Eight Truths for Commissioning Exceptional Religious Artists

Church of St. Thomas More Baptismal Font

Posted by Robert Habiger.

You cannot deny the spiritual impact of excellent religious art. Religious art stirs the soul! Take the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Painted by Michelangelo from 1508-1512 the chapel ceiling is considered the foundation of High Renaissance Art. The ceiling has been used for centuries to give life and meaning to God’s relationship with his people. Originally only seen by a few, one can now visit the chapel and experience awe when viewing the ceiling. It is this unification of art and architecture that intensifies the holy experience in places of worship throughout the world.

Following is my reflection on how exceptional religious artists bring greater awe and meaning to a project. In my 35 (plus) years of consulting for places of worship and devotion I have had the opportunity to work with many religious artists and architects. It is from these relationships and experiences that I have formed eight truths for commissioning exceptional religious artists.

1) Exceptional projects come from the work of exceptional people

My first truth is a by-product of being part of many remarkable projects. I know these projects are special because of the quality of the architecture and religious art commissioned. While every artist is unique in their art, religious artists exhibit another singular trait. They see themselves as offering a ministry rather than merely creating art. Through a life journey that sometimes borders on the extraordinary, they have found a calling in providing art for religious projects. When you learn about their stories you understand their purpose in life is to help others experience the sacred. 

One of my earlier projects was a chapel renovation for the Adorers of the Blood of Christ in Wichita, Kansas. To address the unwelcoming dark and low-ceiling space, the chapel renovation focused on creating a light-filled space by removing walls, installing skylights, and establishing a welcoming environment. But that was not enough. To transform this space and impart a connection with the divine, an attractive threshold to worship was envisioned. An exposed wood wall with light transmitted openings filled with stained glass connected the two spaces. The stained glass told the story of creation to revelation, cumulated with Mary as the New Covenant. This dividing wall transformed an ordinary experience of coming to the chapel to a delightful experience that lifted up the spirit.

Chapel entrance from Gathering Space with stained glass by Claire Wing as part of the Chapel entrance experience - ADORERS OF THE BLOOD OF CHRIST – Wichita, Kansas. Photo by Rob McHenry.

2) Expectations not met will lead to disappointment

One does not want to hear, that is not what I expected! My second truth is true not just for religious art but the entire project.

The expectations of the church typically include: 1) inspirational art; 2) high quality and appropriate art; 3) and reasonable cost.

The expectations of the artist are typically: 1) that the church will allow the artist freedom of expression; 2) the overall process will be open and trustworthy; 3) and the church will install the art they create.

While these expectations frame our relationship to both church and artist, I strive to take a neutral role regarding artist selection. For example, when I assist the church in their selection of artists I do not recommend one artist over another but provide a process that the client uses to select the right artist within a fair structure. I will later cover a recommended artist selection process.

Allowing an artist complete freedom of expression is no easy task for a church. That is why it is important for the right artist to be chosen. We remind each church that to receive extraordinary art requires restraint in dictating how this is to be achieved for their project. Similar to a parent having certain expectations of their child, the best results come not by forced interactions but by good honest communication.  However, the artist must also be in-tune with the church. Open, honest, and forthright communication will only succeed if the church has done the work in selecting the right artist.

Reconciliation Chapel with light filled corner window of laminated art glass by Elizabeth Devereaux, CHURCH OF ST. THOMAS MORE – Oceanside, California. Photo by RMA Photography.

For the window at the Reconciliation Chapel at Church of St. Thomas More, the church wanted to impart a contemporary experience of penance and provide a connection to the outdoor meditation garden. The artist laminated a pattern of different colored glass with arcs of hand-ground faceted glass. The resulting reflections of light from the glass provides an ethereal experience in the chapel. The expectation was to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance in an open and spirit filled manner. That expectation and more were achieved.

To make sure expectations are met, at the start of the project I assist the church in setting clear goals for both the project and religious art. Setting clear goals leads to a successful project. When a goal is not clearly defined then conflicting interpretations can result. I once worked with a church that desired a sense of unity be present in their new worship space. While this was a worthy building goal they did not set any goals regarding artwork. To fulfill their desire for unity, they insisted that all shrine statues be commissioned by one artist. A unity of design evolved, but they missed the opportunity to represent a wider spectrum of faith viewpoints for their congregation. That experience has led me to set clear religious art goals along with building goals when advising churches.

3) Selecting the right Religious Artist is a process

This may seem obvious, but my experience is that many churches do not follow a process for selecting a religious artist. My third truth is that exceptional religious artists are found by following a process for selection. Leaving selection to the pastor, or a donor can lead to uninspiring art being installed.

Religious artists can be found in a number of ways.

  • Hiring artists already known to the church
  • Searching national artist lists
  • Searching Artist Associations websites
  • Canvassing local artist groups
  • Using Consultant/Architect recommendations.

I don’t use just one approach but rather use all of these options. While I know many national artists, I want to learn about the local artist and what they may bring to the church. Of course, I have accumulated my own artist lists. For reference here are two resources that offer good information on religious artists: the Liturgical Artists Directory  and Association of Consultants for Liturgical Space .

When I am asked to assist the church in their artist selection, I make a list of potential artists for each anticipated art commission. I match the artists on this list to the expectations and goals set by the building committee. This can mean that an artist I know is not on a specific project list being established. My role is to encourage the best matches so as to invoke the best outcomes. The building committee reviews the list and views each artist’s website.

I have them ask themselves: Do I like the art? Does the art give me a sense of the sacred? Will the art support the architect’s design and building committee’s vision?

The committee can add names to this list, but I apply the same questions to myself when reviewing any local artist so as to determine if they should remain on the list. The purpose is for the building or art committee to only leave artists on the list who they could see moving forward with.

After a comprehensive list of artists is completed, the committee seeks information from each artist. I typically provide an art narrative that describes the desires and spiritual expectations for the art. The art narrative along with copies of the architect’s drawings are sent to each artist. The request to each potential artist is to provide an art portfolio and to include a letter expressing why they want to be selected for this commission.

We ask that the artist provide an electronic file of their portfolio so that the committee can more easily review the artist portfolios as a group. At the review meeting the committee ranks their choices. Then bring the top choice to the church for an interview.

The main purpose for an interview is that the committee needs to determine if they can work with this artist. If at after the interview the committee feels the choice is right, they can sign contracts. Otherwise, they can move on to the second ranked artist to interview. This process is repeated for each piece of art to be commissioned.

Some church’s resist spending the money to bring each potential artist in for an interview. I can tell you that this is such a little expense when compared to the problems that can arise from a mismatched artist selection.

Here are examples from two different artist selection methodologies. At Church of the Magdalen in Wichita, Kansas, I provided a list of potential artists and the committee followed a process I recommended. They ended up hiring two sculpture artist for the initial group of shrines and will add more artists as funding become available. The healing of Mary Magdalen was placed in the Gathering Space.

Bronze sculpture of Christ healing of Mary Magdalen by Linda Debeau, CHURCH OF THE MAGDALEN - Wichita, Kansas. Photo from artist.

At Church of St. Thomas More in Oceanside, California the Interior Design Team made the suggestion that a prominent local artist be selected for the church’s patron shrine. The artist was well known for his work at the Los Angeles Cathedral but they were concerned that he might not be available for them. I contacted the artist, confirmed a general cost for an installation, and confirmed his gratitude for being considered. The process also included an interview prior to writing the agreement.

Photo is portion of the 10 ft x 20 ft tapestry for Patron Shrine by John Nava. CHURCH OF ST THOMAS MORE, Oceanside, California. Photo by Robert Habiger.

The artist should only start their work after an agreement is completed. Most artists have preferred agreements that they can provide. The key elements in an agreement is to identify the artist’s design process, how often they will meet with the church, the cost and what will be provided as the project proceeds. A clear description regarding when the art will be installed or delivered is critical. How the artist will work with the architect and or liturgical consultant should be established in the agreement as well. Of course, an understanding with regard to when payments are due to the artist needs to be clear. The art agreement should include an allowance for reimbursable travel and installation expenses. When I develop artist budgets at the design phase, I include amounts for travel reimbursable expenses for the artist.

4) Religious art can transcend the worship experience

As is experienced at the Sistine Chapel, an experience of awe is a desired outcome of the religious art. To have a transcending spiritual experience requires an attention to all elements of a project. Some building committees delegate the artist selection to a separate committee believing that art is merely decoration. Other committees hire less expensive religious artists where the quality and attention to detail is lacking. These both represent a mistake in not understanding that more will be achieved by using exceptional religious artists. My fourth truth is that exceptional religious art transcends worship experience.

My third truth emphasized that finding the right artist is a must. As I noted earlier, I assist the church in their art and artist selection by providing a methodology for artist selection. But artist selection is just one part of the overall process. The opportunity inherent in the artist selection process is to guide the church on a spiritual journey. I highlight that what they are about is principally making manifest spirituality and a God-consciousness for the congregation.

While each art element has the potential to evoke God’s presence in their faith community, prayer also must be present. Prayer leads to uncovering each community’s faith story. An inspiring and creative piece of art connects congregants to both the larger God story as well as to their own personal account of God-consciousness. All these experiences eventually evolve into layers of spiritual memories. It is these spiritual memories which generate numinous experiences that transcend a person’s worship experience. 

At the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Dodge City, Kansas a large percentage of the congregation have Mexican/Spanish heritage. They have strong experiential practices derived from the formation of personal connections to the mysteries of the church. People express that they worship with all their senses. With that in mind, the Stations of the Cross were commissioned to not only convey Christ’s suffering but to allow a person to interact with Christ’s suffering through both sight and touch. This resulted in installing the crucifixion station at a height to allow parishioners to touch Christ’s feet and nails. The remaining stations are at eye-level, and through bar-relief sculpture bring to life Christ’s path to Calvary.

Bronze sculpture that is touchable by parishioners as part of Stations of the Cross for THE CATHEDRAL OF OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE - Dodge City, Kansas. Artist is Huberto Maestas. Photo by Robert Habiger.

5) Religious Art belongs in the Contemporary Design

For art to transcend experience, it needs to foster spiritual memories that overtime will become embedded in a person’s faith life. My fifth truth is that religious art must be a feature of our newer contemporary places of worship. We are in awe of the Sistine Chapel and other historical worship spaces. The Sistine Chapel transcends the divine partially because of the art but more so because of the layers upon layers of spiritual memories that have developed over time. We must not shortchange our contemporary spaces. We need to make sure to install worthy religious art, similar to what has been done in the past.

This post is too short to impart a true picture of the complexity and level of detail that goes into a church project. What I want to convey is that one of the essential aspects for a church design is the integration of religious art into the fabric of the worship space. Many contemporary churches have taken the road of least resistance by either installing catalog art, or not having any art at all. This loss of quality art degrades the spiritual connections that can occur from encountering exceptional religious art.

We must strive to install appropriate and quality religious art with an understanding of the impact of spiritual memory.  Memory is an experience. When the religious artist completes their commission and installs the art at the church, a new chapter in the community’s faith walk begins. Memories are fashioned from each person’s encounter with the art. These experiences accumulate to establish an even deeper memory. When the religious art connects to the faith community’s history, then these memories will lead to added significance.

OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE BULTO and shine table at the Entry Tower. Photo was taken at the art dedication with artist - Felix Lopez and Abbot – Rt. Rev. Joel Garner. Photo by Debbie Griesemer.

For the Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey in Albuquerque, the Our Lady of Guadalupe bulto will greet all visitors arriving to the multi-purpose building and retreat center. The artist was selected because he would evoke the traditions and celebrations of New Mexico. Over time, extended memories will develop for repeat visitors leading to a person’s increased spiritual experience with the Abbey and themselves. It is these repeatable experiences that create long-term spiritual memories which, then, contribute to creating significance and meaning.

6) One-of-a-kind religious art surpasses its monetary value

When considering religious art each church decides if they want to commission original art or purchase catalog art. My request to each church is to resist buying art from a catalog. Purchased art generally represents a missed opportunity to achieve something that is specifically unique to their faith community.  My sixth true is that commissioned art is worth the effort and cost. I have found that each original commissioned art leads to a unique story that magnifies the sense of the sacred and eventually establishes long-lasting and cherished spiritual memories. With high quality art a deeper connection is made between the art and the community because there is a connection to the artist as well as to what the art represents.

Often catalog art is purchased because it costs less for the church. But when one considers the entire project costs the money spent for high quality art can easily come under a 2% for the arts initiative. Early project budgeting by the liturgical design consultant for the church is one way to make sure that money for commissioned art is accounted for in the overall project.

Establishing accurate budgets is critical for any project, but even more important when considering religious art. Most religious projects do not have the luxury to add funds as the project proceeds into construction. Often, there is an upward creep in construction costs which causes a squeeze in a budget. Art is commonly one of the first items deleted from the project. To help counter that from happening it is important to have good estimates at the beginning for liturgical and religious art. At St. Columban in Loveland, Ohio funds were tight yet expectations high because of the church’s long history of supporting the religious arts. To retain the high artistic standard a national wood sculpting artist was selected for the crucifix. The crucifix would become a major focal point of the new church and deserved being produced by a highly qualified artist. By commissioning the corpus in linden wood, not only was the cost lower than a bronze sculpture but the visual qualities of a lighter toned element allowed it to be visually present and a focal point of the space.

Crucifix with corpus and cross by Jerzy Kenar at ST COLUMBAN Loveland, Ohio. Photo by Robert Habiger.

7) Hire religious artists for the fabrication of liturgical furniture

Religious art makes up one factor in the quest to create a place of great significance. Another type of art for a church can be classified as liturgical art. This includes the appointments and furniture to be used in the worship setting. The nature of good craft and workmanship in these pieces is also an integral part of the total worship experience. Similar to selecting quality religious artists, an equal amount of attention needs to be given towards vetting crafts-people who exercise great talent in their work. My seventh truth is to hire artists who have a heart for creating exceptional pieces of furniture or appointments. Having custom designed liturgical furniture with an attention to quality in its fabrication also leads to an increased sense of the sacred in a worship space.

My first liturgical consultancy project was in 1981. It was modest project, a parish hall to be used for worship and fellowship. Because of the pastor’s insistence for quality, that first project taught me the value of working with quality crafts-people in the fabrication of the liturgical furniture. At Laguna Presbyterian Church in Laguna Beach, California all the liturgical furniture was fabricated by either quality fabricators or artists. The baptismal font is a good example for bringing together two artists to produce a distinctive and one-of-a-kind piece of liturgical furniture. A black-smith imbued with the craft of creating authentic metal pieces fabricated the base and a glass artist who specializes in melted and fused glass fabricated the glass basin.

Baptismal Font at LAGUNA PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH - Laguna Beach, California. Solid steel metal base forged by Giovani Capon of Giovani Metal Arts. The 1” thick low-lead glass bowl was fabricated by BJ Katz of Meltdown Glass. Photo by RMA Photography.

8) Appropriate art ads beauty to the church

My eighth truth is that the art created by exceptional religious artists can indeed manifest beauty. Beauty is an avenue that reveals the divine. Beauty is the product of an authentic expression of a person’s emotions. When captured by a great artist, the moment of Christ’s last breath can emotionally transcend time. Beauty is genuine not fake. Beauty exhibits the hand-print of the artist. It is personable and not a mass-produced item. Exceptional religious artists provide all of these expressions of beauty.

If our goal is to evoke God-consciousness and deepen our spirituality, then, we must commission religious art that relates to a community’s history and life-journey. Each faith community is different, but they all deserve to have spiritual memories that lift the soul. Significance comes from memories that give meaning to one’s life. Selecting the appropriate religious artist for a particular project requires both a process and a willingness to let the selection bubble up to the top. It is not a process where one does not try to dictate the final answer. Rather it should be undertaken with a great deal of reverence and humbleness. Applying these eight truths, I believe, can mean a higher reward for the faith community.