10 Apr 2017
April Southern Cross
Cover story: Putting God back in the picture by Jenny Brinkworth
Michael Henderson is not your typical pastor – he wears cool clothes and hats, is an artist who crowdfunds to support his work and is an unashamed petrol head.
A former mechanical engineer, Michael would like to have attended the Clipsal 500 while in Adelaide but was happy to soak up the sound of engines revving over a morning coffee in Hutt St.
The husband and father of two teenage children runs the busy Baptist church at Frenchs Forest in Sydney in between producing and exhibiting artwork ranging from sculpture to animation.
Although his works have a religious theme, he chooses to exhibit in mainstream events such as Sculpture by the Sea in Sydney and touring landscape exhibitions as a means of subtle evangelising. One of his animation series featured on SBS 20 years ago and this year he is entering a portrait in the Archibald Prize.
Similarly, he liked the idea of being part of the Fringe and approached the Adelaide Catholic Archdiocese about using St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral in Wakefield St as the venue for his latest installation because of its location in the heart of the CBD and as an “ecumenical statement”.
The idea for the series of biblical images came during a six-week arts residency in Finland where he found a distinct lack of interest in religion.
“It wasn’t that people were atheist, they just had a total disinterest in anything to do with God,” he said, adding that this was a common trend throughout the Nordic countries, despite their Christian heritage.
“They care very deeply for each other, they are committed humanists, but they’ve just dropped the God bit.”
Michael said culturally these countries still considered themselves Christian but there was no engagement with God, and he feared this would lead to “every man for himself”.
“I thought this was what I could do to spark some conversation with God and get Him back in their thoughts,” he said.
“My dream with it was to be able to put them in a place where people can engage and have a conversation with God on their own terms without Church tradition telling them what they have to think.”
After crowdfunding through the Kickstarter website, he obtained enough support to pitch his proposal to all the national churches in the Nordic region and it was the Lutheran Church in Iceland which took up the offer and will be receiving the completed artwork this month. The charcoal drawings on display in Adelaide were preparation work for the acrylic paintings to be displayed in Iceland.
Michael said while the images did not cover every story in the Bible, he wanted to convey that God speaks into “so many aspects of our lives, whether it’s Jeremiah as an elderly man, Adam and Eve in the midst of a relationship, the nativity scene with a young baby or Mary of Magdala helping Jesus with joy”.
Michael studied mechanical engineering before switching to art studies. His interest in Christianity came about when a member of the Salvation Army helped his friend who “wasn’t doing very well” in the city late one night.
“I was surprised that he wanted to help us; I didn’t end up joining the Salvos but I realised he was a Christian and was caring for people he didn’t have to,” said Michael, who had little experience of religion as a child, despite his grandfather being Catholic.
“My parents had just started going to a Baptist church and I went to check it out,” he recalled.
His desire to learn more about Christianity led him to theological studies and eventually the seminary in Sydney, where he lived with his wife and baby daughter.
The Frenchs Forest Church is run as an independent, not-for-profit organisation with two assistant pastors and a student. Michael said he liked to use art to communicate with parishioners and each Easter he produces a large installation, which this year will comprise the sketches and paintings destined for Iceland.
He was pleased with the response of visitors to the Fringe exhibition with comments including “inspiring, beautiful, impactful”.
But what struck him most was the reaction of a woman who initially expressed anger that the paintings were being displayed in a church but who, after spending a lot of time looking at the paintings on her own, began a conversation with him and ended up walking away with a copy of The Southern Cross.
“This took me so hard because that was the intention of the paintings, someone who is not in a relationship with God but can engage with them on their own terms, and leave having understood something about the things of God.”