It's fully three years since I first started thinking about doing a large scale painting for the chapel wall at Idlewild Presbyterian, where I'm artist-in-residence. I almost always go to early service, so I spend a lot of time in the chapel.
I did one early study, and while there were things I liked about it, it wasn't right in the space and with the windows. After thinking for a while, I did the study of what would become the final painting. It's a more ROYGBIV than most of my paintings, but the front of the chapel has a fabulous, mod, 1950's or so stained glass window with lots of red and yellow, and I wanted colors that would complement it.
I did a good bit more thinking before I dove into painting. I had done exactly one painting even close to the size of one of the larger sections, so this was fully three times bigger than the biggest thing I've done. It was intimidating, but also exciting. A trip last year to the Walter Anderson museum, with its glorious murals, finally sparked me into action, so it's fitting that I was just there again before the final hanging of my piece.
The painting is called "The Garden", and is my vision of the promised renewal of creation, with the tree of life at its center and rivers flowing out of it to water the earth. I've been teaching apocalyptic literature over the last couple of months, and one of the things I love about it is that promise of a new creation. Not just human souls are saved, but all of creation is remade into what God intended for all of us. The visions of life lived in the very presence of God are the most compelling thing about that genre for me, and worth facing and making peace with the strangeness and occasional violence of those books.
The Bible texts included in the painting read: "They will be called oaks of righteousness, the plantings of the LORD." (Isaiah 61:3). "The righteous shall be like trees planted by streams of living water." (Psalm 1). "The LORD God planted a garden.... A river flowed out of Eden, and there it divided and became four rivers." (Genesis 2:8-10).
The painting was done in memory of my mother, Neta Wellford Kelly, but because of the tree of life imagery, I decided to include names from my personal tree of life along the stretchers on the back. I have found myself unexpectedly moved by lighting candles in Greek Orthodox churches on my travels, a completely alien action for a life-long Presbyterian. However, the tangible symbol of the prayer, continuing in the space even after I've left the sanctuary, is powerful. I decided to include the names of those who have been dear to me as a tangible prayer, keeping their names perpetually in the space of worship, even if I'm the only one who knows they are there.
I'm a little nervous about people seeing it for the first time on Sunday. It's big enough that folks can't ignore it, like it or not. I hope more people than not are happy to have it in their worship space. I love the Gothic idea of every craftsman in the village building the cathedral bringing their best work to be part of the house of God. I'm incredibly honored to be able to do that in my own way, and I hope the painting will be a help instead of a hindrance to people's worship.
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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