An Artist's Work, in the Name of God

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Nancy Chinn combines her Christian faith and her artistic talents to make all manner of fiber art hangings and other pieces for churches.

She's a liturgical artist, one of dozens around the country who focus on decorative panels, paintings and more for synagogues, mosques and other religious settings.

Chinn, who lives in a small community about 150 miles north of San Francisco, developed nine panels for the Washington National Cathedral's 100th anniversary celebration. The pieces abstractly depict the seasons of the church year, with Chinn's paintings turned into digital photos that were then printed on fabric. "The hardest part was getting them to decide what they wanted," she said. Church work takes "lots of hands, lots of committees, lots of opinions. . . . My job is to tap all that" and then use her creative abilities.

Decades ago, she started out as an elementary school teacher. She and her husband, a Presbyterian minister, moved to an Indian reservation where she started painting while caring for her three children. She created church bulletin covers using Native American imagery and silk screening. Even then she combined nature, God and other elements.

"I want the art to honor God, and God cannot be contained in one meaning or one form or one experience," Chinn said.

At 67, she's slowing down after creating more than 500 pieces over 30 years for churches and other religious groups. She once orchestrated 100 volunteers in 43 parishes to paint and piece together a mural that turned a stadium into a worship space for 19,000. "That level of tedious project management is very hard for me."

She stays fresh by experimenting in her studio with clay and gardening at least an hour a day. Creating a spiritual work takes "enormous physical and spiritual strength . . . it's very much like a prolonged labor."

-- Vickie Elmer

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