Robin MacKenzie has been making banners for seventeen years—at first as gifts for friends and family and later as expressions of faith that she could share with her larger family, the church. MacKenzie describes dark times in her life—times when she felt frightened, refected, and inadequate. Then she smiles, recalling how God led her through those dark hours to find new purpose in creating banners that reflect the faith and worship of God's people. She explains that often as she works on a banner, she finds the word or the theme is fust what she needs to refresh her spirit. For MacKenzie, banner making is a way of joining the gift of faith with the gift of art.
Currently Robin MacKenzie is a member of Church of the Servant (CRC) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a part-time teacher of art at Seymour Christian School. Her banners (some of which are pictured on pp. 18-19) hang in churches in Quinter, Kansas; Monroe, Michigan; and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
A graduate of Oakland University and the University of Chicago, MacKenzie has encouraged kinder-gartners through adults to make banners uniquely, creatively, and successfully. She believes that congregations should have the Word reinforced visually as they hear it preached. We asked her to tell RW readers about the process of banner making and to offer suggestions for others interested in producing banners.
RW: Can you briefly summarize the process of creating banners?
MacKenzie: I try to use fresh images and symbols—-that is, not to reproduce the very familiar symbols that can be purchased from liturgical supply catalogues. Once the size and the theme are determined, I try to visualize an image or impression of that theme.
I like to spend some time in the space where the banner will hang; that helps me focus on the project and determine what colors and materials I will use.
Once I know all the variables, I rely on the Lord's inspiration. While I may begin with something in mind, I am always curious to see what it will be like when finished. I find that .the banners almost have a life of their own, which I only help to implement. When I am working on a commission, I draw a preliminary scale drawing for the client's approval. Otherwise, I begin with my background fabric, cut to size, and a mountain of other fabrics. I frequently work on large sheets of newspaper (it has built-in grids and it's cheap) taped together. I work with several colors of chalk (light to dark), drawing my pattern and making revisions.
Once the fabric is cut and laid out, I like to live with it for a while, standing back, making changes as needed. Then everything gets pinned (you cannot use too many pins—I used more than six thousand pins for my Epiphany banner! [see p. 18]), and the sewing begins. I like to sew banners rather than glue them, because sewing seems to be consistent with the fabric medium.
RW: Do you find the actual construction less "artistic" and less satisfying than the designing?
MacKenzie: No. I enjoy all phases of the process. Beginning and ending the project are the only intimidating times. In between I enjoy seeing what will happen as the banner is laid out and revised. The actual sewing can be tedious, but I often use that time for reflection.
RW: Often the theme of a banner is "dictated" to the banner maker. A church may ask for a Thanksgiving banner or for a banner that illustrates a scriptural theme or text. Is that confining?
MacKenzie: Not at all. I have always found working with a theme to be a blessing because it gives me some specifics to run with. Sometimes it also gives me the sense that the banner has been commissioned by God.
RW: Do you find the seasons of the church year a fruitful source for banner designs?
MacKenzie: I am new to celebrating the seasons of the church year, at least in terms of the names and specific times. But isn't the church year really just a focus on the gospel? Banners that I constructed prior to my involvement in the liturgical calendar have often proved appropriate to the seasons.
Recently I completed banners specifically for Epiphany and Lent (see pp. 18-19). Their creation was based not so much on traditional colors and symbols as on the moods and tenor of the seasons. Both were outgrowths of the life of the church I attend.
The idea for the Epiphany banner came from a sermon illustration our pastor drew from Flannery O'Connor's story "Parker's Back." Parker, seeking acceptance and approval and revealing an unrealized need to see the Lord's presence, had a pair of Byzantine eyes tattooed on his back. During Epiphany we also celebrate the Lord's presence, and thus the eyes become an appropriate symbol. The mosaiclike "tesserae" are bits of cloths cut from the fabric of life—party dresses, drapes, remnants of other banners, and discarded liturgical garments. (For the head I used a Time-Life illustration of a work that hangs in the Greek Church of Hosios Loukas; I concentrated on the face of Meshach [Daniel 3].) This large banner (5ffi x 18') illustrates our seeing the activity of God in his realm.
The Lent banners were inspired by a new communion set crafted for our church by another member, Mary Kuilema. Lent is a time that can serve as our "thank-you card" for God's goodness in sending Jesus. It is also a time when we wrap our goals, dreams, and hopes in a shroud and put them in the grave. Unless the seed falls into the ground and dies, there can be no life. It is during this time of contrition and brokenness that we are most willing to hear the Lord's voice and that we can anticipate meeting him on the misty path of a resurrection Easter morning—coming when we least expect him.
These banners repeat the grays and blues of the communion set as well as the horizontal lines left by the hand of the potter. At the bottom of each banner is wrinkled, soiled burlap, reminding us of the sackcloth and ashes of Ash Wednesday and of our repentance. Some of the
cloth edges are frayed and raveled, illustrating the unfinished business of this grieving and hurting time. The strips of nylon frieze fabric (didn't everyone's grandparents have a couch made of frieze material?) represent our traditions and heritage. The thirty pieces of silver represent the Greek tetradrachms (involved in Judas' betrayal) as well as our own fifty-cent pieces (illustrating our betrayal).
RW: When designing, how much are you governed by "place"—the church or home in which your banner will hang?
MacKenzie: If I am working on a commissioned piece, I begin by studying the place where the banner will hang and determining the size of the banner. Banners hanging in public settings should fulfill certain functions, and size often has a lot to do with effectiveness.
If I am working outside of a commission, I try to keep in mind the typical space that I might find to display a banner. Of course, one must always remember that a banner that functions well hanging on a fifteen-foot wall will look very different on an eight-foot wall, and vice versa.
RW: What is your advice to budding banner makers?
MacKenzie: Banners are a wonderful medium. Making them is much less intimidating than facing a blank canvas. Banners are often the recycling of familiar and found fabrics with which we are already comfortable. The scrap bags are teeming with shapes that quicken the imagination and encourage novice and experienced alike. The process of cutting and laying out, pinning and piecing is particularly non-threatening to the beginner. So my advice is simply to begin. Start small if need be, or work with a group if you need encouragement. I recently finished working with seventy-five ten- to twelve-year-olds who, without exception, produced wonderful banners.
RW: Should a church commission professional artists to make banners or encourage its own members to do so?
MacKenzie: There is a place for both. Certainly the Christian artist needs encouragement from the church as well as a market for his or her work; the church ought to use the special gifts of its artists.
But it is also a delight when art is generated from within the body. Banners are an excellent medium for a church to work on together. Perhaps one person, more skilled in design, may be in charge, but there is ample opportunity for corporate participation.
I like to see the ongoing creation of a library of banners that may be hung according to the message or the liturgical season. Our "eye gates" need as much stimulation as do our ears in receiving the Word. Some banners will not be as skillful or successful as others. But, if a banner hangs for only a service or two, such lack of perfection is no great problem.
Basically, I believe we ought to strive to give our artistic best to the Lord. Sometimes that may mean commissioning a banner to a professional banner maker. But often, with a little guidance, banner making provides an excellent opportunity for uncovering artistic gifts and skills from within the congregation.