It was a deadly night, even by police standards.

The old man fell on his front porch—alive one minute, dead the next—the stabbing victim of a possible drug deal gone bad. Indianapolis’s finest showed up within minutes, securing the scene with yellow crime tape. Forensics experts would comb for details.

It was grisly, heart-breaking, and senseless.

Soon after that killing and only a few blocks away, two other men were shot at a gas station. More sirens, more tape. Cautiously and through slats in their blinds, residents peered out at another bloody night in their neighborhood.

This is the inner-city section of Indianapolis called Fountain Square. Many are born here and can’t escape.

Some people move here on purpose.

***

Kyle Ragsdale is an artist, and like other members of Indy’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA), he came to Fountain Square—one of the city’s more troubled neighborhoods—to build community.

He was horrified by the events of that night. Yet, from somewhere deep inside, Ragsdale saw beauty. He created a painting of his vision and titled it “Memorial Procession.” Inspired by that night of violence, it’s a reminder of the generations who have lived there before him, tending the neighborhood’s gardens, chatting over its fences, strolling its sidewalks.

“Kyle’s piece depicts a procession of ghostly figures joined by swags of police tape,” says Joanna Beatty Taft, executive director of the Harrison Center for the Arts, where Ragsdale rents an artist’s studio, shows his work and—most importantly—sells paintings like “Memorial Procession” for a respectable price.

An energetic community developer whose entrepreneurial instincts include recognizing what constitutes marketable artwork, Taft also is a member of Redeemer. Her skills range from visionary to business manager to friend of artists and art patrons. She understands both the commercial and the creative aspects of art. And she helps artists such as Ragsdale succeed at both.

“[Ragsdale’s] painting draws the viewer in with story clues but leaves the ending open to interpretation,” she adds. “The figures could refer to dreams, ghosts, even documentation of real or historic residents. They could be participating in a rite of passage, a celebration or a funeral. The background could be houses on fire—a neighborhood in distress—or it could depict houses sparkling with light. Viewers fill in the spaces the artist leaves out.”

Ragsdale is satisfied to allow viewers to interpret “Memorial Procession” according to their own life experiences. But one message he makes clear: Neighborhoods tell stories. Whatever happens in a community—joy or evil, celebration or grief—the place remembers it.

Adds Taft: “When I looked at the painting, I immediately recognized the yellow ribbon as police tape. I resonate with the piece because our family bought a boarded-up house in inner-city Indianapolis 16 years ago, and we’ve experienced the tensions of a community in transition. Kyle’s neighborhood of 30,000 residents has poor families with the lowest education rates and highest teen pregnancy rates in Indianapolis, and many vacant houses, yet it also has a growing arts community. About 30 Redeemer families have moved to Fountain Square and are active in caring for that neighborhood through involvement in education, housing, and the arts.

“Kyle conveys the beauty of community in his paintings. But there’s also a dark side – sin, generations of poverty, violence, and death. After the murders, his work took this new turn of exploring both the beauty and the legacy of community with the burdens of living in a fallen world.”

Are his ghostly images inviting us to join their legacy? Or to change it?

Balance of Oversight and Autonomy

The phenomenal success of the Harrison Center for the Arts has attracted interest from all corners of the Christian landscape. In September 2007 the arts center sponsored a conference so other churches could learn from their business model.

Some were motivated by ministry opportunities presented by artists and their patrons. Said Ed Killeen, pastor of Lake Trail Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Madison, Wis.: “The big missional question is: How will my church’s interest in the arts manifest itself?”

What he saw in Indianapolis was the balance of oversight and autonomy. “The Harrison Center is faithful to serve the artists by being a quality gallery with thoughtful use of space and well-planned shows. Artists have wonderful creative spaces in which to work for reasonable fees, and Joanna Taft is helping them sell their work or place it in other local galleries.”

In short, he feels the Harrison Center is “a model for all of us who want to engage the culture, because while Harrison is separate and distinct from Redeemer Church, they don’t hide their affiliation either. And that’s healthy.”

Killeen tells how the conference hosts intentionally placed refreshments beside a table facing into Redeemer’s sanctuary, inviting attendees to acknowledge its beauty and purpose. In a subtle way, the hallway between the worship building and the arts center reminds artists, patrons, and other visitors of the principle of accountability. For artists who have studios there, the connection may be about community, a biblical value. Christians will recognize the relationship of sacred and secular plus the authority of God.

“There’s something strategic about the arts. Our culture often looks to artists as the priests of our time, expressing for us in color or music what we wish we could about life. In the process, they help shape our view of life,” says Killeen.

Throughout history, artists have sometimes been seen as geniuses—quirky, but purists in their own way, because they’re the authentic ones, true to themselves. And, like all of creation, they too are in need of redemption.

Some art is meant to challenge the culture, to shock and disturb. But there’s still room for dialogue.

Says Killeen: “Art is a communication around ultimate questions, and, whether the artists acknowledge it or not, [disturbing art] shows they believe in right and wrong. When you visit a painter in his studio, you’re visiting his soul. As Francis Schaeffer said, ‘No person can get away from his own humanness.’”

Killeen is mystified by Christians who fear engaging the arts, or, worse, see the arts as irrelevant. “If you believe the gospel, what is there to fear?”

Because of the natural tension within culture, the arts can provide an opportunity for that great Presbyterian principle of pairing grace with law. Understanding the creative process can help us better understand the Creator.

Killeen relates to artists and their patrons not only as a pastor but as an artist himself, holding a BFA in painting. His journey from painting to the pastorate was influenced by a comment from Dick Keyes of L’Abri, “freeing me not to expect of my paintings what a sermon is meant to do. ‘Let your paintings be paintings,’ he told me.”

He tells of his joy in seeing one of his pieces in a woman’s living room and realizing that, “like Christ’s work, the fruits of our labors belong where people live.”

The Starving Artist as Romantic?

Nancy Hughes of Grace and Peace Fellowship (PCA) in St. Louis has management experience in arts ministry and the secular arts community. As one who has a finger on the pulse of what artists, in general, think of the church, she was relieved to see that the Harrison Center treats artists respectfully, understanding their need for productivity.

“Forget the concept of starving artists as romantic,” she says with the exasperation of one who has fought that battle, even among Christians. (Joanna Taft of the Harrison Center fights against this too, saying: “At one point, a third of our artists had been homeless. This is not the case now, as the arts have really taken off in Indianapolis, and artists are feeling pretty supported.”)

And forget your concept of artists as marginally functional, Hughes adds. Artists she knows and respects are longing to be productive in an environment of community as offered at Indy’s Harrison Center. She defines “productivity” as not only using their skills but selling the products of their work.

Ironically, artists and the Church were closely intertwined centuries ago when the Church hired great masters to produce paintings, tapestries, and sculptures to convey the stories and truths of the Bible to an illiterate population. Along the way the two groups became suspicious of one other. “Some people blame it on the Reformation,” says Hughes, “but I don’t. I see it as another outcome of the fall of man—not employing wisdom and reason because of our sinfulness.”

Christianity has a foul name in the secular arts community, according to Hughes. The feeling is multi-dimensional. As people in Jesus’s day doubted whether anything good could come out of Nazareth, artists and art patrons today are leery of church-sponsored exhibits, fearing they’ll be cornered and evangelized. Also, artists who are Christians are often criticized by the church if their work is not suitable for liturgical use.

And then there’s the ticklish problem of the occasional sub-standard works of art by Christians, adds Hughes, “especially those who claim God told them to produce this or that.” While acknowledging that art criticism is subjective, she points out that “our God invented integrity and depth of wisdom. Those apply to principles of design and metaphors of representation such as value and color.”

In other words, although people can disagree on what is good or bad art, the art world has recognized protocols. When these are broken by people who say God told them to do it, that denigrates the claims of Christ-followers in the eyes of artists.

Light and Truth to a Darkened World

Hughes is hopeful that a new Renaissance is at hand, that the body of Christ can again join hands with artists. She recommends that churches seeking an arts ministry should begin by offering to host a group of artists who want to meet on a regular basis to provide support, critique each other’s work and, if they choose, pray for one another.

The next level would be to form a committee or board to look for money. “Then you have the freedom to match your motivation to create an outstanding program,” Hughes says. The ultimate goal, she adds, is operational separation, such as the model of the Harrison Center and Redeemer Church.

“God calls us to be in community,” adds Hughes.

An artist who agrees is Kyle Ragsdale, whose piece featuring ghostly figures with yellow crime tape, “Memorial Procession,” hangs in the Harrison Center. He serves as curator.

“Living and working in community here was heart-changing,” he says. Though raised in a Christian home, he later fell away from the church because “of some things said to me as an artist by mean Christians. No secular people have ever been that cruel.”

But the Harrison Center connected him to Redeemer, where he hears from fellow artist Jason Dorsey, the senior pastor, that “art and culture are important Christian values, that being an artist is not a lesser vocation but one with eternal purpose, that we are bringing light and truth to a darkened world.”

And he’s prospering. Now engaged, Ragsdale and his bride-to-be are in the process of building a home near the Harrison Center, where he feels open, safe and affirmed in his calling.

Carolyn Curtis is an author, editor, and speaker who currently divides her time between Cumming, Ga., and Fort Worth, Texas.

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