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Creating Art for the Spirit

  • Chinn installing her work at Grace Cathedral.
  • Spirit, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 5 x 8 feet
  • A temporary installation of 50 painted nylon-net strips for Pentecost at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Fifty flowing pieces of acrylic-painted netting recently undulated above worshippers in San Francisco’s Grace Episcopal Cathedral, setting the stage for reflection.

“Tongues of Fire,” an ephemeral liturgical art installation, was created to celebrate the Christian festival of Pentecost—a day that marks the Holy Spirit’s descent on the disciples of Jesus following his ascension into heaven. The design symbolizes movement of spirit and echoes the number of days between Easter and Pentecost Sunday.

“I’ve installed that piece four or five different times, once for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations,” says artist Nancy Chinn B.A. 62. “Like a theatrical set design, it integrates fluidly with the expansive architecture of Grace Cathedral. It’s a celebrative piece that takes your breath away.”

A woman who embraces diversity and inclusion, Chinn began her artistic love affair with culture, theology, and symbolism early in her career.

During the 1970s, Chinn lived on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in north-central Oregon with her then husband, a Presbyterian minister. Money was tight, so she made a deal with him: if the church would pay for her art supplies, she would produce the church bulletin. This project enabled her to experiment with silk-screened images that assimilated theology and native culture. Her passion to connect art and liturgy had taken hold.

Chinn continued to pursue her interest in art, earning an M.F.A. in fibers and mixed media from John F. Kennedy University and an M.A. in art education from San Francisco State University.

Her multimedia projects, she says, require her to think like a painter, who envisions the totality of a project, and like a weaver, who determines how the individual components must meld together.

“I never make art by myself, Chinn says. “I always work in concert with others, like liturgy committees and parish members.”

She believes art sprouts from the physical materials used in its creation around a theme, then develops organically, much the way actors improvise unscripted scenes.

“My liturgical work is temporary, seasonal, and site-specific,” she says. “It’s important to me that it can’t be bought and sold or locked away as a monetary investment.”

Chinn lives in Little River, California, near the scenic Mendocino coastline. A lay feminist theologian, she has served as an adjunct faculty member in the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and as an artist in residence at various churches and seminaries. She currently offers retreats at her home for up to five members of a congregation and also individual personal tutorials. In two- to three-day sessions, she

teaches art and worship theory and techniques related to the design elements of light and dark, transparency and opacity, pattern and rhythm, color, texture, scale, and movement.

Along with her public pieces, Chinn creates personal paintings that allow her complete artistic freedom. She has published two books. Spaces for Spirit: Adorning the Church contains over 60 colored pages of her liturgical work. Wisdom Searches, by Chinn and Harriet Gleeson, is an exploration of Sophia, the feminine aspect of God in the Hebrew scriptures, as reflected in the coauthors’ daily lives as well as their paintings, poetry, and prose.

Chinn’s most recent major art installation, for the Washington National Cathedral’s centennial celebration, incorporated advanced digital imaging techniques to reproduce her original paintings on 18 fabric panels. The abstract images represented elements of an entire liturgical year.

“My favorite panel is ‘Reign of God,’ ” she says, “which for me is about the deep yearning we all have for the peace and justice of God’s intention for our world.”

Inspired by her ability to work from home as part of a virtual community of artists and designers, Chinn is looking forward to creating similar projects in the future.

—by Pattie Pace

The Chronicle Magazine

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