feel about them, I think there is incredible theological, social, ethical, and artistic significance in talking about it and trying to further cultivate a sense of place. Our sense of place is a primary part of what Charles Taylor calls our social imaginary. What’s interesting is that we are made by the places we are in (and all those habits, practices, values, manners, etc. that are a part of those places), but we can also make our places what they are. We can change the way places communicate, making them more indicative of our values—biblical or otherwise—altering and participataing in them in ways that can have quite a bit of social impact. In that regard, I think placemaking is a matter of huge ethical concern. What if we could make places that were more inclusive (of gender, race, age, etc.), more hospitable, more beautiful, more environmentally responsible? While this book doesn’t address all the ways that might happen, I’m arguing that the visual broadly, of which the arts are often key, is actually a pretty important part of placemaking—that the way we visually adorn and make our environments can begin to create new ways of seeing the world, while embodying a positive hope for the future.

PM: This is crucial for Christians and people in visual arts. The ramifications of the way we see the world and the way we make our place in it affect each other, both internally and through our influence on others. How does this book speak from your passions and purpose?

JC: I think being in community is central to who we are as humans made in the image of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For us, being in place is a central part of that community. We are embodied together in a place. And if we can make our places more conducive to the type of community God calls us to, then I think we will begin to experience the Spirit’s presence in our lives more and more.

PM: This book may have its origin in academic research, studying, and living overseas, but it is very human and inspiring. Do you have a highlight of your writing experience? A story from its emergence, a favorite quote, a struggle, a place where it wrote itself…

JC: Sometimes things come so easily, and others it’s a struggle to write a good sentence. I find that writing is an iterative process for me. Write, edit, leave it, edit, write, edit again, and again, and again…

Often writing about the artists come easiest for me though. All the artists I feature in this book really inspire me in different ways, and so it’s easy to get lost in their work and see how it speaks. It’s often a surprise when I’m done writing a section to see what has emerged. Many of the artists have been so hospitable to me, as well, and have read my interpretations of their work with such a spirit of grace. For instance, Marianne Lettieri and I had a lot of back and forth dialogue about her work. I really love the found objects she uses in her installations, and they cause me to see the objects around my home in a totally different way. The quilts of Gee’s Bend were also hugely inspiring and actually caused me to take up quilting in my own practice. I’ve found that the practice of making something like a quilt, very often out of recycled fabric that was meaningful to me, and then gifting it to someone, becomes a spiritual practice and a way of connecting further with community. So many of my own personal placemaking practices, especially in the context of my home, were transformed or cultivated by my academic work. I hope that readers of the book will find the same things begin to take place in their own lives.

PM: Who / What inspires you?

JC: I’ve never met someone with such a strong sense of place than my husband, Brandon. As an ecological forester and director of a non-profit farm, he offers me insight on the natural environment, especially, that expands my vision of what it means to live responsibly in the world God has gifted to us.

PM: Do you have new art or writing in the works?  What can we anticipate from you in the future?

JC: I just started a new book project on art and the prophetic imagination that engages a close reading of the biblical prophets with the topic of contemporary art, social justice, and place. I’m excited to see it develop, and many of my speaking engagements for the next year will begin to explore those ideas more and more.

PM: Thank you, Jenn, for this book. I hope it becomes part of people’s libraries and informs our thought and art, as well as our own placemaking, this side of heaven.  We look forward to more from you!

Paige Medlock Johnson is currently working in arts administration in local government.   She earned a Ph.D. in Visual Culture at University of Stirling, Scotland, a MLITT in Visual Culture at University of Aberdeen, and a MAWME in World Missions at Asbury Theological Seminary. She speaks and writes about the intersection of art, theology, and culture, and often collaborates with her dad, Professor Emeritus Rudy Medlock (Asbury University), creating stained glass installations. Some of their commissioned work in on display in Kentucky, Scotland, and the Dominican Republic.

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