February 19 2010

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.”