The Artist-Pastor Who’s Inspiring People to Talk to God

By Clare BruceTuesday 21 Mar 2017

Labour of love: Michael Henderson with his ‘Untitled’ series on display at the Adelaide Fringe Festival.

Sixteen artworks are lined up in a 25-metre chain around the walls of an otherwise empty church. There are no detailed descriptions accompanying the works, there is no worship music to break the silence, and not a hint of preaching. But somehow, this unique and moving art installation is stirring people of all walks to think deeply about God.

‘Untitled’ is the name a collection of 16 paintings by Sydney artist and pastor Michael Henderson, being exhibited in Sydney in the leadup to Easter. It’s the product of two years’ worth of thinking, praying, sketching, drawing and painting, in a bid to help people engage with their Maker.

Here is an image of a couple locked in a sombre embrace; there is a woman on her knees on the sidewalk, begging; a picture of clouds stirring over water hints at the story of creation; and there in the centre is the figure of Jesus, suffering on the cross.

Each work explores different aspects of human life, both the beautiful and the ugly, referencing Biblical stories and ideas in modern, deeply human ways.

Art that Breaks the Bounds of Tradition and Religion

Paintings of Adam and Eve, and the prophet Jeremiah, from Michael Henderson's Untitled Series

Haunting: Watercolour test paintings of Adam and Eve, and the prophet Jeremiah.

Michael Henderson, who is both an artist and pastor of Frenchs Forest Baptist Church, told Hope 103.2 that the series was birthed during a five-week residency at the Arteles Creative Center in Finland.

“This project started as I was talking with people through the country there and hearing their lack of engagement with God,” he explained. “Many people would probably say Finnish people are atheists, but they themselves were offended by that word, and when I researched more into the Nordic countries, they all share similar patterns. They don’t like to be called atheists, they’re culturally Christian, but they have almost no engagement with God.

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“I did further research when I got back to Australia, and was trying to think of a way to open a conversation with God for these people—without me or anyone else telling them what to think. I didn’t want their heritage or cultural baggage to weigh on them, but for them to think about it and not be forced into a view.”

Starting in December 2014, Michael began sketching small ideas, then testing them out as large charcoal drawings. He finally narrowed his 40-something ideas down to 16 and now, a little over two years later, is putting the final touches on the paintings.

Paintings That Remind You of Yourself

Drawings of David and Peter from Michael Henderson's Untitled Series

Above: Initial sketch drawings of Biblical characters King David, and Peter.

One of Michael’s most treasured images is a depiction of the story of Adam and Eve.

“It’s a picture of couple who realise that something’s not right,” explained the artist. Something’s gone wrong and they are trying to console each other. I hope people see something of themselves in that painting, in the relationships they have had, and understand God wants to be with them in that moment.”

Michael has deliberately left his series without a title – allowing viewers the freedom to give their own interpretation to the work.

The art works are about life experiences, but using Biblical events to describe how God wants to be part of our lives,” Michael explained. “I hope to enable people to explore the things of God for themselves. My big aim is to give people space, both physical and mental space, where they can sit and have a conversation with God.”

‘I Think I Need Forgiveness’, She Said

Michael Henderson's Untitled Series at the Adelaide Fringe Festival

Some of Michael’s drawings have been shown in churches, and recently a collection of drawings and paintings were exhibited as part of the Adelaide Fringe Festival, at St Francis Xavier Cathedral. For Michael, seeing the works could impact viewers in a more secular setting was a dream come true.

“I had this vision that I could put these in a public place and it would spark a conversation with God,” Michael said. “Putting them in the Fringe Festival did that. Around 1500 people came through in four days. I spoke to people after they saw the series, and maybe 100 came out with really powerful things to say.

“After about 20 minutes she came out said, ‘I think I need that forgiveness for myself’.”

“One lady came into the exhibition saying she was really angry and frustrated that it was in the front of a church. She wished it was away from the church. I helped her to go into the exhibition, and she asked me to explain a few things. One was the idea of forgiveness in the Peter and Judas painting. After about 20 minutes she came out said, ‘I think I need that forgiveness for myself’. And she became a Christian on the spot. I had many more conversations on a similar path. I knew this was working, having an impact, helping people engage with God.”

He is hoping the artworks have a similar impact in Iceland when they are displayed there.

“It’s very emotional for me, seeing all the paintings together, but even more emotional when I see people engage with it.”

A Chance to See the Artworks

The ‘Untitled’ series, along with Michael’s drawings and preparation pieces, will be on display on April 8 and 9 – the weekend before Easter – in the hall of Forest High School, Frenchs Forest.   The exhibition will be open from 12noon to 5pm both days.

Find out more at Michael Henderson’s 47+1 art Facebook page, www.facebook.com/fortysevenandone.

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