South Carolina church offers monthly art classes, 'How Great Thou Art'

Aiken, South Carolina

Iris Walliser touches up the skyline around her palm tree on her interpretation of “Seaside Palm,”
the painting for the August 19 “How Great Thou Art” painting class. (Aiken Standard photo)

At most paint nights around the country, the setting is familiar: groups of friends, mostly beginners, learning how to complete the same canvas drawings that all appear a little different at the end.

But on a Friday night at Ebenezer Church of the Nazarene in downtown Aiken, the second “How Great Thou Art” painting class started with a prayer.

Instructor and artist Susie Wessel sat in front of a group in the Holley Building, in the same space the church meets, and prayed for those who were going to participate, also asking God he take away any nerves.

Then, as most paint classes go, the group took a palette of paint colors, a selection of brushes and began following Wessel’s step-by-step instructions. The night’s painting was “Seaside Palm,” which was a swaying palm tree on a beach.

Painters started with a large, yellow bull’s-eye or circle, then used a pinkish red color around it and soon, the horizon line, sand, ocean and palm tree started to take shape. A mix of primary colors was needed for all of the shapes and colors. Sometimes the colors like the brown on the tree branches become a teachable moment.

“What are the first five words of Genesis?” Wessel asked the group, which began placing darker colors on the tree. “In the beginning, God created.”

Out of darkness, God created the light, she said, adding “you can’t have light without darkness.”

Those brief references of faith were woven into the class. Even the art tips seemed as if they could be used as lessons, such as taking a step back to get a new perspective. That tip, Wessel said she uses in painting and in life.

Originally from California, Wessel has been a member of Ebenezer Church of the Nazarene for around two years.

The Rev. Patrick Taylor, called “Pastor Patrick” by the church congregation, said the idea for the creative arts ministry came from his mother Carol Taylor and Wessel, who is teaching the class.

“They love art, and they wanted to breathe that into the life of the community,” Taylor said. “Aiken is a very artistic town, and they were like, ‘Hey, let’s do that.’”

Aside from the name, the monthly “How Great Thou Art” classes don’t have too many explicit Christian references, according to the pastor.

“I think we have a conviction that the church and our life should be creative at the heart of it, and so it’s not necessarily that we’re painting pictures of crosses, but we’re painting good pictures, because God loves craftsmanship,” he said. “It’s a very cool, spiritual act even though it’s not Christian on the face of it.”

For Wessel, however, faith is an important factor in her art. She said it was when she began painting that God began to speak to her, referencing examples of how a Bible verse coming to her mind while she began painting the ocean of “Seaside Palm.”

“I had not been thinking about it. It wasn’t premeditated. It just kind of happened, and I knew immediately that that was from the Lord. I think you’ve got to experience it to know it,” she said.

As far as the ministry works, Taylor said proceeds help other ministries at the church, like its children’s ministries. More simply, it is just engaging people in the artistic process.

“There’s not really a goal in mind other than a creative activity for the church. It’s for anyone to do. It’s just people coming to art class,” Taylor said. “They love it.”

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--Republished with permission from the Aiken Standard

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