Mennonite for Short: Part 2, Simplicity

I grew up in a church that was, like so many (Russian) Mennonite churches, quite plain. Between white walls, plain wooden pews advanced in a straightforward line towards a pulpit that employed about the same amount of ornamentation as most kitchen cabinets.   A rotation of quilted and/or applique wall-hangings adorned the walls.  It was beautiful in its own way, despite trying very hard not to be.

 Chantel Mierau  Welcome to Jurassic Park  2012 video production still

Chantel Mierau
Welcome to Jurassic Park
2012 video
production still

This predisposition towards simplicity could be attributed to a number of factors.  Some point to the fact that in early years, Mennonite churches had to meet in secrecy out of fear of persecution.  A cave is not a great place to house art. 

There were also groups and individuals closely associated with the early anabaptists (Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites all have roots in Anabaptism) who condoned or performed acts of iconoclasm.  One such person was Ludwig Haetzer's, who published a pamphlet in 1523, succinctly titled "The Judgement of God our Spouse as to how one Should Hold Oneself toward all Images, according to the Holy Scriptures."  Here's a good quote from that, "O hypocrite! All the images on earth carried to one pile cannot by a hair make you more pious or more reverent or draw you toward God." He saw images as a distraction from what was really important, i.e. worshipping God.  If you were worshipping in front of an image of Jesus, were you worshipping Jesus or were you worshipping the image?  Tricky. 

Another argument against art is that it is a waste of resources that should instead be used to help the poor.  During the Protestant Reformation, this spurred people to action, like Klaus Hottinger, who tore down a crucifix and used it as fuel for the poor. I think many Mennonites will find a very similar attitude still exists today, even if it's not expressed as overtly.  Art is seen by some as something we should do after everyone is at peace... so never.

I obviously see it differently.  I don't believe we need to put off art and beauty while we continue to work for peace, justice and equality.  And if we want to get into "proof text"ing, I will quote Matthew 26:17-30 and Mark 14:1-11, the story of Jesus being anointed at Bethany.  A woman pours expensive perfume on Jesus head.  The disciples are appalled at her waste of resources that could have been used to help the poor, and Jesus responds saying, "Why are you bothering her?  She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want." Interestingly, in the gospel of Mark, Judas leaves to betray Jesus to the authorities immediately after this event.  If you are a Mennonite who has trouble empathizing with Judas, maybe this is the place to look.

Despite taking issue with it, the simplicity and practicality of the Mennonites has been a huge influence on me.  In researching other artists, I've been strongly drawn to minimalist aesthetics in the work of artists such as Eva Hesse, Wolfgang Laib, and Agnes Martin.  Perhaps this affinity can be partially attributed to growing up in the landscape of the Canadian prairies, but I think the architecture of my home church must also be somewhat responsible.

 Chantel Mierau  Untitled: tatting  2012 tatted thread, nylon wire

Chantel Mierau
Untitled: tatting
tatted thread, nylon wire

I also identify with the many artists who, since the 1960's, have been working in ways that often don't leave behind a physical object, for example video and performance artists.  The images of video, made out of light, disappear with a touch to the power button; the actions of performance, unless documented by photography or video, are ephemeral.  The Mennonite tradition of simple living, though differently motivated and differently expressed, ensured that de-materialization (as in "Six Years: The De-materialization of the Art Object" by Lucy R. Lippard) was not new vocabulary for me when I first encountered it in the context of art school.

My heritage has influenced my choice of materials.  Those banners hanging in the church and other handmade items at home introduced me to different textile techniques, so when I got to art school, I found myself knitting, sewing, and (later on) tatting. Whatever the ultimate reason is that Mennonites historically rejcted all art except quilting (I exaggerate), it seems I've internalized it.  Also, in working with string and fabric, artists like Rosemary Troekle, Judy Chicago, and Aganetha Dyck have been exciting discoveries along the way.

Mennonite simplicity is my companion in the studio.  Sometimes I argue with him/her directly; other times she/he makes helpful suggestions. "You know what would work here?  Less. Or something knitted."   Like most people, I'm drawn to everything in art history that I can see a piece of myself in.  As it turns out, this very often has something to do with simplicity, or something to do with something you could call being Mennonite.


Previous: Mennonite for Short Part 1: Origins 

Coming soon: Low art, Low church, Low German  -on humility and pathos