Monday, November 03, 2014

The Greatest Living Christian Artist: He Qi

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I met Rich Melheim. I was living in Madison, Wisconsin at the time, working part-time at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church as the coordinator for their confirmation ministries. I was in that liminal space between seminary and first-call, having just returned to the States after three months spent in Germany on a stipend from the Evangelische Kirche im Deutschland.

It was mid-winter. I called up Rich to ask him some questions about Faith Inkubators, and he very graciously said, "Why don't you come up here and visit us? I've got a room you can stay in."

My reply: "When?"

His reply: "How about tonight?"

I thought this was just about the craziest thing I'd ever heard of. But I didn't have kids, was in-between school and jobs, and it seemed like an adventure. So I packed up a bag, got in the car, and drove to Stillwater.

Of course, there was a snow storm.

Having made it to Stillwater, I found Faith Ink, and spent an amazing time with Rich as we toured his offices and talked about confirmation curricula and faith formation.

Faith Inkubators was, and continues to be, an innovator in resources equipping congregations and families to nurture the faith of children. At that time, their flagship resource was a curriculum for confirmation. Most ELCA congregations at the time either bought it, emulated it, or were considering using it. Rich was doing cutting edge stuff with graphic design, cartoons, drama, Powerpoints, structure.

When I got back to the parish, I had trouble imagining how to incorporate some of what Rich did into my own confirmation leadership. I'm kind of a music guy (not that Rich isn't) and word-centric rather than graphic. Nevertheless, it was an excellent challenge, to see a pastor of the church translate the faith into comics, drama, and art.

Ever since then, Rich's ministry has been a lodestone for me of how to innovate in Christian faith formation. He's kind of a radical, pushing the church to re-consider its most basic assumptions (right now, that includes publishing a book titled Killing Sunday School Before It Kills the Church).

His basic insight is spot on, though. Children learn the faith not at church, but from their parents. So churches are called to equip parents to pass on the faith. And his heart is in the right place also. He cares about families, and wants them to thrive.

I also love Rich because he loves to play. Recently, he created a meme to roast me. I love it. Perfect for this season of ubiquitous campaign signs.

I have another reason for loving Rich Melheim. He introduced me to the work of He Qi ( Rich has been using He Qi's work on his web site and print resources for years. The two of them are close friends.

Currently a Minnesota resident (USA), He Qi Studied at Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing Art Institute in China and Hamburg Art Institute in Germany. He was the first among Mainland Chinese to earn a Ph.D. in Religious Art after the Revolution(1992). He also received his Honorary Doctor Degree from Australia Catholic University in Melbourne (May, 2011). He is also a member of the China Art Association and a former council member of the Asian Christian Art Association (1998-2006).  He received the 20th Century Award for Achievement in recognition of outstanding achievements in the field of Religious Art Theory and Christian Art Creation of IBC in Cambridge UK. His art works have been displayed in museums, galleries, universities and churches, in New York, San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, St.Paul, Birmingham, Pittsburgh, St.Louis, Hartford, Elizabethton, Richmond,Tokyo, Kyoto, Hong Kong, Nanjing, London, Oxford, Gevena, Aachen, etc.

His art works have been introduced on numerous news paper and magazines, such as: Washington Post, Christianity Today, Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong Cable TV, BBC-UK, ABC-Australia, Copenhagen Daily (Denmark), Bet Binnenhof Daily in the Netherlands, China “Fine Art”, Xinhua News Paper, Princeton Post, Minnesota Monthly, Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Star Tribune, 
WCCO TV, etc.He has been invited by universities and seminaries to be a visiting professor and artist-in-residence to do lectures and art exhibits such as: Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, New College and Regent’s Park College of Oxford (UK), Toronto University(Canada), Wheaton College (IL), Luther Seminary (MN), Theological Seminary in San Francisco (CA), St.Olaf College (MN), Drew University (NJ), Samford University (AL),  Millgan College(TN), Nanjing University,Renmin University of China, Alliance Bible Seminary (Hong Kong), etc. He is currenlty guest professor of Drew University(NJ).

About two months ago, Rich alerted me to the presence of a traveling art exhibition of He Qi's work. Hosted previously at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Killeen, Texas, we now are hosting an exhibit of his work at Good Shepherd here in Fayetteville. Another friend and colleague, Jennifer Obermueller, pastor at Immanuel, helped arrange the transport of the art from Killeen to Fayetteville.

Actually, we should all keep Jennifer in our prayers. She was diagnosed this summer with cancer in her brain, and is undergoing treatments. A member of her parish was kind enough to bring the eight large boxes of He Qi's work from Killeen to Durant, Oklahoma. Thus begins another road trip story associated with Rich Melheim, who always seems to get me driving somewhere.

I drove our church van down to Durant, crossing large sections of Oklahoma in the midst of the fall colors, loaded up the boxes, and drove back. When I got back to church, the contemporary worship band was in the middle of rehearsal, Stephen's Ministry was meeting, our Eagle Scout had started work on his outdoor project, and carrying those boxes of art into the narthex and setting them out on display seemed vital, alive with the presence of Christ.

When you look at He Qi's art, there is a lot going on. I'm neither an art historian or even an amateur scholar of the visual arts. I know very, very little. All I can really say faithfully is that in He Qi's art, I see the intersection of three things I love very much. I see Chinese art. I see iconography. And I see Scripture. He Qi brings these three wonderful things together in a way that is miraculous.

I'm including some kind of raw and unedited photos of the pictures we have now hanging on display in the hallway between our sanctuary and multi-purpose room. They tell in eighteen images the story of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

I really hope you'll go to his web site and order some of his art ( It's always a great idea to support artists, and He Qi deserves to be more widely known. If only his art were hanging in more homes around the country, and more churches. Last week I took a group of kids during Gen On to the display, and we told our way through the paintings. A surprising number of the biblical stories were new to the kids, but the art sustained and transformed they way they heard the stories told.

There is something especially powerful about cross-cultural art. It's so tiresome to see paintings ad nauseum of the white Jesus who looks pretty much like me with long hair. Yes, you can paint a white Jesus if you want to. Every culture paints Jesus in their own image. But it is transformative, and faith-challenging, to see Jesus as a Chinese man blessing all nations. It's good to remember that those wise men from the East really were from the far east. And so on.

We plan to use this art in a variety of ways. The display will stay up at least through Christmas. We'll probably bring one piece per Sunday into the sanctuary during Advent to illustrate that season. I hope we'll host some kind of special reception and lecture. But more than anything, I hope the art helps us remember how embodied our faith is, how visual. Jesus could be heard, and seen, and touched. Art is like that.

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