Inspiration, Illustration, and Integration: Resources on the web for the visual artist

The weekly head-scratching exercise (“Well, what do we do this Sunday?”) is well-known to preachers, liturgists, dramatists, and musicians. Visual artists, on the other hand, contribute to worship less regularly. That is to say, while congregations enjoy artwork week in and week out, the work of producing that art—a new banner for a new season, a new baptismal font, ceramic pieces thrown for a new communion set—happens, at least for the traditional visual artist, more periodically.

But there has always been the person (unlikely to be called a visual artist) who does artwork with greater regularity—for instance, the person who puts appropriate clip art in the weekly church newsletter. Or the pastor who wants to discuss or display a handful of famous paintings as visual illustrations for a sermon series. Or the person who finds the beautiful woodcut and has it scanned for the cover of the Easter bulletin. Or the high-tech equivalent in some churches today: the person who designs and puts together a PowerPoint presentation that may include clip art or fine art or even film art.

Visual artists today are not just the traditional sort, looking for resources to fund the imagination out of which their art is born (an important and ongoing enterprise). They are also week-to-week head scratchers, wondering what’s already out there to help enliven or enflesh this week’s good news to this week’s congregation.

Just a year or so ago, there would have been little on the Web for any sort of graphically-oriented individual serving the church. But today there are a host of sites hosted by like-minded artists and ecclesiastical leaders, eager to share with one another the joys and burdens of expressing our God- imaging creativity in worship and helping to make the gospel intelligible in an increasingly visual culture.

Inspiration

The obvious first stop for anyone surfing the Web for helpful “artistic” sites is www.civa.org. CIVA—Christians in the Visual Arts—is a nonprofit organization founded in 1977 to “explore and nurture the relationship between the visual arts and the Christian faith.” While this site’s primary purpose is to promote the organization itself, it has a number of great resources for visual artists. One page describes CIVA-sponsored tours of Greece and France and Italy that look fascinating. Another page lists conferences CIVA sponsors or promotes. Another features the organization’s publications. (The most recent 32-page journal, SEEN, was published in conjunction with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and focuses exclusively on worship-related art). Another page touts a number of art exhibitions (many of which travel or can be rented). Best of all, the CIVA_SITE page offers an online gallery—in effect, a cyber exhibit for featured artists, where art is shown in “as much splendor as digital imagery will allow.”

Another site with its own digital gallery can be found at the very youth-oriented www.theooze.com/artgallery/view.cfm (check out the rest of the site too. It’s an attempt to create an online Christian community based on some interesting postmodern principles).

There are, of course, hundreds and hundreds of other “Christian art” sites on the web—pages where an artist will display and advertise his or her artwork. Finding these is easy: either go to a site of sites (a “link” page) such as www.christianlink.com/art, or pick your favorite search engine, type in “artist” or “art” and “Christian” (and any other modifiers you’d like), and surf away. The quality will be random, but inspiration sometimes comes in negative ways too (“Yikes! Deliver us from art like that!”). This sort of site surfing is time-intensive, and it’s the kind of thing you do not so much when you’re looking for worship-related resources as when looking for sources of inspiration, the imaginative raw material from which original art comes.

Illustration

But many people involved in graphics ministry in the church are not original artists. Like most church musicians, who do not compose their own work, they look for art that has already been produced, and then contextualize it for their own congregations, using it to evoke an emotion or illustrate a point. Some of the examples cited earlier are particularly common, and there are websites especially suited to them.

For instance, banner makers might visit www.sanctify.com. For $395 you can order one of the many banners they display at their site, or contact them to design your own and have them construct it.

If you’re looking for clip art for a church newsletter or images to use in constructing your congregation’s website, check out www.christart.com/artsearch. Here are links to dozens of other clip art sites. Some of the stuff you’ll find will be hokey, some theologically suspect and unusable. But much will be quite good. One site, Bulletin Bonanza, (www.catholic1.com/bulletins/index.html) offers black-and-white clip art keyed to lectionary passages by year and week. It’s very easy to use, and it’s free. Another (uatype.faithweb.com/fonts.html) offers five different fonts where every letter is a different type of cross.

Preachers looking to illustrate their sermons would do well to check out the Web Gallery of Art at www.kfki.hu/~arthp. This massive site is a virtual museum and searchable database of European painting and sculpture of the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque periods (a. d. 1150-1800). It holds more than 9,200 reproductions. Not all are religious, but most are. You can also read biographies and commentaries, or take a particular tour. You can even listen to period music as you browse.

Those looking for more help in finding just the right painting to illustrate the Scripture passage for this week’s service should check out www.textweek.com. Among other helpful study and liturgy resources, you can find an art concordance indexed by biblical theme (the Prodigal Son, the burning bush) and a movie concordance indexed by spiritual theme (discipleship, healing).

Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).