Across the UCC: Creating artwork deepens UCC members? faith

Across the UCC: Creating artwork deepens UCC members? faith

December 31, 2002
Written by Staff Reports

Carol L. Pavlik
Whether in church groups, sanctuary or the heart of members find that as expressions of the soul.

A story of hope and faith is unfolding before a community?s eyes as City Vision, an artistic collaboration, takes shape in a low-income neighborhood in North Philadelphia.

City Vision is the dream of the Rev. Susan Teegan-Case, director of the Arts and Spirituality Center (sponsored by Tabernacle United Church, a UCC and Presbyterian USA congregation in Philadelphia). Teegen-Case, along with artist Lynn Denton, brought the plan to realization through a collaborative effort between New Jerusalem Now (a residential addiction recovery program in North Philadelphia) and neighborhood children.

The "Spiral Picnic" and "Cosmic Couch" stand ready to receive visitors. Lynn Denton photo.
The first phase of City Vision resulted in a three-story ceramic tile mosaic mural, "Recovering World," which was installed and dedicated in 2001. Inspired by their own personal stories, community members of New Jerusalem Now designed the patchwork of 12 brightly colored panels reflecting images of their journey through addiction and recovery. The mural was mounted on a brick wall of the side of a home maintained by Jerusalem Now.

By the time the second phase began taking shape in the summer of 2002, Teegen-Case and Denton knew that the artistic process had to be reorganized to include the curious neighborhood children. "Garden for a Recovering World" includes two features: "Spiral Picnic," a playful table decked out with imaginary food dreamed up by the children, and the "Cosmic Couch," a huge mosaic couch designed by the adults of New Jerusalem Now.

The City Vision works are located in a neighborhood where an estimated 70 percent of the population is addicted to drugs or alcohol, so vandalism was a worry to Teegen-Case, Denton and the participants. Scaffolding was stolen a few times, prompting the artists to put up and take down the scaffolding each day—an enormous job.

But even the threat of vandalism provided a powerful metaphor for recovery.

"It was a turning point," says Teegen-Case. "It helped a lot of the participants reflect on making the connection with their recovery. Nothing was going to get in their way."

Once the children got involved last summer, all vandalism stopped. "Not even one rock was moved," marvels Teegen-Case.

Funding for the project came from Tabernacle United Church, the Samuel S. Fels Fund, the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation and other community and religious groups.

Videographers Sloan Seale and Dorothea Bramer recorded the project for documentaries aired on Philadelphia public television.

Denton says that City Vision attracts all kinds of attention. People have fallen in love with it, she says. "The children are very proud, and the adults, too."

Denton says that the permanence of the structure means that participants will be able to bring their children and grandchildren to the site.

"Now it?s this incredible and inspiring gathering place that?s been turned over for community use and enjoyment," adds Teegen-Case. "It represents all these people from many walks of life coming together and collaborating on the same thing. It?s a wonderful story of hope."

Pottery symbolizes spiritual journeys

Jennifer Seydel, a member of Shenandoah (Iowa) Congregational UCC, has combined her background in outdoor education with her love of pottery to develop a series of workshops entitled Woman Earth: Soul and Pottery Making for Women.

The workshops, spread over seven sessions, take women through a hands-on spiritual journey, one that intertwines ritual and scripture with the creation of pots using native clay. While Seydel leads the women through the entire process of creating the pots—from digging up the clay to building the kiln or fire pit—she talks about the interconnectedness of the earth and the feminine aspects of God and the earth, comparing women to vessels in their capacity as mothers, community leaders and teachers.

By the fifth session, the women are ready to decorate their pots in a session called "Traces of the Soul." Many participants apply Christian symbols to their pots or symbols indicating their career and family.

When the pots are ready to be fired, the women gather for a great feast and overnight celebration. By morning, the pots are finished—that is, the ones that survived the intense heat of the fire. (Seydel notes that up to 50 percent of the pots can be lost in pit firing. Because of this, she offers participants the option of "bisque firing," a method which ensures that the pots will survive.)

"The ?Tested By Fire? seminar is symbolic of what our faith goes through," says Seydel. "Each time we learn something new about ourselves, or realize a belief that we had may not be firm or representative of who Jesus was, it?s a challenge we go through. When we make a change in our belief system, it?s tested by fire."

Though busy schedules usually dictate that the Woman Earth seminars take place in weekly sessions, Seydel has visions of someday doing her seminars as a seven-day encampment.

"I think it would be great to take women out in canoes to a clay deposit!" she laughs. Seydel also is looking forward to someday leading a coed seminar.

Seydel says she enjoys working closely with women from other UCC churches. For each group, she tries to tailor the seminar to match the comfort level and experiences of each particular women?s group.

"It?s a great community building process," she says. "And the metaphor of the spiritual journey is just phenomenal. The sharing that can occur through the process is wonderful."

 From left: Scott Hunt, Ross Hawkins and his son, Kayshawn Hawkins, examine the Noah?s Ark woodcarving. Hunt is the grandson of Emil Fries, in whose memory the woodcarving was given to First Congregational UCC in Vancouver, Wash. Ross Hawkins is the nephew of Wilda Fries, Emil?s widow. Ed Evans photo.
Shapes and hues of wood tell story of Noah

First Congregational UCC in Vancouver, Wash., is known as "The Ark on the Hill," referring to the dramatic sloping roof that makes an imposing silhouette against the sky. Inside the church, Noah?s Ark artwork continues the theme. But one work stands out. Just to the right of the lectern in the sanctuary is "Noah?s Ark," a woodcarving done by Oregon artist Duane Taylor.

Using the technique called "intarsia," Taylor pieced together 634 pieces of wood to create a dazzling effect. No paints or stains are used. The piece takes shape through Taylor?s skilled carving and the rich colors and textures of the natural woods with equally colorful names. Huckleberry, Red Oak, Butternut, Rosewood and Canarywood are just some of the 24 species of woods used in the carving.

What makes the Noah?s Ark carving even more special, says the Rev. Ed Evans, is that the piece is a memorial gift, in memory of lifelong church member Emil Fries. Fries taught piano repair for many years at the Vancouver School for the Blind.

"The Noah?s Ark piece is hung low, so people are encouraged to touch and feel it and get a sense of it," explains Evans. "That is especially in honor of Emil because he was blind. His whole world was being able to touch things."

The congregation has since acquired two more intarsia pieces by Duane Taylor. One is a six-foot figure of Jesus, standing with hands outstretched. The other is of the lion and the lamb.

Rug meets with approval of children

Befitting the sanctuary?s contemporary architecture, Congregational UCC of Huntington in Centerport, N.Y., found an artistic, yet practical, way to use memorial funds.

Each week, the children and the Rev. Mark Bigelow would gather in front of the communion table for the children?s sermon. Bigelow noted that the floor, especially in winter, was cold and uncomfortable for sitting.

So in memory of church member William Frost, with an approving nod from Frost?s widow, Wilda, the church purchased a large area rug. The rug?s cubist design is based on an oil painting in the Guggenheim museum.

Bigelow says not everyone liked it at first—the design is abstract and very unusual—but the true test was asking the opinion of the children. One child thought the lines, circles and squiggles looked like music. Others saw a railroad track, the sun, a cross.

To the delight of everyone, second grader Rudy Haluza, fresh from studying modern art in school, said confidently, "It looks cubist to me!"

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