The Passion for Pilgrim and Passerby

In Justice for the Just by Ovide Bighetty

By Sue Careless

After two years of lockdown, a free outdoor art installation is just what a major city like Toronto needed. Crossings: A Journey to Easter, which opened on Ash Wednesday and closes on Wednesday in Easter Week (April 20), provides a five-hour Lenten pilgrimage through the Stations of the Cross.

The visual art is located at 16 venues in Toronto. Imago Arts invited Canadian artists of faith to create works for the 14 scriptural Stations of the Cross and one each for the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the Resurrection. All are based on New Testament texts, and the event is cosponsored by the Canadian Bible Society.

Crossings offers “a unique opportunity to bring the iconic story of the Passion of Jesus to a wide audience … in a secular urban context,” said John Franklin, executive director of Imago Arts. He hopes it will open the way for “transformative conversations on spiritual life and issues of social concern.”

Similar projects have been mounted successfully, first in London in 2016, and then Washington, D.C. (2017), New York City (2018), Amsterdam (2019), and Deventer in the Netherlands (2020). During the pandemic in 2021, the exhibition was held online, with stops in locations across the world, from South Korea to St. Petersburg.

For more information on the exhibit, visit crossingstoronto.com. Wycliffe College offers a Crossings Companion Catalog for $15 (bit.ly/crossingscatalog).

The 16 Canadian installations are located on the University of Toronto campus (including at two Anglican colleges: Wycliffe and Trinity) and at five churches in midtown Toronto (including Christ Church Anglican).

The project could be a win-win for artists and churches alike. Artists want to explore new spaces and find new audiences, while churches are often looking for new ways to inspire their congregations and attract new members. An outdoor exhibit also blurs the divide of sacred and secular. Showing religious art in a secular setting or an unexpected context — dislocating it — gives it a freshness and relevance.

At each location, participants are encouraged to use their smartphones to read reflections and listen to podcasts by leading artists, thinkers, and activists. The project aims to provoke the passions — artistically, spiritually, and ethically.

Lynne McIlvride working on the final station in her studio

“At the heart of this vision is the desire to connect the story of Jesus with important themes of social justice, including poverty, racism, ethnic and religious diversity, and refugees, and in each case seeking a way, through the arts and through conversations, to increase awareness, bring healing to our brokenness, reconciliation to our divisions, and compassion to our actions,” Franklin said.

Crossings may surprise those who are familiar with the Stations of the Cross as a series of figurative paintings or bas-relief lining the nave of a church. Instead of using one consistent style, Crossings is designed and executed by 16 artists, each with a unique vision and preferred medium. Some of the images are figurative, but the pilgrim or passerby is greeted occasionally with abstract works and often non-traditional Christian symbolism in sculpture, painting, and mixed media.

Because of the addition of Palm Sunday and the Resurrection, the artworks are not all somber. In fact, the first and last, while rather abstract, burst with color.

Most of the other 14 stations feature human portraiture, often of different ethnic groups, whether African, Cree, Korean, Mohawk, or Slavic, identifying Christ with the humanity shared by all nations. And the Christ figures vary not only in ethnicity but also in age, from a young beardless Christ to one who is middle-aged.

Triumphal Entry by James Patterson is a whimsical wire sculpture from his Prayer Machine series. Although it is static on the street — protected by a display case for security reasons — passersby with smartphones can watch a video of it in motion. Those searching for the traditional symbols of palm leaves and a donkey will not find them. Instead, flags wave and pinwheels turn above a playful street scene bursting with color and delight. The joy of Palm Sunday is there.

In front of Trinity College we see Patricia June Vickers’s Jesus Betrayed by Judas. The back of a blood-red Christ figure stands small and alone against an overwhelmingly dark background. The limited palette emphasizes the sacrifice about to be made when he faces ultimate evil.

The Repentant Thief by Komi Olaf

Vickers is of British, Tsimshian, Heiltsuk, and Haida First Nation ancestry. She grew up in Victoria, B.C., with art all around her, learning traditional applique fabric designs, and began to paint “out of a need to express what I couldn’t say in words.” An Anglican, she is not only an artist but also a psychotherapist and spiritual director.

In Peter’s Denial, Michael David O’Brien sets two large, bearded figures in neo-Byzantine style against a strikingly red backdrop. An agitated Peter is in the foreground with a clenched fist and open mouth, forsaking his Lord. He has turned his back on Jesus, who silently looks at him with great pity and tenderness. Though Jesus’ hands and neck are bound, he remains calm while Peter the free man is distraught.

Since 1976 the Roman Catholic artist, who is self-taught, has painted religious imagery exclusively. O’Brien is also the author of 13 novels, including Father Elijah and Sophia House.

A print of Ovide Joseph Bighetty’s vibrant acrylic painting In Justice for the Just hangs as a banner facing busy Queen’s Park Crescent. As Jesus is brought before Pilate, an owl hovers over his head. A boreal forest is outlined in the background, with the landscape and sky full of color and glory.

Born in 1969 in Pukatawagan First Nation on Manitoba’s Canadian Shield, Bighetty worked as a self-taught Cree artist, mainly in acrylics, on virtually any kind of material, including birch bark, wood, hide, and rock.

In 2001, the Indian Metis Christian Fellowship (now known as the Indigenous Christian Fellowship) commissioned Bighetty to create artwork depicting the visions of First Nations elders, combining Indigenous symbolism with biblical sources. He eventually completed 17 images telling the story of Kisemanito Pakitinasuwin (The Creator’s Sacrifice) in the Woodland style of Norval Morrisseau. Woodland painting is characterized by bright colors, bold outlines, spirit lines, abstract forms, and nature subjects.

Peter’s Denial by Michael David O’Brie

Originally painted in acrylic on canvas and framed in cedar, Bighetty’s Passion narrative uses Indigenous symbolism throughout. In one crucifixion scene, Christ is tied to a white birch pole while a red eagle soars above his head. When Christ’s body is being taken down, only the eagle’s dark shadow is seen on the ground.

Christ Takes Up the Cross by Colleen McLaughlin Barlow is a polished bronze statue of Christ lifting up what appears to be a billowing acrylic cloud or cape, deep inside of which is a delicate silver cross. Jesus is beardless with short hair, much as he was portrayed in the first millennium of Christian art. Barlow said she wanted to capture the moment when Jesus willingly took up his cross, not the beaten and exhausted Christ figure usually portrayed in Western art.

In a video describing her sculpture, Barlow said, “There is a greater truth here. He reached for the cross and said, ‘I will do what I have to do.’ That is the moment all history turns on.”

Barlow has studied human and animal anatomy extensively in various laboratories, and what at first glance appears to be an acrylic cloud or cape being held aloft is actually a model of the human sacrum, or tailbone. That triangular piece is the skeletal keystone in our center, and she found that if she made it transparent, within it is a light shaped like a cross. Although the sculpture stands just 30 inches high, it is most compelling.

In Komi Olaf’s The Repentant Thief, the canvas is filled completely with people of African descent. You are struck first by two distraught women wailing in the foreground as other women try to comfort them. The woman in the right corner stares out at the viewer, challenging us to take in this horrific scene.

Rising behind the women is Christ crucified between the two thieves. The thief on his right is looking toward Jesus, while the other looks down. Below Christ’s cross, young men gather while a Roman soldier stands guard to one side.

The soldier appears in traditional Roman headdress and armor, while Christ wears only a loincloth. All the other figures are in modern dress, the women wearing African headscarves. All the figures are rendered in full, almost hyper-realistic color, while a flat gray modern cityscape rises in the background. The sky, however, is not dark but golden, like one would see in an icon.

Olaf (or Olafimihan) is an African-Canadian Anglican. His art has been shaped by a cultural and artistic movement known as Afrofuturism, which explores African and African diasporic cultures in intersection with technology.

In Maria Gabankova’s Jesus Entrusts Mary to John, a crucified Christ dominates the scene but looks down with pity upon his mother and John. The young disciple touches Mary’s shoulder as she prays dejectedly at her son’s pierced feet. Gabankova excels in portraiture, and at the foot of the cross are people of all ages, including depictions of Gabankova’s husband and some of her friends. In the lower left is a howling Goya-like specter.

Her charcoal-on-paper collage also includes some metallic surfaces so that the viewer can be part of the crowd. At the bottom of the cross is a photograph of a skull, the traditional symbol of human mortality and of Golgotha, “the place of the skull” where Christ died.

Gabankova grew up in a family of visual artists and political dissidents in former Czechoslovakia. Based in Toronto, she still spends time in Prague.

One of the more startling works in the exhibit is Paul Roorda’s Tally for the station “Jesus Is Laid in the Tomb,” which stresses memento mori (“Remember you must die”). Instead of a skull, Roorda employs a stainless-steel mortuary body tray that is so polished as to mirror the viewer’s face if she stands close enough. Etched into the upright tray, around the body’s shadow, are rows of the symbol IIII, tallying time, another reminder that our days are numbered. Although facing Yonge Street, Toronto’s busiest thoroughfare, the installation is set so far back that many pedestrians may not notice it. Only a searching pilgrim would find it in among some evergreens, a fit spot for a garden tomb of sorts.

Resurrection by mixed-media artist Lynne McIlvirde is a painted three-dimensional wooden wheel. Instead of a traditional white Easter lily, the central flower looks more like a blue morning glory. There are no human figures, but hands and angels’ wings reach out to touch human ears. Gold, rose, turquoise, and blue predominate and leave one with a sense of mystery.

Other artists featured in Crossings are Anglicans Betty Spackman and Ruthia Pak Regis, as well as Symeon van Donkelaar, Brian David Johnston, Timothy Schmaltz, Phil Irish, and Farhad O’Neill.

“The real beauty within the Christian faith is a broken beauty, not an idealized beauty,” Franklin said. “It doesn’t resist or reject brokenness. It finds another level of beauty by embracing the brokenness, which is what the cross is. It is a self-giving for the sake of the other. The true spirituality we’re called to is an embodied faith that walks the Via Dolorosa.”

Sue Careless is an Anglican journalist based in Toronto.

 

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