by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It could be said that the exhibit currently in Bethel College’s Regier Art Gallery was 25 years in the making.
The collection of mixed-media paintings using photo transfer is entitled “7 x 7 Laments: For an Age of Sexualized Power.” It is in the gallery, located in Luyken Fine Arts Center on campus, through Dec. 7.
The artist, Jerry Holsopple, a member of the visual and communication arts faculty at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is best known in the Mennonite Church media world as a photographer and videographer. This dive into the “fine arts” represents a fairly recent departure for him.
Holsopple was on the Bethel campus Nov. 17-20 to install the exhibit, speak during the 4th biennial Worship and the Arts Symposium Nov. 18, and give a convocation presentation about “7 x 7 Laments” Nov. 20.
In 1992, Holsopple produced the documentary Beyond the News: Sexual Abuse for his Mennonite Church employer. This, he said, was when he first began to come to terms with the fact that sexual abuse happened in the church – his church – and its institutions, including the seminary from which he graduated, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana.
The year 1992 was also when a Mennonite Church task force confronted probably the best-known Mennonite in international academic and theological circles, John Howard Yoder, over multiple charges of sexual harassment and abuse dating back nearly two decades, most from when he was a professor at AMBS and the University of Notre Dame. (Yoder died in 1997.)
“I was probably naïve when I started,” Holsopple says, “a 30-something white male Mennonite from the East. I came to understand that I have the kind of power that perpetuated this kind of abuse [and that] to choose to be silent is to give preference to the perpetrator.”
Fast forward to 2015, when Holsopple had a sabbatical, and made a successful application to the artist-in-residence program at the Luce Center for Art and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
With so many (more recent) stories of sexual abuse in Mennonite churches and institutions swirling in Holsopple’s consciousness, he decided he needed to follow artistically where that path might take him – using paint, though also incorporating photography through the process of photo transfer.
“As an artist, you know you have to enter the dark spaces to do the work,” he says. He chose the theme of lament as found in the Psalms, “a form of public discourse that moves between grief and hope.”
Lament, he continues, “has to tell the truth; it must not silence the victims and the vulnerable; it has to give room for grief."
From a technical perspective, Holsopple says in his artist statement, “I wanted to layer photography transfers and paint, using sandpaper to reveal what was underneath. I wanted the grit to rip the paint and ink – like residual pain, this can be raw.
“I started with dark cycles – thinking about the pain, despair and anger – and cycles of awareness as truth is being revealed (so I put some yellow to shine the light of truth-telling that reveals even more).”
Holsopple’s entire artist statement is 52 pages long. He put it into a self-published book with photos of all the panels. The book is part of the display in the Regier Gallery.
The fruit of Holsopple’s 2015 sabbatical was the nearly 60 panels that comprise “7x7 Laments: For an Age of Sexualized Power.” The photo subjects in about 75 percent are students or staff members from Wesley Theological Seminary who interacted with Holsopple during his artist residency.
“I did this work at the intersection of a lifetime of documentary work; of studying Orthodox iconography and learning to write [i.e., paint] them; of practicing street, documentary and portrait photography; and of numerous Photoshop-composited exhibits.” The influence of each of these can be seen in “7 x 7 Laments.”
“I wanted to bring all of this into a hands-on creation using abstract paints to express the emotional space I was experiencing, and photographic ink transfers to bring the embodiment to these images.”
The exhibit title “deliberately references the widely known biblical text [Matthew 18] about forgiveness (70 times 70),” Holsopple writes, “but the twist of numbers suggests that I and the church must enter the depths of lament before forgiveness is even broached.”
Matthew 18 was also, Holsopple points out, a passage that John Howard Yoder frequently invoked as he was being confronted with his sexual abuse and misconduct, but he also “twisted” it – insisting that the women “accusing” him should speak directly to him, face-to-face, not recognizing or acknowledging the huge power imbalance between him and them.
“Matthew 18 is about equalizing, about giving power to the vulnerable over against the powerful,” Holsopple says, “so how could the church leaders allow him to get away with it? I should not have been surprised – the church has been using Scripture to justify war for millennia.”
Holsopple’s artist statement says: “[This exhibit] is my response to the [Yoder] case, but it is more than that. It is to challenge myself to recognize how much power I have, and to challenge my colleagues and the pastors/leaders in our churches to recognize how much power they have in their positions. This power does not have to be abusive, and must always be accountable.”
He adds, “We as the church are called to tell the truth about ourselves. That should be our witness to the world. We will never get to grace or to healing until and unless we tell the truth.”
The Regier Gallery in Luyken Fine Arts Center on the Bethel campus is open Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays 2-4 p.m. Admission is free. “7 x 7 Laments” is on display through Dec. 7.
Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.
Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu.