Picturing ‘the art of worship’

By Pamela A. Lewis

In December, 2015, the art committee at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Dover, Mass., was in a quandary. Formed in 2002 to develop and present various art exhibitions throughout the year to celebrate and showcase the talents of St. Dunstan’s parishioners and partner organizations such as lunch and school programs, the committee had been brainstorming ideas for future exhibits, but nothing was inspiring them.

As St. Dunstan’s was approaching its 50th anniversary, committee member Tia Dennis wondered whether directing efforts on “lifting up the church” in some way might be the way to go. In midwinter of that year, Dennis suggested an exhibit that would center on the church’s architecture, and she volunteered to take photos. The Art Committee liked the idea, and Dennis, equipped with a point-and-shoot camera, began photographing St. Dunstan’s exterior.

Dennis snapped more than 100 photos, but the results were grainy or blurry, and she began to feel that her initial idea had fallen flat. She then moved inside (and switched to a better camera) to photograph the interior of the nave. “Those photos seemed to flow more naturally and organically, and that’s when the exhibit idea really began to take shape and direction,” Dennis explained.

The result is an exhibit, “The Art of Worship,” comprising more than 30 black and white photos Dennis took of St. Dunstan’s worship space, furnishings, and liturgical objects, and which is on view in its Fellowship Hall through January 15.

“The Art of Worship” is about the “myriad hidden stories” of St. Dunstan’s — stories of those whose hands had crafted the space and stories of parishioners who helped make its creation possible. “We wanted to look at ourselves to remember and celebrate who we are, and to reclaim that by taking a journey into our worship space,” noted Dennis.

While “The Art of Worship” showcases Dennis’s photography, she readily admits to having no formal training in the genre, and this is her first exhibition. A furniture maker by trade, the Sherborn, Mass. resident is more at ease with timber than with the technicalities of picture taking. She credits her father, an “avid, amateur photographer,” whom she listened to and observed in learning how to frame a shot to capture personal moments or nature. Her years of attentiveness have made her more “intentional,” as Dennis put it, in framing shots.

With its austere lines and white steeple, St. Dunstan’s resembles many New England Protestant churches. Dennis said she loves the church’s post and beam truss system of architecture (designed by architect Paul Minor and built by Ted Benson, master craftsman and timber framer), and through her involvement in the exhibit she has come to appreciate the connection between woodworking and photography, as both require attention to detail. “In some ways, this exhibit reflects my love of woodworking and joinery and my desire to capture beautiful design,” she said.

St. Dunstan’s furnishings and liturgical objects, designed and created by various artisans, reflect strong craftsmanship. Not only are they the subjects in her lens, but they are also the silent yet eloquent narrators that express the idea of worship at St. Dunstan’s.

Take the baptismal font, made by Jonathan Clowes, a sculptor and woodworker who resides near Camden, Me., and who was first commissioned by St. Dunstan’s in the early 1990s. He is known for large-scale sculpture installations. Dennis’s shot of his baptismal font, its cover surmounted by a slender brass cross, closes in tightly on the object’s gently curved mahogany surface, emphasizing its mystery and sacred function.

In one of Dennis’s “Light and Shadow” photos, morning sunlight rakes across side aisle pews. Donated by Joy and J.J. Kiser (who had installed pews as a summer job in his home state of North Carolina), the pews were in honor of J.J.’s father.

A member of St. Dunstan’s for seven years, Dennis has uncovered its “hidden and visible elements.” “It was not until taking photos of the organ (designed and built by recently retired organ maker Fritz Noack in 1989), that I noticed the carved-out circles in its wood keys,” she noted.

Dennis’s striking view of St. Dunstan’s orb chandeliers, designed by the late George Clowes (father of Jonathan), a parishioner and founding member of St. Dunstan’s, captures the unique design Clowes had wanted to create. A much-told story is that the lights were delivered to the church a week before Christmas, and parishioners spent hours on the floor counting each chain link to ensure that the chandeliers would hang straight.

Dennis shoots in black and white because it “prompts the viewer to see details in a less familiar way, and becomes an invitation to decipher the image.” These images have helped Dennis and her fellow parishioners to return to the “grounding of worship,” a journey on which her mother had set her. “The church’s elements are integral to how we experience our faith.”

With camera and discerning eye, Tia Dennis has — in the words of one parishioner — “illuminated the sanctuary’s harmony and peace, associated with the divine order.”

The current exhibition is open to the public during church hours. Please call St. Dunstan’s at (508) 785-0879 for more information.   n

Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. She attends St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York.