I first visited the Holy Biscuit back in July 2015, to set up the Newcastle leg of our WhatIsItToBeHuman? exhibition tour. It was clear from our first email exchanges that these guys knew what they were up to, and the space worked perfectly for the exhibition. Therefore, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to pay them another visit for their 2017 Arts Study Day on 29th April. I thought I’d give you an overview of the general shenanigans.
While the Study Day was the main focus of my trip, one of the definite highlights was catching up with friends. I badgered Benjamin Harris into coming along for the ride and we stayed with Huw and Ruth Evans. Conversation ploughed such fields as RG Collingwood, anarchism, the futility of higher education, the rapture and grave digging. Exceptional.
On top of this, we got to spend the Sunday morning at City Church, Newcastle. Their building is impressive, formerly housing the turbines that provided electricity for the city trams. However, an added bonus was the gallery of painted portraits of church members (by local artist Alan Reed) that greets you as you walk in. A great welcome to a great church gathering. Loved it.
As for the day itself, between 40 and 50 artists and practitioners made their way to the Holy Biscuit from places as far as Dundee and Edinburgh. From the outset, one of the most noticeable things was the remarkable diversity in the room. There were Catholics. There were Quakers. There were conservative evangelicals. There were ex-Hillsong pastors. All crammed into a refurbished Methodist church.
I’ll be honest; I’ve not always had a particularly generous attitude to Christians who think differently to me. This is not something I admit with pride, but it is the reality. At certain points in my life, if I was given God’s job for a day, the first thing on my to-do-list would have been straightening out a few denominations (and probably eliminating a few too!) After all, wouldn’t it be so much easier if everyone thought like me! However, God is patiently dealing with my latent fascism and I think that this day was another gracious eye opener.
You see, for all the differences of tradition and theology, a pronounced unity of purpose was the most apparent feature of proceedings. In short, everyone seemed to want to follow Jesus and develop his or her artistic practice. The diversity of outlook did not stunt proceedings, but created an atmosphere of vibrancy and curiosity that I, for one, greatly appreciated.
There are some areas of church life where such range of perspectives would prove rather challenging: the organisation of a baptismal service, for example, or a training day on how to speak in tongues! However, while working in the arts I’m increasingly finding diversity to be productive and even necessary.
If a new focus on the arts in the church simply achieved the goal of bringing different types of Christians together to learn from one another, while humbling a few arrogant Jonny Mellors in the process, then for that alone it would be worthwhile.
There are Christians making outstanding stuff in the arts
I waffled on for a couple of sessions about ‘Art in The Bible’ and I’m sure at some point, I’ll probably share these thoughts on the blog. However, the highlight of the day was not my insightful theological musings, but the rather intimidating quintet of Pecha Kucha presentations that preceded lunch.
We had Richard Phipps’ otherworldly, transporting collages, Huw Evans’ honest and expertly presented artistic life story, Lorna Bryan’s reaction to the advertising industry in works that were both acerbic and generous spirited at the same time, Cully’s showcase of the prominent place that Nomas* Projects occupy in Dundee’s art scene, and Sam’s counter-cultural journey through queer-theatre. Afterwards Benjamin Harris put it pretty accurately when he reflected ‘It dawned upon me that I was sat in a room of heavyweights!’
Christian art may get a lot of bad press (and rightly so!) but there are a lot of Christians making excellent art while also making a difference in their local art scenes. This was an encouraging reminder.
So how to sum up the day? Well, that’s easy, as Miriam Skinner acted as the poet in residence for the day, and closed proceedings with a piece, doing just that. Below is We are probably prophets – Miriam Skinner (or click on the link to get it in its intended formatting)
We are probably prophets
“Hi, who are you?”
Ah, I did have a label but these things refuse to stick to me
I am an enabler of super magic direct to the heart_communication.
A prophet of performance, paint, paper, pottery, pen
We are them
Who sometimes make stuff. We prefer ‘creative’ …and …
We are the marketing team for our nans
and for the 30 breeds of squirrels
– You should google that.
We resolve to not do things that are meaningless.
Meaningless, everything under the sun is meaningless
We value communication, we communicate value
And You and I,
we are contradictory, unfortunately inconsistent.
Our threads tangled. We are present.
We are practitioners. We practice. It doesn’t make perfect.
We answer questions we didn’t ask. We did not know How
If art isn’t heard, does it even make a sound.
We are those who break down,
break through and paint the cracks gold
And hold torches in the dusk. We keep glory, grit and grime, in our clay jars
We are those whose Virgin Mary wears stilettos
Whose attack alarms read YOLO
And who paint black Trump’s oppression- oil on canvas.
In the beginning was the verb- the doing word
We are made in the image of the verb- we are verbs
The heard, the unheard, the underheard
The now but not yet
We are prophets- probably.
For those who weren’t there, that will probably be a cryptic and tantalising glimpse of The Holy Biscuit Study Day. My advice: keep your eyes peeled for next year’s event.