By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS) -- Recently my wife, Melanie, and I visited a local art gallery on historic Route 66 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Named Sumner & Dene, the gallery specializes in local and regional artists. We were fortunate to meet the owner of the gallery upon our visit. He was kind enough to chat with us concerning some of the artists he represents, giving ample information on the stalwarts of the Albuquerque art scene: landscape artist, Frank McCulloch (recently featured in New Mexico Magazine and a PBS documentary), and photographer, Bill Tondreau (former special effects artist for Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and other movies), being the most notable.
After our chat, Melanie and I browsed the gallery. As we headed upstairs of the 5,500 square feet gallery, a particular series of artwork caught our eyes. In marvelous color configurations, the artwork on display consisted of the human form (figurative) and landscape pieces. At first I thought the pieces were lithographs, but upon further inspection, I found that they were not prints, but oil and canvas paintings. I was impressed. Great technique, I thought. I looked at the signature: Mark Horst.
We headed downstairs to chat some more with the gallery owner. It was here that we learned Mr. Horst was new to painting—at least in a professional manner, having moved to Albuquerque from Minnesota to pursue his artistic longings five years ago. The owner stated that, "Mark's figurative work is some of the best in the region—a natural talent, with innate gifting." He went on to say that "There's something special about how Mark moves the paint, his color treatment, and sensitivity to the human form." Then the owner stated something that caught my attention:
"Mark is also a spiritual man."
"How so," I ask?
"I think he was a minister before moving to Albuquerque. I believe he has a Ph.D. from Yale University," he replied.
I was intrigued.
The owner continued. "Spirituality comes through in Mark's treatment of his subjects; he has an innate sense of seeing the human quality in his figurative work; a particular compassion and understanding, especially with the male images."
The owner went on to state that Mark's wife—a former psychologist, Elisabeth, is an artist as well, a weaver. To add to the family affair, most of the male models in the artwork are Mark and Elisabeth's son.
Both Melanie and I were impressed by the artwork and backstory of the Horst's.
As a student of art history, I know the Horst's saga is more common than most think, melding ministry and the arts. There are many artists that wanted to enter the ministry—or who were ordained ministers, but for some reason or another moved to the arts as their inspirational outlet.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was such a man. Van Gogh's father was a Dutch Reformed pastor, and Vincent felt that ministry might be a viable option for him. Concerning this, Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, "[God] has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor." As it turned out, this was not Vincent's journey. Sadly, the denomination he sought rejected his ministry desire. But the denominations rejection was the art world's gain: after his untimely death due to suicide in 1890 (Vincent struggled with depression and mental illness), his work became some of the leading works in the Post-Impressionistic movement. His paintings now command astronomical prices and are considered masterpieces of Western art.
Robert Rauschenberg(1) is another artist who felt an initial pull towards the ministry. As PBS's American Masters states, "Born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1925, Robert Rauschenberg imagined himself first as a minister and later as a pharmacist. It wasn't until 1947, while in the U.S. Marines that he discovered his aptitude for drawing and his interest in the artistic representation of everyday objects and people."
Rauschenberg went on to influence a generation of artists, including Andy Warhol. Art Scene Today lists Rauschenberg as number thirteen on the greatest artists of the 20th Century list (2). His body of work contains many modern masterpieces.
Then there's James Turrell, one of the leading visual artists living today. As a Quaker, Turrell has spent his life pursing the light (the main medium he uses in most of his artwork). According to Quaker Artist (3), "Turrell has produced over 120 one-man shows and taken part in over 115 group exhibitions on virtually every continent. He's been awarded numerous honors, including the Legion of Honor, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Several books, like Long Green and many articles, as in Time have been written about him. He appeared as the final artist in the BBC documentary 'American Visions.'"
Continuing, the article states, "Turrell attends the Flagstaff (AZ) Meeting. He designed the Houston Meetinghouse, and his Second Meeting reminds one of a Meetinghouse. Turrell was raised a Conservative Friend in California and grew up wearing the plain dress. Conservative Friends generally avoid art, feeling that it's a vain and creaturely pursuit, and therefore it's remarkable that an artist of his caliber should emerge from this background."
If you expand this list to include other people with artistic sensibilities who did enter the ministry—poets such as John Donne (1572-1631), George Herbert (1593-1633), Gerald Manley Hopkins (1844-1899), Fr. Angelico Chavez (1910-1996), R.S Thomas (1913-2000), and musicians such as Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741, Catholic priest) and Franz Liszt (1811-1886; who joined the Franciscan ministry towards the end of his life), you'd find many people that meld art and aesthetics, creativity and a craving for God.
For many art-centric individuals, ministry goes beyond the traditional pastoral role.
Author, Frederick Buechner (b. 1926), is one of those men. Ordained a Presbyterian minister, but spending most of his adult life as an author (over 30 books), Buechner saw writing as his ministry outlet, eventually earning a Pulitzer nomination for his novel, Godric in 1981 (4). Buechner wrote in his book, Wishful Thinking, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
For men like Buechner—and those addressed above, the place God called them was in the imaginative world, melding the creative and the divine, the place where "gladness and deep hunger meet."
In an interview at Calvin College (5), Beuchner was asked about the ministry of writing. He responded, "I have tried to be as honest as I can be to my own experience: what it's like to be alive on this planet. With a particular eye cocked to, a particular ear cocked to the elusive, ambiguous presence of God."
And asked if "he's glad he was ordained," Buechner responded, "I wouldn't have not been ordained for anything in the world. It gave me my passion. It set me on a path. It took me places I never would have found my way to any other way."
"Took me places I never would have found..." I like that. Ministers—or those with ministerial inclinations—do exactly this: they find in art a new ministry form, a place that affords them to seek God in new ways, a place of seeing the world about them with divine inclinations, set in motion by the constructive (or destructive) act of creating new objects and ideas. Inherent in this quest of artistic persistence finds the minister-artist embedded in philosophy, theology, art, and real life.
So as I ponder the artwork of Mark Horst, it doesn't surprise me to learn that people like Horst has entered a new season of his life and ministry—as a visual artist. The precedence has been set; the conjoining of the two worlds paved by many before him.
As Fuller Theological Seminary reminds us in its theology and the arts course description, "Throughout history, art has reflected cultural change and development. Great paintings, sculptures, and musical compositions have represented trends in theology and religion as viewed from the artist's cultural context. From Bach's St. John Passion to Bosch's The Last Judgment, the arts display the fusion of theology and culture."
A "fusion of theology and culture." I think we need more theologically inspired artists, those infused by the imaginative and the inspired, a confluence of God's creative order spelled out in the nature of His image-bearing creation; co-creators in the scope of eternity.
1 It must be noted that Rauschenberg never pursued ministry, leaving the church in his mid 20's.
4 For a wonderful article on Buechner, click here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/marchweb-only/3-3-51.0.html
5 As reported by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on PBS: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2006/05/05/may-5-2006-frederick-buechner/15314/
Photo captions: Artist James Turrell and author, Frederick Buechner
January 14, 2105