CIVA Part One: The great stuff

CIVA guidance

Last weekend I was lucky enough to get to the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) conference. Hosted at Messiah College outside Harrisburg Pennsylvania, a few hundred artists of faith gathered together to learn, network and encourage. I’ve tried to write about it in one long post, but to spare you and me both, I’ll break it up into three parts and post them over the next few days.

Jurried gallery

The conference theme, “Transforming Space” addressed four different types of space: (1) the Museum/Gallery space [pictured above: the juried gallery], (2) the Church/Worship space, (3) Cultural/Critical space, and (4) the Built/Designed space. It was the later track that brought me to the conference – anyone talking about design and faith gets my attention these days.


Each of the four tracks were spearheaded by a scholar/artist in a relative field. Earl Tai [pictured above on the right], professor and Fullbright scholar at the well respected Parsons New School for Design, spoke for the built/designed track. In a short presentation during a plenary session, he quickly sparked unexpected interest by presenting a missional approach to design. He asked how design is currently meeting the needs of the world and dared to advocate that it can take on the biggest questions of our era.

Needless to say, his session quickly packed out. Many attendees changed their seminar choice to hear him elaborate on these ideas, and we weren’t disappointed. He put words to the nagging desire creatives feel to be doing more with design than pay the bills and buy our cool chairs. Yet this is just a gut feeling to serve global community with a severe lack of guidance into action. So, instead we take the our valuable “design capital” and go where the money and patronage is: commerce. But the question still nags and remains unanswered. At best, it’s relegated to pro-bono work which cooks up a mix of guilt for not doing more and angst for not getting paid our worth. Tai gave a wonderful effort to “move forward with resolve” to answer this dilemma.

His theological foundation was as follows:

    1. Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God, and ushers it in with his death and resurrection – in doing so we know God’s redemptive plan.

    2. The kingdom of God is now and here. It’s “already, but not yet.”

    3. The coming of God’s kingdom is not a detached spiritual reality – but fully engaged in this world (this was the standard theological foundation for the conference allowing artists to let God use them and their work for transformation). This leads beyond a “functional” view of art and design into a “redemptive” view of art and design.

    4. Therefore, we can, and are called to play a role in God’s redemptive plan > the goal of which is transformation.

    5. The task of designers and artists is to envision a heavenly ideal and bring it to fruition in this world. He sited N.T. Wright who said, the heart of mission is mandated in the arts as it is in a field such as chemistry.

He lost me a bit on this heavenly ideal using Revelation 21 (the shining new Jerusalem) and Isaiah 11 (the branch from the stump of Jessie). Though I liked the way he tied Philippians 4:8 and common grace into “defamilarizing the mundane to break through and come face to face with an ideal such as beauty, justice, and peace”. He also included the philosophy that supported art/design for the masses for ‘good’ using the Distributive Justice philosophy of John Rawls (Though my professor William Dryness later told me he personally considers this theory faulty…hmm).

Regardless of the philosophical details and my struggles with the heavenly ideal (more below on that), I think Tai is right on to give designers such a theological foundation. Gosh it’s the story of my post-collegiate life. Part of me couldn’t believe what I was hearing, that someone had thought this out. Wahoo!

I wish I thought more on my feet and wasn’t such a processor (though the processing is the main reason I’m turning into a more and more verbose blogger). I’d want to ask him more about his heavenly ideal – is it limited to an elite modernist aesthetic that would cure the worlds ailments?

I hope not. There is something to say about a design based on a contextual aesthetic. Simple can be beautiful. Cost effective can be beautiful. It doesn’t need to show up at the high end dealers. Something at Target – or better yet a freeware style technology available for anyone to reproduce (like the Pot-in-Pot cooling system that keeps produce up to 21 days rather than just 2-3 in rural Africa) can be beautiful. A modest local, natural and sustainable solution can quietly steal the show and paradoxically be a radical transformation.

“Design” is such a wide-range of practices (graphic, product, environmental, architecture, etc) there is still much to flesh out. I hope to engage graphic design down the road, but Tai focused on architecture. He did a wonderful job showcasing projects that used innovation to radically transform lives. I’ll leave you with three examples:

Sergio Palleroni, professor at University of Washington and Austin, takes students into rural Mexico to design and build facilities, such as a communal kitchen, which embody the values of the local community, dignify the people and provide an effective and helpful finished project for the community.

Sam Davis Architecture in Berkeley, California worked to create an open and communal environment for the homeless. The open space offers healing and validation through elements of the design such as windows that create a two way line of vision with the outside world. Davis listened to his clients who told him they who don’t want to be in a closed off and boxed into shelter, but given a space that does not shame or hide them.

Diebedo Kere, the first to study abroad from his village in Burkina Faso, returned as an architect and innovated clay building methods. Previously unstable compared to imported building materials, he was behind the design and construction of the Gando Primary School home to 350 students in Gando, his home village, which has an illiteracy rate of 80%. In support of such innovation, the government now pays the teachers salaries and the school now functions as a community center.


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