077: Movement of the Spirit in Fine Arts

(IF you’re looking for
our “other” landing page, Interfaith Heroes, with the 31
daily stories running through January, then Click Here and you’ll jump over there right now.)
IF you’re here for ReadTheSpirit, then you’ve come to the right place — and here’s today’s story …

     One of the most exciting developments in this 1st Annual Interfaith Heroes Month is the creative spotlight that this observance shines on a whole array of fresh efforts to explore spiritual and cultural diversity.
    Today, ReadTheSpirit is proud to call the attention of our global audience to two pilot events happening this month not too far from our Home Office in Michigan. On one level, they’re fledgling events, but we predict that you’ll be hearing a whole lot more about these projects over the next few years.
    One of these pilot events is a very cool concept, debuting under the title, “Read Me a Story: Recreating the Magic for Adults.” It’s taking place at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit on Friday, January 25 — and further details can be found in our Interfaith Heroes calendar on the other landing page.

    BUT TODAY, we’re focusing on another potentially very influential pilot program debuting at the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus, west of Detroit, on Friday, January 11. The show will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday until February 8. (We’ve got full details over in the Heroes calendar.)
    Michigan-based painter Nancy Thayer, whose spiritually reflective works have been exhibited around the world, is one of the co-curators of the exhibit: “Reflections of the Spirit.”
    Remember the title of the show, because this effort has the makings of a movement within fine-arts circles that could spark annual exhibitions — and, over time, could move to venues across the U.S. or other parts of the world.
    Working with Nancy is Becky Hart, the Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Earlier this week, I spoke with Nancy via telephone from her studio in Franklin, Michigan. While she is very excited about the Dearborn exhibition, she admitted that this has been a whale of a lot of work.
     “Unbelievable amounts of work went into this,” said Nancy, who also teaches at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design in Ann Arbor and at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. “And, for Becky, this has been such a busy time. She played a primary role in the installation of the new contemporary and modern galleries at the DIA, which just opened in November. So, she was very busy with that major project — and still she took on this exhibition in Dearborn, too.”
    It’s important to know at least this much about the co-curators of “Reflections of the Spirit,” because they set a very high bar on the artists they invited to show in this first exhibition.

    Even though Nancy herself would qualify for the show, after decades of exploring these themes in paintings that have been shown across the U.S. and Europe — the two co-curators decided from the beginning that Nancy would not take a place in the show. They wanted as much room as possible for a diversity of other artists.
    “We focused on artists who give us a visual pathway to their sense of the divine, an individual expression of their own spirituality,” Nancy said.
    “But we were committed to making this a collection of works of very high quality. These are museum-quality works. Many of the artists in the exhibition have work included in major museum collections.
    “Most of the artists in this first exhibition are Michigan artists. But we have one artist who is from Pakistan who currently resides in New York. One of the artists, originally from Korea, resides in Philadelphia. We have artists and works from many places.
    “We’ve included 12 artists from a broad range of spiritual communities, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Native Americans and others. You’ll see hand-made paper books, prints, photography, ceramics, fiber, video, bronze sculpture, painting and also mixed media.”

    However, this is not a liturgical arts exhibition. Those kinds of shows, focusing on specifically religious artworks that one might expect to find inside a house of worship, have been organized around the U.S. at various times.
    “Reflections of the Spirit” will be exhibiting challenging works in which visitors will want to stop and spend time reflecting on how a piece of fiber art or a piece of hand-made pottery expresses the artist’s spiritual vision. The answers won’t be obvious.
    “I think we can call this exhibition unique,” Nancy said. “It is unique in its focus on both having a broad, faith-based representation of artists -– and, at the same time, in having the intention of the work reflect the spiritual in this way. There have been exhibitions before that focus on the spiritual. There have been exhibitions that focus on being multi-cultural. There have been exhibitions of religious artworks. But I don’t know of any exhibitions, at this level, that tried to make this kind of broad connection.”
    Visitors should plan to spend “at least an hour, probably more, to really be able to look at the work. There are approximately 50 works to look at, then there are the artists’ statements you’ll want to read. After moving through this once, you may want to go back and view some of the pieces again. This isn’t an exhibition you’ll want to whip through. You’ll want to spend time here.
    “Some of the pieces we have chosen are so quiet, so subtle, that you’ll need the time. I’m thinking, for example, of a piece by a Korean fiber artist. This piece, and many of the others, represent meditations by the artists that you just want to stand in front of for a while.”

    One of the Michigan-based artists is Frank Ettawageshik, a Native American artist who has worked for years to recover traditions of pottery that were nearly lost down through the centuries.
    Nancy said, “We got three of Frank’s vessels that we’ve borrowed from the Michigan State University museum.”
     If you want to learn more about Frank’s work, MSU provides a portal — click here to jump to the MSU-sponsored site. Or, there’s a secondary site that focuses on Native American artists that features a page about Frank’s work. If you delve into the site, you’ll find a piece about Frank that begins: “When Frank Ettawageshik (etta-wah-GHEE-shik) strolls through the north woods, he takes out more than he brought in.” (The reference in this opening line is to the clay and pulverized granite he collects to make traditional pieces. You can read more about him through the sites above.)

    If you live in Michigan — or are passing through the state later this month — there’s also a free reception at which you can meet Nancy, Becky and some of the artists in the show. It’s on Thursday, January 17, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. (Normally, the exhibit is open only 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, but it remains open into the evening on January 17.)

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