Artist David Hetland's most meaningful work, he always says, looks best in the dark and from a distance. For 25 years Hetland has designed a hallmark of Concordia College's Christmas concerts--the large, vibrant mural that serves as the backdrop to choirs, orchestra and handbell ringers.
Although the mural stands in the background, its presence distinguishes the Moorhead, Minn., college's concert from other Christmas events. Art blends with the word and music. Eight muslin panels, each 7 feet wide and 20 feet high, enhance sacred song and text.
With the mural, those who attend the annual event not only hear the concert but see it too, says René Clausen, who develops the concerts' themes as conductor of The Concordia Choir.
"Sections of the mural will directly relate to what's being heard," he says. "It's similar to theater. There's no stage action, but there's a connection between the oral and visual senses. That makes it a complete experience for people."
Christmas concerts have been a tradition at the liberal arts college since the 1920s. Art was introduced in 1940 when Cy Running, who headed Concordia's fledgling art department, draped 113 yards of blue sateen over the archway of the church where the concert was held. A single star was suspended against the cloth. Two simulated art glass windows depicted heavenly and earthly Christmas scenes.
Two years later the concert was moved to the Moorhead Armory. The gym seated more people, but acoustics were poor. Out of necessity, a sound shell was placed behind the choirs. Concert organizers decided to paint it, and the Christmas mural was born.
As an undergraduate art student at Concordia in the late '60s, Hetland assisted with the mural. In 1977, he was asked to take over the project.
Mural research begins early each summer. Images from the chosen music and texts lend themselves to visual themes. Hetland also relies on current or cultural events to provide visual metaphors. In 2001, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred while he was in the middle of designing the artwork. What appeared in the final mural was a scene from Revelation: the heavenly city reaching down and embracing the skeletal remains of the World Trade Center. "For me, it was a healing sort of image," he says. "Hopefully, it was for others too."
Each December, 20,000 concertgoers view the mural from their seats at Concordia's Memorial Auditorium and at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis. Hetland's goal--and that of others who work on the event--is that people leave filled with a sense of Christmas renewal, joy and wonder.
"That's part of why we do this," he says. "This is the most important work I do each year. So many people who come to the concerts have daily burdens that are difficult to imagine. Yet they can come and leave spiritually refreshed."
The greatest challenge Hetland faces is telling the same story in a different way each year. It was a lesson he learned at the feet of some young choir members. Hetland overheard two young women on the first night of rehearsal after the mural was set up. One, a freshman, exclaimed, "Wow!" as she walked past the mural. "Yeah," said the other, obviously an upperclassman. "They put that thing up every year."
Once the design is complete, the small original drawing is transferred to panels using high-contrast negative slides. Then more than 100 volunteers begin painting in mid-October every year. No art experience is needed--it's a paint-by-number system.
Carl and June Bailey of Moorhead are among the most dedicated painters under Hetland's watch. They are members of the elite "B-Squad," three couples who, for several decades, have painted nearly every evening and weekend each fall.
At 84, Carl Bailey is the oldest to have added his paint strokes to blue dogs and purple camels over the years. "But you realize you're doing something that's a contribution to the community," he says. "There's a sense of accomplishment, a sense that you've helped people."
It's also a great deal of fun. Veteran painters connect with old and new friends every fall, and all enjoy being part of an inside circle that knows the secrets of each mural. As an incentive for helpers, Hetland weaves a touch of whimsy into each piece.
In 1991, when the Minnesota Twins won the World Series, one of the scenes included Christ surrounded by contemporary children. A boy wearing a Twins T-shirt held a baseball. In 1988, a presidential election year, a quail beneath a bush appeared under a blue camel: a nod to Dan Quayle and George Bush. For this year's theme, Prince of Peace: Hope of the World, the word "peace" appears in more than 200 languages--including pig Latin.
When the Christmas concert ends, the muslin panels are recycled or destroyed. Each panel can be painted twice before it becomes a drop cloth. Yet the designs don't die. Hetland uses elements of the murals in permanent works designed by his firm, which specializes in liturgical art.
And there's always next year.
"People ask me what my best mural is," Hetland says. "It's the next one. That's the way I feel every year."
© 2015 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers