‘Art is an act of worship’
A Baptist minister headed-up the visual arts stream at this year's Greenbelt. Sarah Stone found out more
"Artists can be prophetic – the questions they cause us to ask, or the way they make us look at things – they stop you and make you look at yourself.”
Rich Blake-Lobb is a recently ordained Baptist minister who is heading up the Visual Arts at this year’s Greenbelt festival. He believes that the arts are vital to the 21st century Church’s mission. “Contemporary arts are an expression of what’s going on in contemporary society,” he says. “I think the Church should be engaged in that.”
This year, the Garden Shed – literally a garden shed, and also a tiny art gallery for the weekend – holds a beautiful Victorian-inspired dress created by costume designer Katie Duxbury. After originally exhibiting in 2015, Katie has walked 1,000 miles in her dress. Her 2017 Greenbelt exhibition The Thousand Mile Dress was originally conceived as an examination of how clothes age naturally (inspired by her work distressing costumes artificially for the theatre).
However, Katie’s dress soon grew to represent something much bigger. As she saw images of thousands of refugees fleeing to Europe from Syria, Katie’s 1,000-mile journey took on new meaning. She decided to add something to the dress for every donation she received for the refugee crisis, so as the dress aged it also became something new.
She gets people who visit her to dress to tie cuts of fabric to the sides of the shed as they leave. And by the end of the festival, it’s covered in colour. It’s grown into something else, like the dress.
As part of The Thousand Mile Dress instillation Baptist minister Simon Jones brings two refugees to sit outside the shed on a blanket and share their stories of fleeing war and arriving in the UK. They laugh with British campers. Barriers are broken. “I guess that’s what the arts do,” says Rich. “They break down borders. Or at least they make people ask questions. For me, as a Baptist minister, creating space for questions and reflections is really important.”
Unlike a traditional art gallery, Greenbelt's visual arts are characteristically different. They don’t just comprise pictures on walls – although that is part of it. The Allotment Gallery is home to a new exhibitor every three hours. Artists must display and remove their work within that short time slot, and as the hours go by the shed tells new stories. A pile of shredded paper, that looks like a face to me although I am not sure it’s supposed to, sits in the corner of the wooden shed for Richard Brooks’ display On Borrowed Time. The ripped pieces of paper speak of memory loss and dementia.
Then there are Naomi Gordon McKibbin’s mirrors – all shapes and sizes, all different colours, with a word written atop each. Control. Jealousy. Love. Lizzie Merrill’s An Ode is a stripped back one woman performance. She seams socks as she speaks about her grandfather to a handful of people peering in through the shed door.
Art at Greenbelt holds a special place in Rich’s heart: “I first got involved because a friend of mine used to be involved. They were an artist and sadly they took their own life. I signed up at first in tribute to them,” he says.
Years later, and now pastor of Yiewsley Baptist Church in the London Borough of Hillingdon, he is still volunteering, having gradually taken on more responsibility.
“The arts are important in life and faith and, with everything else that is going on at Greenbelt, the arts are a way of expressing ourselves,” he continues. “As we wrestle with questions and issues, art gives us an outlet to work those things out. There are acts of worship and expressions of our faith in the arts.”
Photos | Greenbelt flickr
Sarah Stone is a freelance writer and works as an editor at a Christian mission organisation. Read her review of Greenbelt 2017.