Churches need to learn to trust their artists

A few years ago a friend offered to create a work of art for his church. The church accepted the proposal, and the over the past few years they’ve slowly worked on the idea. Recently the church — without the artist — decided on an image as a basis for the project.

It’s not unusual for the pastor (and a board of elders behind him) to want to control the content of artworks in their building. I regularly come across similar tales which evidence an obvious lack of trust in the artist heading up or contributing such a project, especially if the artist is a part of your congregation.

A visual artist — a painter or sculptor or printmaker — is more than just a craftsman. At it’s most basic, art is two things: Craft and concept. What the pastor-slash-board did in the aforementioned circumstance largely takes away the imaginative creativity, the concept, of an artwork. Hopefully an artist is gifted with ideas as much as with a particular craft. Further, they often communicate (i.e. interpret their surroundings) in different ways than than non-artists, which is part of their gift to culture.

In one sense, I can understand how the shepherd of a flock would want to protect his congregation from, well, unsightly or worldly things (as if they aren’t exposed to said things on a daily basis via other media or venues). The elders might want to avoid anything that would cause controversy; heaven forbid we be moved out of our comfort zones by a brutally honest painting of certain Scriptures.

Another scenario could be that the leadership already had an idea in mind and wanted to play artist from behind the scenes. Regardless, the way the project unfolded was disheartening to the artist, and I can certainly sympathize. Would it have been so bad for church leadership to look at a sketch of the artist’s idea and give their feedback based on that?

Below is Jim Janknegt’s most recent work titled Last Judgement. I can only imagine how horrified some church leaders would be if the thought of this creative commentary hanging in their building.

Modern Christianity is much too sanitized for our own good, which is another idea for another time but also effects decisions about what kind of art is or isn’t allowed into a church building.

lastjudgement10

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

4 Responses to Churches need to learn to trust their artists

  1. Tim J. says:

    “Sanitized” is a good descriptor. I had a similar experience with a pastor (priest) recently. I met with him to see about developing – long term – some fairly major projects, which I would do with no compensation as a gift to my parish (he is familiar with my work).

    He simply didn’t know what to do with me. Within a couple of minutes he weakly allowed for the possibility of maybe doing some banners. You know, those felt things. I felt like saying, “I’m sure some of the high school kids would enjoy doing some banners for Easter. Just call me if you need a painter”.

    It’s true that, times being what they are, art is not high on the list of priorities for most churches, but I was offering to do everything but pay for materials – which would not have been very much at all.

    Which comes back to what I think is the real source of the hesitation – the idea that no matter what sort of art is presented, SOMEBODY won’t like it and will complain, so better just to stick with the bare, inoffensive walls and maybe hang some banners every few weeks.

  2. I appreciate your site! Re: the arts-the church has alot of ground to reclaim. Sites like yours are important. Thank you.

  3. Sarah Irani says:

    Felt banners make me shudder. I am lucky enough to have worked with the arts committee at Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac, MD. In 2001, they hired me (in colaboration with another sculptor) to do the Stations of the Cross. We worked out ideas in clay or charcoal and presented the ideas to the committee. There was some back and forth, but they really trusted us. Then, two years later they hired me to make Mary and Joseph. Those were my perameters! They loved my initial iteration of Mary, but Joseph needed some work. They really let me work through it, though. Fantastic people to work with.

    Another church basically wants to design a sculpture and have me execute it. No thanks.

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