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A fractious and yet fruitful embrace

04 August 2017

Ayla Lepine explores what happens when an artist is invited across the threshold of a church or cathedral


“Shimmering flotilla”: Soul Boats, by Jake Lever, at Birmingham Cathedral, 2016

“Shimmering flotilla”: Soul Boats, by Jake Lever, at Birmingham Cathedral, 2016

“WHEN you are at the beach, or alone in prayer, find the marsh and step through it,” Brother James Koester SSJE counselled in a sermon reflecting on childhood summers on the shores of a Saskatchewan lake. “Find the border and cross it.” Having done so, one would be directed to “God’s divine presence . . . where you have been told before, that God could not possibly be”.

This hymn to crossing thresholds is advice that is being taken up both by artists working in sacred spaces and by churches with artist-in-residence programmes. These are not commissions from contemporary artists, although this is an important aspect of church life. Residencies are just that: the artist and the church dwell together and learn from one another over an extended period — sometimes months, sometimes many years. In encountering one another, crossing thresholds, they teach each other to see things differently.

At Canterbury Cathedral, the Canon Librarian, the Revd Christopher Irvine, observes that the Church “speaks endlessly about the need for dialogue with artists. Having an artist-in-residence gives time for real conversations.” For artists, residencies are an opportunity to make art within a work of art, spending time with God in the intimacy of a medieval chapel in Yorkshire, or the grandeur of a modern cathedral in Liverpool.


RESIDENCIES need not be the preserve of cathedrals. Parishes often have few resources, but can and should attend creatively to what they do possess rather than focus on what they lack. Befriending artists costs nothing.

G. ROLAND BIERMANNBlood red: for Station Nine of Stations 2016, Jesus falls the third time, G. Roland Biermann erected intersecting crash barriers before a wall of oil barrels, at St Giles’s, Cripplegate, in the Barbican, London“The richest experiences have been those where work has been created in situ, in response to the fabric of the building and/or conversations with visitors and congregation, and where the work interacts with liturgy and learning,” says the Vicar of a north-London parish, St Peter’s, De Beauvoir Town, the Revd Julia Porter-Pryce. “Having an artist working in situ, over a period of time, offers opportunities for participatory creative events: workshops, talks, reflections.”

In her experience, a successful residency is when the sacred space, its people, and the artist feel at home together. Belonging provides foundations for trust. The synergy of being a hospitable host and a gracious guest, and the courage to allow these categories to blend together, creates a climate of potential. Situations in which artists have the freedom to make, and audiences have the freedom to encounter the sacred — even if the experience is a challenging for both sides of the dialogue — produce illuminating art.


THE organisation Art and Christianity Enquiry (ACE) has been bridging the worlds of contemporary art and the Church since the 1990s. Its director, Dr Laura Moffatt, works with a small team to support artists in religious contexts, producing publications, resources, networks, and education initiatives. ACE also helps churches and artists to navigate challenges, avoid pitfalls, and learn from others’ experiences.

MARK CAZALETGod’s image: one of Mark Cazalet’s Silent Colour Meditations at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, 2016Among the substantial challenges facing residencies is funding. Anglican communities may be keen to work with artists, but they do not have enough money to pay them adequately. Fair and sustainable funding is as essential for artists as it is for any member of a team, although this is sometimes ignored or not understood.

A solid and clear working agreement should be established. Some report a positive sense that a project is unfolding “organically”, only to find that, in the end, expectations have not been met, or were never voiced. Facilities, particularly in listed buildings, must be considered from the outset, to avoid unfeasible projects. Diversity of media, artists, and methods should be encouraged.

The Oxford-based artist Alice Floyd, a social sculptor, reports that a significant challenge for artists is the terms of a residency application. Her artwork, whether a collaborative writing project, making bread together for 40 days, or an installation based on candid interviews about failure, may work well in a church setting. But communicating the nature of a potential project may be next to impossible, because the project grows out of an evolving awareness of a place’s character, desires, and values. In other words, there can be no fixed promises about the end result.

Her work raises questions that many artists and worshipping communities ask, about deep listening and risk-taking, to enable understanding and transformation.


DESPITE challenges, exciting projects continue to testify to the power of collaboration. In London, during Lent last year, “Stations of the Cross”, a “pilgrimage for art-lovers”, brought new art and old masters, as well as churches, parks, and museums, into dialogue, in an exploration of the Passion. The co-curator, Dr Aaron Rosen, has described how the team “began to catch glimpses of the suffering Christ all around London”, and has expressed a hope that the project will be “productively plagiarised” (News, 5 February 2016).

In Newcastle, ACE is working with a parish church, St John the Baptist, on a project connected to the Platforma festival, which explores themes of residency, migration, and belonging. Funded by ACE and the C of E’s Church Buildings Division, a four-week residency will enable an artist to “explore their location, the church and its surroundings, and respond within the wider context of the festival’s themes within a unique and sacred space”.

These projects, and others like them, fall into two types. The first, championed by the late Canon Bill Hall, who founded the artist-in-residence programme at Durham Cathedral, invites artists to dwell within, and even deliberately disrupt, what the artist Mark Cazalet has called the “neutral or antipathetic secular stance to the established Church”.

SUSIE HAMILTONGod’s image: Here Comes Everybody by Susie Hamilton, at St Paul’s Cathedral, 2016The second model invites artists to engage with the specific circumstances of a Christian community. In this sort of residency, work that an artist produces can take on a sacramental quality, reflecting the community’s gifts and offerings back to them in a radically new and yet contextually sensitive form. Mr Cazalet identifies more strongly with the second model, and it was in this context that he recently produced his Silent Colour Meditations: portraits of 153 people at St Edmundsbury Cathedral (Arts, 20 January).

Other recent works have also celebrated the personal as a way of drawing attention to the divine presence. At a recent study day convened by ACE, Susie Hamilton, a recent artist-in-residence at St Paul’s Cathedral (Arts, 6 May 2016), described sitting in the cathedral for several weeks, sketching its inhabitants: pilgrims, tourists, cleaners, clergy, guides, congregations.

She reflected on “the contrast between the small and finite figure and something huge: St Paul’s, and the something more-than-huge that St Paul’s represents — something infinite, unknown, boundless. It sounds like a grotesquely big idea to attach to tiny little watercolours, but it’s the way I was thinking as I did them. Something tiny and insignificant against its opposite.” Each artwork was a sign that every person’s presence radiates something of God’s truth.

When Birmingham Cathedral celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2015, the Dean, the Very Revd Catherine Ogle, worked closely with the artist Jake Lever to support his collaborative installation Soul Boats (Back Page Interview, 1 January 2016). More than 2000 golden boats were suspended in the nave, floating in the air above visitors and worshippers. Each was made by an individual — young, old, Hindu, Sikh, Quaker, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, homeless, wealthy, local, migrant — and together they formed a shimmering flotilla that referenced biblical and global journeys across the sea, as well as the golden tender hollow of God’s divine hand.

Some installations invite challenge. At Truro Cathedral, in 2005, the Dean and Chapter invited an artist to produce work about what a cathedral is for, why the place exists, and for whom. This kind of quest is intuitive for many artists, just as it is hard to embark on for many congregations. Trust and courage, as ever, are crucial. The art writer Dr Jonathan Koestlé-Cate recently described the relationship between art and the Church as a “fractious embrace”: artists help to find and guide others into fractious and fruitful spaces.


INSTALLATIONS at cathedrals, often epic in scale, continue to attract attention; yet here, too, funding pressures exist. Gloucester and Durham set the standard for residencies, but both programmes have ceased; in Durham’s case, after nearly 30 years. These models forged links between universities, the cathedral, and national arts funding bodies, in a broadly effective triad. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, one of the emerging artists who worked at Gloucester (Arts, 5 October 2010), went on to represent the Vatican at the Venice Biennale in 2015.

The terms of the Durham annual residency (studio space, an invitation to teach fine art at the University of Sunderland, an exhibition at the cathedral and university, subsidised college accommodation, and a fee of £17,000) were relatively basic. For many artists, this is an offer they dream of; yet for many churches it is out of reach. Often, the communities who might be most enthusiastic about inviting artists to be alongside them cannot afford to fund their work fairly.

There are avenues to explore, however. Arts Council funding can be sought; artists can be invited to use church spaces as flexible studio space; relationships can be built between artists, social-outreach groups, and church leadership which allow for the arts to be part of church life without overstretching a tiny budget or miscommunicating expectations.

Residencies at theological colleges such as the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, and charities with strong Anglican links such as the Florence Trust, which provides studio residency in London for 12 international artists each year, are creating new opportunities. Priest-artists such as the Revd Ian Adams, an Anglican who teaches at Ridley Hall, and the Revd Ric Stott, a Methodist minister, are important voices in the Church.

“Engaging artists in creating worship takes more than asking an artist to create a beautiful thing in church,” the Revd Dr Maggi Dawn, a worship composer and Associate Dean for Marquand Chapel and Associate Professor (Adjunct) of Theology and Literature at Yale Divinity School, says. “For their art to connect with worship, there needs to be deep sympathy between the artist and congregation, and a mutual understanding of what worship is for.”

She, and many others who stand at the threshold of priesthood and the arts, focus strongly not only on the intersections of art and liturgy, but on art as liturgy. The American artist Lanecia A. Rouse Tinsley, currently artist-in-residence at Holy Family HTX, a church in Texas, takes her inspiration for sacred art in churches and grass-roots communities from the writer and activist James Baldwin. He believed that art must “illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through the vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place”.

Reflecting on the words of the philosopher F. H. Bradley — “One cannot remain in love unless perpetually one falls in love anew” — the Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Canon Mark Oakley, responds: “This is true of our love of people, places, life, God. To bring an artist into your world, the place where you reside, is to take seriously the Christian vocation to look and to love, admitting that we need help with both by having our perceptions tutored.”

Inviting artists into churches allows hosts and guests to be more abundantly alive.

Dr Ayla Lepine is a Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex and an ordinand at Westcott House

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