Imagining Together

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The IMAGINE 2010 gathering of believing artists and church leaders in Helsinki, Finland, sparked creative collaboration and new vision for the arts in Europe.

By Jim Mills

In April 2010, Iceland’s volcanic eruption brought a standstill to most air traffic and travel plans across Europe. But when the IMAGINE event in Helsinki erupted on April 23-25, there was no stopping the good that came from this weekend. Emerging and career artists, guest speakers, event volunteers, and church leaders came together to exchange experiences, dialogue, and work on the needed reconciliation between artists, the arts, and the church.

Beginning in 2005, Creative Arts Europe, in collaboration with other evangelical initiatives in various major European cities, has organized IMAGINE events for emerging and career artists. The first event took place in Paris under the name International Artist Gathering. In Brussels in 2007, the event speaker was Steve Turner, author of the book IMAGINE: A Vision for Christians in the Arts. Both the Brussels and Helsinki events ran under that name.

IMAGINE has four primary objectives:

  • To bring together believing artists of all genres of art, providing a platform for connection and dialogue for mutual encouragement.
  • To stir up vision for Christian-faith-based art for the church, missions, education, and the marketplace.
  • To encourage aspiring and career artists in their walk with God and their assignment in whatever sphere God has called them as artist.
  • To bring together church leaders and artists to foster healing and reconciliation.

One of the greatest successes of the Helsinki event was the fruitful collaboration of a number of Christian organizations: the Helsinki Dome Church, the Agricola Project, Creative Arts Europe-Finland, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission, the Finnish Bible Institute, Crescendo-Finland, the Finnish Lutheran Mission, the Majakka Church, the Christian Arts Society, Christian Artists-Finland, and the production agency Kristalli.

Featured speaker Colin Harbinson of StoneWorks International, though hindered from being physically present due to the volcanic eruption, produced six 6-8 minute DVD messages, which arrived just in time via cyberspace. In these short segments, Harbinson spoke of where we are in the church in relationship to the arts and the calling and character of the artist, and finally posed the question of where we are heading in the future in regard to the arts, the church, and society.

Jim Mills

With three plenum sessions, breakout sessions, panel discussions, a fine arts exhibition, and overflowing stage programs of dance, theater, and music arts, those who gathered were enriched and inspired with a vision for the arts and what could yet to come across Europe.

I interviewed Titta Tunkkari of CAE-Finland to gain insight into the outcome:

JM: First off, Titta, can you share with us how many attended IMAGINE?

TT: There were about 80 staff, comprised of any who carried an area of responsibility during the event, plus staff artists, and breakout session speakers. Beyond these there were 200 participants for the seminar. The open evening, Imagine Live, on Saturday brought together an audience of about 500.

JM: I understand pastors were invited. Did you have a good turnout of church leaders?

TT: One of the main aims of IMAGINE 2010 was to build bridges between the artists and the church leaders of the country. However, the majority of the people attending the event were artists; pastors were greatly outnumbered. We worked hard to get church leaders there. The collaborative organizations used different strategies to invite the leaders of the state Lutheran church (80% of the Finnish population is Lutheran) as well as from the free-church (other evangelical church movements). The event was introduced during a national gathering of Lutheran vicars, invitations were sent to all of the Lutheran parishes (600), and pastors were also invited personally. Yet the turnout of pastors was somewhat disappointing. With a few exceptions, the pastors attending were those who played a role in the program or were invited as speakers. In retrospect, the timing of the event (during the weekend), made it difficult for many pastors to attend. Weekends are the high time of church activity, and unless a pastor is specifically inclined towards the arts as a torchbearer for the subject, it is difficult to prioritize.


JM: Can you give us any feedback from pastoral leaders who were present?

TT: One pastor who came as a participant, Ari Vehosmaa, leader of the Uusipesula church in Turku, observed: “Churches are still lead by people who are unfamiliar with the language of the arts and the media, even sometimes frightened or intimidated by it. Also, churches might be made apprehensive by possible difficulties brought by strong personalities. Perhaps there is a fear of losing control. Young people often don’t share these fears, and in the young, art-loving generation we have a promise of a different future.” Pekka Kaskinen, vicar of Roihuvuori parish who spoke in one of the breakout sessions, spoke to the significance of the arts for the church in history: “The arts and literature are an essential part of the church. Without art, you cannot communicate the gospel. In times of great changes in the church’s life, music and art have had a very important role. People will gather where the language of culture is spoken.” Finally, Antero Laukkanen, a leader of the free-church Majakka in Espoo, humbled himself, asking forgiveness from the artists. During his message on the first evening he stated, “I suddenly realized how many artists attended my church but how they mostly practiced their gifts outside of the church realm. Why is this? How could I one day face my Lord, who has sent me all these artists but I have kept sending them away? If God is the source of all creativity, why do the most creative people sit idly in the pew?”

JM: I understand that there was a versatile artistic program. Can you give us some examples of what took place?

TT: The event was saturated with different expressions of the arts. The beautiful cathedral of Agricola, designed by famous Finnish architect Lars Sonck and erected in 1935, offered an uplifting setting for a fine arts exhibition of works by local Finn artists—from sculpture to modern and abstract art, and including photography. The theme was “expressions of faith.” Presenters there included Helena Hopsu, Merja-Leena Määttälä, Päikki Priha, and fine-arts coordinator Heli Vihersaari.

The artistic program on the stage was also versatile, displaying a large array of arts. Musical performers included Nina Åström, who represented Finland a number of years ago for the EuroVision Song contest; Elina Vettenranta, a nationally renowned prize-winning singer in Finland; Martti Laitinen, an organist and cantor for the Helsinki Dome Church Parish; and musician Antti Vuori and cantor Mikko Helenius, who launched the event playing tango Piazzolla on saxophone and accordion.

Theatre was presented by Antti Sevanto, the director of the Finnish Lutheran Mission Arts College, and Marika Westerling, an actress known for her leading roles in, for example, Helsinki City Theatre (Les Miserables). Dance was brought by Xaris Dance, the CAE dance company, and a street dance company called SwingLoJumpHi.

The international classical Halo Ensemble was kept back due to the ash cloud. Instead of the full-size chamber orchestra, members resident in Finland—Pauliina Pölönen on cello and Adam Gray (Australia) on piano—filled in with a beautiful classical piece as well as improvisation.

A photo presentation of people in worship around the world was brought on stage by Katja Turunen, accompanied by violinist Liisa Makkonen, currently playing for the Finnish National Opera. The “IMAGINE Live” evening was also privileged to have the 25th anniversary concert of the Finnish Jakaranda choir, nationally known for their lively African-style music, which interestingly has influenced the Finnish contemporary Christian music scene.

JM: Among the Finn artists who served (spoke or sang) what stood out in terms of message and impact on those present?

TT: One of the highlights of the event was the testimony and performance of singer-songwriter Jukka Leppilampi. Jukka is also one of the foremost and very first Finnish contemporary Christian artists. He spoke a very profound message about the importance of the artist being rooted in a church, being part of the church and living the life of the church. Jukka reminded all the artists of the importance of being true to the Song of All, the message that King David himself was inspired by, who stayed true to his song, and the very song that Christ himself fulfilled and redeemed. Jukka ended his speech by a very touching interpretation of one of his most famous songs. This song speaks very strongly to the artist of the importance of being faithful.


JM: Were there tangible results from IMAGINE that are ongoing?

TT: Time will only tell for sure, but an example of the initial fruit of the event was the collaboration itself. Preparation for the event brought together some significant Christian organizations and movements in Helsinki that have rarely worked so closely together. During the preparations, we had the privilege to share and talk about the arts as well as build our friendships. This laid the ground for future collaborations between these organizations. A welcome side affect of IMAGINE is that the core collaborating team still meets once a month to share ideas and plan events, and this monthly meeting is a great source of mutual encouragement. Also, in March we (the collaborating partners) will enjoy having arts advocate and speaker Dianne Collard come and speak to us collectively at the Majakka Church. The IMAGINE 2010 staff is invited to meet with her for a follow-up gathering. In April 2011, there will be an evening we are calling Imagine Live to bring a smaller-scale taste of last year’s event.

Another major result was the positive way the news and media covered the event. This has granted us, as a collaborating Christian group, ongoing credibility with the Helsinki community. Throughout the spring of 2010, different newspapers and magazines published articles about the upcoming event and interviewed artists. Artists were interviewed by the Finnish radio station on several occasions about their work, views, and the importance of the event. A Finnish television channel aired the event in their news flash. The Saturday morning session was broadcast live at the national Christian radio station.

One of the most attended and successful breakout sessions featured a dialogue on finances, or the lack of it, in the arts. How do we produce quality art when there is very little support or resources? The outcome of these sessions was a statement drawn up as a result of the meaningful discussions and concerns expressed by those who work in the arts around the country. This statement was signed and sent to the Board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.

In conclusion: The IMAGINE 2010 event laid an excellent foundation for future collaborations in Finland, encouraged emerging and career artists to keep on going, built bridges between church leadership and artists, and left a favorable taste in the mouths of the people of Helsinki through positive media exposure. One pastor said it well:

“You, the artists, have given us eyes to see the face of God.” And one participant, who began to realize that his call to be an artist came from God, exclaimed, “I’m so encouraged that I’m allowed to use my artistic gifts for the glory of God. As an architect, my abilities are not just something empty and shallow, building walls instead of feeding people. God has specifically instructed artists how to build things.”

Jim Mills is the founder and international director of Creative Arts Europe.


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