Illumination of the Washington National Cathedral by Gerry Hofstetter
'Transforming Worship Spaces' Text by Joan Huyser-Honig
Transforming Worship Spaces
Congregations often create their own visual art for temporary uses, such as for a single service, sermon series, or liturgical season. Yet congregations can also handle large permanent projects—if they understand how art, artists, and church communities work together.
In her new book, Art in Service of the Sacred, Catherine Kapikian describes how creating visual art together helps churches build community and deepen worship. Kapikian teaches required visual arts courses to seminarians and directs The Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
Pinpoint the change you seek
When churches commission Kapikian, she worships with them, meditates in their worship space, and asks why they’ve called her. “I listen for the felt need internal to the community. What’s most important is finding out what they want to change,” she explains. Like many historic churches, Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist in Washington, D.C. had a dossal cloth (a.k.a. reredos) on the wall behind the altar. When removed for cleaning, the dusty brocaded velvet disintegrated. So the church’s felt need was to replace it. Other churches have asked Kapikian to help them refresh a sanctuary wall without removing a donated cross…to symbolize a new congregational purpose…to visually warm a stonewalled sanctuary…or to correct a spatial imbalance.
Despite her artistic and teaching credentials, Kapikian never takes over. “Every congregation has informal leaders. There are always at least one or two people who understand dynamic process and know how to communicate through nonverbal means,” she says. Whether congregations choose projects that require drawing, needlework, carpentry, or technology skills, leaders emerge. Kapikian also looks for members who are good at organizing. “There’s always someone in church who knows a lot about the art required and decides to run the project. Thank God for that,” she says.
Educate to build momentum
Kapikian teaches church leaders—both pastors and art committee members—how to “read” their worship space. She describes the nuances of art product and art process. “Creating art in community is like an iceberg. The 75 percent you don’t see (the process) underlies the 25 percent you do see (the product),” she says. She waits to suggest design solutions until the congregation has given informed views on what’s important. When the congregation settles on the visual arts project, Kapikian designs—with their input—and encourages them to take over as much of the fabrication as possible. Churches often run classes on how to draw designs on canvas, sew, cut, build, or whatever. While embroidering panels to replace their 10-by-25-foot dossal cloth, Metropolitan Memorial sometimes cleared tables after the fellowship hour, spread out panels, and invited children to add stitches (under supervision). Meanwhile, some members prepared bulletin inserts to explain the symbols in the needlework while others built scaffolds and figured out the optimum panel widths for vertical hanging. “People go home and tell their family and friends. It starts a momentum. People far from church, spiritually, ask to help. The spiritual dimensions of the design take hold and some start attending worship,” she says. Completing a visual arts project often takes a few years—which also helps build community. Afterwards, people remember which panel or banner or cushion they worked on. The power of this experience explains why Kapikian also advises churches to eventually replace art. “Every generation or two needs to recreate its visual proclamation,” she says.
Integrate art into the worship space
Throughout any project, Kapikian helps people see how to do art in service of the sacred. “I as an artist do not feel that this space is an arena for my private projection. The art has to amplify, not compete with, what’s already in the sanctuary. And although the symbolic content is usually given forth in an abstract way, it’s still accessible and readable,” she says. When Abiding Presence Lutheran Church built a new sanctuary in Beltsville, Maryland, Kapikian helped them design kneeling cushions to line the communion rails. The cushions use the ideas of transparency—seeing one scene through another in the salvation story—and water. She says the design is not immediately apparent, but worshipers see how the design flows from watery chaos to flood, exodus, and beyond.
"As we kneel we see God's plan of salvation and his abiding presence with us. Embroidering the cushions was a labor of love. One of our members, a cartographer, counted every stitch he took. He said a standard rectangle took 176,000 stitches," says Pastor Art Hebbeler. Oddly enough, during hard storms, the roof leaks—but only next to the Noah's ark cushion. Rather than repair the rain-stained section of communion rail, Abiding Presence has decided to see the stains as another mark of God's presence, Hebbeler says. Its sanctuary placement of entrances, pulpit, and organ created visual imbalance at Westminster Presbyterian, a fast-growing church in Greensboro, North Carolina. They went with Kapikian’s suggestion to construct a wooden form, opposite the organ, that mimics organ pipes’ lines and silver paint. Each liturgical season people hang a different set of banners from the structure. “Westminster chose the ancient form of the circle to symbolize our engagement with the divine. So the Advent banners are about the inbreaking of God’s Spirit. Christmas shows the earthly and spiritual realms colliding in Christ’s birth,” Kapikian says.
The article 'Transforming Worship Spaces' was first published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship,
About the Images For three memorable nights in May, Swiss lighting artist Gerry Hofstetter brought his artistry to Washington National Cathedral for a spectacular exterior illumination of the south and west sides, in celebration of the Cathedral’s centennial. Numerous vivid images were projected directly on the Cathedral sunset to midnight on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, illustrating its mission of reconciliation, spotlighting its role as a spiritual beacon for the nation, and proclaiming hope for all humankind. Text and Images courtesy Washington National Cathedral. Learn more>