Covid-19 has closed down so many churches, including mine. Sunday mornings had been my time to meet up with the faithful for services and community. I heard sermons that guided me throughout the coming week. We shared handshakes and hugs. Relationships grew during Coffee Hour. Then came the shutdown. Morning worship changed as did so much of our lives.
My church quickly set up a Zoom account for Sunday services. The online change, though, played havoc with my sense of Spirit. The sound of church didn’t ring with the multitude of signing voices. Gone was the heavenly organ music that tied the service together. Prayer wasn’t communal. It made me acutely aware of my separateness from the community. My focus was no longer on the altar and our priests. Now it was on an array of little boxes, the shape of screens. These were the new pews. The sanctuary became glimpses of living spaces a skewed by the odd angle of devices…And, that there was my way into Spirit. For what is a sanctuary if not one’s home? This realization brought comfort.
Church is so much about building community. It’s about increasing the spiritual size of your immediate family. This was my chance to learn more about this family from the living spaces they’ve created; their personal sanctuaries. With whom, or not, did they share the space? What have they brought into their homes? Did they present themselves lying on bed, seated in a home office, surrounded by a garden? What was their taste in art? Or, did their walls show a leaning towards minimalism? Did they share my love of pets? Were they readers? Did they prefer a cup, mug, or insulated, stainless steel tumbler? Did they close their eyes when they prayed?
That last observation probably gives you some insight into me, the artist that is so easily distracted by the visual, especially by human faces. Those Zoom “boxes” pulled me away from the liturgy, yet open up another sermon, or maybe, a prayer. If you believe one word can be a prayer, then how much more of a conversation can you have with God when you study a face He’s created?
So I admit, embarrassingly, I began taking random screenshots when we met up on Zoom. I’d take the shots before the service begins. I’d take shots during Coffee Hour, church book club meetings, adult education sessions, vestry meetings, and church dinners. Yes, we met on Zoom to enjoy a meal together. Their quite joyous! A lot of laughing when we so need it. So, any time we gathered, church was on, and screenshots happened.
So I offer this art project as an open prayer of gratitude. I’m grateful that church is still happening. I’m grateful for this time to come together as a community. I’m grateful for this chance to see my church family in a new way and get to know each person more. There is no “amen” to this prayer because it is a developing project. I’m starting to translate my screenshots into paper cut portraits. Each one is a prayer of appreciation for the individual. I’ll be posting them as I complete them. The long range goal is to combine them into a single artwork that I’ll share with the congregation. So stay tune to see how it develops.
I’m cutting the portraits from index cards to save time from cutting individual Zoom “boxes.” The index cards are the perfect size and shape. I can cut a recognizable likeness and still have enough space to convey something of the surrounding sanctuary . Even so, the slightest variation in drawn line or or a cut, the likeness is ruined.
Why Paper Cut Portraits?
In an age of digital imagery, making paper cut portraits seems so “old school.” Why spend the time and energy to cut by hand what is now done instantaneously? Why indeed? Here are the WHYs that move me to cut paper portraits.
Fine art is an investment beyond the reach of many as it has been for centuries. However, starting in the 17th century, the poor could hire silhouette artists. A likeness of a loved one appeared in few minutes. These artists carried a small satchel of tools and materials. This explains part of the my choice in doing paper cuts; cheap and quick. I am using index cards and can make three portraits in one evening. Another part is that the finished portraits are fragile. As an artist I like that the fragility of paper mirrors that fragility of life.
A metamorphosis happens when I cut a paper into a likeness. This delicate and meritless material takes on the character of someone I know and care about. Now it has value and merits the tender care that I give to the relationship with these individuals. Part of this is from the time and effort put into the making the piece. The other is the spirit of the person captured in the likeness. The total is greater than the parts.
A lot of artist that make paper cut portraits actually work by tracing photographs. I prefer the challenge of drawing the individual by sight and freehand. This makes me slow down and really look at the individual. It’s like getting acquainted by having a long conversation with the person. Instead of listening intently, I’m seeing intently.
Cutting The Banner
The plan is to adhere the portriat cuts to a larger paper cut banner/ In this photo you can see the print of the basic design that will be cut from a large piece of Tyvek.
I’m making the banner from Tyvek as it so much stronger than paper. It will make the finished design easier to handle, and hopefully, longer lasting. This media choice was not an easy one to make as I pondered the environmental impact of using this material. The manufacture’s website states that I can mail the waste from the cutting to them for recycling.
At the base of the banner is vignette symbolizing the earth being held by God. From it grows a vine that will surround the portraits. The portraits are laid out around other vignettes of some of the things our congregation is missing during the covid quarantine; music, our social hour , and the eucharist. The top vignette will be a cut of the Great Vigil showing our priest opening the sanctuary to all people. When our church is finally reopened, our congregation will be asked to write the names of those we’ve missed, either because they could not Zoom with us or have been loss to covid, onto paper leaves that we will adhere to the design. This will allow us to honor those who have passed, and give everyone a sense of participation. Leaves, a symbol of life and growth, express our survival and continuation.
The Completed Work
I finished the piece a few days before the beginning of Holy Week 2021. As I look at it hung outside my studio, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I’m thankful that my church community could be together during the Covid lock down. The priests worked so hard to make it possible. They learned new technologies, made sure parishioners had access to needed devices, and helped those who struggled with being online. The portraits, arranged as they are, suggest a barricade willingly constructed to save the lives held in each precious home sanctuary. Surrounding us all, the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, the abundance of God’s grace.