Religion has enjoyed a relationship with the arts since the first prehistoric priest smeared pigment on a cave wall. It's been a complicated, sometimes contentious, union, marred by iconoclastic clashes and reactionary crusades. Now a San Luis Obispo church is seeking to heal that rift by inviting artists of all faiths to bare their souls in a sacred place.
"Historically, the church has been a center point for the arts," San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church pastor Rick Uhls said. "Anything we can do to broaden that relationship is good for the community and good for the church."
Now in its fifth year, the Beacon Art Show will feature 112 pieces by 98 Central Coast artists displayed throughout the San Luis Obispo church. The show runs now through March 31, Easter Sunday.
Also in store for art lovers this month are a poetry workshop by former San Luis Obispo poet laureate Glenna Luschei, "Pushing Out the Comfort Zone," and concerts by Canzona Women's Ensemble and two bell choirs, the church's Bel Canto Ringers and the Plymouth Ringers from Plymouth Congregational Church in Paso Robles. Younger artists are the focus of Saturday's "Create Some Art" Family Day.
Jane Voigts, who helped shepherd the Beacon Art Show for four years as pastor, praised it as "a great way for us to create a really important bridge that has been forgotten." "The purpose of the show isn't to necessarily evangelize people but to communicate to people that the church is a place where we value creativity," said Voigts, who now serves the congregation at Toluca Lake United Methodist Church. "Creativity is a sacred act. We honor that, promote that and encourage that."
Early on the morning of April 15, 2001, Easter Sunday, the members of San Luis Obispo Methodist Church woke to the sight of their sanctuary going up in flames. "Two Molotov cocktails hit the front door at four in the morning," former church member Joe Timmons recalled, and the destruction was total. "When the fire broke out, it burned very quickly and very completely."
It took firefighters more than three hours to extinguish the intentionally set blaze, which caused an estimated $1.3 million in damages to the 1950s-era A-frame building and its contents, including mosaics, stained glass windows, and a towering portrait of Jesus Christ by former Cal Poly faculty member Dan Piel. As the congregation gathered around the smoldering ruins of the church, they resolved to rebuild.
Seven years later, San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church celebrated the opening of their new $7 million, 25,807-square-foot complex designed by Pennsylvania architect Jack Althouse with a Easter-season celebration that included an art show, an interfaith prayer service, concerts by San Luis Obispo County Band and San Luis Obispo Wind Orchestra, and -- in true Methodist fashion -- "the world's largest potluck."
In creating the two-month-long Beacon Art Show, Voigts sought inspiration from a religious art show she attended at the First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica. She and a taskforce led by Timmons established certain ground rules from the start, including cash prizes, entrance fees and submission guidelines.
"We wouldn't take a commission so it was still just our gift to the community," Voigts said, and the church would purchase one artwork each year to add to its permanent collection. Most importantly, the show would be open to everyone -- eager amateurs as well as polished professionals.
"She wanted everyone to be able to hang something if they took the energy to create it," said Timmons, who served on the board of directors of what is now the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art and briefly owned an Arroyo Grande art gallery before moving to San Diego with his wife three years ago. "I had mixed emotions about it at first.... (But) it turned out to be a wonderful thing."
According to Timmons, about 45 artists submitted pieces in 2008. According to Beth Mott, who took over as Beacon Art Show organizer three years ago, the number of participants -- and the quality of the submissions -- have increased steadily each year.
Past Beacon Art Show participants include Los Osos landscape painter Ken Christensen, Arroyo Grande sculptor Robert "Bart" Kerwin and Cambria watercolor painter Howard Kline. San Luis Obispo artist Susan McKee won Best of Show in 2012 with her acrylic-and-collage piece "California Dreamin,'" while San Miguel artist David Settino Scott took the award a year earlier with his sculpture "Monk, Twelve" honoring the Buddhist monks who self-immolated during the Vietnam War.
"The show just keeps evolving and the quality keeps getting better and better," said Atascadero woodworker Barry Lundgren, whose "Elm Burl Natural Edge Chalice" won the 2010 Purchase Award and is now displayed in the narthex. "Everybody keeps taking it to the next level."
Lundgren, who's been turning oak, locust, maple and walnut wood into supple, shapely vessels for nearly two decades, acknowledged that there's a spiritual aspect to his work. "To me, it's a spiritual thing to make art and to end up with something really nice and, a lot of times, functional," said the artist, who has entered two pieces -- "Evolving Pine" and "Olive Enchantment" -- in this year's Beacon Art Show.
Paso Robles painter Jean Neas entered the show for the first time in 2012 at the suggestion of a friend, Atascadero artist Pat Cairns.
"I was blown away by the quality of the show and the venue itself," said Neas, whose watercolor painting "Save Women - Educate Girls," won the Purchase Award -- and a place in the church's Terrace Room -- that year. "It was a wonderful experience."
According to Mott, the Beacon Art Show is a labor of love for the entire San Luis Obispo congregation, including the 50-plus people who donate their time to hang paintings, serve refreshments and work as docents.
Three volunteer jurors -- Uhls, who's served as pastor since August 2012; Ruta Saliklis, exhibition and development director at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art; and Jeff Van Kleeck, who runs Cal Poly's University Art Gallery -- sifted through this year's Beacon Art Show entries to select the winners of three top prizes and three merit awards. Glynis Chaffin-Tinglof's oil painting "Searching for Mary in the Trees" won Best of Show, while Robert Dodge's encaustic-and-pastel piece "The Starry River" took second place and Marylu Weaver Meagher's fabric stole "Canticle of Brother Sun" took third place. (The latter also received this year's Purchase Award.)
Mott stressed the even-handed, nondenominational nature of the Beacon Art Show. "Even though we're a Protestant church offering this event, (the show) does not exclude artists who are not Protestant or Christian" or churchgoers, said the artist, who's served as the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art's youth education coordinator about 17 years. "We bring everybody together."
Even the theme of this year's show, "Awaken the Spirit," is open to interpretation, she said. "It can mean awakening your spiritual growth, your awareness of God in your life. It can mean awakening your artistic spirit," Mott said. "It really provides for many different levels of participation."
Top Image: "Fleur de Lys," a fused glass piece by Dianne Draze, is featured in this year's Beacon Art Show. | Photo: Chris Daly.
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