Richmond church’s seven-year initiative to acknowledge its complicity in slavery and systemic racism culminates in VCU alum’s exhibition.
By Leila Ugincius, VCUnews
When St. Paul’s Episcopal Church commissioned Janelle Washington to create artwork for the “Stations of St. Paul’s” exhibition, the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts alum was inspired by her own personal relationship with God.
Inspired by the Stations of the Cross — 14 prayer stations that commemorate moments from Jesus’ passion and death on the cross — Washington created 14 paper cutouts that weave together historical images, architectural motifs, Christian icons and African Adinkra symbols, all tracing specific episodes in the racial history of the 175-year-old church.
The “Stations of St. Paul’s” liturgy and art installation mark the culmination of the church’s seven-year History and Reconciliation Initiative — an intensive process to document and acknowledge the church’s history of complicity in slavery and systemic racism. Coinciding with the season of Lent, the installation is on view in the church through April 15.
“Each station depicts a particular moment in St. Paul’s history with a focus on race relations,” Washington said.
While sketching and researching the project, Washington meditated on scripture from Isaiah 58:12 — “You shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in.”
“Like the traditional Christian Stations of the Cross, I wanted the artwork to speak to the viewer and be a vessel for healing and renewal for hope,” she said.
Seeking redemption by acknowledging its sins
St. Paul’s History and Reconciliation Initiative’s mission “to repair, restore and seek reconciliation with God, one another, and the broader community” is now an integral part of the church’s ongoing faith and engagement endeavors, said Sarah Nolan, director of development and communications at St. Paul’s.
Many of the contemplative themes found in the Stations of the Cross reflect themes we face today such as truth, courage, injustice, anxiety, prejudice and compassion.
In the same way praying the traditional stations takes the worshiper through the journey of Jesus to the cross and burial, “praying the ‘Stations of St. Paul’s’ allows the worshiper/pilgrim to make a journey through the history of the congregation and offers the opportunity to confess, lament and seek forgiveness and renewal,” Nolan said.
However, there was no attempt to try to relate events in the history of the church to events included in the traditional Stations of the Cross.
Instead, the church’s History and Reconciliation Initiative identified 14 moments in the history of the church and created readings that described each moment. Washington created sketches from that information incorporating motifs of her own choice.
“I just had to figure out how to tell their story with the information given, what I had learned from the church’s History and Reconciliation Initiative members, their book ‘Blind Spots’ and my own research,” Washington said. “I wanted each prayer station design to be truthful, exposing the good and the bad in history while also being a balm for personal confession.”
The church did not shy away from the bad, including such events as parishioners profiting from slavery, justifying slavery as Christian duty, and the church supporting Jim Crow laws and practices.
“We are incredibly grateful to Janelle Washington for partnering with us on this very meaningful and creative part of that journey,” Nolan said. “We very much appreciate the way she included and combined motifs from the church, African symbolism, the history of St. Paul’s, and from Richmond’s history.”
From fashion to paper art
Washington, a Richmond native, received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1999.
Having majored in fashion design, she worked in the industry for more than 12 years as a children’s designer and freelancer before crossing over into paper cutting.
“You can find many versions of paper cutting in many different countries and cultures,” Washington said. “I got interested in paper-cut art while working in the fashion industry. At that time, the creative director of my department wanted all of the designers and graphic designers to have a ‘Creative Show and Tell Day’ where we all created art outside of our fashion job.
“I was very interested in origami and kirigami and researched both art forms. While researching, I found paper-cut art and loved the paper artist Julene Harrison’s style and decided to try it. I created a Valentine’s Day paper cut, folded three origami animals, and presented it to my team. I received much praise for the art, and since I enjoyed the process of cutting, I continued to practice to find my voice and style in paper-cut art.”
Her interest burgeoned into WashingtonCuts, a paper-cut art and silhouette company that celebrates and explores Black culture, history, identity, family and beauty through cut paper.
“Using a craft knife and multiple blades, I cut out my designs using black or white paper and sometimes adding tissue paper for color,” Washington said. “Everything I do is by hand, from sketching and cutting my designs. Paper-cut art is a gateway for exploring and celebrating my heritage as a Black woman by incorporating text, Adinkra symbols, silhouettes and patterns into my designs.
“My fashion background and style shine throughout my artwork through patterns, silhouettes and fashion paper cuts.”
For more information on the “Stations of St. Paul’s,” including when to view the installation, visit https://www.stpaulsrva.org/stations-of-st-pauls.