Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Art as communal, spiritual experience

Congregations can be centers for creative expression

Protestant theologian Paul Tillich believed that art had the power to reveal
and evoke God’s presence and the ultimate truths of reality. Whether the
subject of the art was a still life or a depiction of a biblical event, he
proposed that it had the potential to break open reality and provide an
experience of the presence of God.

Joe Larson has provided worshipers at Lutheran Church of Christ the
Redeemer (LCCR), an opportunity to experience art in this way. He has
designed and painted several large-format chancel installations for various
seasons of the liturgical year for this ELCA congregation of which he is a
member.

Joe Larson was born and raised in Dassel, Minnesota, a small town 60 miles
west of the Twin Cities. He is a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College in St.
Peter, Minnesota, and earned an M.Div. degree from Luther Seminary in St.
Paul. He is currently the executive director of the Minneapolis-based
nonprofit The Aliveness Project, an organization that provides services and
programs to the HIV/ AIDS community in the Twin Cities.

Larson has been interested in art for as long as he can remember and,
although his major in college was religion, one of his three minors was art.
His primary focus is on painting, with some experience in sculpting.

Larson credits two individuals with being major influences of the Christian-
themed art he produces — Paul Granlund, internationally-known sculptor,
from whom he took a class at Gustavus while Granlund was artist-in-
residence; and Richard Caemmerer, one of the founders of the Grünewald
Guild, a community in Washington state that concentrates on the teaching,
learning, and practice of the art and faith relationship. Larson took a course
taught by Caemmerer while studying at Luther Seminary.

Larson started attending LCCR with his partner Charlie in the fall of 2003. In
2004 he joined the LCCR worship committee, and shortly thereafter was
commissioned by the committee to create three seasonal banners for the
church. In response, he has produced three works of chancel art for LCCR,
each specific to a season of the church year, Advent/Christmas/Epiphany,
Lent, and Ordinary Time (Time after Pentecost). Each of the paintings consists
of several separate sections, instead of one big piece of material, on which
the painting is made. Larson enjoys working on large-format pieces, and the
LCCR pieces are among the largest he has done, measuring 12-feet wide by 8
feet high.

Working in the basement of his Minneapolis home, Larson paints with acrylic
paint on a canvas or plastic background material that is placed on tables
pushed together to provide a large surface. Starting with a rough idea, Larson
starts laying down the paint, creating and developing an idea as he works.
The painted surface is then cut and shaped.

“Painting this artwork is a spiritual experience,” states Larson. “I feel a
connection to God — I’m not just painting. I experience another state of
consciousness.” Painting is Larson’s passion. “It is so different from my
regular job,” shares Larson, “which is mainly involved with administrative
tasks. Painting is a vocation.”

Larson’s Lenten installation, currently hanging in the chancel at LCCR, was
the first piece of artwork he created for the congregation, in 2005. Larson
drew his inspiration for the piece from Paul Gauguin’s painting, “Yellow
Christ,” to produce his figure of Christ on the cross. The colors in Gauguin’s
painting are primarily yellows and rusts. The colors Larson chose for his
painting are purples and greens, since the liturgical color for Lent is purple,
and the greens and purples are “spring” colors. (The original meaning of the
English word, Lent, is spring.) Four smaller painted banners, which get hung
from the arms of the cross, depict scenes related to world hunger and
poverty.

In 2006, Larson completed his second painting for LCCR. The painting is of an
oak tree populated by birds and other creatures, which hangs in the chancel
during Ordinary Time. The banners that hang from the limbs of the tree
depict scenes of baptism, people serving others, and people at worship and
work. A portion of this art piece can be viewed on the home page of the LCCR
Web site, www.lccronpenn.org.

The Advent/Christmas/ Epiphany piece, which Larson completed in late 2007,
consists of 24 two-foot-square panels. The first Sunday in Advent, six
panels, forming a quadrant, get hung. Six more panels are hung in each
successive week of Advent, until by the last Sunday in Advent, all 24 panels
are in place. The painting is based on the first chapter of the Gospel of John.
Filled with symbolism, the painting infuses the sanctuary with the mystery of
the incarnation.

The Reverend Mary Albing, LCCR pastor, remarks, “People love Joe’s artwork,
because it is not only designed to beautify our worship space, but also says
something about our theology and mission. Some members appreciate that
the style is also like us — warm and a little informal. Joe’s art focuses on core
Lutheran ideas — the centrality of the Word, the cross as life-giving, the
priesthood of all believers, and how our Baptism into Christ connects us with
the earth and its creatures and calls us to care for them.”

Todd Asher, a professional photographer who is also a member of LCCR, has
photographed and reproduced the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany work of art
on notecards and as a reprint, suitable for framing. These items are available
for purchase from LCCR. For pricing information, or to inquire about
borrowing the art pieces for display at other locations, people are requested
to e-mail pastor@lccronpenn.org.