Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.—Hebrews 12:1 KJV
By Judy Woodward
When Glenn Berg-Moberg was a boy growing up half a century ago on the Iron Range, he had a blue-collar kid’s fascination with the physicality of how things worked. He studied metalworking and welding in a well-equipped technical-arts program in high school and he enjoyed working with his hands, translating the abstract into the concrete.
“Every thought has a picture that goes with it,” says Berg-Moberg, and some of those thoughts could be expressed in metal.
And then he grew up, became part of the first generation in his family to attend college, and moved on to a life devoted to study, preaching, counseling and writing. Since 2001, he has been pastor of St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church, where his waking hours revolve around words, and his boyhood fascination with the tactile was left behind.
Until last summer, that is, when a three-month sabbatical gave him the opportunity to unite his early hands-on approach to life with his mature reverence for the Word. Over the summer, Berg-Moberg designed and constructed a room-size metal sculpture installation that he calls “A Cloud of Witnesses.” The viewer enters a white, cloud-like space where he or she is surrounded by stylized steel figures and a curtain of sound that arises from 60 or 70 pre-recorded readings of the Bible verse Hebrews 12:1, from which he took the title of his work. Members of the congregation recorded the verse in several versions of the Bible and in languages that included English, Japanese, German, Spanish and Zulu.
“I think of it less as an art installation than a meditation,” Berg-Moberg says. “ ‘Cloud of Witnesses’ is a reference to a long list of inspiring Biblical figures, but I am asking people to think about when they have known a person in their own lives who has … convinced [them] of their value,” he explains. The lighting is key. Each statue casts multiple shadows [that represent] the good mark of a person” who has had a positive influence on the viewer.
The idea for his work literally came to him in a dream, Berg-Moberg says. Ten years ago, he dreamt of the cloud imagery that is at the heart of is project.
“But the dream didn’t have the sculptures,” he says. Those had to wait until his wife enrolled him in a metal-sculpturing class, offered by the now-defunct Vesper College in the Casket Arts Building in Northeast Minneapolis. Although he had never thought of himself as an artist, since his seminary days he had been doodling what he calls “profile things” — geometrical shapes that he had imagined rendering in metal.
“The medium of the class was this steel rod that I use in the project,” Berg-Moberg says, but it would be another several years until a sabbatical allowed him the time to develop his vision. His last sabbatical in 2011 had been spent in much more conventional study in Greece and Turkey, “but I decided not to do study this time,” he reports drily.
Instead he turned to a bench vise and grip that allowed him to spend his summer days bending 1/8-inch and 3/16-inch steel rod by hand into the attenuated figures that people “A Cloud of Witnesses.” His favorite of the 10 or 11 creations is the “Girl with a Ponytail,” which represents the “serendipity of artist and material” that can lead to “happy accidents” of creativity, he says.
“I had been puzzling how to complete it,” he says of the stylized rendering of a young woman’s profile, when a piece of wire of a different diameter from another project accidentally “dropped onto [the figure] and created her hairline.”
The biggest difference between making art and performing his regular work as a minister was, “I was running my brain through a different filter,” Berg-Moberg says. “I wasn’t working with sentences or grammar, but I was finding a different way to communicate.”
When asked where he locates his work in the tradition of sacred art, Berg-Moberg chooses his words carefully in reply: “It is consistent with the liturgical arts tradition … but church artists have to resist temptation to repeat methods of the past.”
Rather than talk about his work in terms of art, he prefers to use the phrase, “A modern tabernacle.”
“I’m playing with the images of a cloud, but also playing with [the idea of] a portable worship space” in the Biblical sense of the Book of Exodus, he says. “Liturgical art always seeks to create a sense of space and light, but it’s so important that it not be a magical Neverland. It has to speak to the reality that we know and live.”
The most important thing he hopes visitors will take from his work is surprise “that God is at work in their lives,” Berg-Moberg says. He cites the Parable of the Leaven from the Gospel of St. Luke (13:20-21) in which Christ compares the Kingdom of Heaven to the leaven that the woman mixed throughout the flour. “Jesus was not being metaphorical,” he says. “I’m hoping [viewers] will be able to think of a name of someone in their lives and say, ‘There it is. That person was the leaven in my life.’ ”
“A Cloud of Witnesses” will be installed in the nave of St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church, where it will occupy almost half of the worship space. It will be fully mounted by the first Sunday in November and will remain open to the general public during daylight hours throughout the month.
Does Berg-Moberg have plans for more art projects in the future? “Probably not. I haven’t had any more dreams.”
Judy Woodward is a reference librarian at Roseville Library and a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.