Students, artists and churchgoers collaborate to create 'Congregate' exhibit at MICA

Innovative exhibition forges relationships between the Maryland Institute College of Art and neighborhood congregations

September 14, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The old arched red wooden door to the Seventh Metro Church is less that two blocks from the modern glass-and-steel panel that floats in front of the Maryland Institute College of Art's newest exhibition space.

They bring to mind two different eras and seem designed to be used by two dissimilar groups of people: spiky-haired artists and church ladies wearing fancy hats.

But when a white art student in her 20s met a middle-aged African-American pastor, they discovered that both doors opened into sacred spaces where people look for answers to the same big questions.

Caitlin Tucker and Ryan Preston Palmer became acquainted through an innovative program that brings together two of the seminal institutions that have helped transform the Station North neighborhood — the Maryland Institute College of Art and a group of local churches.

"This program has been a catalyst for bringing together the whole neighborhood," Palmer says.

He admits that until recently, he had never set foot in MICA, though he himself is an artist. For her part, neither Tucker nor Bashi Rose, an artist assigned to the Seventh Metro project, had previously crossed the church threshold.

As faculty member Jeffry Cudlin put it: "Museums don't always do the best job of making the case that art is transformative for everyone. Our project is about connecting art to people in the community and where possible, helping to bring about social change."

Planning for the associated exhibition began in the fall of 2012, when the six students in MICA's graduate curatorial practice program were paired with five churches in Station North: Seventh Metro Church, St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, the New Second Missionary Baptist Church, St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church, and the Spiritual Empowerment Center.

"There's sometimes an assumption that there's a divide between artists and communities of faith," Tucker says.

"Not a lot of members of our class identify as religious. The students at MICA who practice a faith have said in campus surveys that they feel discriminated against. But historically, there's a strong connection between art and religion."

A local artist was assigned to each group, with the goal of developing a piece that reflects the spirit and character of each church. In addition, three "roving artists" were commissioned to create works based on connections among all five houses of worship.

The eight pieces that resulted have been gathered into an exhibit called "Congregate art + faith + community," on view at MICA through Sept. 25.

Pieces on display include several glowing, translucent scrolls by artist Tiffany Jones that contain the Second Missionary congregants' answers to the question, "What does your faith mean to you?" The scrolls are arranged in a circle that surrounds tree stumps in the form of a pulpit.

Artist Laure Drogoul uses light and shadow, rippling water, and an audio recording of reverberations produced by a crystal bowl to re-create for viewers one of the meditations at the Spiritual Empowerment Center, which practices the Science of Mind and Spirit.

And Rose, a Baltimore-based theater artist and filmmaker, has created a 16-minute, black-and-white kaleidoscope of his impressions of the Baptist congregation belonging to Seventh Metro Church.

The film layers Palmer's voice with a mural painted on a basement wall by artist Michael Thomas and a performance by members of the modern movement troupe Dancing Many Drums on the church steps.

"At first, I wasn't excited to be working with a church," the filmmaker says.

"I'm not religious. I tend to be critical of churches in general and also of arts districts in black communities, which often lead to gentrification," says Rose, who is African-American. "But then I was introduced to Pastor Ryan. I got to see Ryan being Ryan, the humanity of the man. I realized that he was the work of art."

Indeed, everyone involved with "Congregate" describes the exhibit as just the physical manifestation of the actual artwork, which has to do with the relationships forged among the students, artists and worshipers.

"In the beginning, the students talked about their churches as if they were visiting anthropologists," Cudlin says.

"Gradually, that started to change. I am so proud that when the semester ended in May, the students kept the connections going. Classes were over. They had received their grades from me. As far as I was concerned, they were done."

The exhibit wasn't scheduled to open until the fall. Even though some students were working multiple part-time jobs, they checked in with their congregations throughout the summer.

"They kept attending Sunday morning services," Cudlin says. "I think there's been a lot more hugging than anyone anticipated."

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