Story Magazine

Winter, 2010

World Canvas Project: Pray, then Paint

by Marc Hequet, Correspondent

Chuck Hoffman, artist-in-residence


A creation of Charles Hoffman, a Master of Arts junior and Luther's first yearlong artist-in-residence, World Canvas is open-ended. It will travel. It will grow. Any church or other group can start its own canvas.

Students, staff, faculty and visitors launched World Canvas Nov. 17 at Luther, penciling prayers in 4-inch squares, then painting over them. The prayers and paint are permanently embedded together. This first canvas, 50 feet by 4 feet, may someday be a banner. Or it could be stitched to other such canvases or cut apart to hang as a mobile.

In any case, the hidden prayers will remain, says Hoffman. "I don't know what else is here," he adds, "but I'm lifted up."

The prayers, says Mary Steeber, coordinator of volunteer programs, are "private with the creator" yet "visually shared by community."

Hoffman will gather prayers far and wide, including prayers from other faiths. "Each person is part of God's creation and is equal to one another in the same space but different in the world next to each other. All have an equal voice in raising up as individual and unique creations and yet together in community. The canvas symbolizes this," says Hoffman. Everyone who sees the canvas, notes Steeber, will be "held in the essence of the divine through the prayers of the people."

All this gets us thinking about the nature of prayer itself. "It would be nice if those prayers could also be visible in public," muses Rod Maeker, director of cross-cultural education. His prayer: "Food for all."

Hiding prayer, however, is fine with Shannyn Magee, a Master of Divinity senior. Covering her prayer is "like taking off our burdens and painting them over," she says. "Letting it go to someone else."

Jen Kuntz, '09, has the same idea. "Would I ever find my square if it was hanging somewhere?" says Kuntz. "I thought about that. Well, it doesn't really matter. All of this is going to God."

The Rev. James Lobdell, pastor at Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran in Inglewood, Calif., led chapel worship Nov. 17 and penciled a prayer for his congregation's sick. "God," says Pastor Lobdell, "can read through paint."


A group of those at Luther Seminary interested in the arts, including Archivist Paul Daniels, developed the idea of an artist-in-residence. Hoffman's World Canvas is an extraordinary start: It can go anywhere.

Participating—from thinking the prayer and writing it down, to painting strokes of color over it—takes just a few seconds.

Yet how are we to pray? These prayers are private—but praying them is public. Meanwhile, "we do not know how to pray as we ought," says Paul in Romans 8, "but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words."

Sarah Henrich, professor of New Testament, points to Exodus and God's apparent love of visual arts in construction of the tabernacle. Art mediates, says Henrich. The people feared this God of the fire on the mountain—but the tabernacle shows a God "visibly present among them, and they are able
to trust God in a whole new way."

World Canvas, then, bespeaks "the presence of God among us," says Henrich, "even in our prayers and the choice of colors that we use."

Some remember the Western Wall, the remains of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Visitors write prayers on slips of paper to tuck between stones. Indeed, travel to the Holy Land may be on the schedule for World Canvas Project for visits to churches, mosques and synagogues.

Pray without ceasing, Paul urges in 1 Thessalonians. World Canvas does. Wherever it is lifted up—so are we all.

View the World Canvas Project video.