Surely the Lord is in this place (2009)

Donald D. Clayton
Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

This symbolically rich watercolor painting of the Seneca (SC) Presbyterian Church was commissioned by its members to celebrate the marriage of its pastor to one of its congregation, a decidedly happy occasion. The artist, a long-time member of that congregation and member of its choir, has endowed this work with meanings from her own life, emphasizing the view of the church from her own property diagonally across the street intersection and also containing her husband, her dog and her cat. When I asked her about investing herself heavily into the work she replied, “This is also my church, and my life too.” Her feelings empower emotional aspects of the work and its title, which is the first line of a church anthem that continues” and love is here, our hearts to move”.

As in almost all of the artist’s paintings, one cannot but be struck by the architectural awareness of the artist’s construction. One sees from the front the so-called “Akron plan” characteristic of South Carolina Presbyterian Churches from the early 1900s, designed so that the pulpit above and behind the communion table becomes the focal point in the center of the congregation, which is seated in semicircular arcs terminating at the left and right walls of stained-glass windows. The artist has chosen a slightly off-axis view to give the sanctuary a subtle visual liveliness, aligning the dome center somewhat rightward of the doorway center.

The luscious color elements that enliven many of Ms Clayton’s works are here not found among the details, as in the purple band around the asparagus in “Purple Band” (2000) or the orange construction fence in “Lunch to go” (2004), but in the rich rose-orange tones of the church itself. Its sunlight and shadows bring out both the architectural shape and varied densities of that luscious rose-orange. Viewed from a distance this work is dominated by that rosy sanctuary, which is powerfully its focus. The success of this work rests primarily on the commanding statement made by that main subject. It seizes the viewer’s eye. Viewed up close, on the other hand, one notices the many personal touches loved by the artist.

One noteworthy success of this work is its abstract arrangement of horizontals and verticals. It is that abstract arrangement that one sees repeatedly in briefer glimpses of this work. Verticals include the upward look to the dome, suggesting God’s upward lead to our lives, the foreground trees standing on the artist’s grounds, the inserted burnt-sienna power pole, and the discontinuities of the changes of plane on the sanctuary exterior. The horizontals include the shadows cast by the trees of the late afternoon winter sunlight streaming right to left, the fieldstone wall, the road with yellow central stripe (one of her luscious color details), the church steps into the illumined sanctuary, which is capped by the circular horizontal band at the base of the dome, and the power lines that the artist chose to include for their visual tension. These horizontals suggest an upward staircase on the path from viewer to sanctuary entrance. The arrangement of competing horizontals and verticals is an abstract emphasis by the artist, with homage to her educational architecture training. As in all of Nancy Clayton’s paintings, at close range these architectural features dissolve into the background, replaced by abundant small details. This tension between details and architecture can be seen clearly in other works by the artist; Back Yard Workforce (2005), and Born Again: Schloss Ringberg (2008), for example.

Lastly, one envisions strong symbols of the artist’s Christian faith. The burnt-sienna power pole (rather than a creosoted pole), inserted by the artist at that place, is symbolic of the cross on which Jesus died. Its power lines pass horizontally through the view of the dome, suggesting power to the church, but also continuing rightward toward the sun, the giver of light, a prehistoric symbol for God who lights our dark paths through life. As powerful as these symbols are to those of Christian faith, however, the strengths of this work in a purely artistic sense are the dominance of the sanctuary and its vibrant color and the vertical-horizontal tensions graphing the view.