Paul Gateshill reflects on the Methodist Modern Art Collection which was hosted at the Focolare Centre for Unity during Lent and Easter this year.

[New City Magazine – June 2024, page 19-21]

It is the 7th April and the Methodist Modern Art Collection is being dismantled and loaded onto two large lorries for its return journey to a secure aircraft hanger in Oxfordshire. There is a certain feeling of bereavement amongst the team. We have lived with these paintings for nearly six weeks and each one has become ‘a close companion’. However, in a month’s time the exhibition will be relocated to a Methodist Church in Eastbourne, Sussex, so our loss is their gain.

From the moment we opened on 1st March until 7th April, the Focolare Centre welcomed nearly 2000 visitors to enjoy the 26 paintings and savour home-made cakes and refreshments in our pop-up community cafe. It was a massive endeavour requiring a rota of 47 local volunteers to act as stewards and to welcome the visitors. These volunteers came mainly from the local churches and represented at least five Christian denominations. It was a truly ecumenical affair. In many ways, it was worth putting on the exhibition just to work closely with these new friends. I was impressed by their generosity and fidelity to the cause – so keen and enthusiastic. Some of them would like to continue working at the Focolare Centre.

Welcoming the public

The majority of the 2000 visitors had never been to the Focolare Centre for Unity before. Many commented on how they had wondered what took place behind the front door, but never had a reason to cross the threshold. They were impressed. ‘It’s so light and welcoming’, ‘I feel at home here.’ ‘What exactly is Focolare?’ It was an opportunity to hand out free copies of New City and a new flyer about the Centre, the Focolare and to chat over coffee and cakes!

An ecumenical Lent course

Accompanying the exhibition we had developed a Lent course which focused on one of the paintings each week during Lent. It was devised by an Anglican and RC priest and was beautifully presented with music, art, a passage from scripture and open questions to encourage dialogue. This was published to all the Churches with members encouraged to visit Lent groups from Churches, other than their own. One group reported that the participants had grown from 12 at the beginning of the course to 19 by the end. Normally, it is the other way round! One member shared that she felt she had grown more, spiritually, during those 6 weeks, than in the previous ten years!

A gift from Belfast

The exhibition was accompanied by various activities – school visits and workshops, an evening lecture by Graham Kent about his experience of working with the exhibition for 20+ years, a moment of reflection… We also held an evening of poetry and music in the midst of the paintings. We invited Jim Deeds and David Campton from Belfast, to share their poetry with us, interspersed with music. Jim and David should be well known to readers as their poetry often enriches the pages of this magazine. This was yet another demonstration of ecumenism as David is a Methodist minister and Jim is RC. Their friendship and poetry spoke volumes. The evening was a profound moment demonstrating the power of the arts to convey the deepest of insights and truths relating to the mysteries of the Easter story.

A moment of thanksgiving

On the last day of the exhibition we held a service of thanksgiving to gather together the fruits of the last 6 weeks. Led by an Anglican and RC priest and accompanied by music, it also contained reflections by three of the stewards. One steward from the Baptist Church shared how she used to compile an action list of things to do. Her experience of watching over the paintings had led her to create a list of ‘things to be’ instead!

The transformative nature of art

During the course of the exhibition I held four workshops for school children, aged between 6 and 11 years old. It was moving to see how these young children interacted with the paintings. Children see things differently than adults, and I learnt more from them than they did from me! During one of the sessions we were looking at Maggie Hambling’s ‘Good Friday – walking on the water’. It portrays a turbulent sea and a mysterious figure walking on the water. One of the teaching assistants confided in me: ‘This painting really speaks to me. I have been going through a really tricky patch recently. This painting is telling me not to sink beneath the waves of my own problems, but to stay above the waves.’ I was moved that this lady was confiding something so personal to someone she had met just 45 minutes earlier…

To conclude, here are some impressions left in the visitor’s book:

Extraordinary and unique exhibition – beyond words.

Beautiful. An amazing collection of art. Beautifully curated and displayed. Conducive, not only to the appreciation of the works but also to quiet contemplation. A very moving experience and very welcoming volunteers!

Fantastic to take in a contemporary collection reflecting faith and its significance.

A beautiful spiritual feast.

Profoundly inspirational.

Wonderful exhibition, brilliant location.

Beautiful and stunning artwork. I’m so pleased we got to see the real thing. It is thought provoking and a reminder of Christ in all parts of our lives. The venue was perfect and cakes, delicious.

Awesome! A lovely contemplative space.

Photos: © Paul Gateshill/New City

Selfie: © Jim Deeds

Diary of a Steward – Deborah Mills

When a selection of art works from the Methodist Modern Art Collection was exhibited at the Focolare Centre for Unity in Welwyn Garden City, I had the privilege of becoming a volunteer steward at the exhibition. I am thankful for this unexpected local opportunity, which introduced me to the collection for the first time and has left a memorable and lasting impression. As the exhibition drew to a close at the beginning of April and the art works returned to the road on tour again, I began to reflect on the richness of my stewarding experience, what it meant to me and what I will take with me moving forward.

The exhibition was entitled Deepening the Mystery ‘unexpected treasures’ of art, and through my stewarding experience this became a living reality. Each art work began to reveal itself as a treasure, an encounter and the beginning of a new journey. I had first glimpsed the collection online, but when I encountered the paintings first hand it was a different experience, particularly in terms of scale and impact. This was the beginning of a new journey of going beyond looking and getting to know. It was like opening a curiosity box and engaging wonder and possibility.

Stewarding framed a space to be part of a collective ‘taking care’ of the art works through individual windows of time spent with the paintings and the visitors who came to enjoy them. It became an ongoing opportunity to greet and welcome visitors who had gathered together in an ‘ordinary place’ to look, see and experience. Stewarding was also a window of time to be available for anyone who might want to share their reflections as they encountered the art works first hand, enriched through the lens of the carefully prepared looking guide. I clearly remember welcoming the first visitors on the opening day of the exhibition. It was a joy to witness these first encounters with the paintings and hear how the exhibition had gone beyond expectations.

Occasionally as a steward, when the exhibition room was a little quieter or maybe empty, I was able to take just a few moments in the absence of others to stand in front of each painting and fully engage in its presence. To look more deeply and lean in to understand more. To step through into whatever story was captured within the work, engaging its mystery, its message and the artist who created it. For me personally, these were moments of awe and wonder. As Pat Kane writes for the New City arts page when reviewing some of the images in the Exhibition, ‘Perhaps there is another kind of “literacy”, other than the word, which is visual literacy. Images have the capacity to bypass the intellect and speak directly to the heart and soul.’ As a steward and a viewer, I resonated with this other kind of ‘literacy’ and these encounters were precious and memorable moments, which I will take with me on my own journey as an artist.

We were thankful that the exhibition had been in our town for a few weeks, welcoming nearly two thousand visitors. It had offered the opportunity to engage a visual language the arts are able to offer, which can ‘speak directly to the heart and soul’. As Paul Gateshill wrote in his editorial for New City ‘there is something universal in the arts which transcends language culture and even religion… they are able to convey a universal language which speaks about the human condition, about shared emotions and our highest aspirations.’

I was thankful for the opportunity to be just one of a committed team of forty-seven stewards, rather like ‘watchmen on the walls’, collectively taking care of the art works at the Focolare Centre for Unity. My lasting memory will be one of unity and oneness that seemed to flow as we gathered in an ordinary place to enjoy art works that inspired awe and wonder in so many different ways for so many different people.

Space for contemplation

June 2nd, 2024|0 Comments

Paul Gateshill reflects on the Methodist Modern Art Collection which was hosted at the Focolare Centre for Unity during Lent and Easter this year.


March 1st, 2024|0 Comments

Over the last three months, Pat Kane has explored some of the works of art from the Methodist Modern Art Collection which is being exhibited this month at the Focolare Centre for Unity.

The Empty Tomb by Richard Bavin

January 2nd, 2024|0 Comments

Over the next three months Pat Kane explores some of the exhibits coming to the Focolare Centre for Unity in March 2024. These form part of the impressive Methodist Modern Art Collection.

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