A Transcendent Art Conference


Christians in the Visual Arts, or CIVA, held its biennial conference in Austin this past week with the theme “transcendence.”

Since our calendars were clear and this event was nearby, my friend, Sue Wood (no relation), and I signed up and packed our bags. We went in need of artistic nourishment, inspiration, and a desire to deepen our friendship. And yes, we took along our hunger for some Austin cuisine. We managed to get some delicious take-out dishes from Clay Pit despite the crowds of people celebrating Diwali. And we grabbed some Velvet Tacos between a morning and afternoon session of the conference. Then, of course, we made our way to Amy’s Ice Cream on South Congress to watch the people and indulge in a small sugar cone full of creamy deliciousness. Whoever invented Cold Press Vanilla Ice Cream deserves a round of applause!

Each evening we retired to a little yellow Airbnb north of the University of Texas for a good rest and digestion of great eats and interactions. 

We knew we were in for a lot of exciting information because the speakers’ bios sent out ahead of our meeting mentioned professorships in printmaking, painting, and sculpture, as well as theology and humanities. Also included among them were theologians, an interpretive planner, photographers, and more from all across America. The common inquiry with participants, “where are you from,” also elicited far-ranging replies. I grew to be surprised when I encountered Texans among the 150 or more participants. Hands-on workshops were less prevalent here than at Texas Art Education conferences I’ve attended, but the choices to Make, Listen, Grow, or Share, gave us enough variety. 

We split into seven groups on our first full day, going to various workshops, galleries, and churches. I enjoyed “Sacred Spaces: Austin’s Historic Churches” on foot with an interesting group that included a seasoned Dallas Theological Seminary professor who teaches a course in the theology of aesthetics. In addition, I made friends with a young freelance artist from Wheaton, Illinois. Emily, it was so lovely to meet you as we walked toward St. Elias Church before taking a deep dive into Orthodox Christianity.

Sue Wood, left, and Marianne Wood

Also, along the way or while waiting for a session to begin, we picked up ideas from other participants. One woman told us about her practice of offering Creative Studio Time each week at her church. Makers bring a lunch and a work in progress. It’s come and go from 10-4. Another person suggested including writers who respond in their medium to visual works. It could go vice versa. 

We also heard music. Ellen Rose, the former principal violist for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, performed a work by Bach. Before she began, she asked us to think of the lower sounds we would hear as the voice of God and the higher tones as the voice of man while paying attention to the interplay of the two. Worship ahead of each day included music, too. 

Delta David Gier, currently the music director of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, sensitively moderated a panel of five artists discussing “The Sublime in Art.” Specifically, the artists addressed the responsibilities of Christians to create artistic spaces which facilitate an encounter with the Divine. The term “visceral wonder” stands out as an outcome one can hope will result in the viewer from experience with a work of art, but we can’t set out for the sublime. A dialog with the viewer may occur in which this happens, but it may not. And if a church takes a utilitarian approach to art, what then? One stated his opinion that it could be hard to demonstrate the relevance of art in an artistically illiterate society. I did not hear an “amen” but a lot of murmuring that concurred with it. Of course, we could debate this all day with another side saying that artists could do a better job not hiding the truth they wish to tell. And so on. But the interaction of the panelists’ comments skillfully woven by Gier presented much to consider, including his comment that will cause many contemporary artists to wince: “for Bach, self-expression would have been a foreign concept.”

Image from CIVA conference 2021 (Submitted photo)

At the end of the conference, the Founders’ Award went to an elderly founding member named Betty Douglas who had already captured the group’s hearts with wise comments. The emcee noted that she sang a jazz version of the songs during worship. So no one was surprised when she offered a piece in her style that alighted delightfully, buzzing around in our souls.

Bees must have been in the air because another presentation that hit me on a sublime level came during a talk by David JP Hooker, an artist, and professor of art at Wheaton College. A potter who has exhibited nationally and internationally, he titled his presentation “In Praise of Ordinary, Everyday, Humdrum Transcendence.” He took four approaches to help artists of faith put people in touch with the Divine. Still, his celebration of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi that accepts imperfect and impermanent beauty moved us significantly. While delivering a nearly flawless lecture with slides that aided us in following his spoken words, he welled with emotion that made him pause to collect himself, creating a speaker’s sort of wabi-sabi. It must have come after encouraging us to this, as I noted imperfectly on my pad of paper: “invite the Holy Spirit in and see what He does…start with curiosity and inspiration shows up along the way–sometimes.” He also pointed out that the concept of wabi-sabi showed up simultaneously as the Renaissance, in the 15th century. Chew on that, art history and theology students! This lover of simple, ordinary clay left us with much more, using words and photos and then graciously gaving to every participant one of his hand-made ceramic bees nestled in beeswax and encased in a clear little jar.

Sue and I both noticed graciousness in the conference-goers in general. Kindness permeated the event. And I seldom saw anyone, young, old, or in-between, disengaged from the group staring at a phone. Perhaps it was caused by some of that “ordinary faithfulness” that CIVA President Joe Cory mentioned toward the end.

And what a treat to meet Ned Bustard, the prolific printmaker whose work many may know through his illustrations in the book Every Moment Holy by Douglas Kaine McKelvey. Ned staffed the book table and had a project in hand to work on during a lull. I admit I was star-struck.

An exhibition of artwork featuring faces accompanied our walks to and from workshops in St. David’s Episcopal Church, our host. Ned Bustard’s portrait of C.S. Lewis was there. And a stunning Chagall called “David and Bathsheba.” We noticed guards. They may have been on hand to care for the Matisse, too.

Recently asked if all art will be going digital soon because it is faster to create and easy to install, I pondered my reply but a moment. While much of digital art is beautifully rendered, I think not. This conference reminded me how important it is to meet with the makers, hear their hearts, and rejoice in the transcendence from knowing them and their breathed-on work face to face. 

CIVA’s mission/commitments, summarized here, encouraged me to reflect further: Called to Creative Work, Devoted to the Church, and Present in Culture. Find them at CIVA.org. I joined this morning!

Marianne Wood works as an editorial assistant and researcher for Bill Wright

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