LOS ANGELES (RNS) — To walk into First Congregational Church of Los Angeles on a Sunday morning is to see all the trappings of the mainline Protestant denominations pundits say are dying for lack of innovation, of relevance, of connection to the world outside church walls.
There’s the robed pastor and choir, the 20,000-pipe organ playing the expected Bach interlude, the white-draped communion table set with silver goblets, the well-thumbed pew Bibles and the paper church bulletin being used as a fan by a couple of overly warm parishioners.
But step into the hall next to the main sanctuary and it’s a different story. There, the church has been transformed from 1930s Gothic-style cathedral to 21st-century art gallery, with painting, etchings, photographs, drawings, collages and prints by artists as renowned as Rembrandt van Rijn and Albrecht Durer and as obscure as the Latino neighbourhood’s young men and women, hanging side by side.
Titled “Art & Spirit,” the show features 85 works by 69 artists that showcase what is sacred to each of them. So renderings of the stations of the cross hang next to a cross composed of brain scans, and the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs above an acrylic painting of a single upholstered chair.
“The arts are a powerful way of accessing the spiritual journey,” said Rev. R. Scott Colglazier, First Congregational’s senior minister and the show’s co-curator, as he conducted a tour of the show on a Saturday. “Art and religion are both trying to help us understand the fact that none of us chose to be born, but we are here and we are all going to die and we are trying to understand everything in between. They are about the journey that we are on.”
From sanctuary to gallery
The show began with a question bounced between Colglazier and Joan Agajanian Quinn, host of “The Joan Quinn Profiles,” a locally produced syndicated television show about art. How, they asked, could they use the Shatto Chapel, a gemlike sanctuary adjacent to the main church that was constructed on the measurements of the Mayflower, to bring more art into the church and the community?
They took the question to Dan McCleary, a contemporary artist and founder of Art Division, a program that introduces underserved youth to art instruction and art history in a storefront within walking distance of the church near downtown Los Angeles.
“I just was flabbergasted when I saw the space,” said McCleary. “I was overwhelmed by how beautiful it was and I had never seen it.”
The three came up with an idea for a show that would blend works by great masters, established contemporary artists and local unknowns. It would explore the idea of what is sacred to each artist and how the sacred impacts the artists in their work and their communities.
“Everyone we asked to be in the show said yes,” McCleary said. “No one said no.”
The show took about three years to put together. It opened in February and has attracted as many as 300 people at a time, Colglazier said. The church had to take out extra insurance to secure the Rembrandt — an etching of “The Good Samaritan” — and the Durer — an engraving of “Adam and Eve” — as well as a Robert Graham bronze of Mary valued at $250,000.
In between, anything goes. There are woven tapestries of female saints by textile artist John Nava and an abstract acrylic by student artist Alex Gonzales. There is a black-and-white photograph titled “Praise Dance, 2005” by Rick Nahmias and another of a solitary person in profile, perhaps in prayer, against a venetian blind by student Luis Hernandez. That last one hangs within spitting distance of the Rembrandt and the Durer.
Colglazier, who conducts tours of the art on Sundays, said he hoped the show would open up for viewers a sense of what he calls “God consciousness” — a sense of the interconnectedness of all people to something greater than themselves.
“Anytime you are in the presence of something beautiful, you are in the presence of the creative God,” he said.
Secular and sacred
If there is a star of the show it is “Taquito,” a rainbow-hued acrylic of a Chihuahua who gazes straight at the viewer, his tail pointed like an arrow, his tongue lolling in a goofy grin. The artist, Alfredo Alvarado, 19, said he was inspired by a figurine of a dog licking its owner he saw during a trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“It reminded me how my dog interacts with me and how loving it is between us,” Alvarado said, taking a break from some algebra homework to explain what is sacred about “Taquito.” “It was seeing that relationship embodied in the past that made me realize I am part of this greater connection of relationships, that this relationship I have with my dog is very universal.”
Alvarado who was reared Catholic, described himself as not religious — a description McCleary says fits the majority of the students in the show. Some of their work on display in the church is overtly secular — even atheistic. Jeff Wagner’s pen-and-ink asks, “God, are you there?” and Guillermo Perez’s untitled print includes the words, “I was never taught to believe.”
Other works are religious, but not Christian — two watercolours of Buddhas, a photograph of a woman as the goddess Shiva and a painting of a pagan goddess. Non-Christian faiths and religious doubt have a place in the show, Colglazier said, because they also have a place at First Congregational.
“My perspective is God is bigger than any one religion, including the Christian religion,” Colglazier said.
The work Colglazier most enjoys discussing during tours is another secular piece, “Walt Disney Concert Hall Chair #4” by student artist Robert Ortiz. Ortiz works as an usher at Disney Hall and his rendition of one of its seats against a white backdrop has a prominent spot left of the altar, high above the chapel’s organ.
“Yes, it is a pretty picture of a chair, but it takes you to the religious significance of sitting, a religious practice to open up consciousness,” Colglazier said. “That makes me think of Quakerism, where you sit and wait upon the Lord. It reminds you to be in touch with a different perspective of life. This is one of the great values of art.”
Colglzier, who has written about religion and literature, especially poetry, wants people in the church and in the community beyond to see that perspective in the show’s artworks.
“What this exhibit does is remind us the sacred is found in the ordinary and that all things, given the right light, have the ability to shine — whether it is a dog or a chair or a flower or a flying pig. I like that. I think if I understand anything at all about Jesus Christ it is that he was constantly pointing people to the ordinary things of life. He said, ‘Consider the lilies.’ Because it is the ordinary that breaks open to the extraordinary.”
One Sunday in early April, Deanna Wilcox, a First Congregational member for 25 years, walked among the art before the service in which she would read the day’s Scripture lesson. She had toured the art before but was drawn back for a moment of quiet contemplation.
“I wanted to spend some time with it,” she said. “There are so many things that are stunning about it for me. It isn’t about the attribution of the work — which work is whose. It is the substance of the work, that I could just let it sink in.”