BY ERROL CASTENS
TUPELO -Faith and the arts often don't seem to have much in common in the 21st Century.
First Evangelical Church reminded itself this week that it wasn't always so. The church sponsored its second Fine Arts Ministry Summer Camp, a five-day event for budding artists.
Bringing it home
“The arts largely started in the Church, and we've gotten away from that,” said Peggy Hodges, who directs the fine arts ministry at First Evangelical Church in Tupelo.
“The Renaissance painters, the great composers – most of them were Christians,” she said, noting the works of da Vinci, Michelangelo and Bach, among others. “A lot of their work was religious in nature.”
To the modern mind, a Bach fugue seems entirely appropriate in a Leipzig church, as does Michelangelo's painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Incorporating fine arts into a church that meets in a gym can seem, at first glance at least, awkward. Leaders at First Evangelical have recognized just such a need.
“It's an area of modern life that the Church has too often conceded to the secular world, and it need not do that,” Hodges said. “The children who have these talents will try to find an outlet for them. This an attempt, in a small way, to bring the arts back where they belong.”
Fine Arts 101
Mostly pre-teen students joined the summer camp classes, in which they could advance their skills in visual and performing arts ranging from watercolor to dance to drama to a variety of instruments.
Trudie Miller teaches dance.
“We learn basic movements based on ballet,” she said, adding that students in the class also begin learning the French-based vocabulary of dance.
A kinetic art that some faiths would reject outright, dance can be a spiritual experience for some, Miller said.
“It can be a form of expressive worship,” she said. “Some people find it very beautiful, and some people don't get it -but that's OK.”
Debbie Milne aimed to train both hand and eye in her visual arts classes.
“We did contour drawings and gesture drawings,” she said. “Today we studied color, and they mixed their own paints. I'll also teach them about the value' of color – the lighter and darker characteristics.”
One of the group's first projects was a black-on-white collage of shapes to further the understanding of positive and negative space.
“I wanted them to get their hands on something right away,” Milne said. “If they don't think art is fun, they won't want to stay with it.”
Milne, like Hodges, has a strong philosophy about art and religion.
“I believe God is the initiator of creativity,” she said. “You would hope to teach these children that in the things they create, they should honor the Lord.”
Beyond self-expression, she added, being involved in the arts can be an opportunity to extend God's love and understanding to others.
“You meet all kinds of people (in the arts),” Milne said. “Some are attracted to art because they're hurting, and it's a way to express that hurt. As a Christian artist, you may be able to minister to them.”
Drama teacher Roxanne Lollar sees similar possibilities in her discipline.
“It's a wonderful opportunity to gain unique tools to witness,” she said. “With drama, the children develop skill in movement, vocal projection and the ability to speak before an audience.
“It's also a social activity with other children.”
Despite its label, the FEC fine arts camp was hardly a stuffed-shirt affair. This was especially evident in some of the music classes.
Chase Windham, 9, was heard hitting some very recognizable blues licks in Katie Knight's guitar class.
“I've been playing about a year,” said Windham, who also plays an electric ukulele. “Rock is my favorite kind of music.”
His cousin, Mason Tudor, 10, had mastered several guitar chords by mid-week and was practicing transitions, hoping to develop the effortlessness that puts audiences at ease.
“Chase and I will probably have a band someday,” he said.
Piano classes also tended to be quite informal affairs. In one, an array of girls alternately pounded or romanced the keys of several instruments.
Anna Claire Priest, 5, worked on basic keyboard fingering exercises with a simple song about a boat while Carly Golding, 6, took a one-note-at-a-time approach to a well-known melody tied to a nursery rhyme.
Brianna Joy Wigginton, 9, sat at yet another piano with Anna Williams, 10, practicing the chords that on Friday would flesh out the class' mass performance of “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”
“I love music,” said Wigginton, who said she also plays the saxophone “a little.”
Williams rattled off the classes she was taking at the camp -art, voice, drums and piano – and gave a nod of approval across the board.
“I like all of them,” she insisted.
While group piano lessons often engender cacophony in a room with multiple instruments and scores of itching fingers, starting children on the road to musical appreciation -and perhaps performance – is worthwhile, said piano teacher Andrea Harris.
“Seeing them grasp the concepts is a great reward for me,” she said. “For them, the reward will be being able to play a song together at the end of the week.”
Other instruments being taught included drums and violin.
Attendance at FEC's 2004 fine arts summer camp was down drastically – a mere dozen students compared to last year's 70 or so.
“It's hard to coordinate schedules in summer,” Hodges said. “Everybody's going in a lot of different directions.”
Nevertheless, the church will stage the camp again next year. Meanwhile, it will continue to link faith and the arts with its year-round fine arts ministry.
Set on weekday afternoons for school-age children and evenings for adults, the program offers most of the same courses as did the camp.
Cindy Glazier of Tishomingo took voice lessons last year in FEC's fine arts ministry.
“The instructors are very, very knowledgeable of their subjects,” said Cindy Glazier, who sings in the five United Methodist churches her husband, Gary, pastors. “They were critical but encouraging. They made you work hard.”
Gary Glazier took guitar lessons, she added, and “went from not knowing a thing about guitar to really being able to play.”
Many members of FEC have taken drama lessons to become more effective participants in the church's Christmas and Easter pageants, which draw thousands of visitors annually.
Hodges said such application is central to the mission of FEC's fine arts ministry.
“The goal is to equip Christians with the tools for ministry – corporate and private.”
For more information:
The fine arts ministry at First Evangelical Church in Tupelo is planning its fall semester activities. For more information or to register for classes, call the church office at 844-8522.