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“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” —Mark 10:38

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Catherine Kapikian’s Art in Service of the Sacred

(Abingdon Press, 2006)

by David Gambrell

I find Kapikian’s work to be helpful and challenging for both churches and artists, because she demonstrates how each needs the other. Churches need artists to help them hear and glimpse the unseen presence of God, to breathe new life into well worn symbols, to disclose the truth of the Word in ways that transcend words, to engage the whole person in worship through multi-sensory participation and to focus and sharpen the meaning of our liturgical practices and structures.

Beyond traditional notions of financial patronage, artists need churches as an antidote to the barren, artificial spaces of galleries, the isolation and competitive individualism of the arts world, and the anomie and entropy of contemporary aesthetics. For these reasons, she encourages mutual support and engagement between churches and artists, in contrast to the long-held understanding of art as “handmaid” to the church.

Another significant contribution of this work is Kapikian’s model of “participatory aesthetics” — her habit of involving congregations in nearly every stage of the artistic process, from preparation and education to design, and from fabrication to interpretation of the work. She sees churches as active collaborators in the making of art; no doubt this has an enormous impact on the way the work is received, appreciated and understood by the community of faith.

Kapikian describes the six-stage creative process (98-105) she has discovered in her work (one that certainly resonates with much of my own experience):

1. Acquisition (information gathering)
2. Frustration (anxiety and ambiguity)
3. Incubation (gestation and synthesis)
4. Illumination (surprising insight, grace)
5. Articulation (often frenzied assembly)
6. Communication (receiving others’ insights)

Kapikian is a visual artist, but this could easily be a blueprint for songwriting, worship planning, sermon preparation or any number of other liturgical arts.