Art and Soul

The ascent of spiritual art in the Twin Cities

Nick Heille, a retired information technology specialist, and his wife, Rosie, a librarian, do not seem like people who would personally know an artist with a name like Chank Diesel. They wear cardigan sweaters, sign their correspondence with smiley faces, and, for the past seven years, have hosted a spiritual art festival in northeast Minneapolis. Yet, as a lifelong Nordeaster, Nick knows the area and the artists who work there, enough to be the tour guide on the trolley that ferries people around during the neighborhood’s Art-A-Whirl art crawl each spring. And so, when the Heilles launched their juried art shows with the hope of refilling local pews, they persuaded hipsters like Diesel to contribute works of art, and the result has been an experience every bit as edgy as the work shown in local studios—a far cry from the Jesus night-lights and WWJD bracelets sold by Christian bookstores and mail-order outlets. “You’re rescuing spiritual art from the catalogs,” the director of liturgy at the Basilica of St. Mary told them. A seminary president went even further: “You’re doing the most extraordinary evangelistic work I’ve ever seen.”

The Heilles figured that an art show, held in a different religious center each year, might draw attention to Nordeast’s venerable houses of worship, some of which are closing, merging, or otherwise in decline. This year’s festival runs March 25 to 30 at St. Boniface Catholic Church. “We’re mendicants on a pilgrimage,” Nick says. “We go from holy place to holy place.” What they didn’t expect was the outpouring of community interest, which has helped draw such exceptional submissions as a work that recently sold for $50,000.

Enthusiasm for spiritual art has been on the upswing nationally for at least a decade, but some say it was 9/11 that pushed the market heavenward. “Society needs healing,” says Vicki Hovde, who opened SpiritOne Arts Center, the area’s first gallery devoted to spiritual art, a little more than a year ago in downtown Minneapolis. “People are seeking—they’re seeking the truth…. I think spiritual art is really going to take off.”

The art in Hovde’s gallery is worldly and non-sectarian—a sort of spiritual Pier 1: a tent hanging, made by Islamic salt traders in Niger, rests beside abstract textiles constructed from old kimonos and a print that depicts an African Adam and Eve. Hovde says that when people hear about her gallery they expect to find ceramic angels or crystals, which she’d never carry. “Just because people like religious art,” she says, “doesn’t mean they have bad taste.”

Hovde has long worked as a healing-arts consultant, helping medical institutions find art for their spaces that soothes and inspires patients. She opened the gallery after artists working on the seven-year project to hand-craft the so-called St. John’s Bible asked if she wanted to sell prints made from the richly illustrated pages. The St. John’s Bible has a progressive bent—the Twin Towers, for instance, are shown in an illustration reflecting on forgiveness—which suits Hovde’s goal of promoting reconciliation. “Everyone thinks they own God,” she says. “But artists have always been able to transcend politics.”

At the Minneapolis headquarters of Thrivent, the Lutheran financial services firm, this quality of timelessness can be seen in the public-art galleries, where prints and drawings by Rembrandt, Picasso, Chagall, German expressionists, and others depict biblical stories. But the intersection of religion and politics can also be seen here (and at the University of St. Thomas, where part of Thrivent’s collection, considered one of the finest of its kind in the country, will be on display beginning March 30), since much of this art was created at a time when politics and religion were closely intertwined.
Religious art, in other words, reflects the times. But for those who collect it, the point has often been the same: contemplation, devotion, nourishment. Looking at Thrivent’s row of Rembrandts, with their dramatic expressions of agony, ecstasy, and wonder, it’s difficult not to reflect, in some way, on faith—that which we don’t understand but are drawn to nonetheless.