Art Chapels of the Plains

Volume 40, Issue 2 :: by Rebecca Sundet-Schoenwald

Six small “art chapels” sit on a spit of green space in the middle of a shopping mall’s parking lot in Fargo, North Dakota. Small signs stuck into the ground let shoppers know that the structures and the art inside them belong in this unlikely location. In fact, the little buildings seem well suited to their wind-blown island surrounded by concrete and cars.

The chapels, conceived by Fargo artist Marjorie Schlossman, are meant to provide private spaces for people seeking inspiration or just a respite from a busy day—and West Acres Shopping Mall is a busy place. The structures attract attention. Heads turn, cars slow, fingers point. A few people venture onto the grassy island, with mystified expressions. The signs tell them they are experiencing the Marjorie Schlossman Roberts Street Chaplet Project.

Schlossman calls the individual structures “chaplets,” but the project as a whole is named after her first architectural adventure, a permanent structure big enough to call a chapel on downtown Fargo’s Roberts Street.

From Concept to Collaboration

As incongruous as the chaplets may initially seem, situated between a Sears automotive center and a Best Buy store, they are a natural outcome of activities begun by Schlossman many years earlier when she served as president of the Plains Art Museum Board of Directors. She had actively served on the architecture and fundraising committees of a large historic renovation project for the Fargo museum. That project caused her to reflect on the meaning and purpose of the museum and the vast amounts of work and money it required.

“I was shocked to realize that the purpose of it all was so an individual could stand in front of a work of art and have an emotional experience,” says the artist. Her work on the museum board of directors done, Schlossman hired Fargo architect Bruce Hella to design and renovate a “sturdy, old, corner-box of a building” into what she calls an “ecumenical meditation or art chapel.” She wanted to create a sacred space, open to the public, free of a religion or belief system and free of charge but full of her art, that would inspire people or provide comfort, she says. “I believe that beauty can transport people into new emotional realms,” says Schlossman. “I realized this was a lofty goal, but I thought it was worth a try.”

With her goal in mind, Hella built a snaking skylight on the roof to provide the carefully calibrated, filtered daylight light Schlossman sought for the chapel. She painted a series of colorful, abutting canvases running about sixty feet on three sides of the room, hired a caretaker who would live in the studio apartment in the back, and opened the Roberts Street Chapel to the public. Messages and comments from visitors to the chapel indicate that people find the space spiritual, restful and inspiring, just as she hoped.

From Chapels to ‘Chaplets’

The completion and success of the Roberts Street Chapel led Schlossman directly to her next project. “I knew that Fargo-Moorhead didn’t need another art chapel, so I dreamed of rural chapels, rural art, and places people might travel to find them,” she says. She sought advice on the practical aspects of the project from Washington, D.C., architect Justine Kingham, and Fargo architect Mark Shaul, who thought the chaplets could be designed and built for $25,000 each. Shaul assured her that the structures could be somewhat portable, by either breaking down into segments that would fit into trucks, or riding on wheels to new locations.

Schlossman found six architects from within her wide circle of friends. She met individually with them to pitch the plan. Each would receive a $25,000 commission that would include the building of the chapel and transportation to her son’s nearby farm. She imposed few constraints. The chaplets were to be portable, lockable, and able to vwithstand a certain amount of bad weather. “Foremost, I asked them to inspire me to paint beautiful paintings inside each space,” she says. “I wanted them to have creative control over the initial design.”

The architects expressed surprise and some discomfort with the concept. “All six took the project as a challenge. They weren’t used to working without a large set of parameters and requirements, and they realized there would be competition and collaboration with other architects in other firms,” Schlossman notes. “But they quickly adapted.”

The architects relished the prospect of having their work on display at the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks. The museum’s executive director, Laurel Reuter, invited Schlossman to debut the project there. Another opportunity for exposure arose when Los Angeles filmmaker Mary Trunk asked to film the project for a documentary (visit to view a clip from Trunk’s film on the chaplets). Trunk had met Schlossman at a film festival in Fargo months earlier. The artist’s paintings and the project fascinated her.

“Her paintings are colorful narratives, like symphonies of movement where viewers can wander and interpret in different ways. Often there is a sense of something recognized, a memory, a song, a taste, or a smell, all conjured up by the mix of lines and colors on the canvas,” says Trunk.

“I have a strong interest in color, balance, and rhythm,” Schlossman explains. “I paint spontaneously.” She says that animal figures and symbols emerge when she paints. “I’m close to the cusp between abstract and realist art, but since the figures are so ambiguous, since they emanate from my subconscious, the works are generally considered abstract.”

As the filmmaker and the artist became more familiar with each other’s work and discussed the chaplet project, they became friends. Schlossman had confidence that Trunk understood the project’s purpose and would accurately represent it and her artwork in the film. “Marjorie’s intent was to create an ecumenical space and an artistic experience. There is room for all faiths and beliefs, and there is the hope that visitors will open themselves up to the even broader and wiser experience of art,” says Trunk.

From Collaboration to Culmination

Schlossman wanted the chaplets delivered to her son’s farm in Hawley, Minnesota, in April 2006. The museum in Grand Forks planned the opening for August, and she needed time to paint inside each chaplet. The beautiful farm, with its rolling hills and many trees, provided the space, the right light, and the inspiration for Schlossman to create. But just as many building projects are fraught with delays, so was this one. A couple of chaplets were finished and assembled so late at the farm that she had just a few days to paint. “I learned, to my delight and surprise, that I can paint quickly,” she says.

Schlossman was also delighted to find that each architect had taken a completely different approach to the design. “Each chaplet produces emotion, and the emotion in each varies. They succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I am fascinated to see them together in their diversity and strength.” And that is how they appear now in their temporary location next to a shopping mall – diverse and strong – united by the green grass that winds between them, distinct in their styles and moods, the culmination of a successful collaboration between art and architecture.

Schlossman hopes the project will travel to many communities across the country in the next few years. She imagines the structures on the grounds of museums, colleges, and even hospitals, wherever they might provide inspiration, consolation, quiet or pleasure to people who seek beauty and solitude.

Rebecca Sundet-Schoenwald is the project manager of the Marjorie Schlossman Roberts Street Chaplet Project in Fargo, North Dakota. She also works as a musician, arts administrator, and writer.

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