A Report of the Festival of Theology and the Visual Arts

by Lin Su-Chi

Graduate Theological Union Art & Religion Doctoral Student, and CARE Fall 2015 Grant Recipient

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Entrance of the CIVA Conference Hall at Calvin College, Michigan June 11, 2015

It was an absolute pleasure to be able to attend the 2015 biennial conference, Between Two Worlds: Contemporary Art and the Church. It provided me with the opportunity to present my paper entitled “The Man of Grace: Rembrandt’s Portraits of Individual as Saints.” It was also my first time to attend a CIVA conference and I was pleasantly surprised to see so many artists, curators, ministers, church leaders, art educators, and scholars from various fields and from all over the United States. This festival of the visual arts and theology took place at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, hosted by Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) from June11-14, 2015. The visual sign of the conference we saw in the center of this photo is very creative. It is the overlap of two circles in black brush strokes on the red background, signifying the unity of visual arts and the church. There were three major events in CIVA conference: workshops, exhibitions, and several seminars organized around different themes, such as Arts ministry, theology and the visual arts.

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Reception table of the conference, Covenant Fine Arts Center, Calvin College

The middle part of the photo is the CIVA artists’ group exhibition located in the Fine Arts Center Art Gallery. Clearly, here is a significant resource for the Church’s inward growth and outward mission which we have been neglecting. Many Christian artists came to the CIVA conference to share their hopes and struggles of using art to express their faith. For example, church leaders and artists came to share their experiences of creating art ministry of different kinds for the purpose of church work. Art curators came to share how they provide for churches a gallery space of exhibition. Fortunately there has been a revival of artistic engagement with theology in both the scholarly field and in church circles.

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Beautiful installation hung on the ceiling of the entrance hall, Covenant of Fine Arts, Calvin College

As an artist, art educator and young scholar studying the relationship of art and religion, I truly appreciated this precious opportunity to interact with like-minded peers that I cannot easily find elsewhere. There were also workshops for Christian artists to practice using art to express their faith and to learn from each other how to use art as inspiration in meditative practice. However, the conference schedule was so tight that I could only attend a few sessions that focused on theology and the visual arts.

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Rembrandt van Rijn, The Apostle Paul, 1657, oil on canvas, 51.1 x 41.1 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection

The paper that I presented in the track of theology and the visual arts at CIVA was on how does the visual effect upon the viewer of Rembrandt’s The Apostle Paul (1657) convey theological expression? The research is methodologically based on the formal analysis of images through the lens of Protestantism. I used the spatial relation, symbols, and narrations as the starting points to study this seventeenth century portraiture. The paper I presented is significantly tied in with my dissertation research on theological imagination and reflects my interest in bridging the gap between the arts and the church in Protestant Christianity. Meanwhile, I also learned from my peer presenters their theological engagement of contemporary art from different perspectives. For example, the ritual aspect of performance art, the visual arts utilized in liturgical space, and the photography and installation displayed in the church setting. I then had fruitful exchanges with several scholars and young researchers who work in the same field.

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Presentation on Theology and the Visual Arts

The conference was so meaningful both for my experience of scholarly presentation and for my personal growth. The conference demonstrated for me how the contemporary art can be utilized wisely in the church and become the primary sources of doing theology. We also learn to think critically on the challenge of it. In addition, the conference provides a fertile ground for networking among enthusiastic participants from different fields of arts and the church. I still remember that one member told me that at CIVA we don’t have to worry about how to introduce ourselves and tell others who we are. It seems that people who have never met before, can without difficulty communicate what they are thinking and doing.

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Critical response to Ben Quash’s Found Theology, the conversation with plenary speakers- chaired by Taylor Worley

After the conference I have been able to have conversations with several amazing people from different places. Indeed, each person I met had a great story to tell. They are the young artists who are excited to start a full time job and use their artistic talents for the sake of the church. They are church leaders who are interested in “outreach” to the neighborhoods they serve by using art in their ministry. They are a group of church workers who know how to incorporate into their ministry, the resources of an art museum located next to their church. They are enthusiastic editors of a theology and the arts magazine. There were also pastors who shared how they developed an art studio for people in need, and there were other young scholar, such as myself, who are struggling alone in this journey of pursuing the work of integrating the arts and theology.

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Panel conversation on contemporary art in the local church in the Covenant Fine Art Center auditorium: Marianne Lettieri (moderator), Debbie Kizer. Betsy Halstead, Michael Winters, and Scott Erickson

Finally, thinking about the four days that I spent in Calvin College, I now realise that I couldn’t be more grateful for the grant that the Center for the Arts, Religion, and Education (CARE) had offered to me. Thus, I would once again like to express my gratitude to the board members of CARE. I hope that in the future, other students can continue to benefit from this generous and rewarding grant. It was my great pleasure to be part of the CIVA conference and the CARE within the community of the Graduate Theological Union of Berkeley.