As the doors of the church open at St. Teresa of Avila Roman Catholic Church in Southeast, parishioners and guests can view 14 colorful paintings of the Stations of the Cross carefully placed on the walls of the sanctuary. In each scene, the central biblical image of Jesus is depicted with dark skin tone.
According to the artist, Sidney Schenck, who spent one year in his Paris home completing the paintings for the church, the works are an extension of his experiences as a black man.
"It's only logical that the image in the paintings be of a black Jesus because I am black and that's how I perceive it . . . I had to become Jesus and say to myself, 'If I were him, what would I feel' and put those emotions into the paintings," Schenck said.
The Rev. George Stallings, pastor at St. Teresa's, most of whose parishioners are black, said, "I commissioned Sidney to do the paintings because I wanted to take popular Christian art forms and present an alternative for black people so they would be able to identify."
Stallings continued, "The Jesus of faith is seen through the eyes of the believer, and if you examine the Scriptures and history, there is no reference to his having white European features. But that has been the predominant presentation."
Elias Farajaje-Jones, professor of religion at Howard University, said, "People have been accustomed to seeing religious images depicted with fair hair and blue eyes, which does not correspond geographically. We believe that God took on flesh through Jesus in a particular culture. Therefore, different cultures should be able to see Jesus in their way."
Members of St. Teresa's, in the 1200 block of V Street, seem to appreciate Schenck's presentation. Church member Connie Derricks said her son David, 9, was at first "shocked to see the images in the paintings. His perception of Christ was different. It made a change in his life for him to be able to see that the Christ in whom we believe is a spirit of many colors, including black."
Donna Grimes, another church member, said, "I feel proud and inspired . . . . They draw you into them. Art has been used in the past to distort images and it's important to be able to see images of saints and heroes in a way that we can relate."
The theme of cultural identity is the very core of Schenck's work. Today through Jan. 22, a series of his paintings will be on public display in a cooperative building at 2016 O St. NW. His works also can be viewed at the Evans-Tibbs Collection, 1910 Vermont Ave. NW.
A native of New Brunswick, N.J., Schenck said he remembers having abilities as an artist at an early age. "I used to sketch on everything I could get my hands on."
After high school, he began to hone his talent, graduating from the Pratt Institute in New York.
A business deal that Schenck said resulted in the theft of some of his paintings coupled with the hardships of obtaining professional work in the United States led Schenck to pack his bags and move to Paris in 1977. It was there that he found the outlet for artistic expression and established a career.
He has lived there ever since. His works reflecting life and culture in Paris can be viewed at the current show.
Schenck, 36, describes his water and oil paintings as a cross between the dreamlike style of surrealism and symbolism, possessing a "uniqueness that stems from the black experience." He said he uses paintings to express his position on politics, morality and life.
Returning to the District for the current exhibit "is like coming home," Schenck said. "I feel comfortable here in America and never really wanted to leave. But there just weren't enough opportunities for black artists 10 years ago." After the exhibit, Schenck said, he plans to resume his pace as a "roving artist," hoping to settle within the next couple of years in the United States.
When asked about public response to his work, Schenck said: "It might be too much to ask people to like all of my paintings. I'd rather have them look at them, react, and say 'hey, this person was not afraid to paint what he wanted to paint.' Picasso was personal and didn't change, and neither will I."