Dr. E. John Walford began teaching art history at Wheaton College in 1981. He is author of Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape (Yale University Press, 1991), and Great Themes in Art (Prentice-Hall, 2002). As a student at Wheaton from 2000-2004, I can recall sitting in his darkened classroom looking at slides and listening to him lecture. One of the strongest memories I have is Dr. Walford’s passion for the history of art. It was clear to me as a student that, for Dr. Walford, the study of art is more than an academic exercise.
Dr. Walford has now retired from his academic post and, in addition to his scholarly pursuits, he has chosen to try his hand at making some art. He has published An Art Historian’s Sideways Glance (Piquant Editions, 2009), in which he explores the potential of bringing an art historian’s knowledge and eye to the practice of digital photography. More recently, his explorations in digital photography and collage have culminated in a show of work for the church he attends in Warrenville, IL.
Earlier this fall, I had the privilege of visiting this church, and hearing Dr. Walford speak about his work there. Dr. Walford’s digital collages, printed on large canvases, wrapped around the sanctuary. These images, each representing a moment in the story that God is telling in the world, vividly reminded me that Christian worship takes place in the context of a narrative stretching from Creation to New Creation.
I have rarely seen visual art done well in a local church context. The images brought life to a sanctuary otherwise sparsely populated. The presentation was clean, professional and integrated with the space. One interesting feature of showing in a large open space like a church sanctuary is that one is afforded many vantage points on the work. It was possible to view Dr. Walford’s work from far away, seeing multiple pieces in one glance, and also possible to inspect them very closely, which rewarded the viewer with intricate and rich detail.
Although a representation of the biblical narrative, Dr. Walford was able to maintain an appropriate balance between teaching and visual delight. Christian artists often feel trapped by the twin perils of didacticism and aestheticism. On the one hand, they think they must have a message, but, on the other hand, they feel their work justifies itself, regardless of the message. The message of Dr. Walford’s work is obvious, in one sense, but his aesthetic sensibilities have also been refined over his years as an art history professor. The result is images that are rich and complex, that raise more questions then they answer, and that are infused with a sense of mystery.
Not only is his work aesthetically astute, these images are also indicative of a life spent wrestling with the Bible and theological questions. To see this, one need only compare Dr. Walford’s images to David Mach’s show Precious Light, which I wrote about last year. While David Mach is a consummate collage artist, the theological depth evinced in Dr. Walford’s images simply cannot be found in Mach’s work, which treats at least as many biblical scenes. In the presentation that Dr. Walford gave at his church, I listened, fascinated, to the intricate relationships between the various images. Subtle repetition of visual motifs is often used to remind the viewer of the continuity of God’s narrative, and of the rich theological significance of these moments in salvation history.
I cannot recommend this work enough, and Dr. Walford has graciously allowed us to reproduce several of his images below, and also images of his show. You can see the full body of his work on his Flickr site.