A Visual Choir

An Advent Installation and Interview with Hannah Garrity

What is she doing? She has my dream job! I need to know about that job!”

The first time Hannah Garrity witnessed an artist creating visual art in worship, it nearly took the wind out of her.

“Being in worship with the art, realizing the huge impact it had on a person like me, who has never felt a strong connection to the Word alone, changed my world. It brought the Word to life. When I was driving home that day, all I could think about was how I could do work like that and how to make it work. For the first time, I felt like I was part of the church and connected when I had felt so disconnected before. It all happened that one day. August 5th. It was a pivotal experience for me.”

Growing up with a graphic designer-turned-professional-potter mom, Hannah was always encouraged to be creative. “I have always been an artist, mostly because my mother told me I was; so I fulfilled that. I can’t remember a time in my life that I didn’t consider myself an artist.”

While completing a fine arts major at Cornell, Hannah found that as her painting skills and confidence grew, so did her disillusionment with the art world. “All my professors had been famous in the decades prior and had to turn to teaching, so they were bitter and offended to not still be in New York making art. And in the last century, artists like Andy Warhol had lived a very hard life. So the more I learned about the art world, the more I didn’t want to be a part of it. After I graduated, I did Teach for America and specifically decided not to be an art teacher.”

After that, she turned away from art. “I completely turned it off. I never made art on my own—I only did it if I was in an institutional setting for art.”

She stopped creating until that memorable August 5th. Since that pivotal moment, Hannah has dived into the world of liturgical art and hasn’t looked back. “I am called to this. I can’t not do it. I can’t stop doing it!” Hannah says.

In the midst of raising children and teaching art at a middle school in Northern Virginia, Hannah takes on as many liturgical art projects as she can get her hands into. During the summers she serves as the artist in residence at Montreat Conference Center, where she creates large banners and installations for Sunday worship in Anderson Auditorium.

Here’s an interview with Hannah on her work leading a “visual choir” to create visual installations during the season of Advent.

Lisle Gwynn: I understand that you led a “visual choir” at a local church to create banners for the season of Advent. How do you go about leading a visual choir?

Hannah Garrity: I first learned about the concept of a visual choir when I read Nancy Chinn’s book Spaces for Spirit. The visual choir was formed so that church members could be included in the installations and so that everyone’s voice could be heard when planning and executing the design. We decided to make banners that are more abstract to allow more people to have access to the art than if they were just looking at an illustration. For this project, I pre-drew all of the imagery and the visual choir painted within those lines to fill in the color. Though I led the process, the team offered their ideas and input every step of the way. The visual choir makes the art into a collaborative effort so that more people are deeply engaged in the creative process and the theological discussion necessary to make the text come to life.

LG: How did the installation take shape throughout the season of Advent?

HG: After much discussion we decided to hang new banners each week of Advent in both the sanctuary and the fellowship hall so that the art could be included in the church’s traditional and contemporary worship services. In the sanctuary we wanted the banners to complement the symmetry of the sanctuary’s architecture. The result was as if we added more stained glass windows to the space. We hoped that making the banners coherent with the architectural framework of the sanctuary would help worshipers see the art as a natural and engaging addition to worship, especially for those not accustomed to visual change. For the fellowship hall, we felt more freedom to experiment with asymmetry, since it was a nontraditional worship space and a service where worshipers were open to more visual variation. In the fellowship hall, the banners were installed each week in a circular pattern to mimic the lighting of the Advent wreath. It was interesting exploring how the banners could function differently in parallel spaces each week.

LG: Tell us a little bit about the imagery and how you developed the visual designs for the banners.

HG: Each of the banners is based on a different lectionary text being used in worship for Advent. All of the imagery comes from Scripture; we wanted the banners to offer visual interpretations of the Word. For the first week of Advent, the imagery was based on Mark 13:24-27, and we wanted to focus on the idea of waiting on a sign. The abstract imagery includes stars falling, the moon darkening, and a person keeping watch in the midst of it all. For the second week, we focused on John the Baptist. We included images of waves, water, and the dove to represent being baptized with the Spirit. The third week’s banners depict abstract figures in postures of prayer and praise to portray 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. The fourth week presents Gabriel, Mary, and the Holy Spirit swirled in conversation to capture the moment in Luke 1 when Mary first learns she is to bear a child. Finally, for the Christmas Eve service, we wanted to reveal Jesus’ birth story as the culmination of all the prior weeks’ imagery. I was inspired by a Madonna and child oil painting that hangs in the church’s childcare wing, so we referred to that art piece to create an abstract version of Mary holding her precious child. The complete installation was visible for all of the Christmas Day worship services.

LG: What materials did you use, and what was the creative process like?

HG: The banners are made of silk. Silk is a bit more expensive than other fabrics, but it has such an inherent beauty that I think it allows the viewer to have a more transcendent experience when viewing the painted imagery. Because of the fabric’s transparency, the imagery can be viewed from both sides of the banners, which was fun to experiment with when deciding how they would hang. Silk painting is also very accessible to all ages and skill levels. The paint is very forgiving, and I use the process of resist, so it’s easy to paint within the lines. Accessibility to the team is really important so that everyone can participate. You can’t go wrong with silk painting; it’s always going to look beautiful. (Note: Silk fabric is available by the bolt from DharmaTrading.com. Dyes used were Jaquard liquid dyes, also available from Dharma Trading and other art supply stores).

LG: How did the visuals enhance worship throughout the season of Advent?

HG: Working with the different texts each week certainly made me more aware of Advent themes in other texts that are not part of Jesus’ birth narratives. Exploring themes of waiting and expectation in other Scriptures helped me to approach the Christmas story with new eyes. During worship, the pastors often commented on the banners during their sermons, so the banners helped bring their words and ideas to life.

The project was fairly time-intensive, which forced the visual choir to get creative about when we would meet to work on the banners. Some weeks we ended up working on the banners during the Sunday School hour, which allowed the art-making to become an intentional spiritual practice and a time to prepare our hearts, minds, and bodies for worship. Because so many hands were involved in the project, church members of all ages were invested in worship. Even those who weren’t involved in the creative process were invested in anticipating what was coming next each week.

LG: What did you learn from this project that you will take with you when leading other liturgical art projects?

HG: I learned how beneficial it can be for a project to truly be a collaborative effort from start to finish. I’m trying to get away from being the artist that comes in and directs the design, to being the one that simply guides the team in the process. Allowing the visual choir to start with the text and come up with sketches themselves is much more fruitful than me coming with pre-planned ideas. This allows the group to have full ownership of the art, and together we are able to dream up better ideas than I could on my own. When I hand the project over to the group, everyone is more deeply engaged and the theological conversations are more thought-provoking and insightful. I’ve learned that my job is to help make the group’s vision into a reality, to make their ideas tangible, beautiful, and public for others to share in.

Note: To see more of Hannah Garrity's work, visit her website at hannahgarrity.com.

 

Lisle Gwynn Garrity is a recent graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary (Atlanta, GA), where she completed Master of Divinity and Master in Practical Theology degrees. As a liturgical artist, Lisle works with churches and communities to implement visual art and creativity into worship. Learn more about her work at: www.sanctifiedart.com and hannahgarrity.com.