Some art projects are just predestined to be interesting, and one eternally interesting topic is religion. In fact, almost anything to do with religious ritual is virtually guaranteed to captivate most art lovers. We gaze in awe at the amazing faith of a snake handler and the quiet serenity of a Buddhist monk sitting in meditation.
Perhaps it’s because—for many of us, at least—the only thing that consumes us to that same degree is the next season of American Idol, which probably just doesn’t provide the same kind of lasting satisfaction.
Photographer Jason Miccolo Johnson has traveled across America to document worship in predominantly black churches. His exhibition, titled Soul Sanctuary, is currently on display at the YMI Cultural Center and explores the services of different denominations. Some of the images are very formal, while others are highly emotional—but to Johnson’s credit, he never seems to look for the sensational.
The photographs simply record what he saw in these churches, and are presented in a direct and straightforward way. Text accompanies each set of photos, giving an explanation of the activity depicted in the works, along with the name and location of the house of worship and sometimes the name of the individual shown.
The subjects in Johnson’s work are varied. One photo shows a young boy joyfully playing drums, while, in contrast, an elderly preacher proclaims his belief with agonizing emotion. Reaction among the worshippers is also varied. In some churches, parishioners sit with quiet dignity, but at the New Jerusalem Temple Bible Way Church in Washington, D.C., a woman lies facedown on the floor during a laying-on-of-hands ceremony.
Johnson captures these differences—which seem to be created by the different approaches of the ministers and the philosophical differences in the denominations—with a keen eye and a seemingly open mind. We see Bishop T.D. Power as he issues his proclamations with great certainty, and we see Dr. Gardner Taylor using his expressive hands to make his points quietly. And then there’s the image of Rev. C.W. Ray—old, small and bespectacled—passionately delivering a rousing sermon.
The important role of women in the churches is also documented. In one photo, a large group of women—all dressed in white outfits with big fancy hats—sit at a long and elaborately decorated table for a Women’s Day luncheon. In another, a female pastor’s aide, dressed in a white nurse’s uniform, rushes along with a tray holding a carafe and a pitcher. Two young women are shown stirring big pans of vegetables at the Longview Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church in Memphis, Tenn., and Sister Lillie Patterson stands confidently in a doorway holding freshly laundered altar coverings for Sunday communion at the Hemingway Memorial AME Church in Chapel Oaks, Md. The most impressive and poignant work in the show is an image of a woman’s hands—with long, graceful fingers, perfectly manicured nails and several rings fitted over wrinkled flesh—clutching the pew in front of her to steady her slightly tilted body.
Locations play an important role in these photos, showing communities embracing very different kinds of religious experiences. There is the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, a more traditional space with rich mahogany paneling and a massive pipe organ. Meanwhile, at the Temple of Deliverance in Memphis, the pastor’s sermon is projected onto a huge overhead screen. And then there’s the more utilitarian, less decorative feel of a tent revival in Glenarden, Md.
Soul Sanctuary marks a change in tone for the YMI Cultural Center’s art displays. Harry Harrison, the YMI’s executive director, notes that the Soul Sanctuary exhibit fits well with the center’s plan to veer away from modern art and instead focus on the culture and history of Asheville’s African-American community. He says that visitors can expect to see similar exhibits, such as a series of images from the pre-urban-renewal era of downtown Asheville, at the gallery space in coming months.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer.]
who: Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African American Worship Experience
what: A collection of images from African-American churches across the country
where: YMI Cultural Center (39 S. Market St.)
when: Through Saturday, March 1 (Free. www.ymicc.org or 252-4614)