By Beth Donze
Throughout Lent, Mass-goers at Loyola University’s Ignatius Chapel are invited to turn their gaze upon a stunning wall banner that traces the season’s ideal movement from sinful brokenness to wholeness with God.
At the banner’s bottom are the “shoals” of sin, with rocks lodged in muck and cast in shadow.
Away from these barren shallows are signs of hope: seven skiffs sail atop an ever-brightening sea of batik-dyed fabric rectangles, bound for an Easter sunrise at the banner’s top.
The quilted piece, which hangs on a chapel wall near the baptismal font, is one of four stunning banners designed to remind congregants of the shifting liturgical seasons and the ongoing adventure of Christian living.
“Words can be so restricting; words can be so hard to understand, (whereas) art, imagery, nature speak to us viscerally,” said Laura Comiskey Broders, the lawyer and talented quilter who designed and sewed the four seasonal banners with collage artist and painter Katie Pharr Rafferty.
Broders, a Loyola Institute for Ministry graduate who recently completed her chaplain’s residency at East Jefferson Hospital, met Rafferty 20 years ago. The women discovered a mutual interest in fabric-based collage art as members of the Ignatius Chapel’s “10:30 Community,” the group of more than 100 congregants who attend the 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass.
Broders and Rafferty, who view their fabric-based work as a ministry, are inspired by an observation articulated by Adrian Lee Kellard, the late American contemporary artist: Some people “hear” better by seeing.
“I am A.D.D. – I am the type of person who looks at everything,” Rafferty said. “I’ve counted the tiles in the (chapel’s) ceiling, I’ve counted the pleats in the curtains. I think I was tired of looking at what was (previously on the back wall). There was a space there that needed something.”
Lenten move toward the light
The duo’s banners herald Lent, Advent, Ordinary Time and Easter.
To assemble the Lenten banner – the first one created by the pair in 2011 – Rafferty repurposed painted canvases that were gathering dust in her studio and cut them into half-moon shapes to create the piece’s colorful skiffs. Fiberglass screen from Broders’ shed was cut into strips and placed over selected rocks – to suggest “the shadows in our lives,” Broders explained.
“That shallow, cool water feels so refreshing to step into, but sometimes standing in our muck, mire and shadows becomes comfortable for us,” said Broders of the banner’s imagery, which moves from darkness to light as the eye moves upward.
“You can stay stuck in this tidal pool – you never have to go anywhere – but there is always that invitation to move toward the light,” Broders added. “That’s what reconciliation is. Every single second of your life, you are invited to move to the light. I don’t care how much you mess up. You’re still invited.”
Helping Lenten “voyagers” along the way are 11 verbs, each beginning with the prefix “re” and printed in ascending order on a fabric Easter candle: reflect, recall, reevaluate, rethink, reawaken, realign, rediscover, repent, reconcile, renew and, finally, rejoice.
Advent banner morphs
The chapel’s Advent banner – designed in the shape of a house and hung through Epiphany – was designed by the artists to conjure up the hopeful anticipation of Jesus’ birth through the dark winter. The house’s square fabric “bricks” are mostly dark-toned, with an occasional flicker of yellow or orange suggesting interior light.
As the weeks of Advent roll by, the banner’s moon changes phases, while on Christmas Eve a star replaces the moon and a Madonna and Child cut-out is incorporated into the banner scene. Three pieces of silk, added on the Feast of the Epiphany, represent the Magi.
“People are invited to write their prayer intentions on (paper) scrolls and put them into prayer pockets (sewn into the front of the banner),” Broders said, explaining that the prayers ultimately fall into a collection pocket sewn into the banner’s rear and are deployed as “straw” for Baby Jesus’ manger.
While they were planning their banner for Ordinary Time, Broders and Rafferty decided to express the “extraordinary” nature of life by covering the entire piece with 33 stenciled and quilted green roses – each flower representing a single week of Ordinary Time. Beaded insects stud the piece, and a chrysalis hangs from the banner – all reminders of the incremental spiritual growth Catholics hopefully undergo during the season of green vestments.
The odd-colored roses are reminders that “God’s creation in the universe and in each of us may be surprising, transformative and is never done,” according to the explanatory text that accompanies the banner. As an added touch, Broders wrote quotes from the Cycle A lectionary around some of the roses – a nod to Scripture read in 2011, the year the banner was created.
Ringing in Easter
On Holy Saturday, Broders and Rafferty hang their exuberant Easter banner depicting a fallen cross, its crossbeam rooted in the soil to suggest its much happier beginnings as a tree.
Strips of rectangular fabric sewn above this low-lying cross lead the eye upward to Jesus’ Resurrection, Ascension and to the quilt’s dominant image: concentric circles reminiscent of a tree’s growth rings, made with the same fabric as the defeated cross below.
Within the rings, quilted rectangles of many colors telegraph the richness of life made possible by Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. A dove holding the “Good News” in its beak tops the Easter banner, signaling the season-ending feast of Pentecost.
“The resurrection destroyed the tree, so these are the rings of the tree infused with new life, but just like a parable, there are so many ways to interpret it,“ Rafferty notes. “People see different things (in the banners) all the time. That’s the beauty of art. Like the Liturgy of the Word, it speaks to you differently each time.”
Divine dance comes to life
Last summer, just as the two collage artists were hoping to collaborate on another art ministry project, Broders was asked to create a banner designed around the theme of the 8th annual Contemplative Conference at Tulane University – “The Divine Dance with the Trinity” – the subject of a book written by the conference’s keynote speaker, Franciscan Father Richard Rohr.
Six-and-a-half weeks later, Broders, Rafferty and 11 friends completed “The Dance!” a mixed-media triptych art quilt based on the painting “A Good Season” by Iranian-American artist Hessam Abrishami. The triptich portrays three women dancing and playing the flute, tambourine and drums in celebration of a good harvest.
“The energy replicates the energy of the Trinity,” Rafferty said, advising those who have artistic talents to not wait for someone to ask them to do something for the church; just do what you love and then offer it to a parish leader for consideration.
“I’m not organized; I’m not a fundraiser; but I love doing this,” Rafferty said. “(Making this quilt) was spiritual work together, just like an old quilting bee. In the creativity we found God.”
“The Dance!” was displayed earlier this month at the Spiritual Directors’ Conference at the Archdiocesan Spirituality Center. Its next public appearance will be at the Gulf States Quilting Association’s April 13-14 quilt show at Northshore Harbor Center in Slidell.
No matter how viewers interpret their sacred imagery, Broders said she hopes those who see her and Rafferty’s work at Loyola feel invited to “sit, stop, be still and know that you’re loved.”
“I think that’s what the space offers, because when you walk out of the (chapel) door, there’s grocery shopping, there’s heartache, there’s love, there’s celebrations,” Broders said. “There’s so much busyness!”
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.