Christian university becomes arts epicenter

By Marisa Martin

Linnea Spransy

Looking for an exciting, cutting edge, contemporary art school?

Well, until recently one of the last places you would find one was at an openly Christian college. Fortunately though, the Christian art scene is entering a type of Renaissance-redux with one epicenter at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif.

Biola has jumped into the deep end of the art pool, dedicating their entire 2011-2012 academic year to a plentitude of art-related events crossing many disciplines and even enlisting other schools. Themed “Sacred Spaces,” activities include the following: plays, lectures, concerts, films, exhibitions, tours, conferences, publications, forums, recitals, symposia, retreats, readings, discussions and, of course, guest artists. Some connect with classes, but many events are extra-curricular and open to the public.

A major four day art symposium from March 1-4, 2012, is free and open to the public. The college will be opening their doors to the general Southern California arts community for a dialogue on contemporary art, scholarship and Christianity. It should have something to interest everyone (well, possibly not unicyclists or entomologists, but you never know).

The speaker line up of artists and thinkers is impressive and spans many mediums and subjects: Dayton Castleman is a multi-disciplinary artist, educator and choreographer; Ruth Naomi Floyd, a jazz vocalist-composer expressing Christian theology; Joel Kotkin is a global authority on social trends who writes for Forbes and is described by the New York Times as America’s “uber-geographer”; Linnea Spransy and her paintings inspired by science, philosophy, theology and quantum physics. Altogether Biola is sponsoring 12 top-notch, successful speakers who undoubtedly have something intriguing and brilliant to say.

Ironically the Sacred Space arts year came about as a result of what President Barry Corey politely calls a “heated open dialogue” over a campus mural. Kent Twitchell’s soaring, 40-foot painted Jesus offended some students as being too “white” and oppressive.

After much prayer, Corey resisted Tony Compolo’s suggestion to “go tear it down,” deciding to restore it instead. He also conceived of a grand art conversation between Biola and the greater community to help heal the rifts, by focusing attention on “the many positive contributions the arts provide.”

A sort of quiet art triumvirate set the stage for these grand artistic productions at Biola this year. President Barry Corey, Art Professor Barry Krammes and famed philanthropist and art-historian Roberta Ahmanson worked with others to plan the Biola “Year of the Arts.”

Roberta Ahmanson

Ahmanson’s involvement is quite unique in a number of ways. Brought on as their second “visionary-in-residence” rather than a more common resident artist, she helps craft and coordinate the larger scope and place of the arts burgeoning in Biola. Together they are working to determine the intersection of art with other disciplines and the role it plays in shaping human experience, especially as it applies to Christians.

It looks like a match made in heaven. Both Ahmanson and her husband, Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson, rank as some of the most influential evangelicals in America. The couple have famously funded many conservative political and cultural activities and are well known in art circles as collectors and supporters of the arts.

It helps that the Ahmansons have so many types of social and business endeavors. Her past work promoting and investigating the role religion and art plays in society melds perfectly with an assignment as an on-campus “visionary.” Ahmanson is thankful that Biola chose to emphasize something as “non-pragmatic” as art, stressing that she feels art is “even more important – who you are, something all human beings can enjoy and share.”

President Corey and Provost David Nystrom share that vision and seem seriously committed to a major revaluing of the place of art in Christian education. This is no mere event with a lot of hoopla. It enlists major resources and is especially noteworthy in that they are doing this in very difficult economic times.

Bringing an “interdisciplinary array of artists and thinkers” together as a means of focusing on God is practicing theology aesthetically. Biola also extends a gracious olive branch out to the secular world, which has dismissed “Christian” art for years as being irrelevant. It remains to be seen if the secular art world will notice or reciprocate.

“Sacred Space” art performances and exhibits have been steady, numerous and diverse. It’s probably impossible for Biola students in any discipline to avoid art this year even if they wanted to. The intent is that any student could easily find something to enjoy or participate in. For instance, architecture students are working on an intense group planning project (charette) designing a sacred space or chapel at the Orange County Rescue Mission’s Double R Ranch.

For art lovers, Ahmason’s private collection of 20th century British art is displayed at Biola University Art gallery until March 10. The theme is the role of Christianity in British visual art and how art and beauty shape human experience. Works are displayed by major artists such as Stanley Spencer, Eric Gill, Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland.

"Angels of the Apocalypse," by Stanley Spencer

In the library you’ll find a collection of nautically and Biblically themed paintings by Danish artist Marcus Paulsen (b. 1895). His work particularly fascinates maritime buffs as Paulsen actually designed for ships himself and painted the great sailing vessels and their surrounds with detail and devotion.

Poetry buffs were well fed at Biola this year with appearances by poets such as Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and an award-winning poet, now teaching at USC. Other performances include dance troupes and a number of theater pieces.

Last month, Biola welcomed a rendition of the very moving modern opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites” by Francis Poulenc. The tragic and true story of 16 nuns murdered in the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror” is considered one of the 20th century’s greatest operas.

And how could I forget to mention the charmingly named “Random Acts of Culture”? These surprise, 30-minute concerts occur in unexpected venues (such as cafes) and are organized by Professor Elizabeth Larson and the Conservatory of Music.

I estimate there is a unique art-related event on this relatively small campus every few days on the average, with several, longer running, concurrent events. They stretch along the months like pearls on a chain, but there isn’t room here to describe all the upcoming performances still scheduled at Biola this year.

One concert to anticipate is “A Retrospective on Philip Glass ” by pianist Paul Barnes on March 21 at Crowell/Lansing Hall. Praised by the New York Times as a great virtuoso with “Lisztian thunder and deft fluidity,” Barnes will honor composer Glass by playing his music and lecturing on the composer’s relationship to “Sacred Space.”

And I should mention Makoto Fujimura, a Japanese-American painter and the founder of the International Arts Movement, one of the leading Christian arts organizations in the world. Fujimura lectures at Biola on April 18-19 and will give the commencement address in May. He is a true philosopher of art and always has something thought provoking to say.

The art doesn’t even slow down for spring break. A trip is planned for interested students to help elderly “outsider artist” Leonard Knight at his massive outdoor installation, “Salvation Mountain” in the outskirts of Niland, Calif.

Biola is named one of 17 “up and coming” national universities in the U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges 2012” guide. They consider many things to make their selections, but probably not the transcendental issues that Professor Krammes ponders for this “art year.” He points out that while Christians always value the search for Truth, the reality in this world is often an uncertain and “multilayered ambiguity” rather like the Apostle Paul and his dim looking glass. This is the point where artists work, “scratching” for possibilities with a sense of curiosity. At Biola they also search to express man’s meaning and relationship to God.

The year of the arts represents a significant shift at Biola under the new administration of Corey and Nystrom. They have stepped out and publicly committed Biola to promoting the arts with the hope that “the Lord will be exalted and glorified” at the end.

Art students who would never even consider a “Christian” art school in the past may want to take another look. If you live in the Orange County area, I’d highly recommend taking advantage of the public art-related events still scheduled at Biola. Organizer Krammes informs us he is praying ardently that we “will discover the arts” at Biola this year.

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