Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Resurrection through Art

Last spring, the photographer Julia Comita came to me with the following story: "Just over a year ago, a very dear friend, and muse, of mine told me she was in remission from cancer, something she had kept quiet, and wanted to take advantage of her time and energy to do a cross country tour making art.  One of the last stops would be New York City.  Having known her for years, I asked her what she wanted to express in these images, what could I give her through my imagery?  Together we came up with the concept of being reborn.  She was given a second chance at life, and felt compelled to express herself as a new creature, a new woman."  Julia asked me if she could use St. Paul's Church for the photoshoot.  I said yes. But I also said that her project sounded theological, so I asked her to plan an exhibition of the photos to share with the congregation and neighborhood. I asked her this having no idea what her work would look like.  This is what Julia came back with. Julia Comita Renacimiento
 When Julia shared this photograph with me, I wanted to do more with it than just put it on the wall, I wanted it to fill the church building in the same way that the photo filled me with awe.  So together, Julia and I came up with the crazy idea of suspending 3 foot prints of the pictures from wires so that they would float in the center of the sanctuary.
  photo (4)15995_10100301511630267_1780211687_n
 The effect was that when you walked through the sanctuary you were surrounded by a visual narrative of, in Julia's words "two women being torn down and rebuilt.  Transforming into stronger beings than they were before."
 photo 2 copyphoto 1 copyphoto 2 copy 2
The final images, the image of triumph, of rebirth and resurrection, hovers in front of the altar and the cross on which Christ stands, not crucified, but risen. When we put on this show, we invited a dozen other women to share their artwork depicting life rising in the midst of life for them.  And then we open the doors with a party and left them open for the following two weeks.  Throughout the day, passersby would stop, peer into the church that is so often gated, and wander in.  Some would ask questions, some would pray, all would stand transfixed by the beauty of the artwork.  When passersby would ask why a church would transform itself in this way, I would offer them the following explanation printed on the show's program: "At the heart of Christianity is an absurd belief that a man three days dead came back to life.  And while this belief influences how Christians think about death, the goal is that it changes how we live.  We strive to live as if the powers of death cannot defeat the strength of life, as if, through God's grace, the addict can withstand his addiction, the oppressed can claim her freedom, the outcast will be celebrated with love. Such hope is not just naive optimism, but a willingness to stare into the cross, into the places of death, and to see God's transforming presence.  As this show is specifically about the empowerment of women, staring into the places of death requires me to recognize that, for women, the church has often been one of those places.  While early house churches, convents, and home missionary societies all began as places of female independence, throughout history, Christianity has repeatedly denied women places of leadership, controlling their bodies and silencing their voices. Since the 1970s, the Lutheran tradition has sought to become a place of life for all women, starting with the ordination of women and recently electing our first Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, to lead the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But four decades alone cannot undo twenty centuries of patriarchy.  We find ourselves on Holy Saturday, the day between crucifixion and resurrection.  Two millennia ago women were the first to proclaim Christ’s resurrection; it is my hope that through this exhibit, the voices of women might proclaim the resurrection in their own lives and the church might come one moment closer to being reborn into a reality where male and female are one in Christ." Thank you to Julia's dad for the photos!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Reflection and Recording of Subway Chant

There's a delightful young man who attends Parables named Baxton.  For nearly two months he quit his job so that he could focus all his energy on creating beauty and sharing it directly with the world.  One of the main way he would do this would be to stand alone at 7am and softly sing Gregorian chant to busy New York commuters. As the Parables community focuses its energy on bringing beauty, connection, and love to places of anger, despair, and rejection in our neighborhoods, we were instantly struck by the poignancy of Baxton's daily practice.  So we decided we would join him. When my alarm when off at 5am to get ready, I cursed the idea and wondered if anyone would actually showed up.  But by the time I arrived at the 14th Street L tunnel by adrenaline had gotten me fully awake and I was pleasantly surprised when four other Parablers stepped out of the crowd of commuters to stand alongside the wall. IMG_20130920_074301 (1) Baxton led us in a call and response of chanting traditional latin prayers.  And though we began with trepidation, soon singing the simple melodies and ancient words together brought us a peace unexpected for performing in the middle of Manhattan rush hour.  And though the crowds would rush back and forth in front of us, from time to time people would stop and take pictures, or recordings, or just smile at the sight five twenty somethings singing ancient prayers in a concrete tunnel before dawn.  And just maybe, they felt blessed as they began their day.  I know I did. You can read Baxton's explanation of what we did here, and listen to a recording at:  

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Parables is a community that connects the stories of individuals to each other and to the story of God’s unconditional love revealed in Christ through creative expression.  Thanks to the inspiration and collaboration of the community and a few friends, we have developed a structure for creating music that lets us do just that:  weave together a brand new song each week from stories from our lives and scripture through a completely collaborative four-step process that includes all people regardless of musical ability.
Step 1:  Poly-tone Drone 
The point of the first step is to get the community comfortable making sound together.  Everyone is invited to take a deep breath, and as they breathe out to simply pick a tone at random and hold that tone until their breath runs out.  It doesn’t matter if the tone sounds good or bad; it doesn’t matter if the tone resonates with anyone else’s tone.  Just pick a tone and hold it for the length of your breath. As you run out of breath, listen to the tones around you, and on your next breath try to harmonize with someone else’s tone.  Once again, whether or not you actually harmonize with someone, hold that tone for the duration of your breath.  This process continues for four of the breaths of the conductor.  You can hear what the process sounds like here.
What happens next is not explicitly musical, and yet is essential to the music-making process.  The whole community takes a couple minutes of silence to reflect on their past week using the Ignatian spiritual practice of looking for places of consolation and desolation in our lives.  Then every member of the community has an opportunity to briefly share a moment of consolation and a moment desolation.  As they do so, the rest of the community take note of phrases that resonate for them.  These phrases will become the verses of our song.
After sharing consolations and desolations, the community explores a passage of scripture.   At Parables, this involves exploring the work of artists throughout time as well as making some of our own art.  Once again, throughout the process, if a phrase strikes someone as particularly important, they write it down to become a verse in our song.
Step 2: Sifting Scripture
Having explored the passage of scripture, the community then begins to sift the text for a phrase and melody that will become the refrain of our song. To do this, everyone begins by creating a single monotone drone.  As people drone, they read the text silently to themselves.  If a phrase in the text strikes them, they sing it out load to whatever melody they like while the rest of the group continues to drone.  The rest of the group can respond to potential refrain either by repeating it exactly,  by repeating it with variations to the melody or phrase, or by simply allowing it fade into the drone. This process continues until a refrain is repeated together by the whole group.
It is an incredible act of trust in both the Spirit and the group, but it is surprisingly easy and fun.  And it is always an incredible sensation when out of the droning a single melody rises from group.  You can hear what the process sounds like using the text of Revelation 21:1-6 by clicking here.
Step 3: Call and Response
Having found a refrain, the community begins to intersperse verses from their consolations and desolations as a response to the call of scripture. This functions in the following cycle:
1: The whole group sings the refrain twice.
2: An individual points to themselves and speaks a consolation or a desolation that they have heard as a verse for the song.
3. That individual either sings the verse to the melody of the refrain, or, if they cannot think of how to make it fit the melody, they point to the group, and when someone in the group thinks of how to make it fit with the melody, that person sings the verse.
4. The whole groups sings back the verse twice.
5. The whole group sings the refrain twice (cycle repeats).
You can hear the process here.
For simplicity, we simply go around the circle and when everyone has song their verse, we begin step 4.
Step 4:  Layering
The final step is to layer each verse on top of each other.  To do this, the whole group begins by singing the refrain in a continuous loop.  Then one by one, individual transition from singing the refrain to singing their verse, until the refrain is not being sung at all, but everyone is singing the consolations and desolations that they have heard.  Because the melody is always the same (or very close), the melody of the scriptural refrain continues, formed out of the different word from people’s lives. From the outside it sounds kind of like chaos, but for those participating in the process, you can clearly hear the individual consolations and desolations join together into a common prayer of the community–and you may even hear words that you spoke being sung from someone else’s lips.
When everyone has layered their verse, the conductor signals everyone to transition back to singing the refrain. You can hear the layering process here
The process isn’t really intended to be a performance, but a spiritual practice for the community.  That said, you can hear the the music of the the whole process put together here.
A few notes:
The recording is from the workshop in which we developed this process for the very first time.  As we continue to explore it, it will no doubt continue to change.  If you use it, and find useful modifications, please let us know!
“Parable” is a Greek word that literally means “to throw along side.” In Parablesong we throw the stories of our lives alongside of each other and along side of scripture to sing a new song.

Reflections of ¡Crucificado!

On the Ides of March, 2013, over forty artists from a variety of backgrounds displayed artwork in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church that explored the question “Who is crucified today?”  Crucificado Balcony
(Some high school students from the local El Puente Academy for Peace and Justicecontributed work connected to Black History Month)
A Note About the Show
At the heart of Christianity is a question.  Religious leaders, political institutions, and crowds of ordinary citizens have nailed an innocent man to a board and left him there to die. How do you respond?
The twelve disciples’ first response was to run away in terror and hide.  But over time, Christians have come to understand the original symbol of fear and oppression, the crucifix, as a symbol of hope and even love. The Lutheran tradition of Christianity holds that God is most clearly revealed in Christ’s suffering on the cross.  And so the God we know is a God who is present with those who suffer and shares their pain. The God we know is a God who loves the outcast and wears the face of the oppressed. At our best, Lutherans respond to the cross by sharing love in a broken world.
Jesus no longer hangs on the cross, but every day, countless crucifixions still occur. And so we have invited artists from a variety of backgrounds to help see where God is nailed on a board today.
Tonight, you will behold the wounds of our planet, you will see human flesh (real and imaginary) sacrificed for entertainment, you will witness self-hatred and depression, you will see people condemned for their race, their gender, and for the people whom they love.  You may see yourself on the cross tonight, and you may see yourself swinging the hammer. But more than anything, I hope you see the face God. And remember, the cross is not the end; it is the question that starts the story.El Puente big
(Other high schoolers contributed work connected to gun violence)
Repose Altar

Bell tower(The bell tower serves its usual role as a hotbed of discussion for artists)
TexChildAliCrucificado Wide View
(Throughout the evening we had live American scripturally-inspired folk music by Spark and Echo and Kirsten Leigh, classical Spanish guitar and harp by Silvio Solis and Mario Iglesias, and a interactive performance/conversation by Caroline Rothstein about the very Lutheran concepts of Law (that which reveals our brokenness) and Gospel (the promise of God’s unconditional love).
Jesus Wall
(Art by students from Parsons)
Barbara Barnes
Bottle Cross
 (“The Bottle Cap which the Recyclers Have Rejected Has Become the Chief Cornerstone of This Project” — by Mark Alan Hill).
At the end of the day, perhaps people took away a new understanding of the cross.
Thanks to Jim Anderson and James Dawson for the Photographs.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Crucificado Art Show

On the 2057 anniversary of Julius Caesar's assassination and two weeks before the commemoration of Jesus' execution, artists from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds have been invited to take over the sanctuary of St. Paul's Lutheran Church with art that explores who we kill today.
Opening reception 7pm, March 15th with light refreshments and live music by:
Spark and Echo -- 7pm
Spanish Flamenco Music by Silvio Solis -- 8pm
Performance Art by Caroline Rothstein -- 9pm
Kristen Leigh -- 9:15pm
RSVP for the reception on Facebook.
Art will be available for viewing:
Saturday (3/16) and Sunday (3/17) 1:30-4:30pm
Monday (3/18) - Wednesday (3/20) 3pm - 7pm
Featuring paintings, sculptures, installations, photography by:
Ari Dallas
Nicholas Burgess
Krystal Grant
Mikhail Poloskin
Students from El Puente
Students from Parsons
Christopher Rini
Roz Dimon
Harriet Faith
Marie Stile
Mark Hill
Ali Jacobs
Miguel A. Hernandez
Gigi Chen
Caroline Rothstein
Elizabeth Reed
Janet Culbertson
Terry Lynn LeCompte
Donald Baker
Lauren Ferebee
Jen Browne
Ana O'Keefe
Geraldo Mercado
And More!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Brooklyn Museum Debut or Good Art Gone Wrong

As previously mentioned, the Brooklyn Museum invited me to do a massive participatory art event for their monthly First Saturday Party.  Well, here's how it went down!

1) Visitors to the third floor Beaux-Art Court received a rhyming riddle.
(notice that the floor is a grid of glass tiles, this will come into play later) 
2) The answer to riddle could be found on one of the art pieces in the museum, so visitors boldly ventured forth in search of truth and beauty!
3) When visitors found the answer to their riddle they could use it to claim a 20"x20" tile from a docent on each floor. 
4) Back on the Beaux-Art Court, visitors decorated the tile according to the instructions on each one (thanks to all my awesome friends who helped make these tiles!).

Decorating materials consisted of old Brooklyn Academy of Music programs, old Pratt Institute exhibit programs, and art catalogs from the Brooklyn Museum.  The idea being that the art is literally created out of the big three Brooklyn art institutes. 
Some folks started doing three-dimensional decorations

5) Once the tiles were decorated, visitors found out to which coordinates on the floor grid their tile corresponded.
As the individual tiles were placed next to each other, they began to form a giant mosaic in which the artistry of each individual tile was revealed to be part of a much larger artistic design.  And so, as each person labored to make their small mark of beauty, they began to step back and understand that the project as a whole was...
way too popular for what we were prepared for!
Yup. We simply weren't able to handle person-hours of participation involved. Here are my reflections on what went wrong.
A) We under-estimated how involved people would get in decorating their tile.  As a result, we did not have nearly enough scissors and glue sticks, heck, we didn't even have enough table space (we had six party tables).  So people just started tearing paper with their hands and working on the floor.
B) I thought it would be more exciting if people could turn in their clue for a tile on every floor.  As a result most of our staff was spread out in the museum being under utilized, which meant that there weren't enough people at the Beaux-Art court to help explain the project at the beginning and help people place their tiles at the end.
C) We needed people to help folks place their tiles at the end, because I thought it would be super awesome  surprise if the location of the tile that people were decorating was a secret right up until they placed it. Turns out this was no where near the logistical nightmare caused by requiring every person to check in again. 
In the picture below, you can me, Chris Rini, who designed the final grand scale image, and the director for the First Saturday program, all explaining to folks what's going on. Out of camera are probably my various awesome friends who I conscripted to help the project run. 
 As a result, what would have been a 1200 sq ft mosaic, only got about half-way finished--not enough to really get a sense of what the final image is.  However, visitors really enjoyed both the riddle solving and the tile decorating, so the museum was happy.  They held on the tiles that people made and are thinking up how they might use them in future.  
Personally, I always say that my art form is getting people to have fun creating together, and by that metric, the Brooklyn Museum was a success!
Thanks to Ventiko for the great photos! See more on Facebook.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Doubting Thomas Body Suit

A couple months ago I had one of the most intimate honors of being a pastor:  I was present with elderly woman as she passed away in her sleep after a long life lived well.  As I sat with the woman, I noticed that in death there is no vanity, no pretense of false youth.  The wrinkles and white hairs that during life had been objects of embarrassment, in death became trophies, became signs of challenges overcome, laughs fully felt, and tears honestly shed. 
I could not help but think of the Apostle Thomas, who when told of Jesus' Resurrection, said, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." Because of this he is known as Doubting Thomas. But it seems to me Thomas is not doubting that Jesus has come back from the dead, he is doubting whether this resurrected Jesus means anything.  Thomas needs to know that the person who Jesus was, including the suffering that he experienced, is still the same, even if he has transcended that suffering and overcome death.  But as I looked at the woman who died, I couldn't help but wonder if, in addition to his wounds, if the resurrected Christ also carried crows-feet from belly laughs, liver damage from too much wine at the wedding at Cana, and cataracts from the light of the sun reflected off the Sea of Galilee. 
So for Performance Anxiety, I asked my friend Ventiko to wear a body suit.   
Then I invited people in the crowd to roll a pair of giant foam dice.  Depending on the number they rolled, they were to decorate a part of Ventiko's body with yarn, paint, glitter, puffy paint, feather, and puff balls. 
Participants manifested the scars (good, bad, and fully both) that a person might carry within as reminders of the life they lived and markers of who they are.
But perhaps we don't have to wait until death to take pride in the marks that show our body to no longer be young.  Perhaps even now we can run our fingers along the ridges on our skin from crashed bikes, the dark spots from playing in the sun, the divots from acne popped as anxious teens, and wear them with pride as medals earned in the service of a life fully lived.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Parable of the Podcast: Cain and Abel

Parable of the Podcast is back with Cain and Abel.  This podcast has got it all, jealousy, betrayal, tragedy, and even lighthearted banter between friends. Listen to the episode here.  The next episode is about John the Baptist in Luke 3 trying to get people to repent in preparation for a new world.  So if you have stories about resolutions to improve yourself or the world call (862) 243-2763 and tell us how they worked out!