There’s a silent revolution going on at the Woodland Park Presbyterian Church in Phinney Ridge.
It comes in the form of a series of paintings depicting “Subversive Saints,” selected and created by parishioners and hung on the sanctuary walls.
The project makes strange bedfellows of a U.S. Supreme Court justice (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), a labor leader (Dolores Huerta), a children’s television host (Fred Rogers), and a 100-year-old activist from Detroit (Grace Lee Boggs).
But they are all getting their due, thanks to parishioners who chose them, depicted them and, in the process, seek to remind us that saints come in all forms, and from all corners of society.
“It makes you realize that we are all called to be prophets and saints,” said Abby Brockway, an artist and parishioner at Woodland Park Presbyterian who oversaw the project. “We should all live into that. We can’t take ourselves off the hook, knowing there are other people out there in the struggle.
“We can be all be saints in our own way.”
The exhibit is the creation of Pastor Staci Imes, who, in the process of researching biblical text for the upcoming Easter season, came upon a book that talked about parables as subversive stories.
“We believe that Jesus’ primary concern was for the marginalized and for the poor,” Imes explained. “And his stories and his teachings, in their original form, were critiques of his present-day system. He was profoundly subversive in his teachings.”
She put out the call to parishioners who might want to canonize someone on canvas. At first, 23 people ranging in age from 8 to 80-something signed up. The first time the group met, Imes spoke about the history of iconography — a type of portraiture that includes symbols of what someone stood for or believed — and asked people who they thought fit the bill. They met seven or eight times in a studio set up on the church campus. Some finished in one sitting, some worked at home.
On March 6, the first day of Lent, 19 paintings were hung in the church sanctuary, each with an accompanying artist statement.
Parishioner Leann Onishi created a paper mosaic portrait of Edwin T. Pratt, named the Patron Saint of Equal Opportunities in Education and Housing in Seattle, who integrated Shoreline, led the Seattle Urban League and was murdered outside his home in 1969. “The dedication, work and sacrifices by Pratt,” Onishi wrote on a placard beside the piece, “made it possible for Seattleites to have desegregated schools, neighborhoods and workplaces.”
Not all the icons have a local connection. Scott Collins chose the activist Bayard Rustin, calling him the Patron Saint of Intersectionality. Rustin was an openly gay black man in the 1960s, “an era when it wasn’t safe to be either.”
“There wasn’t much method to my madness,” Collins wrote. “I’m not a skilled painter, so getting something — anything — down was the goal.” One conscious choice, though, was putting Rustin in a purple suit and tie, to give him “an air of royalty.”
Other saints include Ella Baker, a civil rights activist chosen by Amy Gest, who called her the Matron Saint of Civil Rights; singer Nina Simone, named the Matron Saint of the Unsung by the church’s Minister of Music, Jeffrey Wilsor; and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom artist Elizabeth Bryant called Our Lady of Equality and the Patron Saint of Dissent. Bryant used a doily crocheted by her great-grandmother to feminize Ginsburg’s robe.
Real Change founder Timothy Harris is depicted by Neola Sanvil as the Patron Saint of Seattle Streets. Another piece, called Three Wise Women, depicts Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, co-founders of Black Lives Matter. It was created by Karen Siscel Smith, a former attorney who wrote “… if Jesus were here today, he would be marching with them.”
One of the most popular pieces depicted was television host and minister Rogers, whom artist Betty Wight declared Saint for Children of All Ages.
Brockway featured Grace Lee Boggs, a philosopher and activist in Detroit who lived to be 100 years old. She was inspired by her, but also by the other works on the walls.
“I’m a trained artist,” she said, “and mine is the weakest one here.”
Imes was “astounded” at how the exhibit turned out: “I was so happy. I thought it would be cool, even if we had a series of stick figures, because we would still have those explanations.”
The exhibit will stay up until May, when it will be part of the Phinneywood Art Walk on May 10 and 11.
“Part of the idea behind it is that even in a secular culture, when we use the word ‘saint,’ we tend to be idealizing someone and portraying them as someone that we could never be,” Imes said. “Someone who is more perfect, more capable, more inspired. We are holding them above.
“The idea here is that the people who are really saints are everyday people who are doing what we believe God really intends: Pulling the marginalized in the center and totally overhauling the system.”
“Subversive Saints,” Phinneywood Art Walk, May 10 and 11 (artupphinneywood.com).