|The Man Behind the Backdrops
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. During his 13 years of creating them, Ashley Calhoun's backdrops have served as symbols of Holston Annual Conference. Almost everyone attending the yearly meetings in Lake Junaluska can remember at least one image gracing the stage at George Stuart Auditorium: The giant, beckoning Jesus in 1998. The three-dimensional butterfly in 1997. The hands reaching for the heavens in 1992.
This year, the image representing Annual Conference may be the most memorable yet. "Hope in Despair: Reflect the Light" is the Rev. Calhoun's tribute to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the undeniable truth that "God is present wherever there is suffering."
Minister at Beulah and Hendron's Chapel United Methodist Churches in Knoxville District, Calhoun was inspired by last fall's discovery of steel girders forming a cross in the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York City.
"That image, which appeared in the media only briefly, has intrigued and haunted many," Calhoun recently wrote in an essay describing his latest work. "It stands as an assuring sign that God is always present, especially in human suffering, offering hope in despair."
Calhoun said the image of the cross "demanded" to become the design focal point for this year's worship setting at Annual Conference. But "clearly this cross alone was insufficient to capture the sense of God's very real caring presence." Calhoun's interpretation includes God's hands reaching down to cradle his children, and shafts of light symbolizing his power.
"We reflect that light when we offer hope to the despairing, the lost, the helpless and hopeless," he wrote, referring to this year's Annual Conference theme. (See also "Bishop's Perspective" on page 2.)
The image is being rendered for Stuart Auditorium with acrylic and other water-based paints on five panels of lightweight canvas. It measures about 18 feet in height by 24 feet in width. After the Annual Conference session is adjourned, the backdrop will be available to Holston Conference churches as well as other groups inside and outside the denomination. Over the years, many groups have borrowed Calhoun's banners or asked him to create them. In January, he created the backdrop for the Clergywomen's Consultation in San Diego.
A Holston minister since he transferred from upstate New York's Troy Conference in 1986, Calhoun is a sixth-generation Methodist minister with a long-time passion for the arts. Years before he became an unofficial art director at Annual Conference, he studied liturgical dance, singing and drama. More recently, he has combined local-church ministry with presenting altar-setting workshops, designing stained-glass windows, and creating a collection of his own stoles.
Calhoun plans to sell prints of his 2002 Annual Conference design at Lake Junaluska, donating half of the proceeds to the mission offering that will benefit seven local agencies.
"If my design doesn't speak to people, then it has missed its mark," he said recently. "In a way, I get to preach at Annual Conference every year without ever saying a word."
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