Western art has had a longtime connection with the church, as it has in many cultures. Art has always been involved in the pursuit of both the spiritual and the sublime. Sometimes, when you step into a cathedral where the light inhabits the architecture through the windows, what has been created by architects and artisans and others sometimes engenders more awe than anything written or said by the priesthood.
This is a territory that has long been mined by art. For a while, there has been a rift between spirituality and art, and particularly contemporary art. I think that is something that's due for a change.
Had you ever designed a meetinghouse before Live Oaks?
No. I did do drawings for two chapels of light, in two different places where they wanted to make new Catholic churches. And after this meetinghouse project, I finished another one with Tadao Ando in Japan, on the site of an old Buddhist temple.
Houston has a tradition of involving artists with religious structures. The prime example is the Mark Rothko chapel, sponsored by the DeMenil family. The second one is the Byzantine chapel, also sponsored by the DeMenils and designed by Francois Deonier. The third are the stained glass windows designed by Jennifer Bartlett for an Episcopal church.
Then there's this project. Before Mrs. Jean DeMenil died, she contributed a substantial amount, first from her own personal funds and then from the DeMenil Foundation. The project arose from a suggestion by Hiram Butler, a local art gallery owner, to the Meeting there in Houston. Fund-raising was set up, and Leslie Elkins was chosen to be the architect.
How do you feel about the Live Oaks Meetinghouse project now that it's completed?
As with any project, there's great relief when you're done. It is very interesting to go through a project with Quaker decision making. You have the natural Quaker urge for procrastination. I don't mean there's an avoidance of decisions, but rather a waiting for decisions to congeal and come together in a consensus that is reasonable for the body.
I've used this kind of decision making myself. Many people from the outside read this as conflicted neuroticism, which it can be a lot of times, but at other times it's not wanting to decide until a decision was there, which I think is very important to do.
This was a part of how I was raised. But to do art, I had to learn to decide things, because people often just want a decision. This seems somewhat arbitrary. Often it's sort of like Jimmy Durante, who had this wonderful song, "Go, Stay, Go, Stay."
This design is related to the change in the natural surrounding light. What is the relationship between space and light and energy?
I'm interested in the idea of space inside and space outside, and the allegory of how soul inhabits body but has a life outside it. In the case of a cathedral, the light is often directional. But in the meetinghouse, there's something that's nondirectional. That was the one thing I always loved about the Quaker Meeting. You don't have a front, as an altar. There is an equality of direction, and out of that unity occurs. That can be done circularly, or in a square. The Quakers had the idea of getting away from steeple houses, that the church is the people, not the structure. That's true here too. I don't look upon it as being east, south, west, or north. It has simplicity.
I have this idea about "as above, so below," how that functions to create that space in this meetinghouse. You'll notice also the color is created by the light coming in. Because we don't create color, we don't receive the color, we actually do in effect create it. We like to think everything outside is something that we are receiving, but in effect we are a part of creating that.
We are interpreting it? Is that what you mean?
No, not at all. We are creating it. Color is not something that is set. It has to do with the context of vision as well as the frequency received.
Quakers have focused on light and the Inner Light and greeting the light. I'm wondering how that affects the building you've done.
My grandmother's instruction to me on first going into meeting after being in First Day School for some time was that I should go inside to greet the light. This light not seen with the eyes open was very important to me. The world that takes place during sleep or during meditation is a very energizing and important world.
That we receive energy from light is no new information. That is, we drink light as a food; take it through the skin. We make up for a lack of light by adding Vitamin D to milk. They forget to do it to beer and whiskey. [Laughter.] But we do have this physical relationship to light. It also has strong psychological components, which are being investigated quite heavily now in terms of light spaces and their effect on mood and your psychic-psychological state. Without it, people often get SAD, seasonal affective disorder, something that happens in the winters. And there are very few religious or spiritual experiences that aren't described using the vocabulary of light.