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Nashville Scene Religious Experience

Art, music, and faith intersect at Downtown Presbyterian

By Angela Wibking

MARCH 8, 1999:  At Downtown Presbyterian Church, artists in the attic and a young pastor in the pulpit are shaking up old notions of what a church is, should be, or can be. They're also challenging ideas of how art and artists figure into the religious equation.

This Sunday, the 150-year-old downtown landmark hosts its second annual "DIG Through Art" contemporary art exhibition. The visual arts event, which opens this Sunday with a panel discussion and a rock concert, is the latest in the church's long tradition of nontraditional offerings.

Founded in 1814, Downtown Prez has always had a reputation for doing things its own way. State capitol architect William Strickland's Egyptian temple design was an eyebrow-raiser when it was unveiled 150 years ago, and it remains so today. (The present building, the third on the site, dates from 1849.) The sanctuary's stained-glass windows, with their papyrus motifs, and the brightly painted temple columns flanking the pulpit and pipe organ have always struck some as out of place in a Christian house of worship.

Nevertheless, governors have been inaugurated here, and Andrew Jackson was presented a commemorative sword in the church after his victory at the Battle of New Orleans. Church fathers weren't so open-minded, however, as to allow Swedish singing sensation Jenny Lind to use the sanctuary as a concert venue when she visited Nashville in 1851.

Wounded soldiers filled the church when occupying Union forces turned the building into a hospital during the Civil War. During two world wars, the church offered bed and board to soldiers passing through the city. Today the church opens its doors to the homeless, and to a congregation drawn from both the inner city and the suburbs.

The seeds for the art show were sown a few years ago, when pastor John Hilley agreed to trade studio space on an upper floor of the church to local artists Tom Wills and Todd Greene. In exchange, the two men provided assistance with various church projects, including a lunch program for the homeless.

Last year Wills and Greene helped create "A Dialogue and an Interaction for Growth (DIG) Through Art" as a counterpart to the church's Lenten Interludes, a series of free musical concerts begun in 1994. Held Thursdays at 12:15 p.m. through April 1, the upcoming Interludes lineup includes the Royal Music Guild Chamber Ensemble on March 4 and Grammy winner Ashley Cleveland on March 11.

The idea of an art exhibit in the church actually originated with Hilley, who became pastor of Downtown Prez four years ago. "I had attended a conference and learned of other churches around the country that were doing art shows," he recalls. "I shared the idea with Tom and Todd, but they took it up a notch." Rather than simply hang art on the walls, Wills and Greene proposed that the exhibit include a panel discussion and a concert. The 1998 event was a surprising success, drawing over 300 people.

This year's DIG show, once again co-chaired by Wills and Greene, offers 60 works that explore the theme of suffering and hope--ideas central to the observance of Lent, a 40-day period of penitence and fasting that concludes with the celebration of Easter.

"It's not the most marketable theme, but it ties in with the season," says Wills, whose pastel drawings depict the forlorn landscapes of interstate medians. Greene's oil paintings of bare-branched trees against moody winter skies also tackle the Lenten theme in oblique fashion.

DIG entries are not juried, and artists pay a $10 fee to have works in the show. A panel that includes Hilley and congregation member James Hoobler, curator of art and architecture for the Tennessee State Museum, will award an $800 purchase prize.

Thirty-one area artists are participating in this year's event. One of them is last year's purchase prize winner, Kevin Barbieux, an artist who knows more than a little about suffering and hope. This time last year, he was homeless. Today he is employed at Mosko's on Elliston Place and is pursuing photography in his off time. His entry in this year's show is a striking view of Downtown Prez, as seen on the rain-slicked pavement through the columns of an office complex directly across the street.

Also in the show are works by artist/musician Julie Lee, who has a studio space adjacent to Wills and Greene's on the church's third floor. Lee, who recorded an album of her folk music in the sanctuary last year, arranges bits of rusted metal, weathered wood, and other found objects into collages that often evoke traditional Christian symbols. She performs 4 p.m. Sunday as part of the DIG Through Art opening. Also on the bill is the Christian-leaning rock band Vigilantes of Love, which will perform cuts from its Audible Sigh album, slated for release Apr. 20.

While some may view rock music and secular art as a gimmick to attract a younger crowd into Downtown Prez, Hilley sees it as an expression of his congregation's talents. "A lot of people think of us as that dark brown building on the corner, or the church that takes care of the homeless rather than [taking] an active presence," he says. "This church lends itself to arts and music. Being [located] on the Fifth Avenue of the Arts, we're positioned for that."

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