HOW THE MISSION OF ART IS HEALING DIVISION
Words by Amy Manikowski
Photos by John Warner
On September 26, 2019, after three months of painting, Christopher Holt finished the final giornata of the Haywood Street Fresco, his brush scripting five artists’ names on a piece of music blown from the piano by the winds of holy chaos. Set in stone, the faces and stories would live forever—affirming sacred worth, restoring dignity, and sabotaging the shame of poverty.
It had taken years, and the perseverance of a dedicated team, to get it up on that wall in Asheville, North Carolina. When Holt proposed the idea of a fresco in the sanctuary of The Haywood Street Congregation in 2011, Reverend Brian Combs immediately held space for the vision. Combs had established Haywood Street just two years before as an urban ministry whose focus was “relationship above all else.”
The Art of Scandalous Abundance
One of their largest ministries, the Welcome Table, has an apt name. When visiting on a Wednesday, you may see people finding a safe place to nap in the pews or the hallway, or sitting for a haircut while waiting for lunch. There is a mix of housed and unhoused, executive and unemployed, those who hide their addictions and those in the throes of it, all gathered at the Table sharing the struggle and joy that is life. At the heart of the giving and receiving, serving and being served, is a belief in what they call “absurd grace and scandalous abundance”—the idea that in God’s economy, there is always enough.
The fresco would be a tangible representation of these beliefs - filling people’s often unacknowledged spiritual need for beauty and inspiration with a magnificent piece of fine art that affirms sacred worth.
Fresco is a rare form of art, in part because it is time-consuming and expensive, but also because few artists in the world can execute a fresco. A fresco artist must encompass superhuman stamina and concentration, decades of training, and an earnest humility that leans on teamwork and shared knowledge. The result is a piece of art that glows with a luminescence brought forth by the lime, that no other medium can render.
The project was given significant validation and funds to move ahead when in 2017 the local Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority awarded the fresco a $72,500 grant. However, not everyone saw the value or understood the purpose. An out-of-state nonprofit group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation challenged the grant. Although it would be a seemingly devastating blow, the Haywood Street Fresco Committee decided not to engage in the legal contest and to move forward with private funding.
So, in 2017, with only a rough composition and a dream, a committee was formed and fundraising began, focused on sourcing new donors to ensure no money was pulled from the core ministries.
Rendering the Sacred
Holt had already begun sketching and continued his work. He assembled his team: John Dempsey, Caleb Clark, Anselme Long, and Jill Hooper. These professional artists, who were also friends and colleagues, had all studied under the fresco master Benjamin Long IV. They would leave months of their own work behind to assist with this project that didn’t have a clear funding source or timetable, dependent not only on the organic and tedious nature of materials, but also on the brave assurance of their skill.
The initial layer of plaster was laid in November 2018 in a specially constructed steel frame. It would cure for six months to provide the necessary strength and flexibility. Throughout that winter, Christopher, usually accompanied by Anselme, Caleb, and John, sketched portraits, spending at least three hours on each person; drawing lives from pencil lines, listening to music, and hearing the model’s backstory. Scheduling modeling sessions was sometimes unpredictable, due to the hardships such as homelessness, poverty, illness, or addiction. Appointments were broken and scattered. The artists searched people down, some without cell phones or home addresses, with a knowing concern, the imprint of histories, stories, and faces weighing heavy on their paper, and their hearts.
After months of drawing sketches, the artists created a massive “cartoon”—a to-scale sized charcoal rendition of the composition—to trace for transfer onto the wall. By July 1, 2019, the cured-plaster wall and the tracings of the cartoon were ready. With three large scaffolds in place, the team held up the translucent pin-pricked paper and began “pouncing” the drawing with ocra rossa pigment, a technique called sinopia. The sinopia took days, and once on the wall, the artists were able to adjust the composition, working through the weekend to finally sit down the following Monday for the first giornata, or “day’s work.”
At 8 a.m. throughout the summer, Caleb and Anselme stood outside in the hot sun as rush-hour traffic buzzed by, pulling and pushing the plaster to the right consistency before carrying 70-pound buckets of white grit down the plywood-protected aisle to the scaffolding. By around 10 a.m., the freshly plastered wall would be ready for the colors John had been mixing specifically for that day. Christopher would then paint until it was done, usually around 8 p.m. On particularly challenging days, such as those working on the large hands, the team finished at 1 a.m.
Blessed by Holy Chaos
“It’s just amazing—the power that art has to change people.” When Reverend Brian Combs talks, it is measured and full of emotion. At the blessing of the fresco on November 13, he sounds as surprised as most newcomers are by the authenticity found at Haywood Street.
On that wall are 31 faces of real people, who have names, histories, struggles, and triumphs .“Each has been drawn in detail and painted with dignity, an investment of time and talent by principal artist Christopher Holt in the slow and deliberate process of rendering the sacred in each individual,” says Combs.
The fresco is truly an illumination of the magic of Haywood Street: From Charlie Burns’ unfinished, light-bearing statue, to Robert holding flowers reflected in his arrangements on the altar, to Mary and David leading the Welcome Table, and Edward raining music boldly over the church from his piano. Labels are shed and pretense is stripped away, allowing people’s true strengths—their superpowers—to come forward and shine.
Many of the models are quick to say there are 20 more people, at least, who deserve to be up on the wall. But Holt says, “It’s not about the character, but about the story.”
So what is the value of art? You can see it in the many tears shed and hugs given before the fresco, in the people deeply moved by the community and perseverance behind the creation, in the sense that this is just the beginning of a transformation of the community and the world. Pushing people, as Christopher Holt said at the unveiling, “to be a little bit nicer.”
“The best part is, when you leave Haywood Street, you take it with you,” says Jeanette, one of the light-bearers in the portrait. “Wherever you go, whoever you talk to, bring it up. Take the holy chaos with you.” And it’s true, you do. Long after you’ve left the church walls, a little kinder, a lot more reassured in humanity, the holy chaos will echo through you with a deep, grounding sense of love and belonging.
Visit haywoodstreetfresco.org for more information.