The Transforming Spiritual Power of Art
Updated: Nov 22
Artist Spotlight: An interview with Thomas Faulkner, artist and priest.
We had the honor of interviewing artist and priest Thomas Faulkner about how he uses the arts in advocating for social justice. We also asked him about his recent experience at a Wyoming gallery where his art was censored.
Thomas Faulkner is a sculptor/photographer and priest (Episcopal) whose dual vocation has been shaped by his commitment to Jesus’ message of God’s liberating love and passionate justice for people pushed to society’s margins. With an M.Div from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA and an MFA from The Pratt Institute in New York City, he has received grants for several public art projects and as a priest served in both urban and suburban churches, retiring as Vicar of a small historic parish on the Hudson River. His sculptural Stations of the Cross was used in the meditation center at a General Convention of the Episcopal Church and then traveled to Cathedrals and churches in Minneapolis, Cleveland, Salt Lake City and Sheridan, WY. He and his wife, Brenda Husson (also an Episcopal priest) recently moved from NYC to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The grain elevator in Wyarno, WY (11 miles east of Sheridan on County Road 336) has been his summer studio home for over 30 years. He and Brenda have an adult son, Christopher. For more information, see: thomasdfaulkner.com.
When did you start creating art, and when did it become a second calling to you, in addition to your vocation as an Episcopal priest, as a way to express your faith?
After a summer studying art in Europe, I returned to Dartmouth College in my junior year, took my first studio art course and suddenly realized that I was called to be an artist. Throughout my life it is the unexpected that has been my North Star, which is to say the working of the Holy Spirit. Having won the college Marcus Heiman Award in fine arts and being accepted in the MFA program at Yale University, I postponed graduate study in the arts to accept a fellowship to the Episcopal Divinity School. This decision was prompted by my active opposition to the Vietnam War nurtured by my committed attempt to live out the Social Gospel. After two years in seminary, clear in my call to ordained ministry but frustrated in my inability to do art at the same time, I undertook two years of study at the San Francisco Art Institute before returning to compete my divinity degree. After ordination to the diaconate (I postponed priestly ordination until 1977 when women could be ordained), I completed an MFA at Pratt Institute in New York City.
What formative influences have shaped your life as an artist?
The influences on the directions of our lives are as varied and complex as Biblical stories. Listening to the nightly news, the death of my closest friend in third grade, a terrifying short nuclear war film on the Ed Sullivan show in junior high, the daily beauty of the sun rising over the eastern shores of the Hudson River - all contributed to my understanding of the world and therefore the underpinning of my art.
Of some early influences I am certain. After two difficult years in college, I applied to and was hired to be the youth director for St. Ann’s Church in the South Bronx of New York City. Located in what was the poorest congressional district in our country, it was a Puerto Rican, Dominican, African-American, Irish congregation where the youth (rightly) wondered what future they could have or be allowed to have in American society. As an advantaged white kid from the nearby suburbs, the experience was transformational as I got to experience the direct effects of racism. After my junior year in college, I spent a long, hot summer in the Central African Republic with Operation Crossroads Africa working with local youth to build a youth center.
For the first time, I experienced the remarkable advantages I had as an American in the midst of a struggling Third World nation filled with kind and hospitable people. In the early 70’s, I co-created and directed a nationally recognized crisis counseling and housing program, Sanctuary, to care for the needs of “street people” in the Harvard Square area of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It was an intensive introduction into the needs of American cast-away youth and the challenge of helping them get a foot hold towards a productive life. In the mid 80’s, I was the paid director of the Peace and Disarmament Commission of the Diocese of New York. Working with a wide array of organizations, our effort was to raise awareness of the threat of nuclear war. In attempting to halt the nuclear arms race, it was terrifying to learn how easily local conflicts could lead to Armageddon - and almost did! A mission trip to Nicaragua reinforced our understanding of how US foreign policy in Central American led to the destabilization which affects countries in that area still. After 9/11, I served as the Red Cross Officer in charge of the sixty chaplains at the T-Mort (morgue) at Ground Zero. In the midst of the horror of finding and praying for the dead discovered amidst the rubble, a working community of very different types grew together - police, construction workers, clergy, firemen, doctor, nurses – all with a common aim of honoring the dead. At a time when the country is now so divided by race, class, religion and politics, it has remained a hallmark of what can be accomplished when people work towards a common goal.
You employ numerous artistic mediums in your work - sculpture, installation, photography, conceptual artwork). Can you share with us more specifically about your artwork, including its distinct elements?
All of my work starts with an idea or concept which I then attempt to render as art. Usually I create the elements of the sculpture myself while at other times I have them manufactured. The challenge is how to present my concept in structural form. I use whatever materials I need, often creating the work in its entirety, whether in a small piece like High Cotton focused on white racism and Christian complicity or a mammoth 400’ public art installation like “People Who Live”… focused on nuclear proliferation. I use photography in two ways. Sometimes photography is the means through which I am able to document a time-limited conceptual work. In my more ‘traditional’ or realistic photography, I always hope to lead the viewer into the question “what is going on here?” as the photographs point beyond the immediately apparent photographic subject.
Is there an overall theme that your work expresses, and if so, can you share that with us?
The theme undergirding almost all of my work is the attempt we must make to fulfill our responsibilities to Jesus’ teaching in light of the world in which we live. This also means owning the depth of our responsibility for the brokenness and sin so much in evidence. Jesus announces the good news, but to receive it he insists that we see the world as it is - both the lilies of the field in their beauty and the ostracized lepers in their imposed shame - in order to lay claim to the Gospel and act in accordance with God’s will and God’s love for all creation.
“Europeans came west following paths often created by American Indians, many of which later became county, state and federal roadways. But what to do with those people already present? If you cannot kill them all, then declare them subhuman, portray them with degrading stereotypes and caricatures, and move them out of sight. Once dehumanized, the American Indians were already ‘toast.’ The cross speaks to the complicity and encouragement of these actions by the Church.” - Thomas Faulkner
Art serves many roles. Why do you feel art is effective in communicating contemporary issues of social justice?
When art is effective, it circumvents our usually rational approach to the world. Art is meant to be transformative, whether it is drawing us into the depth of beauty we’d never perceived or the depth of suffering we’d prefer not to acknowledge. In whatever form it takes, art invites us to bring all of who we are (our history, our emotions, our beliefs, our senses) to the encounter.
Last summer you were scheduled to have a solo exhibition at a gallery in Wyoming titled “Reclaiming the West.” However, my understanding is that they ended up censuring some of your artwork that they felt might be too sensitive to their audience, which led you to pull the show? May I ask what happened and what artwork they were concerned about?
In the summer of 2021 with the relatively recent appearance of a community art gallery in Wyoming committed to supporting both artists and the wider community by creating ways for people to engage art both as viewers and through classes and conversations with artists, I met with the Director to discuss a possible solo show. My more than thirty years in the area, with my summer studio in the grain elevator in Wyarno, and my vocation as an artist in the New York City area felt like a real opportunity for myself and for the gallery. At that time, I shared my website with the Director, so the gallery would have a full understanding of the nature of my work. The gallery took the proposal for a solo show to their selection committee which was enthusiastically supportive. The show was then scheduled for the summer of 2023.
“As Europeans overtook Indigenous Americans and their lands, then and now, we use them to feed our needs.” - Thomas Faulkner
The show I created consisted of six pieces. Two of them already existed, and four were developed and created for this exhibition. Several pieces had to be crated and shipped to Wyoming (at my expense) and one large piece required metal fabrication on Wyoming which I, of course, funded. A week before the show was to open, we began to install the work (some of the pieces were both large and heavy) and I had recruited people from our local Episcopal church to help. An immediate issue arose in that one piece (Top/Down) used oil and I was informed that this presented a health risk. I immediately swapped out the oil for lump coal, which eliminated that concern. Sometime during the installation process, the Director noted that some of the gallery’s donors were connected to the fossil fuel industry and might have a hard time with some of the pieces. Those connections were no surprise and some dismay would likely be inevitable given that the six pieces were divided between three that speak to issues around climate change and three that speak to the history of white supremacy, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and the horrific consequences of those beliefs for American Indians. Again, for two years, the gallery had access to my website making the religious, political, social justice issues that inform my work. At this point, there was no indication that the show might be in jeopardy. However, in bringing in one of the major pieces that addresses the issues of racism, one of the people helping to move in the work became very upset at seeing the caricature of Indians that is central to the piece. This seemed to alarm the Director despite the fact that this is a piece that the gallery had agreed to use as the visual image for both the publicity of the exhibition. The next day the Director called to tell me that the show was being cancelled. I protested and requested a meeting with the Board of Directors. A few days later, a meeting was scheduled. We felt a need to tell the sponsors we had recruited that the show was likely not happening. The meeting included the President of the Board, four other members (including the lawyer for the gallery), the Director of the gallery and the Director of a local theater. I went accompanied by a longtime friend and active member of the local Episcopal church whose career had been largely centered in the mining industry. At the meeting, I agreed to cover the caricatures but asked if I could have a thumbnail print of the caricature next to the work accompanying the explanation planned for each work. They agreed to consider this. They asked for copies of all the explanations, which I subsequently provided. They also wanted a picture of the work entitled “Campfire,” which also addressed the issues of racism and the history of Northern European settlers and Native Peoples. I sent that to them. They said they would get back to me by Monday, and by Wednesday I still had not heard. The opening date for the exhibition had since passed as well as the date for the artist’s reception. I received a call from the Board President at the end of July. They agreed to the inclusion of a thumbnail photo of the caricature, but wanted “Campfire” excluded from the exhibition, saying they hadn’t agreed to six pieces (in fact I had never been given a minimum or maximum number of pieces, which I stated).
I offered to cover the piece but include a small photograph of it with an explanation alongside the covered piece. They rejected that offer and insisted it be removed from the show. Censored and now banned. However, I still hoped to a way forward. Yet when we asked about publicity, I was told that the radio interview was cancelled and that rather than a talk at the local theater, I would give a talk in the gallery’s basement classroom, suggesting that better fit my concern about the lack of intimacy at the theater. When I asked, they also said they would do a few posters but that there would be no publicity mailing to their list. The reason given was, that without the sponsors, they couldn’t afford the expense, although as noted above we had clearly been told that our providing sponsors was completely optional.
The next day, clear that gallery did not want to have or promote this show, I withdrew it. My wife and I decided to stage it for one week at my studio at our grain elevator (eleven miles outside of town). My wife wrote a press release for the local newspaper (which did not mention what had happened with gallery, as I wanted any coverage to be about my work and not a controversy), recruited people to help dismantle the work already installed, bring it to the elevator and then reinstall it. The newspaper wrote a brief article based on the press release. We designed a new announcement card and did our own mailing. Then, remarkably, a new reporter at the newspaper called and asked if she could come out to Wyarno and interview me. She ended up spending two hours with my wife and myself and taking several photographs. To our delight and astonishment, her article was the cover story of the newspaper on the Friday before our opening at the grain elevator. In the end, over 100 people came to see the show, including local ranchers, as well as people from Sheridan and Big Horn. We held the artist’s reception at the grain elevator and the artist’s talk at the Wyarno Bar and Grill. All the pieces were displayed, without modifications and while some visitors disagreed about my views and assumptions about climate change and fossil fuels, absolutely no one thought the work shouldn’t be shown. I received nothing but interest and enthusiastic responses. Happily, more than a dozen parishioners from the local Episcopal church came to the show (and half a dozen from the church to the artist’s talk). All were very supportive of the work, despite not knowing the content prior to viewing the exhibition.
Can you share with us what projects you are currently working on?
This fall is being given over to moving my photo and sculpture studios from New York to Cape Cod, Massachusetts.