A faith journey through art

For the past seven years, artist Karen Brodie has worked on banner designs that ask worshippers to move beyond memorizing the story line around Christ's last days. Photo: David Cooper
For the past seven years, artist Karen Brodie has worked on banner designs that ask worshippers to move beyond memorizing the story line around Christ's last days. Photo: David Cooper
Published August 9, 2016

Sit, reflect and pray.

These are mandatory first steps Karen Brodie takes when designing liturgical art for St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Golden, B.C., where she worships.

Built in 1881 and surrounded by mountains, St. Paul’s small wooden building seems like an unlikely place to meet a modern fabric artist. Brodie’s works hang in churches and other buildings across North America and beyond.

Three years ago, the parish had to make the difficult decision to become a “worshipping congregation.” Now without a priest or a board, a liturgical artist may have been forgiven for finding a larger church home to find support for her practice.

Not Brodie. Moreover, the small worship committee at St. Paul’s had provided her with the inspiration to launch a massive project to design 14 banners depicting the Stations of the Cross.

“I didn’t think of it as a lifetime project,” she adds about launching the ambitious plan. “I had no sense of the scope. It was kind of a big idea.”

The Stations of the Cross, a long Christian tradition, depict up to 14 events during Holy Week. They include images such as Christ carrying the cross or being laid in the tomb.

“The traditional images re-enact the events, but don’t carry emotional weight,” says Brodie. “They are often inaccessible.”

For the past seven years, she has worked on designs that ask worshippers to move beyond memorizing the story line around Christ’s last days. Her banners intend to offer viewers a deep, personal faith journey.

Brodie asked 14 clergy to select one station each and write a reflection and a prayer. These writings guided her banner designs.

"Ruach - The Breath of God," made for St. Paul's Anglican Church, Thunder Bay, Ont. Photo: Mike Archibald
“Ruach – The Breath of God,” made for St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Thunder Bay, Ont. Photo: Mike Archibald

It was a hard slog, she says, to get the busy priests to participate. “I’d love to help, but I’m starting a sabbatical,” was one response she received. Another priest was diagnosed with cancer and had to delay participation.

Eventually, Brodie collected writings of seven men and seven women across a wide spectrum of theological perspectives and lifestyles. Liberal and conservative, gay and straight, newly ordained, experienced and retired clergy from urban or rural settings and from different denominations across North America and the U.K participated in the project. Among them was Archbishop John Privett, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and Yukon and bishop of the diocese of Kootenay, who provided writings on Station 12: Jesus dies on the cross.

“They remarkably find the common ground of the paschal mystery,” says Brodie.

Each Lent, for the last six years, Brodie makes a pact with herself to spend half an hour daily meditating on a reflection and putting “at least one line on paper.” Using watercolour pencil crayons, her sketches measure 13.5 x 11 inches and are designed to become fabric applique art measuring about 4 x 6 feet (1.25 x 2 metres), a scale sufficiently large to showcase intricate details.

“Every day, I had no idea what I was going to do,” she says. “I am not a figurative artist, so God really had to work with me to design the stations…In the case of Jesus being crucified, I went to my drawing pad, had to keep the lights off and my eyes half closed so that I could translate what was on my mind to the paper.”

The final designs mostly feature the figure of Jesus plus his cross. “My hope was to make Jesus as undefined by my own preconceptions as possible so that we all can come to see him as we need to see him,” says Brodie. “I didn’t want people to get stuck on what I had designed to prevent them from their contemplation of the subject at hand.”

Her stations are emotional, interpretive and generally quite colourful. “They hold a lot of life in them, even though the topic is death,” says Brodie. Although thoroughly modern, her work is immediately recognizable as liturgical art used to enrich worship. It is impeccably executed in rich colour palettes and a variety of fabrics. It can be challenging to obtain supplies since the closest fabric store is hundreds of kilometres away from Golden, B.C., and so Brodie relies on fabric swatches or just hopes colours she orders online match the materials that arrive in the mail.

After completing her 14 designs in 2015, Brodie is now showing the works and the accompanying meditations at different churches in B.C. She plans to eventually execute the designs in fabric.

The Rev. Anne Privett of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Kelowna, B.C., says an event last winter with the stations provided a fantastic devotional practice for her congregation.

“I wasn’t the only one in tears,” says Privett. “The way [Brodie] uses perspective and colour and her interpretation is very moving.” Brodie’s sense of vocation as an artist and the time she spends in prayer as she creates her designs are impressive, she adds. “Her work is a treasure.”

Meantime, Brodie says she cannot afford to execute the designs in fabric without being commissioned to do so. The next steps of the Stations of the Cross project are unknown, but she is hopeful she can keep the venture alive.

“I am trusting that God will direct a path for their completion,” says Brodie. In addition to executing the designs in fabric, she says the pieces could potentially be produced in a digital format for churches to use during worship (like songs are projected on overhead screens) or printed in various sizes for churches to display or use as handouts.

After finishing a degree in fashion design in Surrey, B.C., Brodie made her first banner for a church in Vancouver where she worked in youth ministry at the time.

“You can sew, right?” was the simple question a volunteer asked the young staffer when the congregation wanted to create a banner. It helped her launch her career as a full-time fabric artist at 21. She moved to Golden after marriage 15 years ago.

Meantime, St. Paul’s Anglican Church is moving onward and forward. “We changed the formula, and are finding some new life by meeting for prayer and fellowship at our homes,” says Brodie. She is also taking online courses to strengthen her theology and find a larger peer community. Readers can learn more about Brodie’s work on her website, www.brodiedesigns.com.



  • Nandy Heule

    Nandy Heule is a writer and communications consultant in Toronto. She can be reached at @nandyheule

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