Washington Post article
November 30, 1991

Russians Embrace Christian Art

Washington Group Sponsoring Festival in St. Petersburg to Aid Orphans There

by Carey Kinsolving

A Washington-based group of Christian artists is responding to an official plea from St. Petersburg, Russia – the intellectual center of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution – to help care for its orphans.

And so, for the first time in this century, a major cultural city will formally be host of a Christian art festival, according to Jerry Eisley, director of the Washington Arts Group and owner of a Washington art gallery.

The art group and the Academy of Christian Art in Canada are sponsoring the First International Christian Arts Festival in St. Petersburg from Dec. 31 to Jan. 7. St. Petersburg’s city council has designated funds raised through the festival to aid its orphans.

“The festival title, ‘Sacred Fire,’ is a call to God’s people to establish and affirm a growing movement of artists around the world who lift up their art and beauty and holiness to God,” Eisley said.

“The lie in the art world as well as in politics was that God had died and we must therefore resort to our own spiritual resources,” he said.

St. Petersburg, which has reclaimed its old name after being known during communist rule as Leningrad, is home of the world’s largest repository of art. The Hermitage has more than 5 million works of art. The Russian czars built the collection over many decades.

On a recent visit, Eisley said, his senses were overwhelmed after spending an hour in a room of Rembrandts.

Eisley and other artists traveling to St. Petersburg also want to pay tribute to the courage of artists in the Soviet Union. Many of them continued to paint while suffering communist persecution.

“I want to learn from them,” said Bruce Herman, an art professor at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. “Honestly, I feel I’m going over there as a student,” Herman is one of the artists who will exhibit works in St. Petersburg.

Herman said there is a reason American art dealers now look to Russian artists for new vitality.

Living under repression has given Russian artists a sense of community and meaning, he said. Conversely, American artists suffer from the gradual erosion of meaning.

“The art world has largely run out of gas,” Herman said. “It’s pretty clear even to the art historians and critics that artists have largely lost their nerve. The simple message of the pursuit of truth has been lost, and that’s what the Soviet artists have regained.”

Herman views the biblical tradition as a treasury waiting to be unpacked.

“We don’t have to be scraping the pavements for meaning,” but he quickly acknowledged, “I’m not going to bully someone into what I believe. I just want to have a chance to put my case forward.”

Herman sees himself engaging in the great conversation of the ages, which involves ideas about culture, meaning and purpose. But to participate in a dialogue, he said, he must stand in a tradition.

About 60 people listened intently at a gathering sponsored by the Washington Arts Group as Herman lamented the plight of educated people who try to understand modern art.

He said many artists are like people of ancient Babylon who tried to make a name for themselves when they built the tower of Babel. He carried the analogy even further by saying that many artists are speaking a private language that cuts off any possibility of communication, similar to the confusion of languages at Babel.

“A lot of people are suspicious of artists because they feel like it’s an ‘in’ crowd gathering that they are not invited to,” Herman said.

Instead of painting to please the critics, Herman said, his paintings are offerings to Jesus Christ.

“Our whole activity as artists is predicated on the idea that if Christ can say ‘well done,’ if he’s pleased with what we are doing, then we’re succeeding.”

Washington Post article
November 16, 1991

Seminarians Learn to Mix Art, Religion

Wesley Is Nation’s First With Required Courses

by Carey Kinsolving

For some, art and religion exist at polar extremes – never to meet. But at Washington’s Wesley Theological Seminary, seminarians are learning that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Instead, they are learning that the creative process that becomes a painting or sculpture is not unlike the daily struggle of living by faith.

Catherine Kapikian, director of the Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley, is one of the leading proponents of artistic expression within Christendom.

“I think there is radical isolation today between the arts community and the religious community,” she said. “I think that is very unhealthy because I view them as siblings.”

Through Kapikian’s passionate persistence, Wesley’s theological degree programs are the first in this country to require art courses.

Course titles such as “Contemplative Drawing: A Journey to the Fuller Self” attempt to combine the spiritual and the esthetic in a way that challenges students to make connections between exploring the unknown in the creative process and living by faith.

Kapikian views both as high-risk ventures.

And she impresses upon her students the importance of the creative process as much as the final product of their work.

Her courses introduce theological students to a non-verbal vocabulary of art that is as alien to them as when they first encounter Greek or Hebrew.

The Christian faith, for Kapikian, is similar to the creative process – always daring, challenging and engaging.

She said a blank canvas often is a source of terror to her. It takes a radical leap of faith to encounter the unknown with confidence that solutions will come.

“Those of us who do live by faith know that it’s the genius of life reverberating with new possibility, and our responsibility is to engage in it,” she said.

In 1979, the year of her graduation from Wesley, Kapikian sent the administration a one-page proposal for an art studio and an artist-in-residence program.

She said she felt her theological education had been “truncated” and she wanted to enrich the curriculum by starting an art program.

After the administration rejected her idea, it reversed itself, and Kapikian began what she calls her art-ministry. Thus, the Center for the Arts and Religion was born.

Kapikian instituted an open-door policy so that skeptical, left-brained (analytical side of the brain) theologians could come to the art studio at any time to explore the world of the right-brainers.

The sign that hung outside her door said it all: “An artist is not a special kind of person. Every person is a special kind of artist.”

Kapikian’s engaging personality and enthusiasm has led to converts.

One of them is freshman Eric Geigrich. An interest in theology brought him to Wesley, but a love for art is leading him into an art-ministry.

“I want to design retreats, workshops and seminars, and put traditional theology and the arts in dialogue,” Geigrich said.

Another convert is Constance Laundon Pierce, who now serves as curator for the art gallery on Wesley’s campus, Dadian Gallery, which opened in 1989.

Pierce said she read a magazine article about Kapikian and sensed that she had found a kindred spirit. Pierce left her faculty position at the Cleveland Institute of Art and accepted a one-year artist-in-residency fellowship at Wesley’s center.

When the curator’s position opened, Pierce applied and was selected for the job. The exhibit showing through Nov. 22, “Wrestling With the Angel: Trials and Tribulation,” represents her fist exhibit since being appointed curator earlier this year.

Pierce said she’s especially proud to display two works by well-known abstract expressionist Grace Hartigan. Washington printmaker Susan Due Pearcy has seven pieces in the exhibit.

Pierce draws an analogy between the struggle artists encounter in the creative process and the biblical patriarch Jacob’s struggle with the angel: “Alone in the studio, the artist may approach the unfinished work like Jacob wrestling with the angel: ‘I will not let you go till you bless me.’”

When one surveys the strong link between Christianity and the arts beginning in the 4th century, it seems a bit strange to talk about the uniqueness of an art program associated with a Protestant seminary.

Art historian Thomas Howard has provided sound theological reasoning for the link:

“The very foundations of Christianity are the doctrines of creation and incarnation. It is inevitable that Christianity should robustly celebrate human flesh, created in the image of God, made the habitation of the incarnate God, and redeemed for the vision of God at last.”