The idea behind the Faith in Arts Institute has been years in the making.
Richard Chess, a professor emeritus of English at UNC Asheville, organized its precursor, the Faith in Literature Festival, at the university in 2016. At the time, Chess was also the director of the Center for Jewish Studies, which co-sponsored the event and held a Literary Sabbath during the gathering.
“I invited all the writers to pick something to read that spoke to what they feel when they think about a Sabbath,” Chess remembers. “We did that, and 60 people came to that on a Saturday morning.”
Expanding upon the 2016 event, the inaugural Faith in Arts Institute will include other artistic disciplines. The four-day intensive — to be held at UNCA’s Highsmith Student Union, Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center and online via Zoom — will take place Wednesday, Oct. 13-Saturday, Oct. 16.
In the beginning
Originally scheduled for May 2020, then back-burnered due to COVID-19, much changed over the intervening year. The death of George Floyd, notes Chess, “led us to think about the necessity of making it a diverse project.”
As postponements continued, “We came up with the idea to do a conversation series,” Chess says. “We did it with six or seven artists and writers, [talking] to them about their work and what role, if any, their faith tradition or spiritual practice played in their art.” Those videos were posted on BMCM+AC’s website, a partner in the Faith in Arts Institute. BMCM+AC Executive Director Jeff Arnal planned the institute with Chess.
Now with the event’s dates set, Chess is thrilled to see some of the earlier virtual participants join for the in-person gathering. Among the group is artist Marie T. Cochran, who will screen her film Testify, Beyond Place at BMCM+AC on Thursday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m. The film examines the removal of the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, along with 100 graves, to make room for the expansion of the Western Carolina University campus.
“I’m hoping that turning a light on religious or spiritual qualities of art will open the possibility that people will talk about things they don’t want to talk about,” Chess says.
Encounter the living god
Another realization that came to Chess during 2020 was that many working artists not only had Masters of Fine Arts degrees, but Masters of Divinity. “And they’re seriously thinking about [spirituality] and at the same time creating some edgy, creative, experimental art,” he says. “I thought, ‘That’s an interesting subset of people out there writing, dancing, painting and composing music.’”
One such artist is Curt Cloninger, associate professor of new media at UNCA. Cloninger will present the talk “Making Nothing Out of Something: Art as a Means of Clearing Ground” on Friday, Oct. 15, at 3:30 p.m. at UNCA’s Highsmith Student Union.
“I figured art might be good for just sort of wrecking people’s faith in the reductive, summative capacity of language,” he says with a laugh. “The goal of my art isn’t … to make someone a believer, but to put them in a place where they might more readily encounter whatever living god might be there or whatever scary demons might be there. Whatever’s really there.”
During his lecture, Cloninger will show examples of his work, which uses media to undermine and destabilize faith in language. “I know other people are coming at it from different angles, but that’s the only angle that made sense to me,” he says. “Not to be the Christian artist but almost to be the punk-rock artist who broke everything you thought you knew so actually you’d encounter the living god.”
Another such artist is Christopher-Rasheem McMillan, who will give the talk “You Can’t Tell It/ Like I Tell It: Danced Spirituals as Liturgy” on Saturday, Oct. 16, at Highsmith Student Union.
According to a description of the presentation, McMillan will look at several dances, including Helen Tamiris’ Negro Spirituals, Ted Shawn’s Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and Ronald K. Brown’s Order My Steps “as case studies that speak to the public organization of a body in space as a liturgical and artistic act, grounding the choreography as a meaning-making in and through live religious experience.”
Julie Levin Caro, a professor of art history at Warren Wilson College, also has a unique take on faith in art: “Going to museums is my synagogue. It’s a very grounding and meditative way to connect with artwork.” She continues, “A big part of my research has been looking at images of Black Christianity in African American art. As a white Jewish woman, it’s been an interesting journey to [explore] Black experience through religion … and through artistic expression.”
At the institute, Caro will lead the workshop “Telling Interfaith Stories with Objects,” which she says will serve as an icebreaker and way for participants to introduce themselves. The event takes place Thursday, Oct. 14, at 9 a.m. at Highsmith Student Union.
“Objects are so important to spirituality and practice,” she notes. “I’m interested in the idea of how objects can be evocative beyond their own visual and aesthetic value. The narratives we [attach] can make even a pencil really profound.” The other idea is to get participants thinking about how their stories go together in overlapping ideas and interesting juxtapositions that lead to contemplation of how faith practices may also intersect.
Chess hopes that an event such as Faith in Arts Institute will create an opportunity where those skeptical about spirituality will realize “it’s more complicated than you think, it’s not monolithic, it’s more nuanced, and it doesn’t necessarily limit one’s ability to think openly and creativity,” he says. For those who do have faith, Chess hopes the institute will inspire them to yearn for more types of art in their personal or communal religious practice.
And, ultimately, he says, “I hope some people will be blown away by some of the work.”
WHAT: Faith in Arts Institute, faithinarts.unca.edu
WHERE: UNC Asheville’s Highsmith Student Union; Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center; and online via Zoom
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 13-Saturday, Oct. 16. $60 for all events. Some events are free to the public, see website for details.