Two years ago, Catherine Obreza Fetterman sat down to write a brochure for a show of her watercolors at The Potomac Gallery, explaining what inspired the collection of flowers and landscapes that would hang from the walls of the Leesburg gallery.
Her paintings, she wrote, were drawn from conversations with God. "I asked God himself to speak boldly through my work."
Unlike her previous two gallery shows, the Leesburg art instructor didn't sell a single painting that night. But she still considers it her most successful show.
For the usually shy Fetterman, her art is another mode of worship, a relationship she felt compelled to reveal that night. Her paintings are not overtly religious. Instead, she said, her flowers are symbols for devotees, her landscapes representations of God's beauty.
Still, she said, religion can make for uncomfortable gallery chatter, and that's why she thinks buyers shied away from her work and have not been quick to pull out their wallets since.
After the silence and blank stares at mention of "the Lord" and exhibitor objections to showing Christian art, Fetterman decided she needed the company of other like-minded artists. So through phone calls and, she said, many prayers, she founded the Christian Artists Circle, a local support group for watercolorists, painters, sculptors, writers, poets, singers, actors and dancers who share her faith.
Now in its seventh month, group discussions sound like an interactive Sunday sermon. Members talk not about technique or trade but instead about the glory of God. They meet in churches and begin and end with prayer. They ask for blessings for monthly guest speakers, and trade more hugs and amens than portfolios and business cards. They bring each other to tears and pray for each other's success.
When sitting in the pews, they are believers. When clutching the palette or the pen, they are artists. But in this circle, they say, they can be both -- without the uncomfortable silences or offended glares that come with some audiences.
"I want to freely share with like-minded people what my spiritual walk is," said Fetterman, 35, a Roman Catholic. "It takes unbelievable courage to say I'm painting for God. It's nice to be able to say that in a group for the first time and not have them tear you down."
Whether as catacomb coverings, ceiling murals or stained-glass windows, Christian art thrived in Europe in the early centuries, depicting the Gospel in images. The religion grew up surrounded by paintings of Jesus Christ and Mary, adopting the ancient habit of artistically portraying Roman and Greek gods and goddesses.
"Figures were always used," said Marie Spiro, a University of Maryland professor of early Christian art and archaeology. "This is a milieu that was established for the representation of deities."
Even today, Fetterman can find artistic camaraderie in mainstream blockbusters. Actor-director Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," has raked in more than $60 million since opening in February. The Christian-themed novel "The Da Vinci Code" boasts more than 6 million print copies and spinoff books explaining or refuting its claims, while the more sober "Left Behind" series of books has sold more than 42 million copies. The Grammy-winning band, Evanescence, gained fame through the Christian circuit, and even first-season American Idol contestant R.J. Helton tapped the Christian market with his new CD, laced with lyrics about his faith.
These works are "kindling that's been thrown on some coals. It should spring up some flames," said Tomas J. Fernandez, co-director of the Archangel Arts Center, a nonprofit Christian arts community center that he based in Madison, Va., after failing to get grants to start a religious center in Loudoun County. "In our world, not wanting to offend anyone has really sidestepped specificness in the spiritual world."
Loudoun County's increasingly diverse population includes people who might not welcome the once-dominant Christian art when exhibited beyond church walls, Spiro said.
"I don't think you have the same kind of audience," Spiro said. "You have Muslims. You have Jews. You have Hindus, as well as Christians. The audience is much more global, and they have their own religions."
Even Fetterman said she has had to walk a delicate line when describing a group aimed at Christians, always weighing whether to mention it in casual conversations. In the beginning, she would extend an invitation to join the Christian Artists Circle only if someone used words or phrases that indicated they practiced their faith. Before long, she had a list of 30 potential members. Double that number called or e-mailed her through word of mouth.
"I thought it was meant to be a local support group. But word got out so fast," Fetterman said. "People will call me and share how much they need something like this."
Meeting size hasn't yet reflected those numbers -- about 15 people attended last month's meeting -- but members have come from as far as Charlottesville, Washington and Gaithersburg. Fetterman held the first meeting in October on her deck, where, over plates of cakes and cups of tea, about 10 people felt their solitariness turn to solidarity.
"I was not aware of a lot of other Christian artists," said Leslie Bashioum, 37, a soft-spoken Leesburg mother who put her interest in acrylic and oil painting on hold to raise five children, ages 3 to 13. "It's kind of like seeing things come out of the woodwork that you couldn't see were there. We're finding each other."
Those gatherings quickly expanded from living rooms to church basements, from a Lutheran church in Ashburn to a Roman Catholic church in Purcellville to an Episcopal church in Sterling. They have programs and news releases, guest speakers and newsletters.
Oil painter Linda Parker, a member from Manassas and this month's guest speaker, called it "God's divine network."
But Fetterman sees an even broader mission of uniting artist groups of other faiths and planting chapters of the Christian Artists Circle beyond Loudoun through a partnership with the larger Archangel Arts Center. Already, she's in talks with two Charlottesville women and a member who moved to San Antonio about starting chapters in their cities.
Until then, Fetterman concentrates on widening her own circle. Two months ago, she was the group's guest speaker. She talked about her watercolor show two years ago, when returning home without a sale was a "huge blessing." That night, she understood her art was about more than financial gain, she said. It carried a greater purpose, a divine message.
Her listeners nodded in understanding among a chorus of amens.
The next meeting of the Christian Artists Circle will be held from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Sterling. For more information, call 703-443-1143.