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Painting students add color and life to Amistad Cristiana's worship space

By Sally Jongsma

After the class finished hanging the murals created for Amistad Cristiana, Matthew Kunnari said,

After the class finished hanging the murals created for Amistad Cristiana, Matthew Kunnari said, "The banners reflect the energy of the congregation and their passion for God. It provides a warm environment for worship."

The students in Professor Susan Van Geest’s introductory painting class had an opportunity to do something they didn’t expect last semester. They designed and painted murals for the worship space used by Amistad Cristiana, a Spanish language congregation in Sioux Center.

“Working together on a mural is good for students for several reasons,” says Van Geest. They get to know each other early in the semester and learn to work collaboratively. This makes them better able to give constructive and honest critiques throughout the semester, a crucial component of all art classes.

It also provides an opportunity for students to think concretely about how their art serves their community. As instructors, Van Geest and her art colleagues challenge their students to consider how their art can benefit others.

Van Geest looks for a collaborative opportunity each time she begins the course. Her students have painted murals on campus in the past, but this time she looked for a community opportunity and approached Amistad, which had recently moved out of Covenant Christian Reformed Church into their own worship space.

Students hanging the banners.

Students hanging the banners.

Van Geest appointed three designers to visit the worship area and talk with people from Amistad to determine what they wanted. The class also researched the Mexican muralist tradition to give a context to their work. The students were told the congregation wanted something celebrative, warm, inviting, and that expressed diversity. Each student then submitted an idea and the three designers came up with three proposals from which Amistad could choose.

“We learned to listen and observe, to be sensitive to the culture and the needs of the church,” says Matt Kunnari, a junior from Minneapolis and one of the designers.

Catherine Sunderland, a senior from Grand Junction, Colorado, was another of the three designers. “Each of us chose a particular style and color scheme so that Amistad would have a choice in what their banners looked like. We made drawings, our class and Amistad approved which ones they liked, and then we revised.” 

In the end, the congregation chose Kunnari’s style, and he redrew the designs into a consistent work. Other members of the class made the canvasses, drew designs on each canvas, and helped paint and install the work.

“It was sometimes difficult to work with seventeen people because everyone had their own ideas on what the designs should look like and how the painting should be done. I think it worked well, though,” says Sunderland. “A good example of how the process worked came at the end, when I redesigned one of the banners because the design wasn’t working. At each change I made, there were people to help me decide what to do and people to begin painting the changes immediately. Having so many people working also allowed us to use special abilities (for example a knack for painting hands) in the appropriate places.”

“I loved making work for someone else.  The art had a purpose other than just sitting on my shelf,” says Sunderland.

Kunnari adds, “For the last couple of years one of my goals was to decorate the inside of a church with artwork. God granted the opportunity earlier than I thought.”

Although things got rather frantic at the end of the semester and took more time than they wanted it to, the students appreciated the opportunity to experience what making art for others feels like.

“I’m most pleased with how much Amistad loved the finished project and how the murals brightened the sanctuary and made it more worshipful,” Sunderland said.