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Chapels of love

Artist puts her heart into areas of meditation
By Mila Koumpilova mkoumpilova@forumcomm.com

Patrons of Fargo’s 5-year-old Roberts Street Chapel have failed to reach consensus. On comment cards left behind by artist and chapel mastermind Marjorie Schlossman, they voice a wide range of reactions to the abstract-art-lined nondenominational space. Some are unimpressed or downright perplexed, such as the recent visitor who inquired, “What is this place?”

There are fans – a minister struck by the chapel’s unorthodox concept, an inspired fellow artist, a 10-year-old who wrote how the abstract canvasses sent his imagination on a romp.

A local all-female meditation group met there on March 8, International Women’s Day. Fargo Deputy Mayor Linda Coates gave in to the urge to sing a Bach song. Someone scribbled Ralph Waldo Emerson passages. A Fargo couple had an intimate wedding.

That’s exactly the kind of freedom Schlossman hoped visitors would enjoy in exploring their takes on spirituality. And when she decided to export her art chapel idea to smaller North Dakota communities, she gave similar freedom to the six area architects she commissioned to explore their visions of the spiritual place.

The chaplets go on display at the North Dakota Museum of Art next week.

As soon as the Roberts Street Chapel was complete, Schlossman wanted to do it all over again. Work on the space had harnessed all her passions – abstract art, of course, but also her faith, her love of downtown Fargo and her family’s history of erecting buildings there.

She felt the chapel’s location fit perfectly, a quiet spot in the midst of downtown’s bustle, where MeritCare patients could think through bad news and harried professionals could decompress on lunch breaks.

“I know people need spaces to inspire them, comfort them and bring them out of their daily lives and into a new way of thinking,” she says.

But she didn’t think Fargo really needed another art chapel. Small-town North Dakota could probably use some chapels, though, and if those were light-weight and mobile, they could cover more ground. “I thought they’d get a warmer welcome if they didn’t stay too long,” says Schlossman.

Schlossman asked North Dakota Museum of Art Director Laurel Reuter if the Grand Forks venue might want to take the portable chapels under its wing. Reuter was intrigued by the synergy between visual art and architecture the project involved and by the boldness of the concept, modeled after painter Mark Rothko’s famous nondenominational chapel in Houston.

“It’s certainly the first project of its kind that’s unfolded in this part of the country,” Reuter says. “It’s very ambitious. There’s a lot of risk involved.”

Next, the artist approached six Fargo-Moorhead architects whose work she admired and invited them on board. Each would get $25,000 of Schlossman’s own money and a set of basic instructions. The structures needed to protect the art as much as possible. The presence of patrons needed to be visible from outside so newcomers could respect their privacy. And, please, no mosquitoes.

Schlossman had to trouble luring the architects to the venture. “I thought the concept was a little off-thewall in the beginning,” says Moorhead architect Michael Burns. But he was fired up by the challenge of designing a structure light-weight enough to be mobile and yet sturdy enough to withstand the prairie elements.

Julie Rokke, of YHR Partners in Moorhead, has helped designed numerous churches across the state and a handful of nursing home chapels. Still, the assignment took her by surprise. She’d never dreamed up a moving spiritual space before, nor one in which abstract expressionism spurs the spiritual journey.

“It sounded like a neat twist,” she says.

For all faiths
On a July afternoon about a year later, Burns deployed his team on a Hawley, Minn., farm, home to Schlossman’s son Herb Ludwig and launching ground for the finished chaplets. They hoisted the semi-translucent roof onto beams ending in inline-skate wheels and secured it to the chapel’s walls. The skate parts as well as the general design are a humble nod to the might of prairie gusts. The give of the wheels will help the roof better withstand winds, and the loosely fitting horizontal cedar planks of the walls will let those winds slip through.

But on that afternoon, not a whiff of breeze ruffled the 100-degree heat. Schlossman ducked into the chapel and exclaimed: “It’s much cooler in here. It’s fabulous.”

Four chapels, by Burns, Rokke, Joel Davy and Philip Stah, were sprinkled across the hilly grounds of the farm; architects Richard Moorhead and Jef Foss were putting the finishing touches to their structures. All six turned out remarkably different from each other.

“I was interested in keeping it simple and straightforward and staying away from trendy techniques,” says Burns. He wanted a place that felt safe and grounded and yet, thanks to the porous walls and transparent roof, airy and open, capturing at the same time the closeness and elusiveness of God’s presence.

“You can sit inside and feel connected to the outdoors and the sky,” he says.

Rokke wanted a place where visitors would bask in sunlight, surrounded by Schlossman’s dazzling palette on all sides.

“Marjorie just has this marvelous use of color,” Rokke says. “We’re Scandinavian. We’re kind of laid back, subdued with color. Her use of color has always been so interesting to me.”

Hence Rokke’s 12-sided structure with a translucent domed roof. Nine of the sides feature Schlossman’s paintings. The other three are doors, as courtesy to visitors who, after time spent in quiet meditation, will be ready to see the world from a different point of view, figuratively of course but also literally by walking out a different door than they came in.

As some of the artists were tapping into her work for inspiration, Schlossman was waiting on the finished designs to kick-start her painting. Her canvasses display a different color scheme and mood in each chaplet. Pitch-black backgrounds make the three paintings in Philip Stah’s tunnel-like chapel stand out against the white Plexiglas walls. Vibrant, exuberant works shake up Rokke’s simple, geometrical design.

As in the Roberts Street Chapel, Schlossman stayed away from religious imagery. “The chapel is whatever your religion is,” she says. “That space should be yours.”

At Tuesday’s unveiling at the North Dakota Museum of Art’s garden, Schlossman’s fellow string players from the Fargo Moorhead Symphony Orchestra will play Bach in each chapel, and a New York City jazz band featuring Schlossman’s cousins will later regale Fargo-Moorhead pilgrims.

After Sept.10, the chaplets will head back to Fargo to spruce up the parking lot of West Acres Shopping Center. Eventually, the museum will take them back and possibly loan them out, like library books, to North Dakota communities. In the meantime, Schlossman will be working on several replacement sets of paintings for the chaplets. She’s at peace with the risk of vandalism and beating from the elements that comes with public art. “I realize I have to be a little philosophical,” she says. “As long as I’m alive, I can paint another painting.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529