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Paintings of light

St. James liturgical art experiment brings new meaning to Advent

By Jessica Connor

SPARTANBURG —One United Methodist church in the Upstate gave virtual free reign in its worship space to a Christian abstract artist, and the result was a powerful and transformative Advent journey for its members and pastor.

St. James UMC, Spartanburg, uses a communal fellowship hall each Sunday for its thriving contemporary service, but the room has some design challenges: it s small with brown walls, a low ceiling and concrete block construction ”what artist Scott Neely calls humble and utilitarian. 

In preparation for a room makeover, St. James pastor the Rev. Chris Barrett thought it might be interesting to use the space as a liturgical art experiment during Advent. With a nod from the congregation, Barrett approached his friend Neely, a Presbyterian pastoral executive and abstract painter who creates what he calls visual poetry  in the Upstate.

Pulling from the various coexisting elements in the room ”the sacred space of what was once the main sanctuary, the practical community space of the fellowship hall and a beautiful, simple stained glass window ”Neely created an Advent journey through a series of paintings installed week after week, slowly building the room from a bare sense of waiting into a joyous, light-filled time of full arrival.

The paintings added so much to the Advent season at St. James,  said church member Jana Brunken. Inspired by the season of waiting, we began with a bare room emptied except for the essentials. The congregation waited to see what he would add each week, knowing that we were watching something amazing come to life before our eyes. With raw canvas, paints and his artistic eye, Scott transformed this sacred space that we re so familiar with, bringing warmth, color and energy. The light of Christmas now shines forth from the walls of the worship space, inspiring each of us to bring this light out into the world. 

Neely said the stained glass window was striking to him and served as the catalyst for the experiment.

Particularly in the afternoons, the light just floods through (the glass) and it s very beautiful, with four basic colors, red, yellow green and blue ”a presence that speaks of worship,  Neely said.

He decided to draw light from the stained glass window into the room and bring the warmth of the room out. The paintings unfolded week after week with a different installment, going from bare walls and a stripped-down room to the finale: a room awash in color, warmth and light that illuminated the full meaning of Christmas.

The paintings are meant to invoke some of the glory and high liturgy of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons, (reflecting) a light that is rough and human ”not abstract, and not polished, but a light that suffers and experienced all that human life involves,  Neely explained.

The paintings are very large ”9 by 7 feet each ”but intentionally unframed, essentially capturing sacred beauty and imperfect humanity that is the cornerstone of Christian faith.

The edges are rough, there are clots and splatterings of paint, there are frayed edges, the canvas itself was rough, so the texture of life and the physicality of the materials are meant to retain all the humility of the materials and the physical presence,  Neely said.

Barrett said the paintings helped him experience a more dynamic sense of movement as the congregation journeyed from Advent toward Epiphany.

From the first week of Advent, when he removed every element of color and texture from the space, to Epiphany Sunday, when his banners glowed in gold and blared out bright color, there was a progression from darkness toward light, from the predictable to the playful, from the drab to the colorful,  Barrett said.

Church member Amy Heffernan, who said she normally does not relate to abstract art, said she was extremely moved by the finished product.

The paintings create more warmth in our worship space and, more importantly to me, I feel God s light all around the room. There s a certain glow the paintings project, with each one having its own personality,  Heffernan said.

Member Jane Easley said the liturgical art brought much meaning to her Advent experience.

The idea of visual art as a spiritual conduit was surprising to me, although when I started thinking about it, art history is centered in the church for probably two-thirds of its existence,  Easley said, noting the narrow definition she carried in her mind of what religious art looks like changed because of Neely s paintings.

Often contemporary/abstract art can be difficult for me to understand, because I can t see what the artist sees, and I get stuck in my head,  Easley said. Rather than looking at his paintings to see an image of Christ or the Madonna, I was looking at the Advent paintings to experience a feeling instead, and that was very powerful. 

Easley said her son, age 9, likes to draw and paint, and the paintings really made him think about how worshipping God could be incorporated into the things he loves to do, not just as a separate activity that only happens on Sunday mornings.

The paintings also taught her family new insights about Advent from a journey perspective. At home, she has an Advent calendar that she uses with her son, and their focus is always on opening that last Dec. 25  box; days 1 “24 are treated as if their only reason for existence is to frustrate the journey to the prize, she said.

However, the Advent paintings showed me, literally, that there is beauty and grace in the process, as well as the end result,  Easley said. Each week, I looked forward to seeing how the paintings changed, and because they are abstract, I couldn t anticipate or guess what the next change would be. 

Neely said he is so grateful for the opportunity and hospitality St. James gave him and was shocked  at the tremendous creative freedom he received.

Barrett himself was pleased at the way the experiment transformed the worship space and brought new meaning to Advent for him and for his flock. Between the paintings and Neely s personal reflections on them, both before the congregation and in a blog, Barrett said it s as if the church now understands, Wow! Light s behaving in surprising ways, and it s just a little messy, rough around the edges ”just like the first Christmas. 

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