Lutherans in the Twin Cities

St. Paul’s Lutheran sees images of its namesake

Meeting God through artistic expression

Artist Ron Felt is out to correct what he perceives to be an over-reaction to the Catholic Church by early sixteenth century reformers. “The reformers worked to convert the Catholic Church over past doctrine,” Felt said. “But, when it came to art, they threw the baby out with the bathwater.” They identified Christian art with those with whom they were in conflict, he explained.

“Luther appreciated music, but primarily for didactic purposes,” Felt continued. “And his followers tended just to throw out [compositions] if they didn’t like them.”

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Stillwater, Minnesota, is becoming quite the art gallery. With sculptures and hand-carved crosses, St. Paul’s challenges the mind and heart.

Felt had a different reaction. Now a retired dentist in the Twin Cities, he remembers a day of personal transformation when he went to a Polish Catholic Church in Chicago and “was overwhelmed by the icons and paintings. … After soaking it in, I realized that I felt closer to God because of [the works of art],” the artist says.

“Lutherans have done so well with music as an expression of faith now. But we need to catch up on art.”

Relief in a narthex

Felt was recently asked to do a series of sculptures about the life of its namesake saint by St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, his home congregation since moving to Minnesota. (The Rev. Mark Becker, pastor at St. Paul’s, had been an intern at Felt’s Chicago congregation years ago, which is how a St. Paul resident ended up attending a Stillwater church.)

In telling the life of St. Paul, as presented in the Acts of the Apostles, Felt centered on four themes, each captured in one of the sculptures — “The Martyrdom of Stephen” (see photo on page one), “The Conversion of Saul/Paul,” “To an Unknown God,” and “The Storm at Sea.”

The consistency of Paul’s portrayal helps the observer to gain insight into the thoughts of the artist. “In each [piece] Paul is wearing a headband” in order to make him easily recognizable.

Originally designed for the sanctuary, the four oak wood reliefs now hang in the narthex, where the light is better and people can spend more time looking at them.

“I used a cherry stain with a gloss polyurethane” on the sculptures,” Felt explains. “They are placed on very plain wood to be set off.”

“When people ask why I use a hard wood, instead of a softer material like basswood, I remind them that Michelangelo worked in marble,” says Felt with a wink.

“I felt closer to God because of the works of art.”

The art works were dedicated in January, and were the subject of a sermon series at St. Paul’s in February. Pastor Becker, who worked with Felt to write the description of each work of art, preached sermons that corresponded with each of the sculptures. His sermons were titled “Unlikely Witness,” “Unexpected People,” “Unconventional Methods,” and “Unrelenting Faith.”

Felt brings a lay theological perspective to the artwork he creates. He is as interested in an honest perspective of the human condition as he is in making a spiritual statement. “The Bible is full of flawed people, like Moses and Peter,” says Felt. “The stories intentionally point out their flaws so that [the community of the faithful] can see them.”

“I really like ecclesiastical art. It’s developed into a second profession.”

Well, that is turning out to be true for Felt. St. Paul’s intern pastor Marla Amborn suggested that her home congregation, St. Stephen the Martyr, White Bear Lake, invite Felt to produce artwork related to its namesake saint as well. Felt started that project in February.

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