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Once controversial fresco featuring marginalized moves ahead

December 31, 2018

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — They never expected immortality.

Living “on the margins” of society, the 30 or so people who will be depicted in an immense fresco at the Haywood Street Congregation have lived hard lives, often pockmarked by struggles with homelessness, addiction or mental illness.

But the 9-by-23 foot painting that is just beginning to take shape in the church’s sanctuary will boldly — even proudly — showcase them for posterity. Appropriately, the fresco will include them in the context of the Beatitudes, the sermon Jesus Christ delivered that offered eight blessings to the poor, the meek, the hungry — the neediest among us, in other words.

Robert Stafford, 57, will be one of those in the fresco, which was briefly mired in controversy after the church received and then returned a $72,500 local tourism grant after an out-of-state group alleged a violation of church and state principles. Stafford, who has been homeless and struggled with addiction, first came to Haywood Street Congregation several years ago simply looking for a meal.

In the half decade since then, the McDowell County native has turned his life around, becoming a “companion” or member of the congregation, helping with all sorts of tasks around the complex and even sitting on its board.

He said he was “honored” when artist Christopher Holt and the Rev. Brian Combs asked him to be one of the subjects in the painting, but he also admits to being “kind of speechless about it.” As he often helps with the flowers in the dining room and elsewhere at Haywood Street, Stafford will be holding flowers in the painting.

“It’s cool, and bottom line, I think everybody that’s in here has a story, and being in this painting means that they matter — that everybody matters that’s going to be in this,” Stafford said. “The whole community matters.”

Wearing his trademark floppy hat, which will make it into the fresco, Stafford says he’s a bad model, ”’cause I like to jerk and twitch.”

Holt isn’t buying it.

“Good will towards all, this guy here,” Holt says.

“Most days,” Stafford replies with a laugh. “Well, I try, but some days are tougher than others.”

“You can’t tell,” Holt says. “You do a great job of welcoming everybody who comes through the door.”

That welcoming spirit, and the idea that everybody matters, is the true essence of the fresco, which Holt and Combs first conceived eight years ago. Literally, Holt says, this is an “art for the people kind of project.”

“It’s really driven by this idea that it is going to bring into light folks that a lot of people look away from, and a lot of people have a hard time registering or coming to terms with — people that are struggling in our community, that are homeless, that do have problems and issues,” said Holt, a 41-year-old Asheville native who grew up in Waynesville. “I think one of our tenets is we are all struggling in some way. And whether you can see it or not, we share this as humans.”

The Haywood Street Congregation, formed by Combs and others in 2009, is a United Methodist Church ministry best known for its Downtown Welcome Table, which provides 1,000 free meals a week. But the operation also provides a Respite Center for those recovering from surgery or illness, and other help for the indigent, poor and mentally ill.

Ensuring the fresco reflected that reality was critical to Holt and Combs.

“I come from a family (wherein) more people than not live with mental illness,” Combs said. “And so folks with addiction, folks that have struggled with poverty, that’s not something that’s a step removed from me. That’s part of my autobiography.”

The idea, Combs said, was to say in a painting, ’This is not something to be ashamed of, but rather something to hold up to the light, that is a part of the story of God’s family.”

Jeanette King, 62, will literally be shining a light in Holt’s painting. A sketch shows her on the right side, standing and holding flowers in her left arm, an upraised torch in her right.

Standing in Holt’s small studio last week, King said her read on the depiction is this: “I’m shining a light on you because you are important to me.”

King came to Haywood Street in 2011, “a very broken person,” she said. Her life has been marred by self-admitted addiction, “lousy choices” that wrecked relationships with friends and family, and at one point, homelessness.

Seven years ago she had a job interview scheduled downtown and didn’t want to travel back to her apartment in North Asheville. She was hungry and tired and sought a temporary oasis in Haywood Street Congregation.

“I came for lunch and I found love,” King said.

The church helped her turn her life around, and she spends part of just about every day there, doing odd jobs and talking to people in the Respite center. Haywood Street has simply been transformative for her, and she now considers its members, called “companions,” part of her family.

“You come here broken, and you leave whole,” said King, whose shock of white hair will be immortalized in the fresco. “Some things you just don’t feel until you’ve been here a while. After a while, you feel the Beatitudes.”

Jesus’ most enduring sermon, the Beatitudes essentially turn the world on its head, suggesting that the least among us ultimately will receive the greatest rewards.

Combs calls it “the most countercultural sermon that’s ever been preached.” In other words, it’s perfect for Asheville, a town known for its liberal bent.

Both Combs and Holt believe the fresco will represent “the very best of what Asheville is,” as Combs puts it.

“If there’s anything that resonates most with me, it’s that this is a countercultural place and the Beatitudes are the most countercultural sermon that’s ever been preached — this notion that it’s the people most cursed by the world that God is saying, ‘You are blessed first,’” Combs said. “So, whether you are secular or sacred in your belief, that’s a value that we hold dear here at Haywood Street, and that’s a reflection of the very best of who Asheville is trying to be, especially in this moment of such turbulent transition.”

In October of last year, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority awarded a $72,500 grant to Haywood Street Congregation for the fresco. The grants go toward projects and products that are likely to bring more visitors to town, particularly those who will stay overnight.

The grant became controversial in November 2017 after the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation called on the tourism organization to rescind it. The FFRF argued that as the money is derived from hotel room taxes, disbursing them to a religious organization for a religious-themed project was unconstitutional. The fresco will not feature the likeness of Jesus, but it is based on the Beatitudes.

As legal action loomed, the TDA tabled the grant process. Ultimately, the church decided to withdraw its request and return the money.

The total cost of the fresco project is about $200,000, so the amount was significant. But Combs said they were able to raise the lost monies in a few months and are on track with their fundraising, which targets donors who are not the church’s regular supporters.

Sitting in his studio after sketching Stafford, Holt said the church has “moved on” and has no hard feelings toward anyone.

“We have kept our positive attitude and the confidence that going for this project and this fresco was a great idea,” Holt said.

“The tourism board obviously also felt so, too, as they chose us as one of their recipients,” Combs added. “What was clear was the spirit of the painting was getting lost in the very side arguments that were going on. There is something pure about this project, and we did not want it to have an asterisk next to it.”

Stephanie Pace Brown, president and CEO of Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, which oversees the TDA, said last week the fresco “was awarded a grant because the application demonstrated that the project had the ability to attract visitors.”

“The application included some very thoughtful plans to market the fresco to tourists who may also provide support for the work of the Congregation,” Brown said. “The Haywood Street Congregation’s fresco project demonstrates values that are at the heart of our community identity.”

The congregation does have a plan to essentially market the fresco, and Combs and Holt said the $200,000 budget includes elements such as maps, docents and a receiving area for visitors.

Holt, 41, studied for years under renowned fresco artist Ben Long, whose works can command upwards of a million dollars. Holt said this is his first large-scale project. While Combs considers the $200,000 or so the congregation will spend on their fresco a bargain, the expense has also been controversial.

“There were some nonprofits in town who were concerned that somehow, if we dedicated this kind of time and energy and talent and treasure to a painting of this scale, that it was going to take away from our other core ministries,” Combs said. “That somehow we were going to have serve one less shift of lunch or not allow people to live with us in Respite, but we actually think the opposite is true.”

That’s because they’ve extended their fundraising to “folks primarily who don’t have a relationship to the church to consider being a part of it.

“And, two, based on Christopher’s experience with other frescos, we know that people, when they look at a piece of artwork that’s inspired, it’s an invitation to mobilize their lives and not just their wallets,” Combs said. “So we think that once the fresco is here, folks will be drawn in, and that there’ll be a magnetism about this painting that will actually enable us to do even more ministry here. So we think of it as an addition, not a subtraction.”

In other words, the fresco should engender visitation, participation in the church’s programs, and yes, some donations.

It’s money prudently spent, and maybe even divinely inspired, Combs said.

“We hope people will receive the message that we’re saying, ’Robert (Stafford) is worth a quarter of a million dollars, and so is his story,” he said. “And Neil, and Charlie and Jeanette and all the folks that are going to be in this.”

The word fresco derives from the Italian for “fresh,” a reference to the technique of painting on freshly applied plaster so the water-based paints literally meld with the wall material.

Holt and Combs first conceived the general idea of the fresco and the Beatitudes theme in 2013, but Holt emphasizes that the project is a team effort, with an entire committee devoted to its fruition.

For about a year now, Holt has been doing charcoal and pencil drawings of his subjects, and he’ll essentially enlarge them and transfer them to the “canvas,” in this case that huge rectangle of plaster in the sanctuary.

The plaster “is like a wet piece of paper,” and the lime in the plaster acts as a binder, so the water-based paints literally bind to the wall. The fresco will remain there literally as long as the building stands, Holt said.

Parts of the structure are almost 125 years old, so Holt fully expects the painting to have a lifespan that could be measured in centuries. The frescoes of the old masters, such as Michelangelo, still draw throngs of tourists today, and the congregation is hopeful this artwork will have the same staying power.

When he’s ready to paint, Holt will do a tracing on the plaster, then begin “connecting the dots,” adding in the faces of the companions, the mountains, the signature buildings, and a pair of hands in the center.

Standing before the white expanse of wall that he will soon transform, while a homeless man named Fred plays a lovely melody on the sanctuary’s piano, Holt notes that the fresco will not depict Christ for a reason.

“The Christ figure is everybody,” Holt said. “Everybody is carrying that spirit. It’s a dignifying moment for all of us — it’s an equalizer. Everybody carries this holiness, this divinity that they recognize as a ministry in each person.”

The portraits alone will take 25-30 days. Holt expects to log a total of 45-60 painting days, likely wrapping up in late summer, 2019.

“We hope that really this fresco depicts and represents and embodies the sense of Asheville’s best, and what Asheville’s best self has to offer,” Holt said. “In a way it’s a love letter to our future Asheville, that the folks that come way beyond us, they’re able to look at this and see what this group of people represent and hopefully carry this torch forward for generations to come.”

Combs noted that sometimes people get confused about Haywood Street Congregation, thinking it’s an actual social services agency.

“But the truth is, food and clothes and worship and clothes are all just excuses to be family together,” Combs said. “To hold family in a painting forever literally depicts the very best of who we’re trying to be. So to do that, writ large, in this ancient technique, says to anybody who views us, that Haywood Street is ultimately about one thing, and that is widening the family of God and welcoming more people into it. You can’t say that in a bolder way than in a painting.”

For her part, King is not sure she’ll be able to withstand the fresco’s unveiling later this year. A native of Upstate New York who lived in California for years before moving to Asheville in 1989, King considers the congregation part of her heart now.

When her time comes, she plans to have her memorial service at Haywood Street. But thinking of how she’ll live on in the fresco, that packs an emotion wallop.

So yes, that unveiling will pack a punch.

“It’ll be me and my box of tissues,” King said. “Haywood Street saved my life. It saved my life.”

To learn more about the Haywood Street Fresco or to donate please visit www.haywoodstreetfresco.org

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Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com

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