In January 2006, members of Bemidji United Methodist Church voted to commission some memorial money for Bemidji artist Michael DeWitt to paint scenes for the south wall of the sanctuary.
This week, a crew from Keenan's Cabinets mounted the resulting seven panels for dedication Sunday morning. The church will hold an open house for the community to celebrate the paintings on a date to be announced for late January.
The panels, painted in oils on canvas stretched over wood, depict the creation, spiritual life and the final walk toward the light after life. The paintings feature realistic figures, but are allegorical and, in some ways, surreal.
"I wanted them to facilitate and enhance the worship service, reflection, meditation, discussion," DeWitt said.
He said he received the commission in January, but did not start painting until the next June or July because he had to prepare himself for the project mentally and spiritually. First, he said, he spent time at the St. John's Abbey retreat center in meditation, study and prayer. Then, he spent time in solitary contemplation in the Southwest.
"Really, not to come up with an idea, but to open myself to where ideas could come," he said.
From those experiences DeWitt developed the center panel, which features a conch shell, doves and other symbols.
"That's the one I brought out of the desert," he said.
From that central piece he built the entire series.
"It has to support everything and everything else has to support it," he said. "I wanted them not to be just paintings hanging on the wall. I wanted them to be part of the architecture."
DeWitt said another challenge was creating paintings that wouldn't clash with or overpower the bright, colorful stained glass windows in the sanctuary. The windows reflect a modernistic, semi-abstract style, and DeWitt repeated some of that pattern in black-and-white on the borders surrounding the paintings.
DeWitt expressed appreciation for the church members' patience throughout the years, but said he was hugely happy when he finally saw his work displayed as it was meant to be exhibited, rather than stacked in his tiny cabin.
"It's up when it's supposed to be up," he said of the timing. "They are a prayer, and the making of them is a meditation. It might just be the most important thing I've done. They have their own life now."