Faith Arts Village Orlando: The artistry of community

Colin Farmer speaks with Helen DeBevoise, co-pastor at Park Lake Presbyterian Church, about Faith Arts Village Orlando and the intrinsic link between faith and art.

Photo by Taelynn Christopher on Unsplash

“I have a big idea, and I’m not sure what to do with it. It scares me a little,” Helen DeBevoise wrote in 2011 in a letter to Park Lake Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida. 

It was with those words that Helen DeBevoise, co-pastor at Park Lake Presbyterian Church, introduced the idea of Faith Arts Village Orlando (FAVO) to her church. At the time she wrote that letter, the church had been holding onto a vacant motel property for years. 

Originally purchased for overflow parking in 2001, the motel building was rented back to the previous owners for several years before becoming vacant in 2007. The church struggled to decide what to do with the property. They wanted to use it for something either social justice oriented or to provide for the community of Park Lake, but they couldn’t land on a plan. Some suggestions were unfeasible for the church due to the space they had, and others were met with roadblocks from the city government. Housing for refugees or space for the Red Cross were potential ideas that ultimately fell through.

Park Lake Presbyterian Church

They were at an impasse until DeBevoise encountered Torpedo Factory Art Center – an arts village located at a converted munitions plant – in Alexandria, Virginia. Reflecting on the Christian church’s long history with art and the benefit to the larger community, DeBevoise decided to pitch converting the old motel building into an arts village.

“The church has historically been one of the greatest patrons of the arts: think Michelangelo’s fresco on the Sistine Chapel ceiling … I believe God speaks to us and through us in lots of different languages,” she wrote in the letter pitching the arts village idea. “Too often the spreading of God’s Word has been limited to the formal act of preaching, but what if we as a community explored the ways that God speaks through art and made a ‘place’ for artists of all types to express their faith?” 

Too often the spreading of God’s Word has been limited to the formal act of preaching, but what if we as a community explored the ways that God speaks through art and made a ‘place’ for artists of all types to express their faith?

The church responded positively to DeBevoise’s idea, and renovations began on the motel to turn some of the rooms into art galleries for individual artists, funded by Park Lake Presbyterian’s finances. In late 2011, FAVO was opened to the public. Since then, it has fostered a strong relationship between artists, the community and the church. FAVO has not led to any large change in the number of people who attend Sunday services, but that wasn’t necessarily the goal. DeBevoise believes that churches need to look at what they are doing for their community, even if it does not lead to more active members.

“It may not be so much about people getting into the (church) building, but about people in the (church) building getting out,” she said.

Artists rent rooms at FAVO at a monthly rate, which helps to cover operating costs, alongside the budget approved by the session at Park Lake Presbyterian Church. DeBevoise said that FAVO has been profitable, and the extra money has gone to maintenance on the church, as well as back into FAVO. The church plans to continue to renovate the motel to make more rooms available for artists.

Faith Arts Village Orlando. Photo by Will Benton, accessed on Faith Arts Village Orlando’s Facebook page.

To build and nurture the community between the artists, church and community, Park Lake Presbyterian Church sponsors an event called First Friday the first weekend of every month. The event is promoted as family-friendly, and people come from all across Orlando. Artists can openly display their work and community members can ask questions about the drawings, paintings, pottery or other creative mediums.

FAVO’s setup also allows community members a chance to ask artists about their work. Artists often struggle to put their work out into the world, DeBevoise said, and people often struggle to talk with artists on their creative process. She believes this to be important because art is more than what’s simply visible on the page or the canvas.

“It’s their way of recording life. There’s a little piece of their life in that story,” DeBevoise said.

Helen DeBevoise

The art displayed in FAVO does not need to be connected directly to religion or faith, but it is screened because the church sponsors the events and wants to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere. Artists who work in FAVO have contributed faith-based art, such as a collection of 18 artists coming together with the church to construct an exhibit that showcased Jesus’ journey during Holy Week.

The church’s investment in community art has, in turn, developed its understanding of art’s connection to spirituality. Park Lake Presbyterian Church has a pottery group called “Potter’s Hand” and opened a session committee for FAVO, spearheaded by Will Benton, the director of FAVO and organist at the church. The FAVO committee oversees the motel, FAVO art and music showcases, the FAVO Gives Back charity drive, and gift card donations for Zebra Coalition, which supports unhoused LGBTQ+ youth and young adults.

“Park Lake has always been a church that valued music. FAVO’s presence has opened the possibility and presence of visual arts. The congregation enjoys and supports what FAVO brings to its life and ministry,” DeBevoise said.

DeBevoise also hopes FAVO shows artists how the church can foster love. In fact, she sees herself as the unofficial FAVO chaplain because she speaks with the artists and asks them not just about their art, but also about their life. If any artists are struggling to make ends meet, the session at Park Lake provides meals and DeBevoise helps to ease any other problems the artists may be struggling with. She believes that her work can help rebuild the trust between artists and the church by inviting church members to see art, and the world, in new and creative ways.

Helen DeBevoise (center) talks to members of Park Lake Presbyterian Church about the Holy Week exhibit produced by artists in FAVO. Pieces from the exhibit are on display on the church walls and present the journey Jesus made during Holy Week. Photo submitted.

“It is a long process of building trust and a new relationship,” DeBevoise said, but she remains hopeful that FAVO’s work is fostering a strong bond between the two groups.

When it comes to deepening that relationship even further, DeBevoise gave some suggestions for what other religious communities could do.

“Appreciat[e] creativity as a language of faith, inviting artists to share what they do/know/see, get outside the walls of the church and go walk among artists and talk to them, ask them about their inspiration,” DeBevoise said. “Repairing relationships happens through building relationships. It is not a quick journey. Healing never is.