By Brian Keepers
This summer I had the opportunity to travel with internationally known artist Joel Schoon-Tanis and twenty-six others from various churches in the RCA to Beit-Sahour/Bethlehem in the West Bank. We went there to put on a week-long summer camp for Palestinian youth at two different schools. Half of us led a fitness camp at one school while the other half led an arts camp at the other. Several of us were returning for the second year in a row as last summer we piloted an arts camp at just one of the schools through the RCA Peace Project. Like last summer, this summer’s trip was a profound and transformational experience. It was a gift to be with these beautiful and resilient Palestinian teens who live in the thick of political and religious tension, oppressed by a separation wall.
While we were there, Joel Schoon-Tanis spent several afternoons painting a mural on the separation wall. For my blog post today, I interviewed Joel about painting on the wall and the role of the artist in the church’s life and witness.
Brian: You had talked last summer, on our first trip to Beit-Sahour in the West Bank, about wanting to paint something on the separation wall. This summer, you made sure it happened. Why was this so important to you?
Joel: It’s personal for me because my brother-in-law is from Beit-Sahour, so it’s family. That, and the connections those of us who have done the camps have made with the people takes it from statistics or politics and makes it personal as well. The wall is oppressive. It was important for me to use my art to speak about the situation there – especially given these connections.
Brian: Tell us about what you painted. Where did the inspiration for the idea come from?
Joel: I revisited a theme I have done in multiple ways: the Peaceful Kingdom from Isaiah 11. I knew I wanted to paint a peace theme given the setting, and that passage just makes sense for what I do. I call this one “Balancing the Peaceful Kingdom” (see picture of mural above) as all of the animals work their way up to the top of the wall –working together!
Brian: How long did it take to paint it?
Joel: I knocked it out in three long afternoons, thanks to two things. First, I went in with a fully formed idea sketched out. Second, I had help. Members of our team came and painted. I’d say, “Fill this in purple” and off they’d go. It helped me layer the paint up more quickly. It also gave us the chance to “clean up” some of the art nearby by painting over graffiti.
Brian: What was it like to paint on the separation wall? Did you get any reactions from people while you were doing it?
Joel: It was exciting. Truly a rush at times. There is something about painting something half way around the world and in such an historic place that wasn’t lost on me. Day one I got very few reactions, but as the mural came together dozens and dozens of people stopped to talk or to take pictures. The spot we painted is near a check point to get into the city so many people pass by each day.
Two interesting reactions: First, from tourists. You could tell by the questions they asked that many were fishing around for my motivation and specifically if I was a Christian. I had some very cool bonding with Christians from all around the world – particularly South Korea!
The Palestinians were by and large really encouraging and would stop and say, “Thank you”…which I think had as much to do with knowing that we see their situation as with the art. There were occasional older people who would say something like, “You can paint all you want, but nothing is going to change.” Which was sad to hear but I get it. It must be tiring living there.
Brian: Why do the arts matter, especially for Christian faith and witness? What is the role of the artist, particularly the artist who is a follower of Christ?
Joel: I had the chance to talk about this with artist Mako Fujimura (who is at Fuller Seminary now) and he talked about the artist as a prophetic voice. That is, that we need to be truth tellers. What I think art can do, and what I hope it does through this mural, is provide an entry point to think about a topic or story or idea or bit of theology. I often choose to do this in a whimsical way and I find that it disarms people and helps them enter into a discussion in a helpful way.
Brian: How can the church support the arts and encourage artists?
Joel: I’m experiencing greater support all of the time through the church. It feels like more churches and more Christians are seeing the value of what art can do for the faith. I’d just like to encourage the faithful to support the arts in whatever ways they can. It can be hard to try to be a “prophetic voice” and feed your kids at the same time.
If you’d like to learn more about Joel Schoon-Tanis and his artwork, or read his blog post about painting on the separation wall, go to his website: http://www.joelschoontanisart.com. We are in the beginning stages of planning another trip to Israel/Palestine for next summer, and if you are interested in going or financially supporting this work, contact Sally Vis (firstname.lastname@example.org). Go to this website to learn more about the RCA Peace Project: https://www.rca.org/mission/peace-project.
Brian Keepers is the Minister of Preaching and Congregational Leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, MI.