Oak Hill Presbyterian Church celebrates Black History Month with art exhibit

St. Louis project connects with members and the community

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

A mixed-media art exhibit outside Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis honors Black leaders and historical figures. (Photo courtesy of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — A mixed-media art exhibit outside Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis pays homage to Black leaders and historical figures while helping the church to remain connected to its members and the community during the pandemic.

Since last summer, the exhibit of artwork created by church members has attracted the attention of neighbors headed to nearby Tower Grove Park, thanks to revolving themes including Advent and the current one, Black History Month.

During a time when few people are coming in and out of the building because of the pandemic, “We wanted to make sure people knew the church was still alive on this corner,” said the Rev. Erin Counihan, Oak Hill’s pastor. “Having this up and having it change and having it be timely and showing lots of different perspectives and lots of different inspirations and things like that is a great way for us to be showing our neighborhood, ‘Hey, we’re here and we care about what’s going on in the world, and we care about what’s going on with you, and this is our artistic way of showing that.’”

Former astronaut Mae Jemison also is featured in the Black History Month exhibit at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. (Photo courtesy of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church)

The exhibit also has been a great way of getting church members involved, from “the littles” to the seniors, as various individuals and committees have worked on the project as it’s evolved over the last several months, she said.

“I like to say it’s the best of committee work because it’s moved organically from one committee to another, from one season to another, from one theme to another,” Counihan said. While everyone is stuck at home and separated from each other during the pandemic, “being a part of a big project like this makes us feel connected.”

For the month of February, Donna Cook, a ruling elder, history teacher and artist, came up with the idea of celebrating Black leaders who don’t always receive the attention they deserve in U.S. textbooks.

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush is honored in the Black History Month exhibit at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. (Photo courtesy of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church)

“We need to honor the contribution of the Black Americans throughout our history, and especially our community leaders, and just make folks aware,” said Cook, chairperson of Oak Hill’s Mission and Justice Committee.

So church members have been invited “to either paint something, use an image, use a quote, and we’re adding to it throughout the month,” Counihan said.

For some members, such as ruling elder Lisa Thompson, the exhibit has been a family project; she and her three grown children have contributed artwork, including a piece that lifts up Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.

“It’s been really exciting for me because for years I have been a big fan of Marian Wright Edelman,” said Thompson, who created a collage with techniques she picked up from Cook.

Leaders featured in the Black History Month exhibit at Oak Hill Presbyterian include the late theologian, the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon. (Photo courtesy of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church)

Other leaders featured in the exhibit include U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, an activist-turned-politician who recently became Missouri’s first Black Congresswoman; reggae singer Bob Marley; astronaut Mae Jemison; Dr. James H. Cone, a founder of Black liberation theology; and the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, the first African-American woman ordained in the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Cook’s contributions include a Maya Angelou quote that says, “Won’t it be wonderful when Black history and Native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book. Just U.S. history.”

Cook credits Counihan with helping to raise the racial consciousness of the church through her preaching of the social justice gospel in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, the year Counihan was called to ministry at Oak Hill.

This piece from the exhibit at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church depicts the late actor Chadwick Boseman as himself and his most famous character, The Black Panther. (Photo courtesy of Oak Hill Presbyterian Church)

“I think she opened our eyes to systemic racism and just what’s been going on and what’s been happening in our community since forever,” Cook said.

Eradicating racism in society will require several approaches, Counihan said, thus the need to focus on Black history this month.

“Not everybody is reached by a book,” she said. “Not everyone is reached through a workshop. Some people are captivated through art, and so we have to be willing to try all the ways, right?”

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