Faith in Craft

Faith in Craft

The Rev. Michael Radford Sullivan

The Rev. Michael Radford Sullivan led the rebuilding of Holy Innocents’ in Atlanta. Photo: Jon Kownacki

In 2010, Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta faced a decision: Should the parish remodel its existing outdated building or tear it down and build anew? In their research, the Rev. Michael Radford Sullivan and his colleagues determined it would cost more to remodel. So they kept the nave (the main body) of the church, which is based on a Frank Lloyd Wright design, but demolished and rebuilt more than 35,000 square feet of space. And as it turned out, rebuilding presented a rare opportunity to incorporate the work of local craftspeople into the church.

Today, Holy Innocents’, a community of faith of about 2,500 people, is unique in the sheer number of handcrafted objects within the church. The church even includes a dedicated gallery space, which is booked two years in advance; some openings draw 200 people.

Sullivan, a sculptor, brings a decidedly artistic mindset to his work, which informs how the church operates. Besides the gallery shows, the church also sponsors art retreats and classes in papermaking and collage. 

Eighteen months after the new building was finished, we asked Sullivan how his handcrafted church came to be and how art fits into the work of the parish.

As you planned the new building, there was an emphasis on using the work of local craftspeople. Why did that matter to you?
There was an emphasis throughout the entire project to use local sources as much as possible. And so the granite that is on the façade comes from Lithonia, Georgia. Some of the wood that was used was reclaimed from the prior building or from trees that had fallen on the campus. The aggregate for the whole foundation of the building was recycled from the prior building. We were intentional about using resources from this area.

That translated into a sort of preference for local artists to help us in the articulation of some of the ecclesiastical elements. For example, Andrew Crawford, an Atlanta metalsmith, crafted a number of pieces.

We didn’t want someone to walk into Holy Innocents’ and say, “I’ve seen that candlestick in 10 other churches,” or “I’ve seen that particular light fixture in another church.” We wanted to empower local artists to bring their vision into our parish church. It wasn’t just the icing on the cake.

Why was using local sources important?
Well, theologically, it says something about what is sustainable. We don’t subscribe to the notion that we as a church need to import something from halfway across the globe and use every means to get it here.

The other piece that is theologically important to me is that the image and likeness of God is in each one of us. We need to trust that this is true in the location and situation in which we sit. So we wanted our architecture to articulate a vision of the kingdom of God as we have received it. Local artists helped us do that. We were lucky; we were in metro Atlanta, and Atlanta is full of great artists.

What would be the norm for somebody in your position sourcing items for a new building?
In the Episcopal tradition, there are two or three suppliers that everyone turns to. You get their catalogue; they may send a rep to help you. You select things, and they are installed. They are just sort of applied. You see some parishes that are willing to branch out around vestments or maybe silver for communion vessels. But to go to local artists for everything from light fixtures to processional crosses to candlesticks to votive stands to the doors of the church to the door handles – as we did – that’s a pretty expansive commission to various artists. I don’t think you see that. Some parishes don’t understand that they can do those things for the same cost or less than if they just picked up a catalogue and ordered.

In addition to craft, you have paintings by well-known artists. You have a couple of Warhol reproductions.
We do. A lot of people don’t realize that Andy Warhol was a devout Christian and attended Mass almost every day of his life. That lives in juxtaposition with the image of  Andy Warhol that we all have. There are great stories about Warhol working in a soup kitchen multiple years on Christmas day. He has done more religious art than any other contemporary American artist; he made more than 100 different drawings and paintings based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper alone. And our architect [and parishioner], Tom Ventulett, donated somewhere around 20 original pieces that he has done – gorgeous watercolors. And then we are lucky to have work by artists from all over metro Atlanta, from collage work to oils.

Is it unusual for a church to have that much artwork?
Historically, it is not unusual. The church was the chief patron of the arts for most of the history of Western civilization. Somewhere in the last 100, 200, or 300 years, much of mainline Protestantism has forgotten that role. And instead of really being a center for the cultivation of the arts, one could almost argue that the church has become a place to suppress the arts.

What we seek is a kind of multiplicity and diversity of expression, because there is a truth in all the expressions of art that draws us closer to the multiplicity and diversity of God. And so we seek those things from artists. I will give you an example: Outside my office are five pieces that hang in a row by Ellen Kierr Stein. She’s a marvelous artist. She has done this work mostly for synagogues. Well, we need her to articulate that vision for us too.

The notion that Christian churches can only have these highly stylized Renaissance-looking depictions of the Last Supper or the Crucifixion – well, if you think about that, it becomes idolatrous. We need the expansiveness of articulation, the diversity of articulation. We never hold God; we never understand God completely. We need all these expressions to help us expand the boundaries of our hearts and expand the boundaries of how we understand God in the world.

Why does art seem almost antithetical to religion in some settings?
At least in the American context, the historical emphasis of the Puritans and lack of visual expression – I think that’s where much of this fear in the church originates. So you look back at the founding of our country, and you see whitewashed walls and clear glass walls and no adornment and Christian churches that didn’t even have a cross.  That’s one end of the spectrum – which was incredibly influential in our history. Now, the other end of the spectrum was the Catholic tradition, which allowed for stained glass windows and saints statues and other things. But maybe those things became almost mechanical in their expression. They were churned out almost in the manner of the Industrial Revolution. What I hope we’re doing is giving an example of how freedom and creativity can give voice to the kind of expansiveness that we need not fear. You’ll find everything from a very traditional icon in this parish and a 17th-century ceramic – porcelain that has been painted with an image of the baby Jesus on it – to Andy Warhol to extremely abstract pieces, because that’s what I believe we need. Given the response of this community to the beauty, to the pushing of the boundaries of our hearts, I would say that people are starving for this.

What makes you think people are starving for an expansive artistic vision?
Well, I say they’re starving because they come. We offered a papermaking class recently – it was well attended. People loved that possibility. We offered a collage class; people showed up. We did art as a retreat. People showed up. And when they got here they were thankful for what they encountered. I say they’re starving because they want community and connectivity, and I believe that environments such as this one provide community and connectivity in ways that other environments do not. And it’s not just a numbers game. I think it’s also in how people live their lives and express their hearts.

Monica Moses is American Craft’s editor in chief.