Artist creates contemporary iconography at Willowbrook

Photos by Ryan Howard Jessie DeCorsey fills in some detail in the Nativity painting she’s working on in the lobby of Willowbrook Church in Forest Lake. DeCorsey and church leaders hope her ongoing process inspires congregants to take a fresh look at the people of the Bible.
Photos by Ryan Howard
Jessie DeCorsey fills in some detail in the Nativity painting she’s working on in the lobby of Willowbrook Church in Forest Lake. DeCorsey and church leaders hope her ongoing process inspires congregants to take a fresh look at the people of the Bible.

Almost as interesting as Jessie DeCorsey’s work is the varied reaction to it.

As the Lindstrom painter studiously applied oil to canvas March 5, crafting an image of a couple enraptured by their infant son, some passersby offered a quizzical glance as they went on their way. Some approached DeCorsey with questions or comments, while others stared transfixed from a distance, seemingly unsure if they should be viewing the intimate act of creation. A few children munched on doughnuts in the middle distance, peering curiously.

The reaction is why DeCorsey is painting her latest work, a modern twist on the Nativity, in the lobby of Willowbrook Church in Forest Lake over the course of eight weeks, instead of in her home studio. By presenting her artistic process to Willowbrook’s congregants, DeCorsey and church officials hope that viewers’ ongoing reflection on the work will help them connect with Scripture in a new way.

The Nativity scene is the latest in DeCorsey’s ongoing project of blending the relatable with the sacred. While attending the University of Minnesota – Duluth about a decade ago as an art major, DeCorsey studied abroad in Greece and was struck by the blending of modern and historical and what she felt was a “living religious culture” among the country’s Christians. She saw that canonical saints and icons were a much larger part of religious life in Greece and began researching them upon her return home. She realized that the iconography surrounding art depicting saints has remained largely unchanged over the centuries.

Each Sunday, DeCorsey’s process is watched with interest by many of Willowbrook’s congregants.
Each Sunday, DeCorsey’s process is watched with interest by many of Willowbrook’s congregants.

“I wanted to capture the essence of what a saint is,” she said. “When I was looking into religious art, or I was trying to study art, I didn’t really identify with much religious art. … It was hard to see myself in it.”

As she brainstormed a way to make the work come to life for her, she discovered that inserting modern-day people into the context of religious art helped make the stories of saints and the Bible more relatable. Reimagining a biblical event like the Last Supper as a group of friends in jeans and khakis helped her humanize the ancient words and consider the emotions Jesus and his disciples may have felt. DeCorsey, who also works as a freelance photographer, began taking photos of friends, family and others to use as photo references of modern people to insert into religious scenes. When she crafts each painting, however, she still uses the ancient iconography to convey spiritual significance, orienting viewers in a religious context as she tethers them to a subject they can identify with.

“I want to have that kind of a mix of both worlds coming together,” she said. “This particular body of work is something I’ve just felt a calling to.”

DeCorsey’s family began attending Willowbrook after she met and was impressed by church leaders at multiple weddings she photographed. She loves her church family, the teaching and the environment. Willowbrook’s lead pastor Brad Reis said a key part of the church’s vision is creating a “modern day well” for people to come and talk about faith and life.

“Her painting really fits that,” he said. “It’s kind of a talk piece for people to go, ‘interesting’ and consider the Nativity that way.”

DeCorsey has been approached in the past by other churches that wanted her to craft a painting over the course of a church service or a sermon, but her process is hyper-detailed and takes much longer to complete. In her current church home, and encouraged by her friend and the church’s communications director Heidi Schauer, DeCorsey decided to offer to paint the Nativity in the lobby, or “the commons,” on Wednesday evenings and during the 10 a.m. hour on Sundays, in between Willowbrook’s 9 and 11 a.m. services.

“We asked Brad, and he was all about it,” she said. “I’ve never painted in front of people where they can see the project from beginning to end.”

Reis said his viewing of DeCorsey’s past work sold him on the idea as something that could help Willowbrook’s attendees reflect on the story of Christ and how it relates to their lives.

“I was pretty amazed, and it was kind of profound what she can see and how she can paint it that way,” he said.

For her painting recreating the moments after the birth of Christ, DeCorsey is depicting a husband and wife kneeling on the ground, their heads tilted downward with a laser-like focus on their newborn boy. As the mother cradles her child in a blanket, the trio is bathed in a shaft of light from above. With a dark blue background to suggest a night’s sky, the light source seems to suggest the star the Bible says guided the wise men to the infant Jesus. Both parents are clad in jeans and loose-fitting, long-sleeved t-shirts.

DeCorsey answers questions about her painting.
DeCorsey answers questions about her painting.

DeCorsey was nervous about painting in front of an audience, but she’s been moved by viewers’ reflections as she creates.

“My goodness, I’ve had people come up and cry,” she said, adding that some people have told her that they’ve thought about the painting all week, while children seem to see their own families in the updated poses and clothing. “It just has given them a new vision on this story.”

It’s encouraging for DeCorsey to hear people saying that her work is uplifting. For a long time, she said many of her paintings remained little-seen; the modern and religious blend is a passion project for her but not one that has an existing niche to fill. To get the work in front of churchgoers and find that it helps so many humanize the Bible is a vindication of sorts that her unique approach is having the intended effect.

“Really, if you just remove a couple of things, even just the clothing or the background or the lack of technology, these are just people,” she said.

After the painting is complete, DeCorsey will enter it in the IMAGE Art Show, presented by the East Central Regional Arts Council. She is not painting at the church on Sunday, March 12, but she will be painting for the next five Sundays after that, from March 19 to April 9. The base image of the painting is almost complete, but DeCorsey will spend the next several weeks applying oils that will add layers, texture and depth to the image. Willowbrook is located at 840 South Lake St.