- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

WEBSTER GROVES, Mo. (AP) - Inside the chapel of Webster Groves Christian Church, the abstract paintings of Jim Frederick are on display, playing nicely against the stained glass that reminds visitors this space was designed as a place of worship.

Another juxtaposition is on display as well - one that combines the work of a longtime HIV patient with the curious yearning of a church to use art to preach tolerance and inclusion.

With the larger sanctuary now used as the primary worship space, the chapel has long filled the role of a multipurpose room, for everything from a children’s story time to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

More recently, the chapel also has taken on the title of “The Gallery Within,” where artists who would not otherwise have the opportunity to display and sell their works can do so.

“The congregation recommitted itself the last few years to serving the most marginalized, and the gallery became a part of that,” Pastor Jeff Moore said.

Seven years ago, the church began dabbling in art display, using a wall in a hallway outside Moore’s office. It was the idea of church members John Dyess and his wife, Carolyn Dixon Dyess, both artists, and began with photos from two church members returning from missionary work.

“We’ve got all these empty walls. Let’s start using them,” John Dyess, a painter and illustrator, suggested to church leaders. “Let’s see if we can find artists to fill them. It started with one wall and kept expanding and expanding.”

Today that expansion includes the chapel and the adjoining reception area, allowing for easy public access. And the gallery now has its own board, which includes church members and area artists.

The idea, Moore said, is to use art to support one of the church’s core tenets - social justice. Art can help jump-start conversations on topics that can be hard to talk about, including race, poverty and in Frederick’s case, the ongoing impact of HIV.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (https://bit.ly/2o04dXI ) reports that Frederick, who grew up in Washington, Missouri, was diagnosed with the disease more than 25 years ago, at a time when treatment was little more than consoling and compassion. Frederick’s work does not directly address the disease, but he chose to put his status in the artist biography used to promote the show. It’s about erasing stigma and offering encouragement, he said.

“I hear people say they can’t do this or can’t do that,” Frederick said. “I want to tell them that if I can do it, they can do it.”

At the entrance to the chapel, Moore points to a sign posted on the wall that reads: “Why an art gallery in a church?”

It serves as a welcome letter from the church.

“We hope you enjoy your time in the gallery, and that you find your experience compelling, challenging or enriching in some way.” It goes on to offer reasons why the chapel is an appropriate place to display art.

“We believe in the creative power of God, and celebrate expressions of human creativity. Art speaks on multiple levels - sometimes more deeply and compellingly than other forms of communication.”

Moore said the church strongly supported freedom of expression.

“At the same time, we have to consider what would be appropriate for this multipurpose space,” he said.

The church chose Frederick’s work to widen its reach to area residents, promoting the show with the help of Doorways, an interfaith nonprofit that provides housing and other services for those living with HIV and AIDS. Moore is on the Doorways board and worked in AIDS outreach in Africa.

For the past two years, Frederick has lived at Cooper House, a Doorways facility with 36 private rooms for those who are unable to live independently as a result of the disease. It is in the facility’s activity room that Frederick creates his work.

Sitting in his wheelchair this week, Frederick slowly held out his right hand.

“This,” he said, “is what is frustrating.”

His hand shakes, making it hard to form straight lines on a canvas. A stroke has impaired his mobility and dexterity, especially on his left side. One of the paintings he is currently working on is propped against a wall. It’s filled with swirls of thick acrylic paint, or as Frederick calls them, squiggly lines.

It’s an artist adapting to a disease, approaching his work from a vantage point unfamiliar when he started his career. The exhibit, which opened Friday night and will run for six weeks, is a retrospective, representing a nearly 15-year span.

Painting for Frederick, 52, has been his constant as life was disrupted by serious health issues that brought him back to the St. Louis area after living most of his adult life in Dallas. He moved to Texas for an advertising job after graduating in 1988 from what is now Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. He soon abandoned the job and shunned his father’s advice to sell life insurance. He wanted to make a go of it as an artist.

“I decided to paint (for a living), and it just took off,” he said of a hobby he has had since he was a boy. Frederick lived above his studio and carved out a reputation that made him a comfortable living, he said, promoting his work on the then-burgeoning internet.

But after the stroke, his parents worked to get him back to St. Louis and helped him find Doorways. He was reluctant to come back, but he could no longer manage on his own.

Church member Mike Moran is a glass maker who helped hang Frederick’s works for the show. He sees it as a perfect fit for the congregation’s outreach direction.

“We started thinking about how could we be more than a gallery and be relevant in the art community and what would the terms of that be?” Moran said. “We’re not a profit-driven gallery, so we can focus on compelling work that follows in the vein of the church mission and not be constrained by whether the art is marketable.” But, he stressed, “the work also must be of excellent quality.”

For Frederick, it marks his first exhibit since moving back to St. Louis, where he thought selling art would probably be a thing of the past, just like his passion for bike riding.

A smile fills his face when he thinks about prospective art buyers filling the church chapel and looking at his paintings. But when he is asked about his work, his speech comes slowly and with effort.

“Every time I pick up a canvas, I want to leave something behind,” Frederick said, his voice catching slightly.

He is an artist given a new perspective, one he is slowly learning to accept. And with it comes a long-standing tradition to give back, something he became known for in Dallas. Fifty percent of the sales from his art will go to Doorways.


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com

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