Art challenges perceptions of religion

The Reverend Jim Craig sets to work on his image of the Millenium Bridge and Sage Gateshead inside the St Edmund's Chapel, Gateshead

The Reverend Jim Craig is passionate about the arts and about how the church can engage with the arts.

He came to faith while studying at art college in the early 1990s and today is community arts chaplain for the parishes of Gateshead and Bensham in the Diocese of Durham.

The role was the brainchild of the two parishes, who wanted "to make the arts more accessible to the people of the town", he explains.

The creation of the position coincided with the regeneration of the Gateshead Quayside, which included the opening of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in 2002 and the Sage Gateshead in 2004.

"When I arrived in 2005, I made it my first priority to help people access these professional arts environments, and organised tours and free workshops in the Baltic, Sage and the Shipley Art Gallery," he said.

For the past three years, the main focal point of his work as arts chaplain has been
Sanctuary Artspace, a gallery installed along the north wall of St Edmund's Chapel in 2010.

He said: "St Edmund's is the perfect venue for a gallery - it has a strong strategic position on the High Street and is the town's oldest building.

"The gallery was built as a direct response to the lack of exhibition space in the town, and provided the congregation with a new catalyst for its mission to the High Street.

"Sanctuary Artspace has been endorsed by many artists in the North East, and has hosted the Sky Arts-sponsored The Late Shows series of events for the past three years."

Now he is bringing a challenging show of modern graffiti art to Sanctuary Artspace, opening on Saturday.

"I strongly believe that engaging with the arts is like accepting an invitation to see our lives from a different perspective," he said.

"For the past two years, we have hosted top national DJs and graffiti demonstrations at The Late Shows, and Ghetto Method Collective will be returning with more of the same on 18 May."

The Late Shows take place on Friday and Saturday, and the Gateshead parish will be collaborating with the Ghetto Method Collective for the third time.

Reverend Craig explained the liberating potential of engaging in the arts, both for individuals and the church.

"I am convinced that the only way to enjoy and truly discover one's creativity is to ignore the fear of getting it wrong and complete the task at hand entirely for your own pleasure," he said.

"In my experience writer's block, or whatever the artist's equivalent is, only happens when someone forgets their childlike playfulness and tries too hard to emulate a style or voice which is not their own.

"There are many correlations here with spirituality - for I meet so many people afraid of asking the big questions about their faith for the fear that they will lose face with their neighbours. The ethos of all my work is very straightforward - all God demands of us is that we be ourselves, fully.

"The presence of an arts chaplain in an economically-deprived diocese has been questioned throughout the eight years I have been in post. My hope is that more people will come to see the arts less as an intellectual commodity and more of a means of personal and spiritual liberation."

As arts chaplain, Reverend Craig spends a lot of time nurturing creativity in others, but he also seizes every opportunity to get his paints out and exploring his own creativity.

"Exploring my own creativity has always felt rather indulgent compared to the usual tasks that fill up my daily to-do list, but this has given me lots ideas about how to creatively engage with the congregation during services."

One recent piece provided an opportunity to speak with parents and godparents at a baptism about God's creation as an unfinished work of art entrusted to humans to "complete through our journey of faith".

"I told them how preciously an artist guards his reputation, and how hard I would find it to have a painting of mine on display that I handed over for someone else to finish, but this is exactly what Christ did in passing the responsibility for the church to the apostles," he said.

More News in Church