“Expressing the Sacred” by Linda Witte Henke
October 28, 2022
My art practice took an unexpected turn when I summoned the courage to enter a collection of 18 small textile works in Expressions of the Sacred, an exhibition in 2002 at the University of Denver. When that work—which depicted signposts on Jesus’ journey to the cross—received the Juror’s Award, I began receiving requests to create projects for churches.
Years of garment and home projects had familiarized me with sewing techniques; degrees in journalism, including coursework in graphic design, provided artistic grounding; a Master of Divinity degree and experience as a parish pastor enabled me to use biblical and theological insights to create fresh, nuanced imagery; and a lifelong love of liturgy and worship fueled my passion for giving visual expression to the sacred. I never could have imagined myself building a practice around liturgical projects, but I discovered this specialty niche was a perfect match for my gifts and a gratifying artistic path.
During my 20-year commission practice I completed more than 80 projects for churches and religious organizations, plus more than 35 projects for individuals. One highlight was a commission to create liturgical vestments (ritual garments worn by worship leaders) to mark the installation of the first female Presiding Bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). This Festive Red collection included two copes, two chasubles, two stoles, and a dalmatic, each featuring an abstract Trinitarian motif created from approximately 75 fabrics and outlined with gold soutache.
Another highlight was Living Water, also commissioned by the ELCA, which included two copes, two chasubles, two clergy stoles, two deacon stoles, and one dalmatic, plus five paraments (used to adorn altars, pulpits, and fonts). I created the focus fabric for this collection by dye-painting a watery design onto 30 yards of silk habotai, later embellishing the fabric with couched threads and gold lamé cording.
Collaborative projects offered additional opportunities for sacred expression. Wholly, Holy, Whole was created in collaboration with students in a Fine Arts Academy. After sketching my design onto a stitched-together 28 x 28 foot cotton ground, I supervised students as they painted in the design. I later created additional elements and stitched everything together to complete the 24 x 24 foot work, now permanently installed in the contemporary worship space of the sponsoring congregation.
A Bound Together collaborative weaving project engaged hundreds in gathering fabrics, cutting them into one-inch strips, and weaving them through rolls of synthetic poultry mesh. Volunteers helped stitch the panels together and interweave strips of gold lamé to create a cruciform, resulting in a tapestry measuring 22 x 22 feet. Whenever Bound Together is used, people gather to search for fabrics they contributed or wove into the tapestry—strips from wedding dresses and baptismal gowns, children’s clothing and the discarded garments of deceased loved ones, and even fabrics promoting favorite sports teams.
In creating liturgical projects, I feel a kinship with women through the ages whose only avenue of artistic expression was to create textile works for the church. Although the materials and techniques have changed over the centuries, the tradition of expressing the sacred endures.
–Linda Witte Henke’s practice focuses on the creation of commissioned projects and the facilitation of collaborative projects for churches and religious organizations. Her work is informed by degrees in journalism and theology, studies in art and surface design, and experiences as a parish pastor and published author. lindahenke.com