Their faces, rich with expressions of struggle, joy and faithful devotion, tell the story of an enduring human spirit without saying a word.
The black-and-white images in The Preacher and His Congregation: Photographs by James Perry Walker, capture a sense of people, place and community, despite the poverty and racial inequality still prevalent in the late 1970s in rural northern Mississippi. They will be on display through March 5 at Muskegon Museum of Art as part of two faith-based exhibitions this winter.
On loan from Flint Institute of Arts, the photographic essay documents the life of a circuit preacher, Rev. Louis Cole, and his congregation’s shared religious and community experience.
It’s also a story of two men who formed a unique friendship. Ordained by age 19, Cole truly felt called to the ministry. Cole led services at four churches while also traveling to preach as a guest or substitute, making home visits and attending baptisms, weddings, revivals, funerals, deacon meetings and the like. The job paid very little, so he also farmed his land.
Walker, a white man, grew up in Marshall County, Miss. in the 1950s and ’60s. He met Cole while working as a Head Start teacher at one of his churches, and despite leaving the area never forgot Cole’s impact.
“He was really captured by his passion, his storytelling, and the love of his congregation,” said Art Martin, senior curator and director of collections and exhibitions. “He worked dawn to dusk. He ate breakfast by lantern light and dinner by lantern light.”
A writer and photographer, Walker returned in 1975 to travel with Cole as his health started to deteriorate. The photographs span a period of six years, ending with Cole’s death in 1981.
They have a timeless and historic quality, said Catherine Mott, curator of education. She encourages students to look at how the images tell a story.
Walker was invited into intimate moments like funerals, baptisms and picnics. He also snapped portraits of children, women and men celebrating life’s simple pleasures, sitting in church and dressed up to praise the Lord. Mixed in are images of the small rural churches, the countryside, dilapidated houses, and hard manual labor.
“Those give you a sense of the place,” Martin said. “There was a great deal of poverty in this region, but there was an incredible sense of community and love of community and love of each other.”
St. Jerome in Penitence by Joos van Cleve. Courtesy Photo.
Expressions of Faith
The MMA’s major winter exhibition, Expressions of Faith: Religious Works from the Permanent Collection with Rare Manuscripts from the Van Kampen Collection, showcases some of the best religious artwork in the museum’s permanent collection, along with rare manuscripts, bibles and other artifacts on loan.
This includes prints by Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt, paintings by Joos van Cleve and Lucas Cranach the Elder, carvings, sculptures and metalwork, Portuguese and Mexican retablos, and early manuscripts from Christian, Judaic, and Islamic texts.
The goal of the show is not only to highlight religious themes and symbolism depicted in art, but also to explore the impact of artists on expanding religious faith and how that changed the face of the world once printing began, Martin said.
“This really is opening the treasure trove of our permanent collection,” Martin said. “It was about sharing our own collection and recognizing the religious inspiration behind so much of it, and then wanting to bring in the community through the show.”
To help illustrate the early recording and transmission of holy texts, the Van Kampen Foundation Scriptorium has loaned rare manuscripts and hand-copied and printed bibles. It is one of the largest private collections in the world, comprising rare manuscripts and artifacts dating back to the 6th century.
The exhibition features 150 works in various mediums and presents artistry and imagery from multiple faiths. It also includes Japanese and African traditions, mythology, early Greek and Roman art, and Nordic and Celtic folklore.
One section focuses on architecture, including photography of the architecturally significant St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Muskegon, and a Torah from Temple B’nai Israel of Muskegon. Loans from the Holland Museum, Center Gallery at Calvin College, and private and institutional lenders explore the ongoing importance of visual art in the expression and study of religious faith.
“For people that haven’t been here before, my hope is it is the opportunity to get a closer look and a better understanding of images people may take for granted and to understand the history of faith a little more and the interconnectedness of everything,” Martin said.
MMA Winter Exhibits
Muskegon Museum of Art, muskegonartmuseum.org, (231) 720-2570
The Preacher and His Congregation: Photographs by James Perry Walker
Through March 5
Expressions of Faith: Religious Works from the Permanent Collection with Rare Manuscripts from the Van Kampen Collection
Dec. 8 thru Feb. 12, Opening reception 5:30-8 p.m., Dec. 8.
How to Return: Contemporary Chinese Photography
Dec. 8-Feb. 12