Name: Hal Hess (with input from committee members Anne Hevener and Keith Lehman)
Role: Chair of the Mennonite Arts Weekend planning committee (held at Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati)
Congregation: Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship
1. Can you share the story of the genesis of the Mennonite Arts Weekend?
Naomi Jantzen, a Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship (CMF) member, planted a seed with the congregation in the early 1980’s about the possibility of the congregation creating an event with an arts focus. That idea lay dormant throughout the ‘80s until the Mennonite Church conference was held at Illinois State University in Normal.
At that conference my wife, Christine Schumacher, and I attended an ad hoc meeting for those interested in the arts in the Mennonite Church. The gathering, scheduled to be in a 25-seat university classroom, had over 300 people in attendance!
The gathering generated two ideas: 1) How do we connect with Mennonites who have felt alienated because of their art? 2) How can we create connection among artists in general? Upon returning to CMF, an outreach committee formed what now is the Mennonite Arts Weekend Committee with the charge to dream and create.
In the 1989-1992 dreaming phase, we imagined bringing together artists, and those interested in the arts, to share their art, whether poetry, prose, painting, photography, ceramics , music and worship. In February 1992, Mennonite Arts Weekend was launched.
2. What do you remember about your first gathering in 1992?
We had no idea how many, if anybody, would show up for the Weekend other than CMF people. It was a leap of faith! We invited 14 artists, including two choirs. Slowly registrations came in and approximately 75 people attended. Housing was found for every attender! We felt a sense of exhilaration. Word had gotten out. People were curious and attended. Financially we broke even (at the expense of the artists).
3. How has the event changed since that first gathering?
Many changes have been subtle. But several are huge: 1) Both Saturday lunch and dinner are catered, no longer supplied by CMF members; 2) Artists are provided round-trip transportation, housing and a stipend; 3) Friday and Saturday night events have evolved from local talent shows to professional peerformances.
Presentations change depending on who the artists are and their presentation/performance needs.
Friday night’s Opening Session features 90-second ‘elevator speeches’ by each of the artists, short performances, a Keynote address and a Weekend favorite – congregational singing.
Saturday has four 75-minute presentation times. The ‘elevator speeches’ help identify which artist presentation you might wish to attend.
This year Theatre of the Beat, a Canadian theater troupe, will present a full length show. With regard to the distance they will travel, the expense of bringing them and the uniqueness of their show, we are scheduling no other artist’s presentation opposite them. All registrants can see their performance.
The Saturday Evening Concert features musicians, poets, writers along with hymn singing.
Pleasant Ridge Presbyterian Church (PRPC) generously gives Mennonite Arts Weekend their Sunday morning worship time. PRPC, CMF, artists and 200 registrants attend a worship service planned by artists. PRPC insists on our returning every two years if only for the ringing harmonies of congregational singing.
4. Is there one story from past gatherings that gets told or retold over and over?
Chuck Neufeld was a Sunday morning minister for one of the Weekends. Ryan Mellinger, a glass blower from Seattle, was a presenter. Ryan was commissioned to create a 24-inch tall communion vase. Along with this vase Ryan brought 15 blown drinking glasses. At the close of the Sunday service, Neufeld asked people who had bought these glasses to bring them to the altar for a water blessing during which the congregation sang the hymn, “O Healing River.”
Another year a young woman, a writer and attendee, expressed a frustration with church. She said she was not sure if her poetic themes were welcome in the church. Ted Swartz [actor, playwright and owner of Ted & Co. TheaterWorks], who was not a presenter but simply attending the session, encouraged her simply not to give up but to stay and share her point of view. He said that the church needed to hear from her.
That was just an incredibly poignant moment. Part of the joy of the Weekend is that you never know what might happen. Who would have expected these moments to have such warm receptions?
5. How has art shaped your own understandings of God?
What I’ve been able to find in various genres of art is the creative God. It’s not about putting a name with it, but embracing the feeling of something Extraordinary.
6. Are there challenges for artists that are particular to the Mennonite faith tradition?
In 1989-92, we would have been looking more at the functional arts. Beautiful quilts and furniture, never to be sold, were for practical use only. Artistic expression in most forms found unacceptance. Hence, to express without rejection meant moving away from the church.
Church has changed. The challenge today is finding ways to celebrate the gifts of our congregation in all their varieties, beginning from children’s gifts of writing, singing and artwork. How do we understand that, just like our faith, art can be a 24/7 practice? How can we be inviting to our congregations to help people express God through the whole of who and what they are?
I think that today artistic expression is encouraged in the Mennonite Church in general. I hope we have been a small part of that.
7. What can people expect if they attend the 2018 Mennonite Arts Weekend gathering?
They can expect the unexpected!
We have 10 different people/groups that will be presenting. Theatre of the Beat, Fantasy writer and poet, Sofia Samatar, cellist Eugene Friesen, Painter Paul Buxman, artist/illustrator/designer Karen Newe, painter/printmaker Brenton Good, Conductor/song leader Jim Heiks, poet Becca J.R. Lachman, singer/songwriter Sadie Gustafson-Zook and worship planners Sarah Kathleen Johnson and Carl Bear. Ten different presentations across the gamut of art, each of them coming with a unique world to share.
We always hope that as many people as possible hear an idea, see a work of art or hear music that is moving and inspiring. We hope people come away surprised. Surprise supplied by the moment. We hope for the possibilities of newness.
Hannah Heinzekehr conducted and edited this seven question interview. You can read past seven question interviews online.