In 1997 during Lent, Charles Gill, then rector at St Andrew’s By-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Nags Head, North Carolina, asked me if I would be interested in painting Stations of the Cross for that service conducted weekly during the days preceding Easter.
I was intrigued, awestruck and up to the task. The current art for the service were small framed drawings, nice drawings but done by some unknown person with no connection to our church. Yes, our church because at the time we were not, as we are now, typical Episcopalians who attend church maybe, just maybe once a year. We were regulars. The boys were acolytes. Donny & I were lay readers and eucharistic ministers. We all sang in the choir.
We got involved because when Emily & Marty were planning their wedding Emily wanted to be married in a church. At the time we were spending Sundays at home cooking family pancakes and just being with Dad since he was in Richmond during the week. But we did not want to be drop in patrons for the wedding, paying for the services and going on our merry way. So we went Full Monty. It was fun. The chapel is just like you would want church to be, at least just like I wanted church to be. Full of friendly people. Cozy. Barefoot was okay. I even chaliced once bare footed. The motto is “Fishermen welcome. Come as you are.”
The chapel is simple and I wanted the stations to be simple. But they needed to be able to hold their own against the strong dark beadboard walls and high arch windows. I got raw canvas from the one local sewing supply store and some gold trim. I had tempera paint already. I cut the cloth close to life size mirroring the windows in reverse. One station would hang between each window. Two in the back by the doors. The layout was perfect. Charles had given me no directive or deadline. I made my own deadline. That year. I painted a sample for him. He loved it.
I set to work. I painted and took breaks. Painted and took breaks. I actually found that I had plenty of time for other things. Still I kept myself on task. More than a self imposed time deadline, I was afraid that my style would change if I let too much time pass. Slowly the canvases became finished pieces.
I worked on parts of all fourteen in various stages at once. I had trouble with Mary’s foot as she is holding her son. My friend Lisa modeled. Lewis became Simon of Cyrene. Donny was Christ. I cried when I painted the cross scenes. This man. This man, whatever you believe, was a real person with feelings and heartaches. And a mother. I painted through my tears.
And then I was finished. We put a dowel through a fold at the top and attached a dark piece of cording on each side of the dowel for hanging. We took them to the chapel the evening before Palm Sunday and hung them. At the service the next morning everyone was in awe. Some people loved them. Some were unsure. Others were very sure, not for them. I had a friend recently tell me that over time he has come to love them, at first he was in the not for me camp. They were a pretty bold step away from those tiny framed prints.
I cherish the comment friend Becki Rea offered me. “I was dashing through the chapel to a meeting when suddenly I just stopped. I looked around me and realized how absolutely breathtaking the stations are.”
A friend of Donald’s told me that she has seen the stations at Notre Dame (we have too since but not then) and how she liked St Andrew’s so much better.
It had taken me nine days from start to finish. Nine days! That’s more than one canvas a day. As I look at these photos now and when I painted the last stroke then, I knew without a doubt that I had a lot of celestial help on a project that I will hold dear in my heart forever.