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Undying Life

The Work of Art Evangelist Floyd Elzinga

It’s late January 2014, about -10 C/+15 F with snow blowing outside. I’m sitting with Floyd Elzinga in the office of his studio/workshop on his and wife Carolyn’s acreage atop the Niagara Escarpment just west of Beamsville, Ontario. Strong coffee warms our cold bones. Floyd’s iPad plays a song by Canadian pop-rock icon Neil Young; Young’s twangy old voice muffles the background noise of Elzinga’s helper grinding and bending steel. Sculpting in metal is hard and noisy work, but sometimes it’s harder to listen to Neil Young.

Before venturing into the shop, we chat for 20 minutes as I look through a photo album of pieces that now sit in gardens, parks, houses, or churches throughout the U.S. and Canada. I’m stirred by the wide variety of earthy-looking objects of steel that have been cut, ground, shaped, and welded into both representative and abstract shapes. Earthy, yes. Their bark-like streams and drops of welded beads flowing down long rods and tentacles resemble tree roots drooping down into open air at their base. Yet, as they rest lightly on a floor or hang eerily on a wall, I imagine a connection between heaven and earth. Floyd nods.

“Whatever moved you into this work?” I ask. For ten, fifteen seconds, not a word—but Floyd’s deep, expressive eyes tear up. Eventually, his brief, simple answer says a lot more than I’d have thought seven words could: “I have a passion to help people.” Those are the simple words that teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers, firefighters, and others have used to explain their inscape as it seeks to produce external blessing; we know what they mean. From a metal sculptor, though, those few words beg for a story. Floyd has one.

His first studio was in the implement shed of his parents’ farm outside Jarvis, Ontario, near the north shore of Lake Erie; I’m not sure Floyd called it a studio then. Sometimes, though, an anachronism speaks of a heart-truth deeper than, say, the prosaic “workshop” would. Floyd knew farm work and learned to work with metal as a boy. After machines break, joints need welding; rusty bolts have to be heated to break loose. Drips and drabs of molten welding waste spatter the hay wagon axle joint you’re fixing. You try to brush them off; they’re melted into the surface. Hmm . . . looks interesting, maybe like shiny raindrops clinging to a tree branch after a heavy spring shower.

OK. File that image away in a memory fired by an imagination not often given time to explore in the day-to-day demands of earning a living and growing up in a farm family less than a generation away from immigration. You go back to mowing, baling, plowing, cultivating, combining through your teenage years. You allow that memory to rest like a dormant seed deep in your heart and spirit to be harvested later. After years, roots, trunks, lithe branches, later leaves and flowers sprout in your mind and life once you’ve left home after high school and headed east to Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in Halifax.

Let the years of education, changing weather, and thoughts about your art vocation warm the seeds in your soul. Let conversations about art and Christian worship take you in different directions, provoking emotions often in conflict. Lots of people in your extended faith community don’t see a need for art to enhance worship. That’s a hard pill to swallow, especially when in your hopes and dreams you see yourself, without pretense or arrogance, as an “art evangelist.”

Now there’s a phrase bound to raise eyebrows. Evangelists preach the Good News of Christ. In the Protestant tradition we link proclamation tightly, sometimes exclusively, to words: sermons, song lyrics, maybe dense metaphysical poetry, but that’s stretching it. Within the last 30 years drama has gained respectability as a gospel tool, especially within seeker churches. Graphic art, though, took a long time to break through the hardpan of conservative evangelical Protestant worship into its more recently fertile topsoil of Christian expression and experience.

That’s one main reason why Floyd Elzinga doesn’t consider himself a “Christian artist,” so much as an artist who is a Christian. The latter opens onto a much wider playing field—and lots of Floyd’s art is serious play. In fact, it sounds to me as if it’s right in keeping with Abraham Kuyper’s famous dictum, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” In typical quiet candor, Floyd puts it this way: “I wanted to bring art back to a community that for a long time had rejected it.” Funny—the community where he learned art professionally embraced it, but not the one in which he grew up.

Floyd understands why, because his parents’ generation of recent immigrants spent so much of their lives simply surviving, raising families, and building churches and Christian schools that little, if any, time was left over for thoughtful exploration of beauty in daily life or its place in spiritual life and formal worship. Yet some folks in any community simply cannot keep from trying to get out graphically what’s percolating wordlessly inside, Floyd observes. When I mention the ancient painters of bulls in caves in Lascaux, France, Floyd nods again; those prehistoric people surely lived hard lives, with little concept of free time, but their art couldn’t stay inside.

Neither could Floyd’s. How, though, does a hopeful art evangelist integrate the world of art evangelism with Christian artistic expression and exhibition in a reluctant climate? Here’s the simple answer: by walking down a long and winding road of discovery, risk, hope, faith, and perseverance. In Floyd’s case, perseverance was nurtured by economic necessity. Floyd had never deeply considered “commidifying” his art. Although his vision of imagining and creating expression of Christian themes in metal burned hot and clear, such heat doesn’t make ends meet for a growing family.

Thus the artist’s studio became the artisan’s workshop, with Floyd designing large production pieces to sell for outside display in homes, gardens, public spaces. But the crash of 2008 proved no small obstacle to surmount. Floyd can look back on it now, six years after he had to “start all over again.” The people who bought large outdoor sculptures helped keep Floyd’s dream alive because they were, as he says, “largely unaffected by the recession.”

I asked if those well-off collectors ever wondered about the source of Floyd’s imagination—his driving vision to show undying life regardless of harsh circumstance or environment. Floyd couldn’t answer that question. Somehow, though, over the years word leaked out to a few worship communities: “An artist living in the Niagara Peninsula makes some interesting, compelling sculptures. He’s a Christian. Maybe he’ll help us with some ideas about liturgical art and presentation.”

Such inquiries hardly produce a bull market for Floyd’s gifted pieces, but he responds to each one, often working for months with worship committee representatives who visit his studio. Whether they come with vague or specific ideas about what they’d like to place on the platform, artist and congregation members work together, perusing photo albums of sculptures in use in a growing number of churches.

Hagersville (Ontario) CRC is home to the first liturgical arts Floyd created, and Meadowvale CRC outside Toronto is the second. But the story that Floyd considers most important is about Jubilee’s Christ Candle of transformation during the season of Epiphany. It was created as a visual representation of the growth and development of Jesus and his ministry between the time of Christmas through Lent and up to Good Friday.

The candle started as a base made from the simple, rusty steel tube on a recycled farming disc with a Lenten-adorned crown of thorns (see photo above).

From there it was developed into a fully entwining set of roots and bark, transforming it into a 4-foot-tall steel stump replica by adding several roots to it every week to represent Christ’s life. On Good Friday the stump was cut down and the top was removed in a dramatic fashion in order to represent the cutting down of Jesus’s life. On Easter Sunday a shoot with three leaves and a twelve-petal flower were attached to the roots of the stump, referencing Isaiah’s prophecy.

Floyd told me that he fabricated the bloom with twelve petals, because “it just felt right.” Only later did he consciously recall the widespread use of the number twelve in the Bible—especially tribes and disciples, all of which passed through almost predictable seasons of blooming and dying in repeating cycles of creation, fall, and redemption.

In late 2012 the worship committee of Covenant CRC, St. Catharines, commissioned Floyd to make a candleholder useful in various liturgical seasons and at weddings or funerals. After a design and production period that lasted several months, the process resulted in a striking and versatile sculpture standing on a root-like base and slender tree trunk. It can hold between one and seven candles placed on individually removable stands. When removed, the stands reveal what could be interpreted either as thorns or branches—again evocative of profound biblical-theological themes of Christian life and worship.

As is noticeable in several descriptions and photographs, many of Floyd’s sculptures, both those specifically for liturgical use and for display anywhere, incorporate characteristics and parts of trees—roots, trunk, bark, branches, leaves. One baptismal font with roots gripping a rock, embraces the theme of God’s eternally rooted promise, which always has to withstand the winds of temptation and attack. God’s promises will be blustered by the winds of evil, but will bend and never break.

The universal yearning for life, hope, and growth—and the necessary recognition of death and decay—are simply, yet not simplistically, depicted in the products of Floyd Elzinga’s God-blessed imagination, hands, and helpers. While such elements speak spiritual volumes to those versed in biblical history and imagery, they also attract and affect people who might not otherwise have the vaguest idea of what Floyd Elzinga would call “art evangelism.” In a world ever more distant from the letters and words of the Bible and Christian teaching, Floyd continues to develop a challenging vocation in churches and in growing parts of God’s great wide world, telling the gospel over and over again, using words when necessary.

Yet perhaps most serendipitously appropriate for Floyd’s Christian commitment is the way he sources much of his raw materials. After some years of buying expensive stainless steel in sheets and rods of various sizes from factories, Floyd thought, Why not check with a local scrap dealer?

So off he went one day to Sam Adelstein & Company in east St. Catharines. On one recent afternoon as I was recycling some scrap metal I’d scavenged, I saw a postcard next to the counter showing one of Floyd’s immediately recognizable sculptures. I asked one of the Adelstein sons working the weigh scale and counter if they knew Floyd. “Do we know him? He’s always here buying scrap for his weird metal sculptures. In fact, now when we get in some kind of scrap we think Floyd might like, we call him up. He gets a good price and we get rid of some junk.”

Come to think of it, that sounds once more like a modest contemporary incarnation and application of that foundational Reformed motif of creation to fall to redemption. But Floyd still has a bit of work to do to clarify his vocation as an art evangelist with the Adelsteins.