Faith and Art Come Together at Circle of Hope Gallery
The histories of Fishtown and the Circle of Hope Church (2007 Frankford Ave.), like the histories of art and religion, seem inextricably bound. Walk into a major museum such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and one likely won’t have much trouble finding art pieces that were commissioned by a church. Eventually, as art began to be bought and sold more and more by private collectors, the relationship between art and religion became a bit more tenuous, and at times even hostile.
Therein lies the intrigue of Fishtown’s Circle of Hope congregation and its gallery. Most censorship of art has happened on moral grounds with overt reference to traditional Anglo-Christian beliefs, while artists have responded in kind with biting criticism of their own. Despite the strained relationship between art and religion, the Circle of Hope’s gallery has every First Friday booked this year — and they have had it booked since last year. So what was it about the Circle of Hope that allowed this trend to be bucked? Attending one of their First Friday events seemed to be a good way to find out.
In speaking with members of the congregation, while everyone was sympathetic to the functions of art and artists, when asked about the connection between art and their personal religious beliefs, their responses were often hesitant, perhaps even suspicious. Some members that agreed to talk over email never responded when asked to describe that relationship. It was understandable — of course, a secular stranger asking a religious person to articulate specific aspects of their faith may provoke anxiety.
Joshua Grace is the pastor of the Fishtown chapter of the Circle of Hope. Since a pastor’s main function is to translate feelings of faith into words, he seemed like the right person to talk to. Grace’s appearance is not that of a stereotypical pastor — his arms are covered in tattoos, and he is dressed casually in stark, bright high-tops. His appearance hints that his faith must have a great deal of nuance to it.
“The simplest thing is Jesus is the creator,” Grace said, “and creativity isn’t just artistic expression; it’s also problem solving, it’s resiliency, it’s how people cope in a changing neighborhood. I think a part of it is trying to get at: ‘What is the point of art?’ There’s the expressive element, but in the end it comes down to humanity, to get in touch with something inside of ourselves and also outside of ourselves. When the impression is made on you, something happens internally.”
Grace explains that since art is such a strong common denominator for people of all world views, if space for creativity is provided, there is opportunity for unlike groups to come together. For Grace, it is important to not turn the gallery into a cliquey space, so he encourages artists of all ages and skill levels to show their work. “You have serious artists, an up-and-coming person, five college graduates who are trying to get a job or something and they’re not going to make money off art for a while. There are just people that are creative around here and maybe don’t have their portfolio together and maybe don’t know how to get into galleries in the city or something,” Grace said.
While many of the artists that have art hanging in the gallery have been adults, getting children’s art hanging in the gallery is important to Grace as well. To facilitate this, the Circle of Hope collaborates with H.A. Brown Elementary, where the art teachers help pick out student art to hang in the gallery. Grace says when kids see their artwork hanging up in an actual gallery, the validation is “a powerful thing.”
The Circle of Hope has also worked with the Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, a group that focuses on promoting cross-cultural understanding of Arab culture through special programs, hosting a youth drumming recital at the gallery.
Apprehension from non-believers is not lost on Grace due to the ways in which the Christian Church has carried itself throughout history. Despite this skepticism, Grace hopes that the most common aspects of humanity will bind us. “Even just for some people to know that churches are nice is a revelation,” Grace said. “Institutionally, for reasons I understand, there are connotations that [the church] doesn’t want you touching its stuff. They exist to be this sequestered little group. Like they’re eternally good and everyone else is toast or something like that.”
Grace rejects this, however, and believes what binds all people is simple. “And you know, we’re all trying to work out this life thing together,” Grace said.
On February 3rd and 4th, the Circle of Hope is celebrating the art of Join us for Brian Jerome with their First Friday exhibit “Eremophobia”. You can keep up with the Circle of Hope’s gallery events at the gallery’s facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/circleofhopegallery/. •