More than 30 leading artists competed for the role of chief sculptor of the Catholic Memorial at Ground Zero. Renowned painter, illustrator and sculptor John Collier ultimately earned the position for the memorial at St. Joseph’s Chapel in New York City.
St. Joseph’s had served as a worship space for workers from the nearby World Trade Center, and after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, recovery workers stored equipment there. Following the recovery efforts, church leaders decided to include a memorial when the chapel received a necessary restoration following heavy damage from the recovery efforts.
“They wanted to make memorials to the people who had died, and they didn’t want a statue of a fireman and a policeman in the church, so they decided — being Catholics — to choose the patron saints of policemen, firemen and workers,” said Collier, who added that one biblical character also was selected. “They chose Mary Magdalene because she was the first witness to the resurrection” [John 20:1–18; Mark 16:9–11].
The sculptures earned Collier the Optimé Award from Ministry & Liturgy magazine, and he received coverage from national news media. (Go to fmchr.ch/pbsjc for a PBS profile of Collier.)
Collier grew up attending a couple of different Protestant churches and a Catholic high school, but Christianity seemed more like an academic subject to him. Then he went on a blind date with another teenager named Shirley. They started dating and he began attending church with her and her family.
“I started going to the Free Methodist Church, and I learned about a relationship with the Lord, which made a lot more sense, because none of the stuff you learn in church makes any sense without that,” Collier said. “Knowing things about God is not the same as knowing God.”
He followed Shirley, who was a year ahead of him in school, to the Free Methodist campus now known as Central Christian College of Kansas. The couple married while in college. As the son of artists, he began studying art and took a job changing lettering on radar plans for an aircraft company. He eventually landed a position as assistant director of a Dallas advertising agency. Subsequent jobs included working as an illustrator in Minneapolis and Houston, an art director for Time-Life Films in New York City and as a visiting professor at the University of Kansas. His family moved to Washington while his daughter attended another Free Methodist school, Seattle Pacific University, but they later returned to Texas.
While attending a Free Methodist church, Collier began sculpting along with his work in illustration and painting, but he did not think a market existed to sell his sculptures to churches. Then his sculpture of an angel was featured on the cover of a Catholic magazine, and a Catholic priest hired him to do a sculpture for his congregation. That opened doors to the Catholic art world.
“The Catholic Church has been the primary patron of the arts in the history of humanity,” Collier said. “I would love to do something for a Free Methodist church. It just doesn’t ever happen.”
Collier understands that a sculpture may not be a realistic purchase for the average congregation.
“It’s very, very expensive to make. It takes me, for instance, a year to make a life-size sculpture,” he said. “When you hire me and then the people I have to hire, who are the foundry people, there are probably 15 people who work on a piece of art before I give it to the client.”
That doesn’t mean Free Methodists haven’t had an influence on the arts. The late Free Methodist author Bob Briner inspired many artists through “Roaring Lambs” and subsequent books encouraging Christians to influence the world through their work.
“Bob Briner, in fact, was a friend of mine. He was very kind to me, and encouraged me for a long time,” Collier said.
Collier hopes Christians reclaim the tradition of honoring God through the arts.
“Five hundred years ago, if you wanted to hear the greatest words ever spoken, see the greatest paintings ever painted, see the greatest sculpture ever made, you went to church,” he said.
Collier noted that senses have been an important part of worshipping God since incense in the Old Testament, and senses can also be used to share God’s message with others.
“We’re human beings. We have eyes, ears and noses, and all of those senses can be avenues for preaching the gospel,” he said. “Beauty is a great evangelist.”
Editor’s note: Light + Life expresses gratitude to Free Methodist elder John “Ike” Owen, the executive director of the Crisis Chaplains Corps, for bringing Collier’s art to our attention and for commissioning Free Methodist photographer Cedric Wooten to take photos of Collier and his work.
JEFF FINLEY has served as the managing editor of Light + Life magazine since 2011. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for Sun-Times Media.1