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Monday, September 26, 2011

David J. Hetland

It's tempting to think, as we walk through laid-back, oh-so-chic galleries, and cold, hard, museums of modern art, that the ancient symbiotic relationship between art and religion has long ago become a thing of the past. I must admit that I've had that feeling, indeed, I have probably imparted it to others.  While it's true, that few great Cathedrals are being built today (except for Mormon temples), and there has always been an overriding architectural link between great religious art and the great religions; there still remains today a vibrant link between the creative arts on one hand and spiritual movements on the other. Usually it doesn't make the news. Usually it's a modest, religious work donated by the artist to his or her church, or perhaps a traveling exhibit showcasing the best efforts of those of us who wish to serve their God through the gifts that God has so generously bestowed upon us. But there still are a few major artists handling major commissions for the creation of major works of art having religious themes.  One of these was David J. Hetland.

Emanuel: God with Us, 1989, David J. Hetland

Hetland called Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, his home; though his studio was in Fargo, North Dakota. The vast majority of his works are in the Northern Midwest with it's heavily Lutheran population. In viewing his work, you might tend to think of him in the same league with Michelangelo, but actually, he was much more like Peter Paul Rubens in that, unlike Michelangelo, who painted every stroke and chiseled every chip himself, Hetland was a designer. Like Rubens, he employed a sizable workshop, which he supervised meticulously. He painted, he sculpted, he created in glass mosaic, and stained glass. He even designed banners and furniture for churches. One of his most interesting works involves the use of painted wooden blocks to create pointillist religious images on brick church walls. The comparison with Rubens is most apt, for like the Flemish master, Hetland became something of an institution. His gigantic, twenty-foot-tall by sixty-foot-wide murals for Concordia's annual Christmas Concerts become a tradition for many years.

Unlike Rubens, who limited his work (and for the most part, that of his atelier) to painting, Hetland was far more versatile. In fact, rather than painting, stained glass seems to have been his medium of choice.  His mosaics, his paintings, even his welded wrought iron sculptural works tend to reflect this. But if you're thinking in terms of traditional, holier-than-thou Gothic windows, think again. He was thoroughly an artist of the twenty-first century. There is Cubism to be seen in his work, Symbolism, even an Abstract Expressionist flavor at times. His colors are striking, lively, dramatic, more closely Baroque than Gothic. And, though mosaics have not played a major part in church art since the Byzantine era, Hetland employed this spectacular art form with the same sweeping strokes one might expect in painting. You won't find his work in elite art galleries, though at $250 to $400 per square foot, they're in that price range. His work is not for the worship of art, but for the worship of God, and it's in galleries dedicated to this purpose, where you'll mostly find the work of David Hetland.

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