Flagship Gallery: A Home for Christian Artists

I was asked  to write an article about a lovely little place called Flagship Gallery, for a newspaper called The Christian Courier a few months ago. I thought I’d share it here too.

Over the past few years, Hamilton’s James Street North has witnessed the emergence of new cafes, pubs, restaurants and art galleries. The neighbourhood’s authentic and lively spirit is especially evident during the James Street North Art Crawl – when art galleries synchronize their opening nights on the second Friday of every month. Sidewalks over-flow with art lovers, buskers claim street corners, food trucks selling gourmet sandwiches line the curbs; it’s a sight to behold and it’s one of the many reasons that Flagship Gallery, located at 237 James Street North, is happy to be where it is.

Flagship Gallery features the art of 24 Christian artists. The former butcher shop, and onetime architect’s office, has now been transformed into what gallery curator Karyn Black describes as “a place of reflection and renewal.” With high industrial ceilings, muted grey walls and terrazzo flooring, the space possesses an urban elegance − a promi-nent two-way mirror divides the front of the gallery from the back and a set of moveable walls allows for different configurations, depending on the art work being displayed.

Not surprisingly, visual artist and Flagship Gallery founder James Tughan had a clear vision of what he wanted the room to look like and he’s happy with the end result. “We knew we didn’t want the space to look like a tunnel,” he said. “We wanted it to feel open, but not cold.” Since opening, he’s been told by more than a few visitors that “It’s the nicest gallery on the block.”

Location, of course, was also key. Tughan knew that finding a home for Flagship Gallery in the centre of the James North Art Crawl District would provide Christian artists with a precious opportunity − allowing them to establish a professional presence and witness in Canada’s fastest growing art market.

“We knew we would have to do whatever it took to secure the space,” said Tughan, which is why the months leading up to the Flagship’s grand opening were so crucial. They involved raising money to sign the lease, forming a leadership structure, connecting with generous donors and renovating the space.

A Vision Realized

It was work that made the June 7th opening particularly rewarding for Karyn Black. “Everyone had been working so very hard. Hundreds of hours of work: long days and nights preparing the space, the people and the art. To finally see the dream realized was over-whelming and extremely rewarding,” she said. The creation of Flagship Gallery demanded prayer, patience and determination to see the vision through. But it was a vision worth realizing.

Tughan would like to see the gallery serve as a psychological and spiritual home for established, emerging and recently graduating Christian artists. He also hopes that the gallery will demonstrate the essential role that artists play in their faith communities. These beliefs have underscored much of his work − as art teacher, practicing artist and now, as Flagship Gallery founder. “We want the gallery to help church congregations to recognize the value of artists,” he said.

Tughan’s interest in the important connection between art and faith is one of the main reasons he founded the Semaphore Fellowship ten years ago − a not-for-profit consortium of Christian artists committed to honouring visual languages as sacred trusts given by Jesus. The work of Semaphore is grounded in the belief that Christ – the original Artist, gives his people visual languages as a means of communicating truth.

Flagship Gallery is the Semaphore Fellowship’s Hamilton home. Its philosophy about art and the role it plays the lives of Christians is based on three core principles: firstly, that artistic expression is a fundamental part of being fully human, secondly, that art is language − constantly evolving and always reflecting the state of the world, and thirdly, that art is communal. Not only are artists a vital part of the Christian community, they depend on the support and guidance of that community to flourish as creative human beings, made in the image of God.

While support and affirmation from the church is essential, the quality of the work on display is likely to draw attention outside of Christian circles as well. “The level of proficiency in our art and the quality of our shows will be the main reason people return again and again to the space,” predicted Karyn Black. Her current favourite work showing is a piece by George Langbroek called “Pure Flames.” “I am always drawn to printmaking, and George doesn’t disappoint,” she added.

From July 17 – August 10th, Langbroek’s series of inkwash paintings occupied the front of the gallery. The paintings that make up his “Parameters” collection are marked by a blend of spontaneity and restraint. In a piece called “Tsunami,” clouds of dark ink pool, curl and swell against the surrounding white background.

Langbroek gives his forms the freedom they need to move naturally across his surfaces. “The losing control and the allowance of the image to develop is the whole point,” he said, which is why he describes his process as “similar to life itself, at times controllable and at other times one must simply surrender to the One who is greater.”

For Langbroek, authentic truth telling that is interested in discovery doesn’t need to be overly didactic. His work is guided by the belief that God gives human beings the freedom to play, explore and discover within certain parameters. His perspective is fresh, intriguing and inspiring for artists.

This summer, Flagship’s front gallery also featured the paintings of Jeanette Obbink, in a solo member’s show called “Breathing Space.” Obbink’s work allows viewers to find re-lief from the relentless buzz and hum of modern life. She is an artist who strives to create what she calls “a point of harmony and peace, a breathing space in our busy lives.” Her serene waterscapes and landscapes are both nuance-rich and compelling. Obbink knows how to capture the smoothness of a rock, the soft shadow of a tree, the blurred reflection of a low hanging branch, in a way that is fresh, light and accessible.

Working out Faith in a Visual Language

In the rear area of the gallery is a rotating show featuring art from the rest of the gallery’s member body. Works ranging from hyper-realism, to abstract, to conceptual are on dis-play. Members of Flagship Gallery have room to say what they want, in their own visual language. And they can work out their faith in the process – and be as explicit or subtle about that as they see fit.

Sculptor Heidi Branan is inspired by the weight of stone and the fragility of glass, finding what she describes as “a bold declaration of enduring grace” in the way these mediums interact with one another.

Peter Reitsma describes his work as “a compulsion to paint details of a kingdom ushered in 2000 years ago by someone we still hardly dare to believe.”

For Mercedes Schuster, using the medium of chalk pastel helps her get to know individuals through their physical features. Her aim: to understand those she draws by going beyond the surface and looking at the person beneath.

Not only are Flagship artists committed to aesthetic excellence, they are bold enough to get at the truth, in a way that is uniquely their own. Some have created works that declare the world’s beauty, while others have used their art to lament its brokenness. They have used their gifts to act as followers of Christ who seek to be healers, truth tellers and dreamers.

Although Flagship Gallery founders, members and supporters have much to celebrate, Karyn Black believes that the most challenging part for the tightly-knit artistic community may still lie ahead. “We need to sell art. We need people to come in to the gallery and support our artists − figuratively of course, but also literally − by purchasing quality art and validating artists as a valuable and necessary part of the church.”

When asked what she’d like the community at large to know about Flagship Gallery, Black’s answer was simple: “We are here! We’d love to spend some time with you at the gallery. Please come in to see us. We are open Wednesday to Saturday from 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM. Our address is 237 James Street North, Hamilton.”

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