In 1997, Woong-Sik “Timothy” Chon visited Wesley as an artist-in-residence. In nine remarkable months, Chon created “The Healing Spirit” buon fresco mural in the tunnel between the Kresge and Trott buildings on Wesley’s campus. This April, he will return to Wesley and his mural to repair the damage it incurred from the D.C. earthquake in 2011.
Associate Dean for Admissions Chip Aldridge recalls how special the mural was to the Wesley community when it was initially finished. “It transformed what was a dark echoey hallway between buildings into something very special,” he said. “It changed this space that had just been an underground hallway into a place that’s warm and vibrant.”
The mural is an example of Wesley’s commitment to the integration of theology and the arts, signs of which are on display all over campus. This integration is central to Chon’s ministry as the pastor of North Westminster Presbyterian Church in Lansing, Mich. Chon, who holds a Master of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, is also the director of the Ecumenical Center for Arts and Spirituality.
“My definition of creativity is relationship-building,” Chon said. “Co-creating with God is what Christian ministry is about.” Creativity is his primary calling in life, whether through art or finding effective ways of worship and spiritual formation with his congregation, he said.
“Art and spirituality is my passion,” Chon said. “I am an artist first and then a pastor. For me art is spiritual. It’s the means through which I grew in my relationship with God. What really kept faith relevant to me, what keeps me close to God, is art.”
Like strong faith, good art is a struggle, and the piece in Wesley’s tunnel uses an unusually difficult medium.
“You have no idea what it took to get it there,” said Amy Gray, associate director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion. “Fresco is so outside of regular people’s experience. It’s a glance into church history. We hear about the Italian artists that did fresco, but it’s abstract to us who use computer screens.”
Buon fresco is the same process Michelangelo used for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, and it is uniquely challenging because the paint must be applied while the plaster is wet. The correct mixture must be used for each individual environment based on temperature and humidity, otherwise the heat of the chemical reaction will burn away the pigment before it is dry. “It took me three months to figure out the ratio for that environment,” Chon said of the tunnel piece.
But the mural was a struggle for Timothy in ways far more burdensome and unexpected than working with fresco. Timothy’s baby daughter Sara died near the beginning of the project. The mural suddenly took on an entirely new meaning in his life.
“The theme ‘The Healing Spirit’ was chosen way before,” said Chon. “The original drawing was all abstract, there were no figures. After my daughter died, I had to put figures into it and had to make it a narrative. I didn’t know that my family and I would be the people that would need the most healing.”
The theme of healing is present at both the large scale, conceptual level, and the more intimate, personal level. “This work of art tells the story of God and creation, birth, the marriage of heaven and earth, lament, transformation, the redemption of the cross, healing, and finally reunion with Jesus,” said Chon.
Moving up the tunnel gradually from dark tones into color toward the top of the piece, Chon sought to express a rising of hope. Yellow, the color of life according to the artist, is a vein that runs through the entire piece. The figure at the end is an outline of his daughter representing Christ as a child flooded with yellow and glowing light, Chon said.
Regarding both its original concept and returning to repair the mural, there is an overarching theme of healing for the artist. “Transformation is when the true healing takes place,” Chon said. “A wound is scarred over, it doesn’t hurt anymore, but it remains a reminder of our finitude and our brokenness. We are supposed to grow from that. I see this as that. [Repairing the artwork] will be my personal journey of going back.”
Chon recognizes that the art means different things to everyone, he said. He feels that art should be enjoyed in diverse and unpredictable ways.
“The mural is one of those important pieces on campus,” Gray said. “People are affected by it, whether they realize it or not. I always make a point to tell the story if I’m walking around campus with someone.”
Editor’s Note: To see more of Chon’s work and artistic vision, visit his artist’s website here.