Almost twenty years ago, I started putting on art shows to raise money for my church. The church, known as the Community Church of Harrisville and Chesham, is actually two churches, a Baptist church and a Congregational church both in the same town and unable to survive on their own. As a result, many years ago, the churches joined forces, navigating the complicated restrictions of each faith and managing to maintain each building, one a big brick edifice in the center of town and the other, the Baptist, a simple white-steepled chapel, something like you might find on the prairie. It is this Baptist church that I love. It is where my husband and I were married and where his funeral took place all too soon after. So I try to do these things to insure this church’s survival. Having been a member of this church since the mid-1980s and having served on various committees, I know how close to the bone the budget runs. The art shows have managed to fill a few gaps in the revenue stream, for which I’m grateful. Most of the church services and events are held in the brick church but in the summer, services are held in the Chesham church, which is what it’s called now since it is no longer Baptist — time has simply run that vein out of the union. Holding services there in the summer months is a bit like having a vacation home, smaller, warmer, cozier.
Inside, the church is simple, a foyer and a sanctuary, a reed organ and a piano. Tall colorful windows line each side of the walls and behind the pulpit is a stained glass window given in memory of Zophar Willard, one of the early settlers of this town. The building has no running water. Built in the mid-19th century, the church has never been updated. The pressed tin walls and ceilings look almost brand new. This beautiful chaste interior made the idea of holding art shows seem enticing but hanging paintings was not going to be easy. Before the first show (for an artist whose work is now so high-priced none of us could afford it), I hired a young man to install picture moldings along the tops of the walls. We used hooks so we could suspend the paintings from each hook with fish line. This way, the walls would not be marred. I planned receptions for the artists, as if we were a fancy gallery. I thought the platters of grapes and Gorgonzola might encourage sales. I guess I was right or else the setting was alluring enough to encourage folks to open their wallets. Whatever, the combination has turned into a wonderful annual event at the church. It is also thrilling to me to find that people who have never stepped foot in that church have entered and taken in a breath at what they see, the beautiful walls, the light and the paintings.
There so happens to be a rich vein of artistic talent in this area so there is no shortage of choice. After all these years, I’ve never run out of artists. This year I’m doing the show with an interesting local artist, Michael Reilly, whose passion is jazz. He paints portraits of men like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie and Don Cherry, big colorful fluid portraits that have motion and sound. Michael used to paint landscapes of the area but one day he was at the dump and he spotted an old book, an encyclopedia of jazz. He plucked it from the pile of rubble and flipped through its pages, finding photographs of the old masters. He took it back to his studio and painted Satchmo. It made him think of his father, who used to listen to jazz late at night. He painted more. Now he has hundreds of these big expressive canvases. It seemed to me that we should do a show at the church and invite another talented man I’ve come to know, Scott Mullett, who plays jazz like the masters Michael paints. And so we’ve planned this show for the May Day weekend, a reception on Friday night which will include a poetry reading — seven poets altogether will read from their work. I will read as well. And on Saturday night, we’ll move the pulpit to the side and Scott will come forward with his sax and his friends on drums, bass and trumpet. And maybe the big granite foundation of the old church will move just a little bit off the ground.
Michael and I will hang the paintings this week. The quiet white walls of the church just now awakening from its winter slumber will brighten with the memories the great men of American music and the church will come alive with that music’s soul. Come if you can. Friday, May 1st: reception for the artist begins at 5 p.m., poetry reading starts at 7:30. Free. Saturday, May 2nd: Scott Mullett and his quartet, music starts at 7:30, tickets $10 at the door. Michael’s paintings will be on display all weekend, 10 to 5. All at the Chesham Church in Chesham, NH, just one mile off Rt. 101, halfway between Peterborough and Keene. Follow the signs. A percentage of the sales will support the church, a really good cause.