Pieces of Pieces: Expressions of Faith at the Muskegon Museum of Art

by Will Juntunen

Expressions of Faith: Religious Works from the Permanent Collection with Rare Manuscripts from the Van Kampen Collection, features imagery from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, as well as spiritual traditions of Africa and Japan.  The exhibition can be seen in the in L. C. and Margaret Walker Gallery at The Muskegon Museum of Art through February 12, 2017.

Muskegon’s past has a million pieces of pieces–evidence of a lost closeness. In Hackley Library, old phone books listed residents by address, phone number, and profession. Now, the white pages list the last remaining land lines, all ringing to voice mail. Citizens of Muskegon once proudly declared who they were to one another. When did Muskegon shed this fabric of community?

We lost our manufacturing base and tore down the factories. We lost the print edition of Muskegon Chronicle, which was read throughout the city by all who could read. The online namesake seems to ignore us. We sacrificed our historic downtown for a mall we tore down all too soon.

rembrandt-harmensz-van-rijn-christ-preaching-walker-fund

Rembrandt, Christ Preaching (“La Petite Tombe”), Drypoint, Gift of the Mr. and Mrs. L.C. Walker Fund

 

Locally owned  brick and mortar retail were lost with the arrival of the Lakes Mall, Wal-Mart, and Meijer. Our mutual art history stayed on duty, recording this extinction, a diaspora of the strangest sort, a scattering in place. One such example is Wilfred Berg’s mural depicting the demolition of the Occidental Hotel, an explosion that did not even spare the famous bowling alley. Locals still covet the stones of that building.

albrecht-durer-flight-into-egypt-c-1503

Albrecht Dürer, The Flight Into Egypt (from “The Life of the Virgin”), c. 1503, Gift of the Mr. and Mrs. L.C. Walker Fund

In early December, as prodigal daughters and sons we entered the L. C. and Margaret Walker Gallery at The Muskegon Museum of Art to see the exhibition Expressions of Faith: Religious Works from the Permanent Collection with Rare Manuscripts from the Van Kampen Collection, which showcases the wealth of the Museum’s collection restored to us without stinting. “Expressions of Faith” reminds viewers of the past zeal for collecting. Even more, “Expressions” shakes the body public by the shoulders, like a newly anointed prophet, proclaiming the city’s role as a center for the free and unfettered practice of religious faith.

That prophet must look (something) like the statue of Saint Paul who stands above the stained glass rose window of  St Paul’s Episcopal Church that bears his name. The studies for this Paul by Richard Kislov, a plastic surgeon and sculptor, are an amusing entry. Check the eyebrows of this preaching saint.

This is not the first time the museum has acted as a psychologist, attempting to revive old civic memory with artifacts. Remember and Rebuild: Picturing the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, opened with high ceremony on Webster Boulevard, which virtually recreated the painting hanging in the Hackley Public Library of Charles Hackley presenting the newly constructed library to the city in 1890. On September 11, 2014, we gathered around a grandstand near the library steps to applaud distinguished speakers and visitors.

Consider two proofs that the intervention worked. During Labor Day Celebrations in 2016, the American flag was flown 9-11 style above Hackley Park from the tallest crane the labor unions could find, echoing the American flag’s presentation at the MMA September 2014. The Muskegon Regional Police Pipes & Drums sounded their somber pipes for the 9-11 ceremony, fielding a modest number. However despite the low attendance it would seem their contribution was not without consequence because at the Michigan Irish Music Festival two Septembers later, the corp had difficulty finding kilts to attire the new recruits.

Despite a bitterly cold Thursday night, the auditorium filled for an overview of the exhibition led by Henry Luttikhuizen, professor of art history at Calvin College. Earlier in the lecture series, artist Tim Norris spoke about Catholic faith and paganism in Ireland, a nod to Muskegon’s community of pagans and agnostics. The audience that Thursday night could be studied the way scholars once studied the Rosetta Stone. Temple B’nai Israel loaned perhaps the only Torah on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, and Rabbis Alan and Anna Alpert of the temple were honored guests for Luttikhuizen’s talk.

Transport of the venerable document from temple to museum had to be akin to conveying the Ark of the Covenant through the wilderness. This December finds the Rabbi and his followers from Muskegon’s interfaith community baking bread in a church basement. All these varieties, some of which no longer produced, are sold to raise funds to assure the Holocaust is never forgotten or repeated. Muskegon has welcomed the survivors from the Shoah yearly in April. Thanks to the Rabbi’s leadership, high school students and their parents have heard the testaments of these witnesses.

Among the gathered, a Catholic man and his family, an industrialist whose firm had supported the exhibition. Last spring, he had invited every social leader he knew to lunch at the Muskegon Country Club to hear area experts speak on solutions to A.L.I.C.E. (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed). Many of these strategies have been implemented at his firm and neighboring firms, allowing working mothers to keep a job when a child gets sick, or helping a man to get to work when his car won’t start. In the same room sat relatives of a Grand Haven man who after accumulating a fortune, wrote treatises on eschatology. Robert D. Van Kampen also collected rare Bibles, some of which are included in the exhibition including, a Gutenberg Bible, and Luther Bibles printed in Wittenberg.

One had to wonder if present in the room was the anonymous donor of two prints from William Blake’s Book of Job, included in Expressions, perhaps touched by the artist himself when pulled from the press. Did any scions of the Walker family attend the evening? The Walker family acquired prints added to the collection in the mid-twentieth century, including the astounding selection of prints by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn and Albrecht Dürer.

What explains the Walkers’ interest in prints?  In a recent lecture at the Coffee Factory in the Shaw-Walker complex, local historian Mat Moore reminded the audience that before the family ventured into filing cabinets, they produced index cards. Hardly a building stands at our lakeside paper mill today.

“Expressions of Faith”, on display until February 12, 2017, will continue to gather the flock. In one overhead conversation near the Torah, two directors from robust Irish festivals in the Midwest praised the collection. A friend drawn into their conversation inquired, “Where is the Book of Kells from the Hackley Library?”, a limited edition ‘exact facsimile replica’ authorized by Trinity College. As it happens, Hackley Library has this treasure in storage while the renovation dust flies.

What religious artifacts await in our county for inclusion should a net be cast for a second exhibit on this theme? What lies in the archives of the Masonic Masters of the Valley of the Pines, the Sadony brothers?

“Expressions of Faith” suggests more leads than the number of angels who can stand on a pin. Curious visitors can extend their exploration of faith by visiting The Preacher and His Congregation: Photographs by James Perry Walker, also featured at the MMA through March 5.   On the walls of a dining hall at Maranatha Bible & Missionary Conference, a few black and white photographs testify to the legacy of Ruth and Billy Graham, Bible teachers at the resort. The archives of MLive may very well possess documentation of the day in 1956 when Graham drew an audience of eight thousand to the retreat center on Lake Michigan.

The number of angels who can stand on a pin is infinite, why not one more lead? In early December, the Singing Christmas Tree of the Mona Shores High School choir filled the Frauenthal Theater for several performances. Before being moved to the Frauenthal Theater in 2006, the singing tree performance first arose into the celestial heights of St. Francis de Sales, designed by Marcel Breuer. Who first  looked up into the void of the church’s sanctuary and imagined the tree?

Jokingly referred to as “Our Lady of Cement”, the building also serves as a convenient hunting perch for  Peregrine Falcons. The interior houses examples of the work of Lakeside artists Barbara and Don Saint Denis, a legacy the museum might wish to honor. Many churches commissioned their work, including Samuel Lutheran Church for its eastern door. The exhibition documented this marvelous architecture with a sign, focusing on the Breuer legacy.

In a conversation with an old-timer, a friend learned of a home once owned by Wilfred Berg, who had painted the image of a god on all the interior doors. Before moving, Wally Berg reportedly painted over the doors. Does the house still stand? Let’s check the phone books at Hackley Public Library.

Expressions of Faith through February 12, at the Muskegon Museum of Art.
296 W. Webster Ave., Muskegon, Michigan 49440

Admission:  Adults $8, Students (with valid school I.D.) $5, Free for members and children under 17, Free Thursday Nights 4-8PM (Meijer Free Thursday Nights)

Museum Hours:
Sunday: Noon-5PM
Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: 11AM-5PM
Thursday: 11AM-8PM

Free parking is available in the lot behind the museum.

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