This project grew out of the work of the history section of the First Presbyterian Church Racial Justice Task Force, which was convened in 2020. Among the recommendations approved by the Session were: “Add a new plaque that includes confession of our past sins and a statement of repentance to be displayed in a prominent location outside the sanctuary. Find a way of recognizing specific people who were enslaved at FPC.” To accomplish this mission, I worked to create a visual piece in hopes of enticing the congregation to think more deeply about what the words were intended to convey.
The initial call I received from FPC was unexpected, as I have not been an active member of the church since moving away some years ago. The first question was how to present the statement on “Repentance and Resurrection” in a way that stands out from the large brass plaques formerly in the sanctuary. How can we entice the congregation to notice and read the words?
We began by discussing the shape of the piece. What could we do to make it distinctly different from the other plaques? I asked about possibly reclaiming some wood that had been removed from the sanctuary. Little did I know that the inquiry would lead to the door to the former choir loft arriving at my home. For some members of the church, this particular door may not hold meaning or emotional weight. For me, as a former choir member, that door represents so much that is good and wonderful about the ministry of FPC. Once I realized that the door was available, there were no further questions about the shape. From there, the door dictated how this project would unfold.
The tree flowed naturally from my own work, where I often use them as a stand-in for bodies to make difficult statements relatable, but also to connect our past with hopes for the future. With the magnificent oaks standing in the front of the church and their presence in the “Repentance and Resurrection” text, it was very natural to use a tree as the main motif.
As we spoke about the intentions behind the piece, it became increasingly apparent that the words needed to be visibly personal, something that the viewers could relate to, as opposed to a formal corporate confession. The style of lettering conveys information beyond the words. Printed letters in a font convey a formal corporate tone. Calligraphic hand lettering styles are also frequently used in more formal settings. It dawned on me that the best way to make this text personal was to use my own handwriting with all of its inconsistencies and imperfections.
Much of my recent work emphasizes “the flaws” that speak to our humanity and acknowledge the paradox of both its beauty and its foibles. I now work mostly with silver, allowing it to tarnish. The process of oxidization takes time. It is not something that I can predict or control. That unvarnished truth made silver leaf ideal as a carrier for meaning on this project. It should be noted that the piece is not varnished. The silver will oxidize and darken over time.