Students, artists and churchgoers collaborate to create 'Congregate' exhibit at MICA

The old arched red wooden door to the Seventh Metro Church is less that two blocks from the modern glass-and-steel panel that floats in front of the Maryland Institute College of Art's newest exhibition space.

They bring to mind two different eras and seem designed to be used by two dissimilar groups of people: spiky-haired artists and church ladies wearing fancy hats.

But when a white art student in her 20s met a middle-aged African-American pastor, they discovered that both doors opened into sacred spaces where people look for answers to the same big questions.

Caitlin Tucker and Ryan Preston Palmer became acquainted through an innovative program that brings together two of the seminal institutions that have helped transform the Station North neighborhood — the Maryland Institute College of Art and a group of local churches.

"This program has been a catalyst for bringing together the whole neighborhood," Palmer says.

He admits that until recently, he had never set foot in MICA, though he himself is an artist. For her part, neither Tucker nor Bashi Rose, an artist assigned to the Seventh Metro project, had previously crossed the church threshold.

As faculty member Jeffry Cudlin put it: "Museums don't always do the best job of making the case that art is transformative for everyone. Our project is about connecting art to people in the community and where possible, helping to bring about social change."

Planning for the associated exhibition began in the fall of 2012, when the six students in MICA's graduate curatorial practice program were paired with five churches in Station North: Seventh Metro Church, St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, the New Second Missionary Baptist Church, St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church, and the Spiritual Empowerment Center.

"There's sometimes an assumption that there's a divide between artists and communities of faith," Tucker says.

"Not a lot of members of our class identify as religious. The students at MICA who practice a faith have said in campus surveys that they feel discriminated against. But historically, there's a strong connection between art and religion."

A local artist was assigned to each group, with the goal of developing a piece that reflects the spirit and character of each church. In addition, three "roving artists" were commissioned to create works based on connections among all five houses of worship.

The eight pieces that resulted have been gathered into an exhibit called "Congregate art + faith + community," on view at MICA through Sept. 25.

Pieces on display include several glowing, translucent scrolls by artist Tiffany Jones that contain the Second Missionary congregants' answers to the question, "What does your faith mean to you?" The scrolls are arranged in a circle that surrounds tree stumps in the form of a pulpit.

Artist Laure Drogoul uses light and shadow, rippling water, and an audio recording of reverberations produced by a crystal bowl to re-create for viewers one of the meditations at the Spiritual Empowerment Center, which practices the Science of Mind and Spirit.

And Rose, a Baltimore-based theater artist and filmmaker, has created a 16-minute, black-and-white kaleidoscope of his impressions of the Baptist congregation belonging to Seventh Metro Church.

The film layers Palmer's voice with a mural painted on a basement wall by artist Michael Thomas and a performance by members of the modern movement troupe Dancing Many Drums on the church steps.

"At first, I wasn't excited to be working with a church," the filmmaker says.

"I'm not religious. I tend to be critical of churches in general and also of arts districts in black communities, which often lead to gentrification," says Rose, who is African-American. "But then I was introduced to Pastor Ryan. I got to see Ryan being Ryan, the humanity of the man. I realized that he was the work of art."

Indeed, everyone involved with "Congregate" describes the exhibit as just the physical manifestation of the actual artwork, which has to do with the relationships forged among the students, artists and worshipers.

"In the beginning, the students talked about their churches as if they were visiting anthropologists," Cudlin says.

"Gradually, that started to change. I am so proud that when the semester ended in May, the students kept the connections going. Classes were over. They had received their grades from me. As far as I was concerned, they were done."

The exhibit wasn't scheduled to open until the fall. Even though some students were working multiple part-time jobs, they checked in with their congregations throughout the summer.

"They kept attending Sunday morning services," Cudlin says. "I think there's been a lot more hugging than anyone anticipated."

Tucker admits that she was nervous the first time she pushed open the old red wooden door at the Seventh Metro Church and walked down the stairs and into the basement, in part because she feels estranged from the conservative Presbyterian church that her family attends in New Jersey.

Tucker wasn't sure what would be expected of her at Seventh Metro. Would she be pressured to convert? Would she be asked to defend her own hard-won values and beliefs?

"This was very challenging for me," she says.

"My family is very religious. But when I was growing up, it was difficult for me to reconcile a belief in Christian charity with the lack of acceptance for the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community. My church stopped being a place where everyone was welcome."

At Seventh Metro, the graduate student and the pastor had long discussions about Tucker's personal struggle with faith. Nothing was resolved, but she didn't expect it to be.

The school year that just started is going to be busy for her. But Tucker can see herself dropping by the church from time to time, perhaps participating in an Open Mic night.

"I hope that Pastor Palmer will continue to be a mentor for me," she says.

More than anything, Palmer longs for community. He leads a Baptist congregation that meets in a soaring stone edifice at the corner of St. Paul Street and North Avenue that was build in 1845.

At its height, the congregation had 2,000 members. By 2003, that numbers had dwindled to 17 — including the children. It has since grown to 50.

"When I first became pastor, we had long ago lost our relevance," Palmer says. "We no longer come across as a group of people with a compelling faith and passion."

Palmer craves the company of like-minded people who can support one another as they proceed along their common journey. When he was approached about creating a collaborative artwork with MICA — an institution comprising the college students, artists and young professionals that Seventh Metro has been trying to attract — he didn't hesitate.

"I didn't have any apprehensions at all," Palmer says. "My concern was that the connections would extend long after the project has finished. It's like being invited into someone's home. You want to get invited back."

The results, he says, "have exceeded my expectations."

One of the nicest surprises is that the project brought into contact the leaders and members of all five churches. Though they were located just a few blocks from one another, most had never met.

And at 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 22, three days before the exhibit closes, Seventh Metro's Sunday morning service will be held at MICA's Graduate Studio Center. Palmer will preach, and there will be a choir.

Members of the congregation will pull open the glass and steel door and walk into a modern studio that is filled with light. As the faithful offer up their prayers, their words will ascend skyward, mingling with the artworks that they helped to create.

If you go

"Congregate art + faith + community" is open daily through Sept. 25 at MICA's Graduate Studio Center, 131 W. North Ave. Free. Call 410-669-9200 or go to In addition, there are several free public arts events inspired by the exhibit:

• The second annual Akimbo Artwalk, which features site-specific dance and movement organized by the Deep Vision Dance Company, will be held from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at nearly two dozen locations throughout Station North.

• At 3 p.m. Sept. 22, Baltimore Performance Kitchen will stage "Closets" at MICA's Studio Center. This live performance features the real-life stories of congregation members that will be interpreted and performed by members of Single Carrot Theatre.

• "Congregate's" closing party will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sept. 25. It will feature live performances by church choirs and will launch the exhibit catalog.

• A picnic and afternoon of stories, support and sharing will be held from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. outside Penn Station. The event is co-sponsored by the rape-eradication advocacy group FORCE.

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