Story 51 - The Makers Place and the Friday Night Art Club
The Vine Church, Eye, Suffolk
The Vine Church in Eye, Suffolk is a small Baptist Church currently making worldwide connections thanks to its online arts group which began in June 2020 called ‘Friday Night Art Club’.
Written by Suzie Abramian in conversation with Liz Waugh McManus - 06/11/2020
However, the story of this missional adventure started over a year earlier with the creation of an arts based missional community from the church called ‘The Maker’s Place.’
Set up in the summer of 2019, with the encouragement of missional consultant Simon Goddard, and Simon Harris from Burlington Baptist, The Maker’s Place has a small core group of 5 people from the main church, all with a desire to reach out to people already connected to the church through projects such as Messy Church and also to the wider community. Liz Waugh McManus, a professional artist employed by local schools and community projects, and part of the leadership at The Vine Church, explains that the vision for The Maker’s Place was to have, ‘an informal group, focussed on art and the Christian faith, a place to explore different art forms, discover about God and make friends.’ The values of the group are such that everyone is encouraged to participate without any judgement or skill level required and each session is led by a facilitator who leads on a spiritual topic or Bible passage as well as one art activity.
Not long after this group began and approaching Christmas 2019, they had the desire to do something public in the town for Christmas. They thought about the Advent calendar window displays that some churches do and how they could display something similar in shop windows around Eye when Simon Goddard mentioned the idea of the Jesse Tree. Possibly an unknown tradition for many, the Jesse Tree is an old Advent custom with its roots in medieval traditions with visual displays telling the story of God’s salvation plan throughout the Bible, originally intended to help people who could not read or write to learn about Bible stories from creation until the birth of Jesus. The earliest Jesse Trees were made of tapestries, carvings, and stained glass and represented the family tree, or genealogy of Jesus Christ. An increasingly popular revived tradition, particularly in the States, people now take branches from which they hang symbols of different Bible stories on.
Liz describes how they approached local shops, the town council and library about creating one enormous Jesse Tree spread throughout the town in shop windows. By drawing up a list of Bible stories in a traditional Jesse Tree with the idea that people could choose a story and make a visual display of it fitting within an ornament-like design. Next to each artwork was the artist’s statement about what the story meant to them, as Liz says ‘with the idea that people reading them would learn about the Bible and its relevance to ordinary people.’ Those from The Maker’s Place group and others connected with the church were all invited to join in and leaflets with maps of the trail were also made for the general public to follow.
Not only did the concept connect well with the local area which has a strong tradition of arts, crafts and various arts trails, but it also captured the imagination of those involved in making the art work itself encouraging members of the Messy Church congregation to get involved. Reflecting on the missional drive behind this Liz notes that, ‘it introduced people in a low key way to what we as Christians know but many people do not, the larger picture of God’s story in the Bible and the Scripture’s relevance today.’ As well as giving such a public witness it also served as a focus for a prayer walk for people from The Vine Church too.
After the physical running of the project came to an end, pictures of the artwork were put onto The Maker’s Place Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/TheMakersPlaceEye/) and the artworks themselves are now hanging from the balcony in the Vine Church chapel as a reminder of the stories.
Just as The Maker’s Place was about to start a new year in 2020, with new connections made in the wider community after the Jesse Tree project, lockdown happened. Whilst this undoubtedly brought about challenges for a missional community so reliant on physical and visual reality it seems that God has continued to strengthen the wonderful creativity already present in the group. Liz along with her husband Mike, also a fellow artist, sought out connections with other Christians artists, in particular Creative Studio at Harehills Lane BC, Leeds (http://www.hlbc.org.uk/community/creative-studio) and also through ‘Arts Release’ from the WEC network. Out of these came the idea of Friday Night Art Club (https://www.facebook.com/groups/fridaynightartclub/, an online art group which now meets weekly by Zoom to chat, pray, study the Bible, pause to go and work individually on a creative, artistic response to the Scripture before regrouping to share what they have produced. This has now grown to a community of members with a core of 15-20 regulars from all across the world, interestingly many have experience in mission so, as Liz says, ‘we look forward to what the Lord will do with us in the future!’
As this latest venture only began in June 2020 it is of great encouragement to see what is happening and growing from it already as they are now taking part in a Global Jesse Tree Project (https://www.facebook.com/groups/globaljessetree/).
Liz shares how they have received feedback from Friday Night Art Club saying that it has been a life - affirming practice and refuge for people suffering stress and how they have seen those initially shy about their artistic skill flourish with very creative ideas to express their response to the Bible passages.
Whilst this missional adventure gives a brilliant testimony to the use of Arts in mission there is arguably a broader message here about creativity in all aspects of mission. Liz would encourage anyone who has an idea they believe God has given them to step out in faith as it is not always possible to see where it will lead, saying ‘even if you start something small, the ripples may spread out much further than you imagined.’