Once, art and religion played nice: The Catholic Church underwrote Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, and its patronage of the arts ensured that religious subjects remain among the most popular in Western art. And even as recently as the 1930s, Nashville artist William Edmondson claimed that a divine voice commanded him to sculpt.
But these days, religion and art are usually mentioned together when a provocative work upsets the Sunday-service crowd — think “Piss Christ” or Fire In My Belly. In the First Amendment furor that often follows, it’s easy to forget the partnership art and religion once enjoyed.
Nashville is often referred to as the Buckle of the Bible Belt. It’s also home to the Downtown Presbyterian Church, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its artists-in-residence program.
“I had graduated as an art major, and was doing some volunteering as well as some paid work at the church,” says program founder Tom Wills. “I asked the church if I could have a [studio] space on the fourth floor. In exchange, I offered to do all of my work on a volunteer basis, and they said, ‘Go for it.’ ”
Given the dramatic Egyptian Revival architecture in the church’s striking sanctuary, the Downtown Presbyterian Church has art at its core — and it has never censored the work created by its artists. In fact, no one is required to become a member of the church, or even be a Christian, to be considered for a residency.
“The church had no agenda whatsoever for the art or the artists,” Wills says. “Our congregation was largely 50-plus, but now we’ve grown much younger, and I think the art spaces have a lot to do with the welcoming environment people have found at our events.”
Wills cleared a studio space from the detritus on the church’s abandoned fourth floor. “It was the fall of 1994 when I started to paint up there. Eventually I met other artists, like Todd Greene, and we started hanging out. It wasn’t our plan to start a commune or an exchange, but [then-pastor] John Hilley was looking for ways to grow the church, and he started ushering artists in behind me. It quickly became embarrassing to invite people to the fourth floor because we had made it so beautiful,” he jokes. After a trek up the winding stairs, the space blows up into towering ceilings and light-flooded windows — the studios are separated, but not private.
“It was weird,” says Greene. “To me it felt like an art monastery — like we were art monks. We were all single and living on ramen noodles, going in and out of part-time jobs, but often just spending all day up there making art in these haunted parts of the church.” Greene had his studio at Downtown Presbyterian from 1994 until 2002. During that time he created his sold-out Paw Paw Sermons series, which made him something of a rock star in Nashville’s 1990s art scene.
“You had people around you who encouraged you by making you jealous with the great work they were making,” says Greene. “We challenged each other with the idea that we weren’t just wasting our time, that we were really opening up some channels to the muse and to our forebears, while also trying to create something new.”
The program continued into the new millennium, hosting artists like Herb Williams, whose crayon sculptures are among Nashville’s best-known art exports.
From 2005 until 2013, artist Beth Gilmore made the church her headquarters. “I started volunteering at the church,” she says, “and a space opened up for me — it was just a matter of the right connections at the right time.” Shortly after moving her studio into the church, Gilmore opened the pioneering Twist Gallery, which defined its location in the downtown Arcade as the edgy, noncommercial art scene it continues to be.
“I just felt very supported as an artist, and therefore I felt capable and safe when it came to trying new things,” she says. “I felt confident in this powerful, beautiful place where I was working, so I had the courage to think, ‘Sure, I can open a gallery.’ ”
The church studios are currently occupied by Richard Feaster, Cary Gibson, Anna Marchetti, John Pfaender, Cassie Ponder, Hans Schmitt-Matzen and Sarah Shearer. I’ve singled Feaster and Schmitt-Matzen out for the Scene’s Best of Nashville awards in the past few years, and this group’s ambitions are proving to be as big as their talents. They recently converted a church library into the Browsing Room Gallery, which held its grand opening during July’s First Saturday Art Crawl.
“Now people can see what the artists are doing,” Feaster says of the Browsing Room, “but it also gives us a chance to curate and work with other artists in a self-contained space where we can do things like installation work that we can’t do in public spaces. It’s got amazing light, and you’re surrounded by other artists — you’re not just holed up alone. It’s really nice to be around all the activities and galleries on Fifth Avenue. You can take a break and go see an exhibit or run into another artist.”
Artist and filmmaker David Lynch has written about the importance of a “setup” for making art. Lynch argues that creative work requires a proper place and the needed equipment before artists can really come into the service of their ideas and inspirations. For two decades, the Downtown Presbyterian Church’s artists-in-residence program has provided space and light, community and courage, to a number of artists who have helped to put Nashville’s Fifth Avenue on the national map. And given the impact the church’s artists have made locally and beyond, the Downtown Presbyterian Church can lay a claim to a little renaissance of its own.
This story was first published on the Nashville Scene’s Country Life blog.