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God’s diversity on display in “Faces of the Other”

01.16.20 | Welcome and Evangelism, Religion and the Arts

God’s diversity on display in “Faces of the Other”

    Starting February 29, Christ Church Cathedral will participate in Houston’s biennial photography festival, Fotofest, with an extensive outdoor portrait exhibition mounted along the Cathedral fences, entitled “Faces of the Other: Encounters in the Midst of the City” featuring the photography of Joe Aker.

    How “Faces of the Other” came to the Cathedral

    In 2018, Robin Bullington, the volunteer head of the Cathedral’s Cloister Gallery, was inspired by a photo display on a fence she saw in New York’s Lower East Side. While she supposed the subjects for those photos were chosen because they were unusual or remarkable in some way, Bullington began to envision something more approachable and universal in Houston, like the everyday people of the city.

    “I was struck by the possibility of photography in such a public context to invite connection to a stranger,” she said.

    Bullington proposed the idea of putting life-size photographs of people from the Cathedral neighborhood along the fence, and Dean Thompson thought it was a natural way to share the gallery with the public.

    The tradition of telling a story through images is nothing new, as illiterate people in the Middle Ages could understand more about God by looking at the stained-glass windows of medieval churches.

    Dean Thompson said that even today, the first impression of many people who visit the Cathedral is the stained-glass windows in the walls of the nave.

    “The Church told the story of God,” Thompson continued. “The art tells the story, God’s story.”

    Once the idea was approved, Bullington approached longtime gallery owner and Cathedral parishioner Roni McMurtrey, who Bullington credits for helping to shape the vision of the show.

    “The art world is her world,” Bullington said. “[Roni] was so excited and helpful.” 


    The photographer and his subjects

    A key to the project’s success was the choice of photographer. Both Bullington and McMurtrey knew they had found the right person in Joe Aker, a photographer with 60 years’ experience. Aker had also done a show with the Cloister Gallery last year as well as curated a show of photography from Cathedral youth.

    “For him, [this project] was a labor of love,” Bullington said.

    Aker took to the downtown streets with his camera and began the search for subjects.

    “Some are friends, and some are acquaintances, but most were strangers I met around the Cathedral or in places I visited,” Aker said.

    Out of 100 asks, Aker only got a no about five times. The only payment in most cases was a large photographic print for the subjects to keep.

    “I found that approaching people directly and looking them in the eyes with a smile was the best way to ask them about taking their photo,” Aker said.

     “These people [felt] safe with him,” McMurtrey said. “That is a gift.”

    After Aker had taken a large number of photographs, Bullington and McMurtrey had the difficult task of determining which ones would be enlarged to 5 X 3 feet and printed on an aluminum material designed for outdoor use. The printing is of the same high quality as a print on paper for museum shows.

    “[The] photographs are so powerful,” Bullington said. “[They] show Joe’s own interest in people -- there is a warm, inviting quality to them.”

    They are also heterogeneous. The people in the photos are racially and ethnically diverse, they are well off and poor, they are gay and straight.

    “It would be untrue and unrepresentative to be monochromatic, especially in a city like Houston,” explains Dean Thompson.

    “It’s universal,” McMurtrey said. “The diversity of it is really the diversity of the world.”


    Connecting with God’s people

    The Reverend Becky Zartman, Canon for Welcome and Evangelism, thinks that the Faces project dovetails perfectly with the Cathedral, as it is “here for everyone.”

    From The Beacon, which feeds the city’s homeless each day and provides showers, laundry services and bro-bono legal help, to The Hines Center for Spirituality and Prayer, to the Kids Hope USA program at Bruce Elementary, Zartman said both the Cathedral and the photography exhibition are about really seeing — and connecting with — all of God’s people.

    “Oftentimes we get caught up in church and ‘churchiness,’ but Jesus said to do two things: love God, and love your neighbor,” Zartman said. ““I’m really hoping [the exhibit] starts conversations.”


    Using the Cathedral fences to open minds

    The idea of using the Cathedral fence for outreach is not wholly new. The Reverend Arthur A. Callaham, vicar at the Cathedral and staff liaison to the Religion and the Arts Council, of which the Cloister Gallery is a part, said that after a series of national and international shootings, hate crimes, and terrorist attacks during 2016, the Cathedral created a “Turn Toward LOVE” interactive art exhibition on the fence, where people could leave prayers, like the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

    In the spring of 2017, as part of Lent, the Cathedral mounted a public art installation along Texas Street called, “Before I Die.”

    Callaham likes the Faces of the Other exhibit for the same reason.

    “The project struck a chord in us,” Callaham said. “[It] will use our space as a public space.”

    Dean Thompson notes that the Cathedral is the oldest church in the city and thus, a spiritual leader. He hopes that the exhibit will make people rethink the tribalism which he thinks is becoming increasingly entrenched in this country and abroad.

    “In John’s Gospel, the Evangelist says God is incarnate in all things,” Barkley said. “Human diversity is seeing the diversity of God."


    The opening celebration

    An opening celebration for the exhibit will be held on Saturday, February 29, in the Bishop’s Courtyard (rain location is Reynolds Hall) from 1 to 3 p.m. where there will be lawn games, a photo scavenger hunt, an artist talk, and other activities for adults, children, and families. Children will also have the opportunity to have their portraits taken onsite. Everyone who had a portrait taken for the Faces exhibition will be specially invited, and the celebration is open to everyone.

    Sponsors for “Faces of the Other” include Kinsey Architecture, Hunington Properties, Sage Education Group, and Dr. Kathryn Rabinow.

    A cultural non-profit organization based in Houston, FotoFest organizes year-round shows as well as a Biennial exhibition which is taking place this year. FotoFest’s photo-based programs seek to illuminate social issues and present new, vital artwork.