The prayer booth: an artist’s “exhibit” of faith
Dylan Mortimer’s installations in three US cities invite the public to participate in making belief less abstract.
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“We have everything on the streets of New York, and sometimes you have to take a little break. God’s going to talk to you wherever you are. So you go in there and it’s your own sanctuary,” says Mr. Jenkins, who knelt for prayer there several times. “I don’t care what people think. When you kneel down there, people give you room. They don’t bother you, [whereas] if you were to stop in the middle of the sidewalk and look up at the sky and pray, people would think you’re crazy.”
Some take the telephone concept literally. Mail carrier John Chang, who found the booths too open for his own comfort, nevertheless has no doubt that they function as designed. “You believe you can call somebody on a [real] telephone and make a connection with the one on the other end. Same here. But you have to believe it,” he insists.
Of course, not everyone believes, not everyone’s a fan. “I think it’s a waste. I see no need for it,” says resident William Holland, explaining that he is not a religious or praying person. “It‘s not my thing.”
At first, a neighborhood group tried to have the booths removed, arguing that public property was no place for art suggestive of religion, that the public should not be forced into prayer, recalls Mortimer. The city, he says, responded that the exhibit was no more forcing prayer “than the presence of a phone booth is forcing you to make a phone call."
He was hardly surprised at the opposition, though. The subject of all his artwork – faith and prayer – “is either avoided or heavily abstracted or treated cynically, especially in the art world, where supposedly anything goes,” he says. He wants the humor to be a bridge across the ideological divide.
The New York booths are two of the four that Mortimer, a graduate of New York’s School of Visual Art master’s program, has been displaying around the country since he first created the work in 2003. The broad range of reactions – love it from a distance, hate it, use it as a joke, use it seriously – are all valid, says Mortimer, pastor to the small Rivercity Community Church in Kansas City.
But he clearly appreciates those who are moved spiritually by his work. “Emails tend to be along the lines of ‘I was overwhelmed by life, or I was so busy, and I saw this and it reminded me to pray.’ And then they’ll list the things or people they pray for.”
One woman, writing of her loneliness in the big city, sees the exhibit as “a sort of hope for her – a ray of light in the gloom and doom of New York City.”
So does Janette Maron, who works nearby at Bloomingdale’s. “It’s sweet. I don’t know why. There’s just something very special about it,” she says, especially this fall, as many in her city reel from layoffs and threats of layoffs, and as retail girds for what may be a bad season. “I haven’t tried it … yet,” she adds.
Sammy Andino, a security officer for the local business improvement district, is another who considered having a kneel.
“Five minutes wouldn’t be so bad – the barest of time,” he muses. “I’d be thankful for my day, that I’m healthy…. It wouldn’t be embarrassing to praise the Lord there, to thank the Lord, even if I was in my uniform. After all, He’s the One who gave us life.”