'Wildness of God': Artist's work adds peaceful beauty of nature to the Church of Our Saviour on Johns Island
The church, with its wooden-truss ceiling and open sanctuary, its unanchored chairs, live acoustics and all that natural light pouring in through the tall windows, is reminiscent of the sort of space evangelical Christians once used for their tent revivals.
The Church of Our Savior, an Episcopal parish on rural Johns Island, was established a little more than 30 years ago to serve the growing populations on the nearby barrier islands of Kiawah and Seabrook.
Its austere interior contains unintentionally Celtic elements, especially the cross inside a circle, which has pagan-Druid origins. When the Rev. Michael Clarkson arrived at Our Savior three years ago from England, where he had been forming Anglican congregations and working for the Church of England for two decades, the Celtic characteristics of his new parish immediately were evident.
And soon he understood why a Celtic theme, which emphasizes the connections between faith and nature, was appropriate for his new parish home.
"Celtic Christianity came out of the earth," Clarkson said. "It clashed with Roman Christianity, which was more cerebral."
But at this spot on Johns Island, where the open ocean is near and the marshes produce their bounty of sea creatures and birds and long silver-green blades of grass, where farmers still till the soil and the grand oaks form their own cathedrals, the landscape is respected and admired, he said.
Our Savior "needs to reflect the islands," it needs to offer "a sense of connecting with nature," he said.
Some months ago, as the parish's 30th anniversary approached, Clarkson consulted with artist and church member Mary Whyte about beginning a slow, modest transformation inside the building. Today, the apse of the church features a naturalistic mural that taps into the very character of the Lowcountry.
Whyte is a respected painter who typically works in watercolor. A resident of Johns Island, she is best-known for her detailed, realistic portraits of Lowcountry figures. Her works can be seen at Coleman Fine Art gallery downtown and in museums, including the Gibbes Museum of Art.
For years, she has created images partly referencing the tradition of the Charleston Renaissance, which was spearheaded by, among others, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith in the last half of the 19th century. Whereas Smith tended to idealize and romanticize Lowcountry landscapes -- their rice fields, marshes and slave communities -- Whyte has produced her own brand of portraiture that doesn't shy away from harsh reality.
Angela Mack, executive director of the Gibbes, which soon will host a show devoted to Whyte's new work, said she thinks the watercolorist can be compared to important national figures such as Andrew Wyeth and Stephen Scott Young.
"Alice Smith was not about spreading the word about being an artist, she was about spreading the word of the Lowcountry," Mack said. "Mary is using her talents to promote art. Her subject matter just happens to be the Lowcountry, and now the wider South."
Whyte's most recent book is "Working South," a collection of images portraying laborers whose livelihoods are disappearing: the fisherman, elevator operator, textile mill worker and shoeshine man. A museum tour of 50 works is under way. The tour arrives at the Gibbes on May 4, 2012.
"Her reputation in the watercolor world just exceeds all bounds," Mack said. "I'm eager to see what happens next with her."
The project at Our Savior began in 1999, soon after the office and education annex was built, Clarkson and Whyte said. The annex had an octagonal intersection with four bare walls that Whyte decided to fill with art: portrait representations of the four seasons, featuring the children of the church.
Her husband, Smith Coleman, a guilder, made the frames using a sgraffito technique where gold leaf is laid on the frame, then painted over. The paint then is "scratched" to form shapes and designs that reveal the gold underneath.
With Coleman's help, Whyte applied some of the gold leaf to the paintings themselves.
When Whyte and Clarkson were deciding what to do in the sanctuary, they settled on the idea of egrets flying into the sky.
In the Christianity of the Mediterranean, a dove signifies the Holy Spirit, Clarkson said, but in the Celtic tradition it's a wild goose. Since the earthly symbol can change, why not find something that's particular to the Lowcountry Sea Islands? They settled on white egrets, and Whyte got to work, volunteering her talents and time.
She said the mural project was a group effort. A team of painters applied the blue to the walls, and parish seamstresses made the green chasuble, or liturgical vestment worn by priests presiding over the Eucharist, and green altar frontal, both of which feature the egret theme.
Shirley Salvo and Paula Adamson, experienced seamstresses and members of the parish, created the vestments and frontal piece according to Whyte's design.
Salvo earned a master's degree in home economics with a concentration on clothing construction and has taught tailoring but never made it a career. She referred to it as "a passion" that ran in the family.
Clarkson asked for her help with the project, "but the reason I did the vestments was because of my love of God," Salvo said. "This was a way to honor God, a way to honor God with the talents that he gave me" -- and a way to honor her mother and muse who died at 32, when Salvo was just 13.
The flying egrets, which also are made with gold leaf painted over, and positioned upon layered walls in a circular shape, provide an uplifting feeling, Clarkson and Whyte said.
The visual effect conveys "the wildness of God and beauty of nature," Clarkson said.
He noted that the Celtic wild goose never travels on its own. It is only itself when with others. And the egrets in the sanctuary evoke a similar sense of togetherness. "I love this because it isn't a lone symbol, but a sense of spirit in the whole flock," he said.
Christianity, after all, is mostly about community, he said.
When the sun crosses the sky and the light in the sanctuary shifts, the egret flock seems to come alive, Clarkson said. The birds "look different than they did 10 minutes before. It's magic."
And it echoes visually the transformation that occurs within the soul when the Holy Spirit takes hold, he said.
The relatively unadorned sanctuary presents other opportunities for Whyte, she said. She's got her eye on a blank wall by the chapel (which is not a distinct room but part of the larger space). And perhaps the white columns could benefit from the Whyte treatment, too. Salvo said she stands ready to assist by producing a new altar frontal for the chapel, "as soon as Mary designs it."
Since the egrets mural was revealed in November, people have been visiting the church during the day to meditate or pray, Clarkson and Whyte said.
The church, which has for 30 years offered a sanctuary for fellowship and worship, now has become a place where the spirit can soar.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.