A Seminary’s Artist in Residence: Cathy Kapikian’s Fabric of Faith

by Linda-Marie Delloff

Dr. Delloff is managing editor of The Christian Century and has had experience with the White House and the United Nations on Aging.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, march 18-25, 1987, p. 267. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The heart and soul of its Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary (United Methodist) in Washington, D.C is founder and director Catherine Kapikian, a practicing visual artist and a 1979 Wesley graduate. Kapikian proposed the idea for an art studio and an artist-in-residence program to the school’s administration. What she desires is for all Christians to share the joy of realizing how an understanding of art can heighten religious perceptions and vice versa.

The ambivalence of American Protestantism’s relationship to art has always been pronounced. During the early part of the 19th century, church leaders manifested remnants of Puritan negativism toward art, though sporadically there were significant figures speaking out on behalf of religion’s natural association with the creative impulse: for example, Calvinist Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) , Congregational preacher Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) As the century progressed, liberal American churchmen began to travel to Europe, where they encountered great artworks of all genres cast in religious contexts or occupying religious settings. Returning home full of enthusiasm, these "clerical patrons of art" (Neil J. Harris, The Artist in American Society [1966]) began advocating the presence of visual artworks in churches. However, because they were still quite inexperienced and unfamiliar with principles of aesthetics, these enthusiasts easily degenerated into advocates of mere ornament. This movement gave rise to further rejection of art on the part of many churchgoers who longed for the Protestant simplicity they were used to.

During the first decades of the new century, marked by the hegemony of the social gospel, its advocates for the most part were too involved with their movement activities to dwell much on determining their theological views of art’s importance. A small group, spearheaded in fact by Christian Century editor Charles Clayton Morrison, was an exception to this attitude and theorized extensively on the crucial interplay of art and faith. But the best creative work done in the field at that time (mostly in arts of the word) was accomplished by religious conservatives such as T. S. Eliot.

The mainline Protestant church has never sorted out its basic attitude toward art, and interest seems to wax and wane. For example, from 1950 to 1978 the National Council of Churches had a Worship and the Arts department, but it ceased to function due to lack of funding.

It is clear that ambivalence on the topic remains strong today. It is also clear from the paucity of good art (except for music) in most churches, and the general absence of the study of art in seminaries, that even if interest is present, there is little accompanying effort to support the interaction of art and faith on any ongoing basis.

Certainly there are exceptions to this generalization; many individual churches are involved with the arts in a variety of ways: purchasing paintings; sponsoring art fairs; hosting dance or poetry performances, or classes on literary biblical themes. A good example of a church with multiple art ministries is New York’s Riverside. But such efforts are not generally sustained systematically in church-related college or seminary education, and the understanding of art’s relationship to faith is absent from most curricula (though some exceptions exist here, too -- for instance Gustavus Adolphus College, which employs sculptor-in-residence Philip Granlund, or Notre Dame, which also has an arts program).

One exception that particularly stands out in its conscious -- indeed quite passionate -- embrace of the arts is Wesley Theological Seminary (United Methodist) in Washington, D.C. The heart and soul of its Center for the Arts and Religion is founder and director Catherine Kapikian, a practicing visual artist and a 1979 Wesley graduate. Upon completion of her seminary work, which had crystallized her convictions concerning art’s intrinsic importance to faith, Kapikian had proposed the idea for an art studio and an artist-in-residence program to the school’s administration. Though she was at the start willing to organize and work in the program on a voluntary basis, she was turned down, to her considerable disappointment. However, shortly thereafter she received a surprise phone call informing her that the administration had decided to give her the go-ahead after all. That was the beginning of a venture that has generated great enthusiasm among students, faculty and visitors to the seminary (some of whom come to see only the studio, and others of whom have additional business on campus but often come to see the studio first)

Presiding over the bright and airy studio filled with a variety of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, stained glass and other projects -- most of them in process -- Kapikian provides a variety of opportunities for seminarians to delve as deeply into the artistic process as they might wish (or can be encouraged to essay) In addition to teaching courses in these media (or bringing in other artists to do so) , Kapikian also provides instruction in such topics as art history, describing the historical contexts that nurtured artists great and near-great, and that gave rise to specific movements. Students marvel at the masterpieces she shows on slides, many of them never before having seen pictures of the world’s great artworks (let alone the originals)

All Wesley students are required to take at least one course in. the arts, with a number of others being available as electives; all of the courses are organized around a theological focus. Students from other nearby colleges and seminaries may also enroll in the courses, and are doing so in increasing numbers. Often students are given the choice of writing a paper or actually producing a work of art as their course requirement; Kapikian encourages the latter, and though they may start out hesitantly, many seminarians develop or display skills of which they had been totally unaware. For example, Alex Roqué, OMI, a student at Roman Catholic Oblate College on the other side of Washington, chose to produce an art project for his course requirement in "Christian Themes Expressed in Washington, D.C. Art." In the course, which Roqué describes as "the most exciting of my four years in seminary, students visited local museums and churches displaying important artworks After learning about the diverse techniques they had seen, individuals created works in mosaic, stained glass, acrylic paint or other media. Roqué found work on his project to be "a very gratifying faith experience," and he will use his new knowledge in his missions ministry in Puerto Rico or an impoverished area of the U.S.

In addition to actual classroom instruction, Kapikian’s very presence and example are equally crucial as an educational device, she says, because of "the daily functioning of art in the studio. The centrality of the image, the potency of the image is forever present to the community. It reminds the community that theology must include more than just the language and structure of philosophical discourse."

Though Kapikian accords respect to academics interested in the relations between art and religion (generally these are theologians, although several schools have "religion and art" departments for the scholarly, theoretical study of the two) , she argues that the scholars have tended to dominate discussion of the relationship, virtually excluding working artists from any sort of dialogue.

Approaching the arts from a theoretical vantage point, says Kapikian,

has its own validity. But I don’t think it’s the place to start. I think the place to start is to have artists like myself -- who understand the language of art, who can teach theory but at the same time are able to involve art in a formative way -- work with students, helping them to understand the nonverbal vocabulary of the arts. This must include involving them in the doing and the making. Until one knows this language, one cannot talk theoretically about the arts and hope to impart an understanding.

The problem, says Kapikian further, is that the academic community, by and large, will not recognize the artist as being on an equal footing. "What is required is the understanding that art is an autonomous activity capable of discerning and communicating the truth from its own point of view." While Kapikian is careful not to indict scholarship per se, she is adamant in her view that its advocates assume inappropriate roles, in particular usurping that more naturally played by a trained, experienced artist. She is equally assertive about the necessity to abolish scholarship’s condescension toward practice, citing as one positive example the Wesley administration’s practice of including her completed art-works when listing faculty publications or honors.

Comments Bruce Birch, Wesley professor of Old Testament: "Having Cathy in our midst has made all of the faculty more sensitive to the artistic dimensions of the subjects we teach." For example, Birch now offers a course on the Old Testament and the arts, and in his other courses is more aware that "the biblical message has come down to us not only through an analytical/exegetical tradition, but also through an artistic tradition." Kapikian’s influence extends beyond new awareness of the visual arts, says Birch. For example, he is now more inclined to have his students read literature that reflects religious concepts.

Kapikian also notes that there is much informal mingling of students and faculty in the studio, with conversation often revolving around the works that are on the walls and occupying every corner of the room. These might be by students, by Kapikian herself, or by some of the artists in residence whom she invites to work at the seminary for a year (all of whom do so without remuneration).

Not all of the guest artists Kapikian has invited work in the visual field. For example, she has asked a poet to talk to students, and has helped to sponsor dance activity at the seminary, including a recent program expressing themes in Armenian Apostolic worship (this is the church she currently attends with her husband, who is of Armenian descent) She ardently endorses the idea of various types of artists working together on projects, a goal she has pursued in her own independent work. Though she was trained as a painter, Kapikian’s favorite medium is fabric. She has discovered that she is most comfortable and most creative "when I have a pair of scissors in my hand." Her fabric constructions hang in a variety of churches (and, soon, a synagogue) on the East Coast. Generally they are large works that display intricate variety in texture and color, and even those that are nonrepresentational are designed to convey various religious feelings or concepts. In some cases she has treated a particular biblical theme (the last supper; the Song of Songs; the Easter story) , while in others the religious theme is more generally evocative ("We and Thou’’; ‘‘Make a Joyful Noise’’; ‘‘Celebration’’)

During a visit I asked Kapikian her views on why only the art of music has truly endured in the church. (While many churches are proud of the stained glass windows they have inherited, little new creative work is appearing in that field today. See the M.E.M.O column, p. 295.) In addition to the influence of various traditions proscribing visual images, there is the inescapable fact that music does a certain amount of work for the listener in defining its own beginning, climax and conclusion, and in carrying the auditor along instead of forcing her to choose how much time to spend in contemplation. Music is also "multidimensional" in that it surrounds the listener. In contrast, a work of visual an -- whether painting, tapestry, statue or other -- placed in a particular location, does not involve the observer in the same ways. He or she must define the time and dimensions of involvement, and must make the first effort to engage the work; it does not move out to embrace the observer. (Kapikian advises her students that one does not walk up to a painting and say, "What does it mean?" but, rather, "How are you?") In these ways the visual arts may be intimidating to many, especially if the particular work at hand is abstract or otherwise not " realistic." (For example, Kapikian received some criticism for a work in which Christ and the apostles are depicted in vivid hues of blue, green and other strong colors.)

Further, congregations might have no idea how to in-corporate visual art into worship, which of course is a natural setting for music. I asked Kapikian what she thought about devoting a specific devotional time to contemplating artworks displayed from a slide projector, and she agreed that it would be as appropriate as meditation during organ music.

Indeed, another reason for the popularity of music over visual art, especially for worship purposes, is that many of us fear total silence; we fear what thoughts may come to us during a sustained period of real quiet. Hence we want our worship and meditation to be filled with sound (even if soft music). Few individuals ever choose to sit in true silence for very long. In this way music is a great rescuer, in or out of church (consider the numbers of people who wear radio earphones when taking a walk, or those who cannot sit quietly during a movie or even a concert).

However, what must happen, according to Kapikian, in any effort by churches to incorporate more art, and more varieties of it, into their corporate life is that education precede acquisition. She is adamant that individuals learn as much as possible about art and its parallels with religion before seeking to engage it directly. She advises that for seminarians such education be at least available if not mandatory; pastors may then carry this knowledge with them into their various ministries. She also advocates ongoing education, such as lectures by artists, roundtable discussions, panels of artists and scholars, or whatever other program may provide an opportunity for learning. This includes practical studio courses being offered to the community as well as to a student body. Only after appropriate preparation, asserts Kapikian, should one expect to be able to probe deeply into the meaning or significance of specific artworks.

Kapikian follows her own advice not only in the institutional seminary setting but also with the many private commissions she receives to create works for individual churches. For example, after she and a church committee have exchanged enough ideas to agree that she is the artist they wish to engage, she talks with that group, or other representatives of the congregation several times.

On these occasions she discusses the ways in which art uses the same kind of symbolic language that religion uses to convey its message, as well as how art can communicate religious ideas and feelings. She explains her plans to the group, indicating how she will be working, what they might expect the finished product to look like, and how they might prepare to receive it. She also makes it a point to study the space into which the work will fit, and to discuss that choice and its significance with the representatives. She talks, too, with members about their church building as a whole -- its architectural significance and its opportunities for the creative use of space. Such educational occasions, she finds, immensely enrich the parishioners’ experience of acquiring and growing with art. How, without this type of preparation, she questions, can the untrained person be expected to enjoy or appreciate at any great depth the new experience of contemplating religious ideas or emotions portrayed in art, especially if it is not traditionally realistic?

Another result of insufficient education, Kapikian argues, is the tendency for congregations to adorn their spaces with mediocre art. Indeed, she pronounces, "bad art is bad religion." Uneducated pastors and parishioners "don’t understand that fact because they don’t know how to look at art; they don’t know how to value it." In fact, it may be more difficult to deter a group from this inclination than to provide it with its first exposure to art. Some interest is present; it is judgment that is lacking. And of course it is next to impossible to inform a congregation that its choices are second-rate. The problem of mediocre art in churches would occur less often, Kapikian observes, if the educational process were to begin early. When many students arrive at seminary, she says, they are "basically culturally impoverished," and, while it would be ideal for them to have been taught by the family or in school, they now have another opportunity to learn before assuming their professional roles.

Other objections have been raised to the presumed difficulty of setting up a studio. But Kapikian scoffs at this; artists, she says, are skilled at the use of space, and they all know how to put together a studio even in the meanest of circumstances. Basically, she thinks that such objections actually mask a hesitation that grows out of school administrators’ own lack of familiarity with the arts, especially their importance to faith, or out of the traditional bias of scholarship against practical experience.

Kapikian actually fears that "the health of the church is at stake" if it does not soon recognize the intrinsic closeness of the artistic and the religious impulses. And it is up to the churches to challenge ignorance in their seminaries. "I believe there has to be a trend" toward establishing programs like Wesley’s, Kapikian emphasizes fervently. "And I believe I’m an agent in that trend. For one person actually can make a difference. Fundamentally that is what gives me my conviction to do my work: I am building a prototype. I am doing my share." Kapikian’s enthusiasm is infectious, and it is clear that her commitment to her goal is total and evangelistic. But it is in no way didactic or hierarchical. What she wants is for all Christians to share the joy of realizing how an understanding of art can heighten religious perceptions and vice versa.

Kapikian is convinced that in addition to seminaries’ establishing artist-in-residence programs, churches should also institute such arrangements. She observes that there are always heated rooms, often in an administration building, that stand empty during the week. Why not turn one of those into a studio, she suggests. Presumably, individual churches will be even more concerned about costs than are larger institutions. However, she maintains that many artists are willing to work without fee for the privilege of having an official association with a church.

Nor need the acquisition of art be expensive, according to Kapikian. In addition to the fact that many good artists’ works are within the range of church budgets, she says, other artists will sometimes lower their prices for a church. Then there is the possibility of a congregation’s contributing directly to the creation of an artwork to be placed in the church. For example, she is currently directing work on a 25’ x 10’ dossal cloth that she designed for the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist church in Washington. She has created a needlepoint design which will be executed by 50 volunteers from the church -- both women and men.

Such cooperative ventures between an artist and a congregation are precisely what Kapikian would like to encourage. In all of her assignments, as well as her creations for others, she stresses the value of art as process over that of art as object; and there is no more meaningful process than for parishioners to share in the creation of their own product.

Another aspect of such cooperative involvement between artist and patrons, or artist and students, is the opportunity for important interactions to develop out of the shared experience. "I can tell you that that’s one of the great joys of my work -- these wonderful relationships," says the artist, finding such partnerships to be extremely energizing to her own professional and personal development.

As is clear from many of her remarks, Kapikian emphasizes that the value of the program she recommends accrues as much to the artist as to the community with whom he or she is working. "It’s empowering to the creative act to be nurtured, to be loved, to be respected and to be in a community where the issues that are germane to the church are forever on everyone’s lips. Being in this kind of community has a direct relationship to the work produced" by the artist.

In a cooperative arrangement such as an artist-in-residence program, there is benefit not only to the students and faculty individually, and to the artist, but also to the institution as such. Says Douglas Lewis, president of Wesley, in commenting on the many contributions of the studio, "It has made the seminary unique in defining a different approach to the arts from that existing elsewhere. The active dimension is unique," he notes, and the presence of a studio is "a visible reminder" of that distinctive approach. Because of the strong enthusiasm emanating from Wesley for this active engagement with the arts, the school has become a catalyst on the Washington scene for the formation of various arts groups seeking guidance from Wesley’s experience. Indeed, the school has been credited with stimulating considerable new local artistic activity.

As a consequence of its enthusiasm for the studio and for Kapikian’s programs, Wesley is making plans to open an art gallery on its premises. Some works will hang in the gallery permanently (as well as in other locations throughout the buildings) , and others will be displayed in specific shows. Lewis hopes that no visitor to the seminary will be able to leave without having encountered and being influenced by the gallery.

Certainly Kapikian’s works will be among those on view. Interestingly, she has kept only one piece of the many she has created in recent years. Titled "Black Christ," it grew out of her encounter with another art form: black poetry. In notes on the work she recalls, "The imagery in this poetry devastated me. I lost sleep. So I had to create this." Around the image of the Christ is black and white cloth: "The white stitch . . . inundates the black man. The pulled threads and frayed edges are indicative of this very strife in the fabric of our existence."

Kapikian allows the work to be exhibited, and it has been shown six times. However, she will not sell it; it has been too important to her creative development. "How," she asks in her notes,

can I expect you to understand the import of this work in my life as an artist? It was liberating. The potency of the imagery demanded a new way of working; and this constitutes a breakthrough. What else could I do but shred the cloth and pick away? Are not all innocent, tortured, suffering victims mutilated in like fashion? Therein lies its significance: I realized an idea authentically.

Cathy Kapikian is as interested in attempting different forms of communication as she wishes for others to be with regard to art. Though she consistently says that she is "not a word person," on Friday March 6 she preached her first sermon. For an artist who would keep in her possession only one of her works -- one that expresses the deepest pain of the human condition -- it is most appropriate that her initial step to the pulpit was during the Lenten season.