The language of arts

Artist-in-residence strives to make 'art and soul' connection
January 31, 2004

The art is big, bold and bright, but the artist herself is a diminutive woman who in her own words has "obviously lived a long time." Her hesitant manner of speaking leads one at first to believe she is timid. But, as the conversation continues, it becomes evident she chooses her words carefully, because she is keenly aware of the pictures that words paint.

Catherine Parker is artist-in-residence at Trinity Episcopal Church in Buffalo, N.Y. Two of her paintings were selected for the multimedia presentation of spiritual art that preceded daily worship at General Convention last year.

Parker says she owes her father, watercolor artist Charles Burchfield, a debt of gratitude for having held up the lifestyle of the artist as an acceptable role model.

Most women feel guilty when they are pursuing their art," she says. "I feel guilty when I'm not!"

Her father, whose work went largely unnoticed during his lifetime, was forced to fit art in on the edges of his life. He painted primarily on weekends and during lunch breaks at a wallpaper manufacturer where he worked as a designer. There is a hint of her father's style in his daughter's paintings. "I use nature as metaphor," she explains, "and my father did, too."

But where Burchfield's paintings often depict nature's dark dramas with harsh, almost vengeful lines, Parker's are infused with bright colors and a hopeful, mystical quality.

"My father was not a happy man," she says. "I think that comes through in his art."

Catherine and her four siblings were raised in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, a conservative tradition.

"I stormed away [from the church] in a rage when I was young. I just couldn't accept the dogma I had been taught," she recalls. "My father's God was not my God. But I felt called to be Christian. Jesus has always been compelling to me."

Returning to worship years later, she chose a Unitarian church because "I didn't have to say things [there] that made me crazy," she says. "Yet for the entire time I went there, when ever anyone would ask, I would never say, 'I'm a Unitarian.' I always said, 'I go to the Unitarian Church.'"

Then, several years ago, she attended an anti-casino rally and ran into an old acquaintance. It was one of those "You look familiar. Don't I know you?" things. The old friend was Ellen Montgomery, who in the ensuing years had become an Episcopal priest.

"Within two minutes, we found ourselves in a deep theological discussion," she says. Then, the Rev. Cameron Miller, rector of Trinity Church, joined them.

Today Parker calls herself an Episcopalian, and Trinity is a major part of her life.

"I've never been good at joining committees," she says. "But I did want to share my artistic talent in a way that could benefit both my church community and the local arts community."

As artist-in-residence, Parker works with Trinity's arts committee and strives to make the "art and soul" connection for congregants and artists of all kinds.

Communal painting

This summer she organized two communal painting experiences for the congregation. The first project's goal was to create an artistic metaphor of the congregation. Three four-foot-square panels were installed in the courtyard, and the members were encouraged to paint themselves into the picture. Catherine then joined the individual expressions by painting a unifying background. A second project focused on the theme of transformation.

"The results aren't great works of art," she admits, "but that isn't the point. The idea is to help people understand that they are part of something larger than themselves."

Beginning artists benefited from being with more experienced ones, and experienced artists enjoyed one other's company in a noncompetitive setting. Trinity members got to see their church from new perspectives -- and evangelism happened. One of the artists who participated in the mini-marathon now attends the Sunday evening service.

Parker believes that contemporary paintings mounted at eye level are more intimate and accessible than stained glass-windows that tower over heads, and can be more in tune with the spiritual ethos of today?s generation.

"Contemporary arts speak of now," she says. "They speak to us in a language we can understand."

For more, view Catherine Parker's website at