An Austrian nobleman was expected to follow the family line in politics. But an encounter with God through a gallery painting changed the direction of his life. Depicted before him was Jesus Christ crowned with thorns. Below were the words, “This I have done for you. What have you done for Me?” Profoundly moved, the youth responded, “I will do more.”
The young man was Count Zinzendorf. He gave his life for the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom. Establishing a safe haven uniting Christians of many stripes fleeing persecution, a prayer community was born. Bishop of the Moravian Church, through his preaching many answered God’s call in what would become known as the Moravian Missionary Movement.
This is the power of God. And this is the power of God’s call sounded through the medium of art.
As an alumna of Gordon-Conwell, this project is personally important to me. My first introduction to the seminary came through the Perspectives course after being called to missionary service. GCTS graduate, Dr. Bill Jones (now President of Columbia International University), was the instructor. He and other GCTS alums challenged me by the way they engaged the world. Whether serving in the marketplace or smuggling Bibles into prohibited lands, I saw modeled in their lives the kind of Christian I wanted to become. I came to see that as an artist, I am already among an unreached people group. This revelation gave me eyes to see the art world as a mission field with art as my voice. My time at GCTS, especially through the teaching of Dr. Laniak and Dr. Adams, was a season of sanctification for the discipline I love. Desire ignited to be light in an art world where night has fallen. Therefore, it is an honor to serve the seminary community which has shaped me as a cultural missionary by fulfilling this commission for the GCTS David M. Rogers Hall of Missions.
For an artist, going big wall is the occasion of a lifetime. I wanted the result to be as grand as the opportunity at hand. But when a work is about the artist alone, it is limited to that artist’s individual life, expression and experiences. Therefore, the idea came to expand the work’s domain by inviting the Gordon-Conwell community to become a part of the installation. After all, GCTS is an equipping ground to raise up those who will fulfill the Great Commission. So the call was placed for students, faculty, staff and alum to submit their candid photos of the gospel in action.
Francis Schaeffer, Bill Bright and other leaders of the day were simultaneously building evangelization strategies based on the domains through which the gospel comes. While there is debate on where the boundary lines fall, most agree that the prominent categories include religion, family, government, business, education, the arts, science/ technology, media, and entertainment. Affirming the priesthood of all believers, this view maintains that the full range of human endeavor is spiritual. All things exist and are to be done to the glory of God. For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things (Rom 11:36). Therefore, all domains are represented in the project.
Just as the gospel is narrative, story fuels the installation concept. During seminary, I was profoundly moved by Dr. Gwenfair Adams’ expansion of the mallon story and hapax legomenon. Our personal stories are interwoven not only into the lives of those with whom we share, but into God’s greater story. Ultimately, it is in His Metanarrative that our smaller ones find their place, purpose and meaning.
The seminary community submitted hundreds of photos. How moving it was to see God’s work in and through His people. Image selection was the most difficult part. Cell phone shots often wouldn’t successfully scale for print. Many wonderful images weren’t included due to space available. But occupying the topmost spot is a picture of a model of Christ pouring water into a basin for the lowly service of washing feet. The concept trickles down from our Master into all areas of our service. Near the center the dove flies, representative of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
An artful treatment of purpled brush-worked edges was given to each photo selected. The watery, hued strokes convey the sense that ministry is more art than science. We don’t always know what we are doing. It is often unscripted, messy, with results unclear. Yet the purples reference Divine Sovereignty over all we do. This treatment also serves as a unifier for the photos pouring in from diverse sources bringing with them a broad range of exposures, color casts, and pixilations.
While photographs present the saints of the present, we stand on the shoulders of the saints of the past. To reference our rich history, traditional church forms and media were employed to link the new with the old. The most prominent feature is the Gothic arch which serves as frame, container, and unifier of the photo wall inside. The pointed arch was a miracle of engineering rising from the field of what scholars rightly describe as “The Architecture of Immanence.” Pointing forever upward in orientation, the Gothic Arch honors our rich aesthetic history within the field of spiritual architecture. The element that elicits primary viewer response is scale. Majestic themes demand grand presence so the choice was made to fill the space. The scale freed the arch to better reference that which it actually is - not a mere decorative feature, but an architectural element. Originally our arch was to go from floor to ceiling. But because it rests in a public space, the based was lifted almost 5’ from the ground to protect both art and viewer.
As an artist, I value truth in materials. However, a 20’ marble arch was beyond both the budget and what our wall could bear. I was hoping to purchase a ready-made architectural for installation. None suitable was found. Therefore, it had to be custom-built. Being from a thriving craft community in Charleston, SC, there were plenty of woodworkers that could have done a fine job. But after prayer, my first call went out to the very best, my father, Jerry Spinks. When I asked, he didn’t flinch but got on board right away. We had the challenge of fabricating the piece in sections that it could be transported and assembled on site. Yet it had to be manageable for 2 people to install on via sky lift 20’ above the ground. He engineered a brilliant system for installation that also distributed the weight evenly across the wall. Because the arch is ultimately a frame, it needed to do what a good frame does: politely escort the eye into the work of art. In lieu of a molding is a clean bevel. The outer rim serves as a stop rolling the viewer’s gaze back inward. Of course this required a skeleton of beveled rib work. Five sections were made hollow and attached to the wall with French cleats and bolts. The arch was at last faced on the wall itself.
Nothing can kill a work of art faster than a faux finish gone wrong. My goal was to make this wooden arch look so much like stone that the viewer anticipates its coolness from across the room. Therefore I spent time studying marble to emulate its natural rhythms. Most things in nature are shaped by water, wind, temperature and the interplay of the elements over time. A paint with stone aggregate served as layer one. Then I let water do the work of laying trails for veining. Black and then white and then black with a chalky overlay to bring out the impression of minerals layered in translucency.
The miracle of the Gothic Arch in its time was that it displaced mass with volume. Romanesque stone walls gave way to stained glass, allowing dark interiors to be flooded with glorious light. Light is the metaphor that God uses throughout Scripture to communicate what He is like. Therefore, this installation makes use of the light metaphor in two ways.
The photographic images are off-set from the wall by 1” to allow light to be refracted in a halo’d glow. Each image floats in its own breathable space surrounded by empty glass that can catch and corona the light. The outer frame is made with traditional stained glass caming and raised solders, a nod to the crafts initiated by the church past. Blackened with old world patina, a final zinc white treatment gives the impression of age. I must thank my fellow Charleston artist, Alex Radin, for his work in surface treatments and installation. His help was essential to completing the project on time.
The photos rest behind museum glass which accounts for the startling image clarity. Adjacent to a wall of windows, a conservation grade glass was necessary to preserve the photographs’ colors. Too, light from the windows threatened to block the images with reflections. The beauty of museum glass is that it blocks 99% of light leaving only 1% reflection for a near invisible finish. Prints were made from archival Epson inks and papers. Photos are attached in a manner that allows for replacement of photographs in the future. In 20 years our fashions will be laughable. Therefore, the installation can live and grow to escape the prison of a fixed time.
Because the building employs state of the art technology to carry out it missional work, it seemed important to convey this feature in the installation. This drives the second use of light at metaphor. Because the Gothic Arch historically opened the interior to the light, we are working on an light projection pattern to cast a defining light over the entirety of the piece. We are collaborating with a company to build a green energy light projection that will imply historic tracery with triple lancets and ocoli. The tondo has long been a signifier of divine space, and the Trinity of Circles crowning the top give deference to our Triune God.
The grid pattern within the work plays off of the adjacent grid pattern in the right flanking window wall. The arch frame plays off the adjacent metalwork in the left flanking balcony rails. All three rise together in a manner reminiscent of the Europe of church history with grand architecture from multiple eras sharing the same skyline in a neighborly way.
This installation is a testament to Christ’s continuing love to the world through his church. But my hope is that it will do more than memorialize the service of saints present and past. My prayer is that will sound the call to those who have ears to hear it: the call to find your life by losing it God’s greater story.
Melanie K. Spinks
GCTS Alumna, ’07, Biblical Studies