Ancient Art for Modern Times: The Haywood Street Fresco

On September 26th, 2019, the finishing touches were put on a project that had started a decade before. The skillfully trained hands that joined together to create the masterpiece resulted from generations of knowledge passed down carefully from master to apprentice. This knowledge reached back to the earliest art days of humankind when a spark within the minds of men moved them to reach beyond the basic needs of food and shelter to create beauty and transcribe history upon the wet walls of a cave.

The same technique that created some of the most iconic works of art, like the Sistine Chapel ceiling, was re-created in a humble church setting on the edge of Asheville. 

It is a place that is easy to overlook after you’ve left the bustle of the commercial part of downtown. The red brick building that houses the Haywood Street Congregation has sat at the crossroad of Haywood Street and Patton since 1891. In 1917 it was renovated by Carrier & Smith, the architecture firm owned by Richard Sharp Smith, supervising architect of the Biltmore, who was also responsible for the design of many of Asheville’s most iconic buildings. But in 2006, the Haywood Street United Methodist Church merged with Central United Methodist, and the building was left vacant. Its position in the city along a corridor of social service agencies made the lot a place those without any place to go could gather.

Then, in 2009, the rumblings of Holy Chaos grew. Pastor Brian Combs had left seminary looking for his calling, and he found it on the streets and breadlines of Asheville. He saw that the greatest need among the most disinherited was relationship, and thus began Haywood Street Congregation, a ministry of “being with” instead of “doing for.” Today the core ministry includes weekly worship, free community meal, a community garden, and Haywood Street Respite, which provides a safe healing place for people experiencing homelessness to stay after discharge from the hospital.

In December 2018, in the sanctuary of this ministry, behind the organ and the altar, a prepared wall was spread with thousands of pounds of ground lime tempered with horsehair for durability. The artists had already begun to sketch the faces of those who would be included in the work. Principle Artist Christopher Holt had the basic composition done and redone. A gathering of souls to represent the heart of the mission, under the spread of a rainbow and against the backdrop of the mountains and the city that represent home to many without.

In Holt’s studio in the mountains north of Asheville, they drew out in detail a ‘cartoon’ representation of the final mural in charcoal on foam supported paper 28.5 ft wide by 11 ft. tall. The large pieces would be transported to the church and propped against multi-tiered scaffolding they would need to use for both plastering and painting for months while the composition was delicately added to the cured wall. Transparent paper was traced against the charcoal cartoon, then finely pricked and pounced with red dye (sepia) to transpose the portraits to the blank white wall with the help of Assistant Artist Jill Hooper.

After the complete composition was stippled to the wall and traced, a process in fresco called the ‘Sinopia,’ the artist team made any corrections to the piece. This was the first week in July. By July 6th, the artists were ready to paint. 

The blinding sun hits the pavement with no shelter as they mix the plaster with water from a garden hose to the correct ‘whipped cream’ texture before scooping it with a hoe into 5-gallon buckets. They carried the 70lb weights down the plywood-covered aisle between pews to where scaffolding covered in plaster dust awaited. The expertly mixed plaster was spread in pre-planned batches upon the prepared wall by Assistant Artist Caleb Clark and Apprentice Anselme Long. 

Colors are another critical component of the fresco. Pigments are received by the wall and age in a particular manner, and this takes expert knowledge to know. One of the foremost color experts of fresco, John Dempsey, prepared the pigments for the fresco. The colors were ground and blended with water, and ‘pure-white’ for the further distillation of lime into the piece would eventually make it alive with light.

The first day the huge stretch of rainbow was painted. The hands of all five artists held up the clear pinpricked paper and blotted it with red dye, then passed the pigment-stained brush between them to cover the wall. One overarching dash of color done, the wall soaked in the water and pigment and breathed in oxygen and CO2, art and chemistry, beauty and history. This was just the beginning of the hours and weeks to come.

As the months progressed, towers of scaffolds disappeared.

It took three months, nearly 90 days, from July 6th until September 26th, 2019. Thirty-one portraits forever immortalizing the faces of Haywood Street. 

The fresco today can be seen by all. A crossroads where relationships can be developed, God’s Kingdom comes to earth through the intersection of the housed and the unhoused, where hope and mercy can be sought and found for the poor in body and spirit. 

For more information on visiting the Fresco, located at 297 Haywood Street in Asheville, visit the Haywood Street Congregation.

To buy my book about the Fresco,

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