Interview with Bruce Herman
Part 2: Christians in the Visual Arts
BH: It's been at Gordon almost ten years now. It has its offices there. It's not affiliated with Gordon in any special way any more than it is with another college, it just happens to have its offices there. We're happy to have them there. We've had students serve as interns in the office from time to time. And I recently accepted a position on the board of CIVA a couple years ago, so I’m now on the board, but I wasn't on the board for most of the time that they've had their office there.
IA: As I understand it, CIVA's mission—well, it has several missions. It's to provide spaces for artists to show in, to have exhibits and traveling shows, and so forth. But also when it began, it was trying to fill a gap, that visual artists felt like they didn't fit in either world: that they didn't fit in the Church because the Church was so uncomfortable with the visual arts, but that they didn't fit in the mainstream world because they were “too religious.” Is that true that this is one of the dilemmas CIVA saw when it began?
BH: Oh, definitely. I think that's still true to some extent, but I think a lot of younger artists who are Christians now-a-days may not feel that double alienation, that double homelessness that some of us felt back in the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Partly that's because the whole concept of Christians in the Arts has gotten more sophisticated. For example, you can be a member of CIVA, Christians in the Visual Arts, and not necessarily be making religious art, or quote-unquote “Christian art”: you're just making art. And you're also a committed Christian. I think many of CIVA's members early on may have felt particularly drawn to the sacred art tradition and wanting to make religious art or make imagery that had some specific contribution to make relative to religious symbolism or the Bible or their Christian faith, and for that reason they found a kind of a cold shoulder in the art world. I think the art world is just as cold today as it was back then to very obvious Christian imagery. I don't think they're any more hospitable now than they were 20 or 30 years ago; I just think a lot of Christian artists have a different emphasis in their work. They're not particularly interested in the sacred art tradition or making religious paintings. Whereas, I’ll speak for myself, I still am very committed to that. That is my main interest as a painter, is to try to get at that, to participate in some way in that tradition, in that conversation with Fra Angelico, with Piero della Francesca, with Michelangelo, with Reubens, with Rembrandt, with Durer, all those artists who hundreds of years ago were making sacred art.
The difference, of course, is that in our day and age, I don't really have a job [as a painter]: the Church hasn't employed me to do this. The Church employed someone like Michelangelo or da Vinci. So it's a little bit different. That's a question that comes up a lot: “Why are you doing these religious paintings if no church is buying them or commissioning you to do them?” I’m not sure that I have a really clear rationale, other than that I feel compelled to.
BH: I think that's unquestionably true. And in a lot of ways, thanks to CIVA. One thing that that CIVA has done really well is beginning to familiarize Protestant and Evangelical Christians with art and the possibilities of visual art for worship and for inclusion in the life of the church. A lot of churches have art galleries now; lots of churches have art galleries and have regular rotating art exhibits. Many churches, but probably not as many as have galleries, incorporate visual art into their worship now. There have been a number of books written about this, and you are probably familiar with them, but I think CIVA has played a pivotal role in informing the Evangelical community anyway, and warming them up to visual arts.
Here are a few examples of such books:
Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch
Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts by Jeremy Begbie
For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts by W. David O. Taylor
detail from "Betrothed"
BH: No, actually. Nothing of mine has become a permanent installation anywhere. I have one very large, ambitious project of eight 11-foot tall vertical triptychs for the Lanesville Congregational Church here in my hometown in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I worked on those over a two-and-a-half year period, collaborating with a Bible scholar who at that time was the pastor of that church. His name is Gordon Hugenberger; he's now the senior minster at Park Street Church in Boston. At the time, he was the pastor of this church and I collaborated with him on that project. Those paintings were up for probably 3 or 4 years and then they were taken down. They were put up again for about 6 or 8 months and then they were taken down again, and they are not up at the moment. In fact, they are not going to be up; the church has decided not to install them again.
The Lanesville Installation
That was the longest, I think. I have these other large paintings called Magnificat, the Mary paintings. Those were up for 2 ½ years in a chapel in Orveito, Italy, in the monastery of San Paolo, which is the home base campus for the Gordon College in Italy program. Those paintings are now sitting in crates, here in the States. They're going to be exhibited again this fall, 2011, in Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. And then they’ll be exhibited again at the College of the Ozarks next winter. But other than that, they haven't got a permanent home. They're just being exhibited.
installation of part of the "Magnificat" series
IA: With either of those, or especially with the Lanesville Church, were the paintings incorporated into the worship service directly when they were there? Was there a sermon series around them, or was there discussion around them in the worship service?
BH: Yes. There was an ongoing sermon series, I think it was 20 sermons, on the book of Judges, then the book of Exodus. The actual theme to this series was “Christ in the Old Testament,” in other words, pre-incarnational manifestations of Christ, or adumbrations of the Messiah in the book of Judges and the book of Exodus.
IA: That's beautiful! I wish I would see more of that, that churches would continue to incorporate art like that. But they are, more and more.