When it comes to the intersection of Christian faith and the art of music, I’ve encountered abundant dialogue and engagement within the community here in Lancaster. But when it comes to the intersection of Christian faith and the visual arts, I have not encountered that same level of activity and vibrancy.
That’s the reason I’m so excited about the opening of a new art gallery in downtown Lancaster, Square Halo Gallery. This gallery’s opening is an important moment in the maturity of Lancaster’s art scene. The work you will see at this gallery is deeply informed by and rooted in faith, but it is leagues away from Thomas Kinkade or happy paintings of a white Jesus holding well-mannered white children on his lap. Not only is the work you will see on display at Square Halo Gallery distinguished by the complexity and maturity of its artistic vision but also by its remarkable display of talent. This is quality, world-class work.
Most people in the Lancaster area are unaware of the vibrant community that is spread across the country, in small pockets here and there, of Christians who are engaged in the visual arts. I think of two organizations as being at its heart. The first is CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts), an organization designed to encourage, support, and connect active artists as they explore – on their own and together – the relationship between their Christian faith and the visual arts. Many of my blog readers and friends may understand CIVA better immediately when I say that Dayton Castleman, now living in Bentonville, Arkansas, is on the organization’s board of directors.
The second institution that encapsulates this loose subculture (or community, or movement – there’s really no good word for it) is Image journal, which takes the intersection of Christian faith and contemporary art (visual as well as literary) more seriously than any other periodical ever has. Image is a publication of incredibly high artistic standards. If your work appears on its pages, it is because as an artist you have produced something really, really good.
And that is one way to introduce the opening exhibit at Square Halo Gallery: The exhibit includes work by five artists whose work has appeared in Image: Sandra Bowden plus four others who have been profiled as in the past as the Image artist of the month: Roger Feldman, Makota Fujimura, Edward Knippers, and Mary McCleary.
Another way to introduce this exhibit would be to say that the artists included all had work appearing in the excellent book It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. Bookseller Byron Borger of Hearts & Minds Books in Dallastown, PA explains why this book, now in its second edition, is so great better than I can here, so go read his review.
It is through Byron, a friend, encourager, and college-days employer of mine, that I first was introduced to this book and to the editor who compiled and produced it, Ned Bustard. The book is essential reading for anyone studying how artists and those who appreciate their work can and should connect art with their faith (rather than keeping them separate parts of their lives). I read a lot on that subject in my early 20s, and It Was Good remains one of my favorites.
The exhibit itself captures the essential aspects of this whole contemporary-Christians-doing-visual-arts camp. In the selection and ordering of the works on displays, key themes arise: treating tradition with respect but also with reinvention, looking straight at evil with open eyes and acknowledging it, embracing the sacred while incorporating and connecting the profane (the secular), looking to diverse cultural heritages as a source of inspiration and variety (not of division), and communicating boldly but not always plainly (sometimes symbolism, sometimes not; sometimes words, sometimes not; sometimes riffing on the expected, sometimes leaping out with the unexpected).
Square Halo Gallery opens its doors for First Friday, October 4, 2013 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. (Facebook event page). The gallery is located right inside the front doors The Trust Performing Arts Center at 37 North Market Street (between the Lancaster Dispensing Company and Orange Street), the building formerly occupied by the Lancaster Quilt Museum.
The opening night for the gallery will also be the night of the book launch for a “sequel” of sorts to It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God, this volume titled It Was Good: Making Music to the Glory of God. (Byron Borger has a fresh-off-the-presses, in-depth rave review of this one, too, which is well worth reading.) The event will feature appearances and performances by several of the contributors to the book, including Rob Bigley (the venue’s executive director), composer Mark Chambers (who has a short blog post of his own about the new book), Joy Ike (who has, to my astonishment, played in my house! ), Matthew Monticchio (who previously spent ten years as music director at Wheatland Presbyterian Church in Lancaster), and Steve Nichols (author and Lancaster Bible College professor). Tickets, available through EventBrite, are $5 for adults and $2 for students.
As for the gallery, Ned Bustard says the exhibit will change every two months and the gallery will always be open on First Fridays and Third Fridays.
As soon as you check out the gallery, please swing back here to leave a comment on what you thought of it.
Given the state of Lancaster city today, this focus on infrastructure is intolerable.
One of the recent great books on urban life and planning is Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. It includes these poignant reminders:
Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.…
The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren’t structures; cities are people.
The downtown convention center has yet to prove that it was anywhere close to worth its expense. Many of the brick-edged sidewalks and street crossings laid downtown four years ago are already cracked and ugly. Tearing down parts of the exterior of the monstrosity of a building at Lancaster Square (across from Binns Park) so far has done nothing to make the property more attractive to private developers.
It is easy and tempting to focus on buildings and infrastructure when focusing on the improvement of a city. I imagine that this is especially true for the people in Lancaster’s city government who need to spend endless hours figuring out how to deal with the city’s aging infrastructure, particularly for public utilities. If I spent all day figuring out how to mend old infrastructure, I’m sure I would dream of going beyond simply fixing what’s there to instead build shiny new buildings and transportation methods.
The problem, however, is that Lancaster isn’t its buildings and infrastructure. Lancaster is its people. And we can and should invest a lot more in them.
There are all sorts of things that deserve more attention, discussion, and funding than infrastructure. Here are a two starting points:
Before being unanimously rejected by the city’s school board, the proposal for an Academy of Business and Entrepreneurship Charter School enjoyed far more support than it ever should have. It is going to be a long time before anyone can say that we as a community are doing enough for our school children.
Please chime in below in the comments. Do you agree that attention on infrastructure is misplaced? If so, what do you think is more important for Lancaster city to focus on right now?
Through the twists and turns of interactions on Twitter, Amanda and I found ourselves last Sunday in the audience of “Home for the Holidays,” this year’s Christmas show at American Music Theatre.
I share the full story at the end of this post. Let me start out with the show itself.
Singing, Dancing, and Lighting
The overall production quality of American Music Theatre’s show is high. Amanda makes this a jointly authored blog post by weighing in on that a few paragraphs below. To my eyes and ears, the singers and dancers are talented, as are the musicians, who are kept on stage rather than sequestered in a pit.
The show runs a little longer than two hours, and is split into two acts with an intermission. Amanda and I both enjoyed the show, and I think I know the criteria to determine whether you will, too:
You must truly enjoy Christmas, including both the Nativity and the Santa Claus sides of the holiday.
You should enjoy a certain level of nostalgia, though your tolerance doesn’t need to be very high. If you, like me, can’t stand “The Christmas Shoes” but can manage “Tennessee Christmas,” you’ll be fine.
You should enjoy at least some musicals, because this show is almost entirely singing and dancing.
Mass Appeal Within the Bounds of Actually Celebrating Christmas
The fundamental artistry of the show is the careful engineering of its appeal. Andrea McCormick, the writer and director, has put together a show that gives the respect to traditional standards that most of the adults in the audience expect, while also adding playfulness for the children. The themes of the Nativity and of family are treated with reverence, while food, candy, and Santa have much more latitude. To its audience of people who honor and celebrate Christmas, the show is inoffensive without being dull.
The show begins with a small exterior scene in front of the main curtain, with caroling, windows with candles gleaming inside, and gentle snowfall nearly “like a picture-print by Courier and Ives.” Then the curtain rises and we’re in a grand hall of a mansion with a beauty pageant–style staircase in the middle, behind which are large arched windows looking on the glittering stars of a night sky. The remainder of the first act is song after song – seventeen in all – without a break in between.
The first act feels to me like an instance of “give the people what they want,” i.e., lots of good old fashioned Christmas songs including “Jingle Bells,” “White Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The show’s title song appears as a medley with “Silver Bells,” and it works.
The first act includes at least three attempts to be more than just a fancy Christmas concert of a mix of Christmas songs. Of those attempts, two succeed and one doesn’t.
The first success is the acting of vocalist Michael J. Austin, who manages to break through the blur of an ensemble cast to establish a memorable character through strong (albeit silly) comedic acting choices. There are no lines in the first act, so he uses the only tools at his disposal – body movement, facial expression, and interaction with other actors, particularly the children. I caught myself bursting out with a laugh a couple times because of his acting.
The second success is the way vocalist Wess Cooke strides confidently right up to the line of pure cheesiness and never crosses it. He is given a solo of “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S” (the link is to the lyrics, in Comic Sans, which is fitting), and somehow he kept me from rolling my eyes. I don’t know how he does it, because as soon as the music started for that song I braced myself for a lot of eye-rolling, then it simply didn’t happen. (The song is also followed by a talented group of children singing a beautiful arrangement of the “Christmas Canon,” which makes it easy to forget “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S.”)
The third attempt to tie the first act together with a stronger thread is the inclusion of a mini-narrative of a soldier returning home to be with the family assembled in the Christmassy mansion. As one of the female vocalists (help me out in the comments, please… I couldn’t positively identify her) finishes a solo of “Merry Christmas, Darling,” another vocalist dressed as a solider carries his canvas duffel bag down the aisle through the audience and onto stage. It’s a potentially powerful moment. She has just been singing longingly about her husband who is away, serving in the military, wishing he were there to wish a merry Christmas. Then suddenly he appears. Their eyes meet. They run together and embrace. And he breaks into song. He begins singing… “O Christmas Tree.” Yep. He sees his wife for the first time in forever and can’t help himself from expressing adoration for… their Christmas tree.
The second act is much more successful in terms of story and theme. The first half of the act involves the story of children magically transported to the North Pole, where they are recruited to help complete the preparations for the biggest night of the year. Some character have spoken lines and there’s a conflict and resolution. The set, costumes, and lighting are bold and trippy. Not as trippy as the Pink Elephants on Parade scene fromDumbo, but in that spirit, enough to be a little unsettling, though still very much child-friendly and in the Christmas spirit.
The curtain comes down and during the set change the audience is treated to a funny parody of “Do You See What I See,” entitled, “Didn’t I Get This Last Year?” The details of the scene are worth the surprise, so I won’t spoil it.
The curtain comes back up, and we’re back in the main hall, which has been transformed to be more of a church, the windows replaced with a gigantic and elegant cross and stained glass windows. For all the goofiness that came before it, the final segment of the second act is a heartfelt and reverent string of pious songs including “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and “Ave Maria.” The show closes with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
My question is, is the show anything more than what I’ve described? Is it just a pleasant two hours of entertainment, or is there more depth to it?
I’ll get to my answer after sharing Amanda’s take on the show
Amanda’s Perspective on the Show
In her own words…
The first few things I notice – the theater is super crowded, which isn’t a surprise. This is an immensely popular show – and my fellow audience members are mostly Caucasian and either seniors or parents with young children. Daniel and I, as a late 20s/early 30s couple with no children, were in the minority. The theater was beautifully decorated and I was looking forward to seeing the set pieces. We were encouraged to stop at the concession stand, where people stood with boxes of popcorn and soft drinks, and further encouraged to take our snacks WITH us into the theater. I found this both awesome yet off-putting at the same time. Was I at a movie theater or a theater-theater? Munching on popcorn while watching a show? OK!
We had lovely seats that offered a great view. The curtain rises to reveal a large winding staircase with beautifully decorated trees and set pieces reminiscent of a old hearth and home. The first act is a long list of Christmas standards, both secular and Christian, and has a loose theme that tied them all together. Kinda sorta. It boils down to a fancy gathering of well-trained singers who power through the Christmas songs and carols most guaranteed to make the audience tap their toes and sing along. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. I thought it was nice. Like “finding five dollars in your winter jacket pocket” nice. Like, “Oh, that puppy is so gosh darn adorable” nice. You know, “nice.”
In the first act, there isn’t really anything remarkable that left a lasting impression for me. The dancers are graceful and support their singing cast well. The singers are all very talented, each offering their own distinctive voice style. There are a few songs that feature some fantastic harmonies, reminiscent of the Andrew Sisters circa World War 2. I’m a big fan of this style, so I really enjoyed that.
I almost wish they had just stuck with a retro theme through the entire first act, but alas, they incorporate wistful imagery instead a wife writing to her husband currently deployed (“Merry Christmas Darling”), the husband returning home from war (“O Christmas Tree” – this one was really weird for me. Why is he singing about a tree rather than how happy he is to see his family? Should I be concerned??). The end of Act I brings out the first few Christian carols as well – “Joy to the World” (which I found atrocious, only because it was a jazzed-up contemporary arrangement and I’m a staunch believer in leaving the standard hymns sacred as they are), a song where each letter in “Christmas” stands for something related to Jesus Christ (the old woman next to me really ate this one up), and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
Intermission. I found myself turning to Daniel with a flat smile. So far, the show had been more or less what I had been anticipating (“nice”). In looking at what was in store for Act Two I was a little worried about the more investing carols (“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” “Ave Maria,” “O Holy Night” – anyone who has ever tried to sing these songs solo knows these are not easy-peasy). After Act One’s “Joy to the World,” I was worried I was going to be leaving gouge marks in Daniel’s arm.
I was surprised when Act Two opened up into something completely, totally different. Someone somewhere along the way had sucked one too many acid-soaked candy canes because we are now in Candy Land where the children have woken up to find elves making candy for Christmas. Now, this is more like what I remembered of theater – over-the-top costumes, silly acting – and I actually found myself relieved. I was into it. It was like a palate cleanser. The cast sang several candy-related songs. Over the top, yet cute. Still “nice.” The next piece features a hilarious song playing on “Do You Hear What I Hear.” A woman dressed as a young girl sings about getting the same stuff again this year she got last year. Pretty funny. It allows for a serious set change in the background (Candy Land is no more!).
When the curtain rises we’re treated to some old-school caroling. Now we’re talking! Acapella singing rules. I couldn’t really complain about this too much. The actors even come out into the audience, and while I didn’t want anyone to look me in the eye (never look them in the eye!), the kids sitting ahead of us thought it was the coolest thing ever.
Then comes the moment of truth. The heavy-hitting hymns. And wouldn’t you know that they really blow it out of the water. I was so relieved. “Jesu” is sung as a duet by two of the female sopranos. Ave Maria is arranged for the men to sing and is very well done. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is a rollicking band-only song that allows for some showboating by the band members. All in all I enjoyed the second act more than the first.
I liked that the orchestra/band is on stage and is integrated into the set. The violinist, Michael Lambertson, is truly fun to watch. All the musicians are great. The singers are all very talented and well matched for their songs. They are pleasant to hear and hit all the notes. The costumes are mostly suits and sparkly gowns, pretty but not the centerpiece, at least not until the second half of the second act when the Serious Ball Gowns make an appearance.
It was… well, you probably know what I’m about to say. Nice. Would I see it again? Honestly, probably not. If I want to hear Christmas songs performed I think I’d rather see a more intimate show, something a little more unique perhaps guaranteed not to be cookie-cutter. That said, I can understand why AMT’s Christmas Show is so popular and a standard in its own right.
Does It Have Depth?
Daniel here again. We’re writing this post the day after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. With that horror on our minds, it is hard not to ask deeper questions of the art around us. And so I have to ask, what is there to the American Music Theatre’s Christmas show? Is it just a two-hour entertainment with some music we love in a fantasy world? Is it escapist, even, the vision of the world it presents a lie that we can indulge briefly as a reprieve from the reality of our world?
I don’t think it is escapist. Most of the audience, myself included, believes, after all, that we’re celebrating something real and something immensely important. There is enough in the production and in the songs themselves to reward audience members for keeping their brains powered up.
At the same time, I agree with Amanda that the show didn’t change me. Elizabeth Drew famously said, “The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.” The same may be true for all art. Tolkien, the master of fantasy, believed that, in the end, good fantasy puts us squarely back in reality, with more perspective and insight.
American Music Theatre‘s 2012 Christmas Show doesn’t live up to those high standards for art, by choice, and that’s fine. It’s a good show. It didn’t change Amanda or me, and it probably won’t change most people. I’m sure, however, that it inspires a love of theater in many children and that it brings a much-needed dose of happiness and cheer to others in the midst of the stress and bleakness of winter and the holiday season.
How We Came to See the Show
I’ll end at the beginning, to explain why Amanda and I went to see a show that we likely would not have otherwise gone to.
Here’s the story in a nutshell: I made an offhand joke at AMT’s expense on Twitter. Mike Rathfon, the digital marketing manager for the theater, saw it and called me down. I offered to see the show and review it here on my blog in exchange for a complementary tickets, and he obliged.
The full-length story is a matter of public record from the Twitter stream:
What Are Your Thoughts?
If you’ve seen the show or even participated in it, I would love to hear your perspective and observations.
I would also like to give a special thanks to Mike Rathfon and to American Music Theatre for the tickets and for being so gracious about the whole incident.
I’ve been hoping to write and post a blog about the Lancaster County Community Foundation’s spectacular philanthropy event The Extraordinary Give for a while now. I simply haven’t been able to make the time. So instead, Tracy Cutler, the chief communication officer for the foundation, was kind enough to email me with an overview to share here on my blog:
In summary, the Extraordinary Give is the first-ever 24-hour online giving marathon benefiting Lancaster County nonprofits coming this Friday, November 30, from 12 midnight- 11:59 pm. On that day, individuals will be able to visit ExtraGive.org from a computer, smart phone or tablet device, choose from nearly 200 local organizations and make an online donation. Every donation on that day will be stretched with a $250,000 contribution from the Lancaster County Community Foundation plus $50,000 in additional prizes.
The Extraordinary Give is a unique opportunity to support a wide range of causes in Lancaster County and have every donation stretched to do more. It is really shaping up to be a community rallying event and is open for people to engage an support Lancaster County in any way they choose.
The Community Foundation will host a 24-hour Giving Lounge at the Ware Center. We’ll have a kick-off from 10 pm – midnight on Nov 29 and will remain open with live events (including live animals!), donor prizes, giving kiosks and food and drink until our finale celebration from 10 pm – 12 midnight on Nov 30. The Lounge is free and open to the ‘giving’ public!
Many organizations are hosting special events or giving stations on November 30. Various local businesses, including Isaac’s, Essen, Rodgers & Associates and Prana yoga are also supporting the event with discounts and events.
Support the Environment in Lancaster County
There are many great organizations to support. I would like to single out the Lancaster County Conservancy as being worthy of your donations. Last year, LIVE Green, which is the driving force for urban greening and green infrastructure in Lancaster city, merged with the Conservancy in order to become the premier environmental organization in Lancaster County. I am proud to have been a part of the joint committee that shepherded that merger, and I’m proud to chair the Conservancy’s LIVE Green committee today. Many of you know Fritz Schroeder, the amazing professional who is the key staff person for LIVE Green. If you ever wanted to support his work, or if you ever wanted to do something to support more rain barrels, green roofs, rain gardens, and permeable-pavement alleys in Lancaster, today is the day to give. Please go to the Lancaster County Conservancy page on ExtraGive.org to join me in giving what you can.
Tell Us What Organization You’re Supporting Today
I am opening up the comments below for you to share with the world your case for what organization you’re supporting today, and to encourage others to join you, just as I have done here for the Conservancy!
Be sure to include a link to their page on ExtraGive.org.
This is just a really quick post to let you know that Craig Layne of WITF interviewed my boss and me for today’s Money Works radio segment. The piece ran at 5:35 and 7:35 this morning, and it will run again at 5:44 p.m. today.
But you don’t have to time it, you can just listen to our explanation of near-user marketing right on WITF.org.
And if you don’t know about where I work, the radio segment is a quick introduction. After six years in business, we just moved our office to downtown Lancaster. And we love it. (Duh!)