Divine Inspiration: St. Roch's Residency for Artists

Artist Abdi Farah at work in the live-work space provided by the St. Roch Community Church Artist-in-Residence Program. Photo by Troy Glover.

Before I was even through the door of the Collier family’s Bywater home, I was nearly overrun by two very small superheroes. “I’m Spiderman! I’m Superman!” they yelled up at me from around my knees, too excited about their guises to wait for me to do the guesswork. The man I had come to interview, artist Aaron Collier, was standing quietly behind his costumed kids, knowingly anticipating the moment that their brief interest in me would shift back to a pile of candy on the living room floor. It was only a beat before the boys turned away and Collier stepped forward, smiling toward his two kids, now fully absorbed in their sweets.“Welcome to our home,” he said, warmly extending his hand.

Although I arrived at Collier’s house on assignment to discuss the St. Roch Community Church Artist-in-Residence Program, it took just a few steps inside for me to realize that we were not in for a very formal interview. Following Collier into the kitchen, I felt wonderfully overwhelmed by the rich smells of a home-cooked meal, a festively set table, and the enthusiastic greetings of the four dinner guests I found awaiting me.

I had come expecting a small crowd. Collier informed me ahead of time that he had invited three other residency-affiliated artists: previous participants Anne Nelson and Daniel Kelly (who came to dinner with his wife), as well as current resident Abdi Farah. What surprised me was how comfortable and familiar the group seemed to be with one another. My initial (admittedly self-absorbed) idea that Collier had invited everyone for the sole benefit of my information gathering was immediately dispelled. The group seemed relaxed, convivial, and well acquainted with the rhythms of dining together.

Founded six years ago, St. Roch Community Church (or “St. Roch’s” for short) is a diverse congregation of Presbyterians that meets in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans. Aaron Collier, who I later learned has master’s degrees in both Theology Studies and Fine Arts, is a founding member of the church and a main force behind its artist-in-residence program. He told me over dinner that practicing hospitality is a way of life for the community members of St. Roch’s. It is their response to “God’s decision,” as he put it, to place their church in New Orleans—a city famous for its cultural emphasis on hospitality. Even with limited resources, he explained, “the city has always been open to host.”

Hospitality is about more than tradition for St. Roch’s members; it’s a spiritual imperative. “God has dealt with us generously,” Collier said, “and calls us to bestow the same generosity on others.” For program participants that generosity manifests as a small stipend, free living and studio space, health insurance, and ready access to the city of New Orleans for a year. “So why artists?” I asked Collier. As a woman who came of age in the era of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, I assumed Christianity and contemporary art operated at odds with one another even in the best of times. Artists seemed like a strange foci for church support. Wasn’t St. Roch’s concerned about financing the creation of secular or even anti-religious art within its residency program?

Ever since the congregation bought the former corner store in which St. Roch’s now operates and discovered it came with a spare living space out back, establishing the artist-in-residence program had been on the church’s agenda. Collier’s suggestion to invite outside artists into New Orleans five years ago meant the community could give two-fold. To the resident, the program offers time and space to work freely to establish his or her own voice in a famously creative city. For the increasingly art-centered neighborhood, the program contributes fresh ideas and provides access to an artist who helps build community relationships through volunteer work programs.

There is no conflict for St. Roch’s congregation about the subject matter of the art produced within the residency. Though they currently require that applying artists show dedication to the Christian faith, they don’t ask that the residents create ecclesiastical art. For them, being creative (no matter what the outcome) is in and of itself a religious act. “It’s a way of working out what we believe and do not believe about God and the world,” explained Collier.

We were still in the midst of talking about the program when Collier’s costumed sons interrupted the conversation. Finally tired of their candy pile, the two had come running over to the table to mingle with the adults. “How do you want your face painted?” Spiderman asked Farah, while Superman graciously offered me a Twizzler. I was impressed. Collier’s dual emphasis on practicing generosity and supporting the arts had seemingly rubbed off on his children. I wondered, however, about the artist-in-residence experience outside the Collier kitchen. In a neighborhood wrestling with gentrification, did the larger community treat the artists as hospitably as the church’s congregation (and their children)?

According to Nelson, Kelly, and Farah, the larger St. Roch-Bywater community has been as welcoming as St. Roch’s itself. The newer residents of the Bywater—the young, often white, and frequently transplanted artists behind much of the neighborhood’s recent transition into a contemporary arts hub—have been especially generous with the visiting artists, Farah told me. He came to New Orleans from living in what he described as “hyper-competitive” Brooklyn, and his experience living and working in New Orleans had already proven to be a refreshing change of pace. Nelson agreed, adding that before moving to St. Roch for her residency, she had never experienced a creative community that had such a strong sense of collectivism. There’s “an openness among artists in New Orleans,” she explained, pointing out that the burgeoning arts district radiating from the Bywater’s main drag, St. Claude Avenue, was rarely marred by infighting.

Bridging a divide frequently noted on the avenue, participants spoke of relationships beyond the newer arts community. The longtime, primarily black, and often lower-income inhabitants of the neighborhood have gone out of their way to be hospitable to the artists. It certainly helped, as Collier noted, that St. Roch’s had built relationships with its neighbors before it began the artist-in-residence program. Establishing a rapport, he explained, has protected them from becoming the target of backlash from a community that may have reason to feel threatened by the sponsored importation of outside artists into their midst. Because of St. Roch’s neighborhood standing, Farah felt that as an artist-in-residence he was given a “stamp of approval,” his association with the church allowing him to become a unique conduit for communication between longtime residents and the newer St. Claude contemporary arts community. Farah explained living in New York, he was only connected with a limited circle of friends, family, and other contemporary artists. His experience in Brooklyn had taught him that “once the gentrification process begins to steamroll, without a conscious effort to bridge the gap between the new and the old [populations], there is no dialogue,” just bitter coexistence, he added. But in New Orleans, as a St. Roch’s artist-in-residence, Farah finds himself mingling with all kinds of people, which for him indicates the program is working.

And what of the program’s influence on the artists and their work? For all of the residents around Collier’s kitchen table, the effect has been immeasurable. Nelson described the ultimate gift she experienced was living for the first time without day-job obligations. Surrounded by “so much silence,” she said, she was forced to trust her own instincts rather than critical feedback. Kelly, too, credits the program for pushing him to clarify his direction. Living in Raleigh before the program, art had always been something he was only able to do in the evenings and on weekends. Living in New Orleans and given time to connect directly with his neighbors led, as he described, to an expanded worldview, profoundly affecting him as an artist and as a person.

St. Roch’s residency is still a relatively young program, and Collier stressed as we finished up our meal that they are still trying to figure out how to run it most effectively. As the program grows, Collier says that he hopes to see it expand to include local and non-Christian artists along with the current crop of applicants they accept. “Art is a gift that is shared by the inhabitants of the world, not just Christians,” he told me. “Investing in art profits everyone.”

Editor's Note

The St. Roch Community Church Artist-in-Residence Program is currently reviewing submitted applications for the fall 2013 residency. Abdi Farah will remain in residence until May 2013.