Worshipping God through Creative Experience
New Life Christian Reformed Church reflects this Lent with the artwork of Redeemer art students’ Imago Dei show

In a November chapel, students, faculty and staff each painted a small square on a life-sized silhouette of a person with hands raised, like the arms of Jesus on the cross. On their way up to the auditorium’s stage, each community member was met by an Art student, who passed them a brush and a small paint pot, matched to the colour of each person’s skin, lips or hair.

Participants joined in the process of “fleshing out” the body of Christ, working together to complete the piece over the course of the chapel service. “Carrying a colour forward, approaching Jesus, each person would add their unique colour to the body of Christ,” says Prof. Phil Irish, creator and organizer of the “Body of Christ” piece.

The liturgical act of together creating a mosaic of Christ was a reminder that Redeemer not only imparts skills, information and academic knowledge, wrote Dr. Jonathan Juilfs, but is collectively “about the very literal ‘fashioning’ of the body of Christ, the building of a community that is the living image — the icon — of the invisible God, just as Jesus is the living image of God the Father.” Or, as Irish puts it, “On the cross, Jesus identifies with all that we are. In diversity, we are the body of Christ.”

Worshipping God through creative experience and through the work of an artist’s hands is a beautiful thing. Integrating art into worship, whether a Wednesday chapel or a Sunday morning service, makes for a powerful opportunity to contemplate the beauty, truth and goodness of our creator God. Through an art installation this Lent, New Life Christian Reformed Church in Guelph, Ont. has given Redeemer Art students the opportunity to share their work, along with Irish’s communally created piece, in the sanctuary. The artists will also visit New Life on April 9. The pieces, hung by New Life’s Art as Worship ministry team as the show “Imago Dei”, form part of the congregation’s reflections on the liturgical season.

The pieces not only encourage contemplation, but are the result of it. The show’s name comes from this fall’s advanced studio class. Each student artist started their work as a response to this assignment: “Some people say it is impossible to represent God, and that we shouldn’t try. Make artwork that either images God in some way, or that engages with the impossibility of doing so.” “Imago Dei” was the name given to the projects created in response. While working on their unique takes, artists Bethany Kenyon ‘18, Nicole Stadt ‘16, Jessica Johnston ‘16 and Mandy de Boer ‘17 found in their work an opportunity to consider their Creator.

“The whole process became a prayer.”

“This was more than a painting for me,” Stadt says. “The whole process became a prayer.” Having struggled with communal prayer — feeling self-conscious and fumbling for the right words — painting in the studio became a more natural way for Stadt to open up to God. Her piece for New Life is a take on the heart of God, expressed in oil paint and gold leaf. “I somehow met with God in the physical and visual work of it,” she reflects, “in my own hands painting what was to represent the God of the universe and his limitless love.”

Kenyon’s work is her reflection on the solidarity Jesus shows us in his suffering and throughout our own. She painted Jesus as the Man of Sorrows, overlapping and superimposed over an image of the Woman of Sorrows. Historically, artists have depicted Mary as the woman of sorrows, but Kenyon chose to juxtapose the Man of Sorrows with a self-portrait. “He is the one who knows,” Kenyon writes in her artist’s statement. “One who weeps. One who holds me forever. One who demands no words. One who just lets me sit and be. One who doesn’t demand wholeness or unbrokenness.”

Bethany Kenyon's studio.

New Life first hosted the work of Redeemer students in the summer of 2015, hanging the Temple Project, a collection of paintings by nine Art students. The show went on to be displayed in St. Catharines by Jubilee Christian Reformed Church and again at Flagship Gallery in downtown Hamilton.

“Moving a project from the personal into the public realm,” said Irish at the Temple Project show launch, “is a significant step for anyone wishing to shape culture and, for some of the makers here, this their first step down that road.”

In the months since, these student artists have gone on not only to participate in another show at New Life, but to create and book their own shows. Kenyon’s ambitious senior project will be exhibited at the Redeemer gallery this April. Johnston and Kenyon are also booked to show their work at B Contemporary in downtown Hamilton this June. “As our students increase their ambition and reach, it is exciting to see them moving into the downtown galleries,” says Irish. “As makers, they are claiming the road for their own, an amazing testament to their growth over the last couple of years. Their art experiences at Redeemer have set them on a course to share their creativity well beyond these walls.”

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