“You’ll find that artists are thought of as prophets here in Paris.”
Steve’s words tossed back and forth uncomfortably in my head as we sat on the edge of the Seine River, across from the Louvre, watching boats drift by lazily. “Prophets?” I thought. “Really?” It wasn’t the word I had been expecting. In my mind, there seemed to be a dissonance in the association of a spiritually significant term like “prophets” and the world of art, a bastion of the “secular” and “post-Christian,” isn’t it?
I glanced back at Steve and assured myself that he must know. After all, he had spent the past 25 years doing Christian ministry in Paris, the last six of which had been focused on caring for artists. “The thing is,” Steve continued after a moment, “art and spirituality are linked in people’s minds here. It’s different than in the States and I think it makes working with artists a powerful way to impact French culture.”
A thought dawned on me as we sat eating baguette lunches and watching the sun’s rays dance on the surface of the river that afternoon. How did I actually view art? Certainly I had respect for it. But had I ever truly thought of the predominately “secular” world of art and creativity as a potent arrow for cultural change in God’s quiver? To be honest, I hadn’t.
“I want you to meet some of the artists we work with,” said Steve, his words bringing me back from my own internal musings. “Most of the interactions and relationships we build happen through an association here in Paris called La Fonderie.” I listened with interest as he described the association: a network of Christian artists, painters, dancers, sculptors, musicians, designers, and more. The goal, Steve explained, is to promote and support artists in their professional careers and in the process, be witnesses for Christ throughout Paris. “The fact is, if you approach people in Paris as a Christian first, it ends up closing 75 percent of the doors,” Steve said. “So we want to encourage and embolden artists professionally as well as spiritually so they can build relationships and earn respect as professionals in their field. I think there is huge potential for impact there.”
It made sense. It truly did. But prophets? The word still tumbled about in my head awkwardly. If only I knew how the next three weeks would change that for good.
* * *
A few days later, I met Richard. “He’s a Christian and very well known in the concrete, non-objective art world,” Steve told us as we stood on the Metro, headed toward Richard’s gallery in the eastern part of the city. I nodded and raised my eyebrows, trying to look impressed. I suppose I might have been if I had known such a world existed.
Richard greeted us warmly as we stepped through the door of his small, white-walled gallery and looked about. Three walls, each one adorned with a variety of pictures and sculptures that would likely make the average passerby tilt their head slightly and wonder if they might be missing something. “In concrete, non-objective art, the basic idea is to not get caught up in the form of the thing,” Richard explained as we looked around, motioning specifically to several square, mono-colored panels on the wall. “It’s abstract art, art that doesn’t refer to things outside of itself.” But then, Richard grinned and looked back toward us. “But to be honest, I don’t actually believe that. I think all art refers to something deeper, outside of itself.”
With a wave of his hand that seemed to continue this previous thought, Richard motioned us toward two white rectangles hanging on one of the walls near the door. “These two are mine,” he said as we paused to ponder them for a moment. “People might look at this work and say ‘that’s not about anything.’ Actually I would have said that at one point myself. But maybe instead of trying to tell people something, I’m prodding them to ask a good question.”
Pointing to the three separate walls, Richard explained how most shows in that gallery involved three different artists. “It creates a conversation of sorts, a relationship between the artists and their work. When you talk with artists, you quite quickly get down to what they really think about things. Your art comes out of your world view after all, so it always brings up wonderful conversations.”
Slowly, the rusty, creaky wheels began to turn in my head as those two white rectangles and the gallery itself began to slowly transform into something profound in the folds of my mind. “I hope my work prompts people to think deeply,” Richard continued. “To ask questions and start conversations. But in the end, the individual works don’t tell the whole story. I just see these two pieces as part of the much larger picture.” He motioned back towards to two white rectangles adorning the wall, the hint of genuine, deep enthusiasm growing in his tone. “I think meaning comes in the relationship between things; like between us, and objects, and most importantly, with God. I hope when you step back and look at the body of my work, you see that.”
No one moved for a moment, the impact of Richard’s words still sinking in slowly like dry ground absorbing water. “I think at its core, most art is about going somewhere. It’s a journey really.”
Somehow, Richard made art sound very much like real life.
* * *
I met Jonathan one day later and to be honest, I didn’t immediately know what to make of him.
Painter, Stylist, Muse.
At first, that three word description on his business card seemed a bit nebulous to me. I glanced at it curiously after Steve introduced us at an art opening one night, held at a gallery that’s associated with La Fonderie. “I do a lot of things,” the 28-year-old said with a grin as we snacked on hors d’oeuvres and looked around at the featured paintings. “Mainly, I operate and edit a growing fashion/design blog and contribute on several others. But I also do personal styling, photo shoots, painting whenever I can…lots of things.”
The more we talked the more I began to understand. Jonathan isn’t one to be put in a box. Few artists are, probably. In everything from his style to his writing to his sense of humor, he is intensely creative, thoroughly original, and always innovative. I suppose if anything truly defines an artist, that would be it.
But then Jonathan said something that surprised me. “I’m also the artist in residence at a Christian church here in Paris.” At first those two worlds -the fashion/design world and the church world- seemed juxtaposed in my mind. But to Jonathan, that distinction was illusory.
Two weeks later I had the chance to sit down with Jonathan and ask him about it. “I know people see the church as a place that doesn’t know how to engage well with artists,” he acknowledged. “And sadly, that’s true a lot of the time. But it doesn’t have to be that way. My passion within the church is to engage everyone to some degree.” I listened as he explained how he sees art as a dynamic and powerful means of challenging, stretching, and strengthening faith. “I mean, if the Church grows comfortable, if we’re not challenging each other and challenging ourselves, we’re definitely not going to be challenging the world in positive ways.”
For two weeks, I watched Jonathan float effortlessly between those two worlds, utterly unapologetic of either. The one full of fashion events, photo shoots and non-believers. The other teeming with fellowship events, Bible studies, and life-long churchgoers. Never did he throw a Bible in the face of the former or seek to shock and provoke the latter. And yet he always strives to challenge both worlds.
In each arena, Jonathan remained Jonathan: a passionate artist and a passionate believer. I wonder if the definition of a truly genuine witness doesn’t lie somewhere therein.
* * *
I met Charles over lunch one day near the end of our time in Paris. “We’ll have to eat somewhere off campus,” said Steve as we entered the grounds of a Catholic center for troubled youth where Charles leads the youth music program. “If we eat here, I’m sure we’ll keep getting interrupted. Everyone here knows and loves Charles.”
It wasn’t long before I understood why. Aside from being an immensely talented musician who recently composed music for a highly successful album and even performed at Notre Dame before the Pope himself, Charles is simply the most affable person you could hope to meet. If nothing else, people remember Charles for his bright smile, contagious laugh, and surprisingly earnest care for others.
As we waited for our meal at a nearby café, Charles talked about his work –although ‘passion’ might be a more accurate term given the way he spoke of it. “It’s amazing,” he continued saying. “Really amazing.” The center, Charles explained, is a place for kids coming from troubled homes and backgrounds in Paris. And Charles’ job, quite simply, is to oversee the center’s growing music program. However, Charles’ enthusiasm grew as he talked about the gospel choir he launched with the students a number of years ago. Over those years, he has written and arranged many songs, mainly Gospel music, which are preformed by his students in the recordings and the many live shows that are now demanded all around France. This fall they will begin recording a new album in New York and Paris.
“These kids really love gospel music and it’s amazing what happens when they get the chance to use their talents to interact with music that is about the Lord,” Charles said with a grin. “So many of them have been changed. Over the past four years, I believe most of these kids have become believers actually.” Charles paused and shook his head as if struck afresh by the significance of the statement himself.
Putting down his coffee, Charles looked at me and said, “You know, I prefer to say I am an artist before I say I am a Christian.” At first, the statement seemed a curious one, framed by the context of what had just been said. But then I realized that this incredible ministry would simply not exist if Charles had not first proven himself excellent in his trade.
With an earnest look, Charles said, “If you are going to do music, do it well. It is a great testimony.”
* * *
Artists as prophets. After three weeks submerged in the art world of Paris, that phrase no longer rings strange. And why should it? If I found anything in the Parisian folds of art galleries, café conversations, and fashion parties, it is this: that in the simple and beautiful act and of creating, there is a potent power to lay bare the soul. I imagine artists like Richard, Jonathan, and Charles would be the first to tell you as much. Whether it be seen in rich conversations generated by a niche art gallery in Paris or young people in a choir discovering truth in words they bring to life with their voices, the process of creation is piercing in its power to pare back the layers of pretense we humans build around our hearts. Why then shouldn’t those with God’s Truth be at the forefront of beautiful, creative expression?
I wonder, therefore, why I am so quick to abandon the arts as “secular.” In fact, I asked myself that question every day in Paris. Perhaps it’s because the raw nature of creativity makes me uncomfortable. I want to control, I want to communicate, I want results, calculated and comfortable. But art is none of those things. Artists pour out their thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and questions into their medium, and the result is in one way or another, a reflection of that which is most unpredictable of all: life itself. As Richard said, “It’s a journey really,” one that we are all on together in this life. Coming along side others and sharing a part of the human experience; at the core of it all, I believe that is what an artist can beautifully, truthfully, and genuinely do.
I don’t pretend to fully comprehended the world of art. Nor do I think it is even possible. But of this, I am absolutely convinced: God is quietly and powerfully at work in Paris through the creativity, expression, and passion of many. And I believe that He will continue to use His prophets in the arts here to touch this city at its heart.
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Please pray for La Fonderie and its ministry to artists in Paris. Pray that God would inspire and guide creative spirits like Steve, Richard, Jonathan, and Charles as they endeavor to creatively permeate the city of Paris with the Truth of Christ. If you would like to know more about the ministry or support any of the artists they work with, please contact us here any time!
Read more about Steve and La Fonderie and see the art space for yourself here