Not quite two months later in mid-March, the pandemic closed the church.
That was the first of a pile of disappointments the coming year would bring.
Online worship was difficult for me. After the first month, I found my attention waning. I sat on the couch to watch the sermon but for the other parts of the service, I was content to listen while I baked in the kitchen or worked on a small piece of quilting.
I missed feeling the energy of people coming together to sing and praise God and hear God’s word proclaimed. Through this strange absence, I realized more than ever the importance of place. The gifts of sitting in a sanctuary, looking at stained glass windows lining the walls, lighting a candle after the service, noting the art at the entrance, all these things helped frame and open my heart to receive God.
In February 2021, I received another email, with “Artist of the Month for March/April “ in the subject line. These words were the first expression of hope that somehow things were getting back to normal. My reply was quick as I again assessed what I could bring to the gallery, thankful I had used the past year to finish projects and explore new interests.
A few days before the church opened, I hauled my collection of art in bags and boxes to the gallery.
Walking up the stairs, I was surprised when I felt tears come. I am not one to cry easily. My heart felt relief as the anxiety of the past year was slowly ebbing.
Sorting the framed pieces of art on a large table in the middle of the gallery, I noticed the bare, burnt orange walls and the black chains suspended from the ceiling waiting to hold frames. Silence surrounded me while I worked to arrange my work in a place I was still getting used to after being away for a year.
I wondered who would come to the gallery in the coming days. Would wearing a mask or fear of catching the virus keep people away? Although the vaccine had been available since January, many were wary of receiving this protection. Would the unvaccinated stay home to protect others?
All of these thoughts went through my head as I placed each picture at the end of the chain.
Although my art has been featured in many public galleries, I am especially honored when I am the artist of the month at my church. What I create comes from God, and completing art is a way for me to pray. Bringing my art to church is a way to thank God for God’s goodness and provision to express what comes from my heart. Almost like putting an offering on the altar, this act helps me show my appreciation for the way God has enabled me to express in art what I find difficult to put into words.
In the past when I was artist of the month, I provided light refreshments for a reception after the second service. A large sign on the first floor, bulletin, and screen notices invited people to the second floor. I discovered however, reopening a church in the middle of a pandemic greatly altered publicity for the art show.
The primary focus of communications was understandably directed to the wellness of people returning to church. Health and safety information had greater visibility. Signs scattered throughout the building reminded attendees to wear a mask, keep a safe distance from others, use hand sanitizer, and exit quickly when the service ended.
At first I was disturbed that no one knew about the newly refreshed artist of the month gallery. I always looked forward to watching people interact and respond to what I have made. Seeing fingers point to particular parts of framed pieces always makes me want to get into their minds and learn what they are thinking. I wonder what has caught their eye? How has what I made connected to something in their life or illustrated an idea or challenge they might have needed some form to express? What have I given them to take away from their interaction with my art?
With no publicity for the gallery, these treasured encounters were not possible.
My concern led me to contact the church staff member responsible for the art show. She explained how the use of screen notices was currently limited to essential information. No paper bulletins were being printed in order to minimize hand contact. Although the coordinator of the gallery had tried to get the usual publicity, she was not successful.
I was disappointed.
As the weeks progressed with no publicity Sunday after Sunday, my disappointment only grew. What good did it do to have my art on display when there was no one there to see it. I missed out on the fun of talking to those who came by, answering occasional questions, and receiving their appreciation for my work. Art is meant to be shared. Without people there to respond to the work, it was almost like having icing removed from a birthday cake .
With emotions piling up, I realized I needed to step back and reflect on the meaning of being artist of the month, set aside my ego, and consider that my art might not be interacting with people, but with God during the time on the church gallery walls.
I began to imagine how my art heard the music and messages of seven Sunday services including the joy of Easter; the mourning of funerals in the sanctuary; celebrations of weddings long delayed; silent prayers from those who came individually during the week to sit with God in an empty sanctuary; and the music from the organist and choir practicing each week.
The work that I brought had received all of the holiness of what happened on Sundays and throughout each week.
When I picked up my art at the end of April, each piece seemed to feel a little weightier, filled with God’s presence.
The past year and a half have necessitated many shifts in normal routines of daily living as well as special events. In your challenges, how have you re-framed your perspective and seen your disappointments in a new way?