Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Art as an Act of Faith: Sylvia Gross Bubalo

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Art as an Act of Faith: Sylvia Gross Bubalo

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay explores the art of Sylvia Gross Bubalo--spanning the decades between 1959 and 1989--from the point of view of the artist's personal Mennonite history and Anabaptist faith pilgrimage. In her images she engages the central issues of discipleship: what it means to be a Christian, a Mennonite woman, part of a congregation and a people of faith. The Christian message and her faith community are the pivot of her identity. Thus in Sylvia's works we see the artist as disciple, as peacemaker, as defender of beauty, as rescuer of the unfree, as steward of the earth, as seeker of Truth, as mystic, as one who laughs with God and believes in the power of prayer. Seen within the context of works by Mennonite artists in this century and within the wider context of twentieth-century American art, Sylvia's visual voice offers unique visions of a spirituality grounded in Anabaptist theology.


Both my grandmother and my parents and certain singular men and women taught or emanated the Christ-love. It stopped me short of rage, giving me resolve instead to become one of the voices of the same Passionate Love.

--Sylvia Gross Bubalo (1)

Sylvia Gross Bubalo's visual "voice," expressed in some two hundred works on paper and on canvas, constitutes a significant but as yet largely "unheard" contribution to Anabaptist/Mennonite expressions of faith and discipleship, to late twentieth-century religious art in America, and to the body of nearly two thousand years of Christian art. (2) This study of her work, the first undertaken by anyone, will help answer the broader question: What forms have the image "voices" of Anabaptist/Mennonite artists taken and what are they saying? (3) For the past 500 years Mennonite artists in Northern Europe and North America have spoken through their imagery, even when they were not heard or acknowledged by their church. (4) In recent decades, however, the church has become increasingly open to the insights of its artists. At a Bluffton College conference on Mennonite cultural issues in 1945, artist and art professor John P. Klassen stated, "We need art to clarify our vision, to deepen it." (5) By mid-century, art departments were established at Mennonite colleges in the United States and we have since seen a steady rise in the numbers of professional artists of Anabaptist heritage, if not faith. Since the late 1960s their work has appeared not only between the covers of Mennonite publications but also on such covers. And for at least the past twenty years works by Mennonite artists have been commissioned, collected and shown by church conferences, churches, museums and cultural centers, Mennonite and non-Mennonite alike. Nevertheless, the "voices" of many Mennonite artists have remained largely undocumented. They tend to be the ones whose creative energies and aesthetic sensibilities are integral to their faith and their lives but who are not necessarily part of the commercialization and professionalization of art-making. Such is the case of Sylvia Gross Bubalo and her works.

I focus on her work because--in contrast to that of many other contemporary Mennonite artists--her imagery takes its inspiration and purpose directly from scriptural sources as she applies them to living her faith. Her works are not illustrations of the traditional canons of Christian subject matter. There is no image of the Nativity, no Last Supper, no Crucifixion, nor Crucifixes, no Resurrection rendered in the established iconography of Christian art. Instead, Sylvia Gross Bubalo's work belongs to that body of twentieth-century American religious art that John and Jane Dillenberger have termed "perceptions of the spirit." Sylvia's images, like those of many contemporary artists whose subject matter does not necessarily come from the external world, express new spiritual perceptions drawn from the internal world of the artist. (6) A distinction needs to be made between works that represent religious subject matter but do not necessarily express spiritual realities, and works that may not offer overtly religious subject matter but do present "perceptions of the spirit. …

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