The little church that could
Artist unveils the Silverton Church Paintings

The newly renovated First Congregational Church of Silverton is now home to a six-painting series by artist Judith Graham./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Jules Masterjohn

Heavenly inspiration has always been the intention of liturgical and sacred art. Frescos on cathedral walls were instructive in relaying biblical stories to the illiterate, and geometric patterns were meant to inspire awe for the vastness of the Creation. Before the institution of art museums, places of worship fulfilled this function for the masses.

In Silverton, a little church and its congregation stepped into the contemporary art arena with the recent installation of land-and-skyscape paintings by local artist, Judith Graham. These six paintings portray the scenes that can be viewed from each of the church’s gothic-arched windows, representing a 360-degree portrait of the town’s surrounding mountains and ridges. For Graham, this landscape “is the jumping off point but these images point to more than a beautiful and familiar alpine setting.” Her paintings are rooted in a desire for the viewer’s consciousness to be expanded beyond one’s physical boundary into the limitless horizons she provides. Their compositions are a balance between earth and sky, which Graham uses as a metaphor for the balancing of human hope and struggle. The Silverton Church Paintings suggest a spiritual realm.

The First Congregational Church of Silverton, established in 1878, is no stranger to attracting creatives and visionaries. The prairie-style architecture of the church caught the eye of Ansel Adams, who photographed it in 1951. Today, the church’s congregation is progressive, hosting frequent guitar, piano and vibraphone music during its Sunday services as well as occasional liturgical dances. The church’s pastor, Rev. Cynthia Chertos, begins each service with, “This is the church with open doors, open hearts and open minds.”

Though the congregation favors a present-day perspective on worship, a few members were initially skeptical about placing paintings in the church. These sentiments did not surprise Chertos, who knows that in traditional Congregational churches, “the idea was to keep your eyes and ears on the holy.” This denomination’s houses of worship are usually sparse, devoid of ornamentation or adornment. For most of its history, the sanctuary of the Silverton church did not even bear a cross.

During her 18 years as a member of the church, Graham often wondered, “What would go on these walls?” In 2006, as the church began the restoration of its windows, floor, and wainscoting, it became clear to her that the expanse of walls between the windows should also be windows out to the vastness of the world. Graham presented her idea to the church board. She told them, “You’ll just have to trust me,” and her proposal

Silverton artist, Judith Graham

The recently installed paintings look as if they were meant for the sacred space. Each of the six oil paintings is slightly arched at the top, which echoes the shape of the windows and other architectural elements inside the church. The aesthetic connection between the paintings, the sanctuary and the outdoors is well integrated. The variation in the blues, whites and grays found in the mostly sky-oriented paintings incline the mind toward the heavens.

Back on earth and back in time, the congregation “took a leap of faith,” as Dennis Kurtz called it, when it agreed to raise nearly $100,000 for the restoration of the church. “That’s quite a bit of money for a small congregation.” Numerous grants were also provided through the state historic fund to cover the balance of the estimated $450,000 to shore up the failing structure and restore the sanctuary and entrance. “Besides accepting donations,” Kurtz said, “we held Ebay auctions, and raffled quilts.” Due of the building’s historic status as the first congregational church on Colorado’s Western Slope, the fund-raising campaign drew donations from New Hampshire to California. It didn’t hurt that Ansel Adams had found the building inspiring and made it famous through a photograph, which the church sold copies of to help meet the fund-raising goal.

Gratitude can be heard in the voices of congregation members when they speak of their accomplishment. “We have been blessed with an outpouring of money for this project and the paintings really finish the restoration,” offered Bob Boeder.

“Judy’s paintings make a tremendous contribution to the spiritually centered atmosphere,” echoed Chertos. “We are so very grateful that she has brought her artistic gift into the life and space of this congregation.”

For Chertos, the paintings and their visual temperaments, which range from a clear blue sky to a mass of gray clouds brooding over a peak, speak to the metaphor of spiritual life. “There are times when one’s spirit is there, in the grayness of the sky. That is part of the holy, too. These paintings can take us deeper into different spiritual states of being.”

To view the Silverton Church Paintings, contact Judith Graham at 387-5520. A dedication of the paintings will be held in July. For more information, contact Rev. Chertos at 946-6547. The First Congregational Church of Silverton is located at 1020 Reese St. •



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows