Serving as ArtPrize Venue Sees Michigan Church Engage Art and Culture

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For the ninth consecutive year, the worship center at Monroe Community Church, a Christian Reformed congregation in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., has been transformed into a venue for that city’s annual ArtPrize competition, one of the largest art-related gatherings in the world.

This year 13 works of art were selected to be displayed at the church. The pieces came from artists from diverse faith backgrounds and in some instances, of no particular faith. Nearly 300 works were considered, said Steve Fridsma, who headed up the curation committee that selected the pieces.

“We had to turn away a lot of really good work,” Fridsma said. “We were looking for work[s] that . . . formed a network of meaning from piece to piece to piece.”

The church is incorporating a four-week sermon series as part of its ArtPrize participation, planned around themes or questions raised in some of the artwork. On the opening Sunday in the series, worshipers gathered for communion near a piece titled “The Next Supper,” a pencil drawing by Bill Fritsch, based on Leonardo DaVinci’s famed painting “The Last Supper.” For Fritsch, an artist from Kalamazoo, Mich., it was the first time to have one of his works displayed in a church setting. 

“I wanted to make the connection with the original [Last Supper] murals, so what I did was duplicated the interior of the room,” Fritsch said. “The room remains the same, but the people in the room are different. They’re us.”

People depicted in the drawing are from Fritsch’s faith community, based on photographs he had taken. There’s a banner with welcome messages in English, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, and other languages. Background panels show historical faith leaders including Thomas More, Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Thomas Merton. While the original “Last Supper” murals depicted a large feast, “The Next Supper” shows only bread and wine on the table.

“The message is that we have a table, and we have a God who wants to sit at the table with us,” said Rev. Jim Boer, who became pastor at Monroe earlier this year. “That should make us stop and gasp in awe and wonder and gratitude. I encouraged people to look around and not only see one another, but to see the invisible Host who is present with us.”

The sermon series includes interviews with participating artists as well as a message on how Scripture might align with or respond to the artwork, Fridsma said.

Over the years, Monroe Community’s participation in ArtPrize has helped attract members to the congregation, many from creative backgrounds. Jennifer Van Singel first visited the church when she came to see the ArtPrize display there five years ago. Last year, she moved into a condominium within walking distance of the church and started worshiping regularly.

“To be honest, I was very nervous going into a new church. They were the most warm, welcoming church I’ve ever been to. Right from the moment I walked in the door, they greeted me, they introduced me to other members, and I haven’t stopped coming since,” Van Singel said.

Fridsma says Monroe’s involvement with the art community doesn't end when ArtPrize ends in early October. The church has invited artists, including students from nearby colleges, to have their work displayed on the walls of the worship center throughout the year.

“We don't have a separate gallery. We worship in the middle of all this artwork,” Fridsma said.

About the Author

Greg Chandler is a freelance news correspondent for The Banner. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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