“Ultimate Concerns: Prints and Drawings” by Thomas Niccols

 

Ultimate Concerns: Prints and Drawings

Thomas Niccolls

Ohio University and Hiram College

 

Where did it begin?  Perhaps with building a puppet stage when I was a kid.  Or when I studied stained glass windows during boring sermons.  Or because an aunt took me to the St. Louis Art Museum before I knew the difference between Raphael and Rembrandt, but was sure the nude sculpture in the front hall was neat.

Not long after I became Director of Westminster Foundation at Ohio University (1958-70), my dear colleague George Kennedy at the Wesley Foundation held a “University of Life” series which featured profs giving lectures on “Religion and (you name it)” topics.  Dr. Stanley Grean, a philosopher, held forth with Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, while another class led by an active Episcopal layman, Dr. Fred Leach of the Art Department, talked about religion and art.

From that emerged a national competitive exhibition of religious art co-sponsored by our campus ministries.  Leach and his colleagues in art were of inestimable help to us, complete neophytes in such a venture.  We placed ads with a quote from Paul Tillich in national art magazines to invite artists to submit work for our show to be juried by printmaker Professor Mauricio Lansansky of the State University of Iowa.  His national reputation got our project off to a very successful start.

Our first modest show, some 25 or 30 selected works, was hung in the University gallery, and we reveled in the opening reception which brought a good crowd, including the president and his wife. Lasansky recommended a few works as purchase prizes, and thus we started a nice collection of contemporary art which grew each year.

Often invisible in universities like fleas on elephants, campus ministries are usually ignored, but we got good press, and, even better, we had many opportunities for conversations, gallery talks, and panel discussions.  The show brought enthusiasm among the faculty, students and even some folk in the churches.

The Tillichian title “Ultimate Concerns,” of course, attracted debates and puzzlement.  How was one to take the beautiful color woodcut called “Let’s Make Love?”  I recall Leach standing in front of the title when the president’s wife was looking at the art works.  Good thing Jesse Helms wasn’t around.

Other works drew on the long tradition of history painting based on Biblical stories and images.  I scrimped enough from our tight family budget to buy a fine intaglio by Frank Sampson called “Ezekiel’s Vision,” the first original art I had ever purchased. Incidentally, after 38 years on my wall, it inspired me to create my own three dimensional  version, a large assemblage, to carry in the 1998 Parade the Circle sponsored by the Cleveland Museum of Art.

George and I soon learned that the growing annual show took long hours, for we had to un-pack submitted works, and then using the same packages, return all prints except the purchased prize works to the artists.  Our lean budget was largely funded by artists’ entry fees, and some artists who assumed our “foundations” were richly endowed, protested these fees.  We side-stepped the issue with the dodge that since most artists did not object to this widespread practice, we would ignore the prophetic protests.  Today I hope I’d be more ethically responsive.

After a number of years we did use other funds to circulate our collection of contemporary art among churches and schools.  But we were unable to pay our student volunteers who helped us with the grunt work of un-packing and re-packing the art.  Sad to say, the church is typically quick to preach justice for workers in the secular world, but often very miserly about treating its own workers fairly.  Eventually our “Ultimate Concerns” expanded beyond our capacities so that we asked O.U. to take over the show.

What did I learn? Well, I became much more aware of my own interest in art, which led me to seek a Danforth Campus Ministry Fellowship for doctoral studies in comparative arts.  Thus the exhibition set the stage for my later ministry at Hiram College where I taught courses in religion and culture during my twenty-one years as chaplain and professor.

I think the project also demonstrated conclusively that we minister best when we seek ways to involve people inside and outside the church at the points of their deepest commitments and concerns.  Though now retired, I still assist annually with the endowed Hiram College Lectures in Religion which brings national scholars to our campus.  Again and again I find that the lectures which touch the interests of other disciplines besides religious studies attract the most diverse and numerous faculty members, students, and area clergy.

Whether the church will ever again, as in the past, become a major patron of the visual arts remains problematic.  But the enthusiasm of contemporary artists who would respond was surely proven by our project.  I am convinced that even the most financially strapped congregation or campus ministry can find ways to affirm and release that marvelous creativity which helps us see with eyes not dulled by the banal and trite images assaulting our modern world.

 

(Written in 1996)

 

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