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Yard art engages Magnolia UCC neighbors

Art invites people to think about issues of faith and life, and builds attendance

For two years, Scott Ward, as director of community life at Magnolia UCC in Seattle, has been helping the congregation engage with its neighbors through art installations that raise questions.

chairs at magnolia ucc
Brightly colored frames of chairs invite Magnolia UCC neighbors and members to reflect on hunger and having a seat at the table.                                                             Photos courtesy of Scott Ward

Because Magnolia is a neighborhood in which many people walk but most do not go to church, Magnolia UCC is able to “do church” with them without their realizing it.”

This year, their Lenten yard installation, “A Place at the Table,” has eight chairs and offers an opportunity to reflect on hunger physically, spiritually and mentally.

“As we acknowledge our hunger for love, peace and justice,” he said, “we may find our place at the table of welcome to be filled with good things.”

The display invites people to reflect on, “What do you hunger for?”

As the church changes the installations, Scott finds that people begin to anticipate new installations, as well as appreciating and participating in the installation that is there.  He sees people walking through the colorful frames of chairs and sitting on the edges of them to meditate and contemplate.

chalkboard people
Neighbors and members write on chalkboard people.

The church houses a preschool, so children run out through the chairs.

Scott designed the chairs of two-by-two pieces of pine, nailed together and nailed into the ground, and members helped build them.  He had intended to do 12 chairs, but only had time to do eight, because he had been away on a sabbatical.  There are 12 old wooden chairs also set up in a circle in the sanctuary as reminders of people featured in the lectionary.

“So what is inside reflects what is  outside,” Scott said.  “Each Sunday we have been adding another chair representing different people in the Bible based on the lectionary. 

“It is a reminder that those people were in fellowship with God, and that we come to be filled with God.  We sit at the same table with prophets and disciples, and with those who come before us,” he said.

scott ward
Scott Ward

Scott said public feedback indicates that people “love what we are doing in our front yard.”  He hears the appreciation as he serves on the Magnolia Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s thought provoking and helps people recognize that we are here and an integral part of the neighborhood.  Our goal was to do things in the neighborhood so if we were not here, we would be missed.”

Another time, Magnolia set up a lineup of chalkboard people made of plywood and painted with a chalkboard paint.  The sign offered people to share their reflections on:  “If I die...”  People were to fill in the rest of the sentence.

“I had to go our every four days and wipe the comments off, so others would have a chance to add their thoughts.  There was some goofy graffiti, but it was minimal.  Most of the answers were heartfelt, honest and moving,” Scott said, including such comments as “find a cure for cancer, spend more time with grandchildren, fall in love, know God, be a good Christian and win a gold medal in gymnastics.”

The art installations have not only drawn people into conversation within the church, but also helped draw more people to attend—along with movies, panels and speakers.  About 45 to 50 several years ago.  Now about 60 to 65 attend.

“These activities stimulate our people to be more creatively involved,” Scott said.

During Advent, they set up a lighted, star-shaped labyrinth with small twinkly lights, for people to walk through prayerfully.

Last year, the youth and congregation set up six bright-colored open doors, each with different themes that the youth chose—compassion, letting go, enthusiasm, patience, tolerance and balance.  The idea was that by walking through the door, people would gain more of that characteristic.

Every year, Magnolia hosts families from Mary’s Place, a program that supports and guides homeless women with children.  The church shelters and feeds 14 people for a week.

Magnolia engages neighbors to help as volunteers to help feed the women and donating to provide food.

One year when Magnolia UCC did that, they set up A-frame tents in the yard with a sign, “Home Sweet Home.”

Scott joined the church 10 years ago and has been in the part-time position for three years.  For 15 of his 25 years in Seattle, he worked in Seattle as an artist.

“I felt called to be here.  Together with the congregation, we created the position,” said Scott, who grew up in Minneapolis and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1986. 

He took off two years in the process, looking at being a Catholic priest, but being turned down because he had homosexual tendencies.

In 1999, he began to paint after 10 years working in Seattle in graphic, interior and landscape design.  As part of creativity groups in the 1990s, he had encouraged people to be more creative, and then decided to pick up a paint brush and do it himself.

As part of those groups, he also met Cathy Barker, then pastor at Magnolia UCC and came to the church to see what she was about.

“I was surprised by the genuine, honest welcome.  I tested it a few weeks and found it was true,” said Scott, who was soon invited to be on the worship and arts committee.

For information, call 206-696-2671 or email


Copyright © April 2014 - Pacific Northwest United Church News




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