Torrents of color that resemble painted waves of wind and water, ascending scarlet and sunflower flames, and bursts of celestial white, almost like supernovas: these are just some of the shapes, shades, and sensations that abound in Juanita Yoder’s works, especially her paintings on vast lengths of silk.
Her 12-foot by 3-foot silk paintings (titled “Infusion”) are suspended from the arched ceilings of the Princeton University Chapel, alongside the chapel’s stained glass windows, intricate carvings, and other magnificent works of art. Have a visit to the chapel and look up: the diaphanous quality of Yoder’s “Infusion” contrasts and softens the stone interior.
And then there are Yoder’s huge, playful ceremonial kites, which seem to dance in the air like silk dragons or ethereal sea creatures.
Her kites and kinetic processional pieces have been used for major events in the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C., the St. James Cathedral in Seattle, Washington, as well as the Princeton University Chapel.
Soon Yoder’s kites in a variety of vivacious hues will be hoisted high, to swirl and swoop down the aisle, as part of the annual Easter services at the University Chapel on Sunday, March 27.
“We use (Juanita’s) processional kites every Easter and we look forward to doing so again on March 27,” says the Reverend Dr. Alison Boden, dean of the chapel and of religious life at Princeton University.
For two decades Yoder has created large-scale installations on silk for health care, hospitality and, especially, liturgical environments. The Mercy Gilbert Medical Center in Arizona, the Central Park Hotel in Sighisoara, Romania, and, closer to home, the chapel at the Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart are just a few of the spaces that are graced by her works.
About this latter installation, titled “Mater,” Yoder writes, “Through quiet listening, this image arose to express the vision of Princeton Academy. I felt especially close to the feminine aspects of the Divine as I worked on this piece. The project also corresponded with an especially beautiful time in my life. I share these images in gratitude. The size of the total installation is approximately 19 feet wide by 14 feet high.”
“The stained glass windows and architectural motifs inspired the form for this project,” she writes. “This ‘Mater’ is an abstracted take on the traditional painting Pauline Perdrau created in 1844 for Trinita dei Monti, Rome. This major center for education and devotion inspired the creation of many more schools, and it is now customary to have a ‘Mater’ painting on a Sacred Heart campus.”
More recently Yoder completed a series of processional paintings on silk, titled “Streams of Mercy,” for St. James Cathedral in Seattle, Washington, to commemorate the Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis in December, 2015.
“It’s a year to think about this concept of mercy, to show ourselves and others mercy, whether it’s on a personal, community or global level,” Yoder says. “This work was such a meaningful project for me to do.”
Yoder has also been working on a project called “Jacob’s Ladder,” for an atrium in the New Brunswick Theological Seminary’s new building.
“It’s a mobile of 10 silk panels, very large scale — 13 feet in total, and it’s the first one I’ve done,” Yoder says. “Although it was a new thing, it’s been really fun to do and was pretty straight forward, using hanging systems I’ve used before. I love to collaborate, and for this, I collaborated with a metalsmith to create the top part.”
The artist, who lives in Robbinsville and has a studio among fellow creative types at the Art Station in Hightstown, discovered that her works were receiving high praise and becoming more and more in demand, so much so that Yoder found an agent to handle her business, particularly with liturgical clients and their spaces.
For about two years Yoder has been represented by John Bergstrom of Hillstream LLC, based in South Salem, New York. Yoder is in splendid company, as one of only three exceptional artists in multiple media represented by Hillstream — John Giuliani and John Collier are the other two.
“Creating the work is plenty for me, so I went searching for an agent to do the marketing and whatnot,” Yoder says. “In today’s competitive market it helps to have an agent, and I really appreciate working with John.”
“I’ve been to several conferences, and he’s come along and it’s been wonderful, because it frees me up to talk about meaning, to listen to the clients, to connect to their vision and the work that needs to be done,” she says. “There are not many people doing what I’m doing, and to be in touch with a lot of churches and their design architects takes time and energy, so having John really frees me up to focus on my work.”
Indeed, her signature multi-colored, meditative paintings on silk are unusual — although liturgical artists abound in such other media as painting, stained glass, furnishings, vestments, etc.
“I exhibit as a vendor at conferences. That’s how I come in contact with clients,” Yoder says. “Last year I was invited to give a presentation about my work at the Cathedral Ministries Conference in Minneapolis (held in connection with the Association of Consultants for Liturgical Space), as well as the Mennonite World Conference and the Southwest Liturgical Conference.”
Yoder was also invited to give a presentation at the National Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., and her banners adorned the main meeting hall of the conference.
It’s all been quite a whirlwind for Yoder, who grew up in a Mennonite family in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and still attends Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. With her large, vibrantly hued liturgical works, Yoder admits she has gone afield of the unadorned worship spaces of the Mennonite Church.
She was originally doing more secular paintings and fabric art and, years ago, was exhibiting at Ward-Nasse Gallery in New York’s SoHo, when a representative from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine stopped in.
“(Through this), I was invited to create an exhibit at the St. Boniface Chapel gallery at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1995,” Yoder says. “The show inspired more deliberate, spiritually themed paintings.”
Many of Yoder’s designs have abstract imagery of water, flames, wind, and wings, calling to mind such ideas as being lifted from the bonds of earth to the heavens, or ascending from the ashes.
“My art is a language that goes beyond words, but the symbols of fire and water are very important to me,” Yoder says. “In the Christian faith, they are very symbolic — for baptism, Pentecost, etc., and no matter what I do, those themes seem to return to my work. Now that I’ve been doing liturgical work, the colors of the liturgical calendar year also infuse my work. I find that I am entering more into the sense of those seasons: the deep violet meditative spaces of Lent, the gold light and white of resurrection, the fiery red and flames of Pentecost, as well as the serenity of the greens of ‘ordinary’ times.”
“By ‘ordinary,’ I mean the time of epiphany, the everyday discoveries in ordinary times,” Yoder adds. “So those paintings have flashes of light to symbolize those epiphanies.”
For Yoder, creating her paintings is a form of meditation. Having them housed in an actual place of worship was not anything she planned, it just seems to have unfolded in this way — and she loves it.
“In a sense, I see my painting as prayer, and I use that term in a very broad sense, that is, connecting to the divine, listening for the imagery,” she says. “It’s my hope then, as people see the work — whether in a church or not — on a good day, and if the angle is right, that their heart opens more to the connection of the divine, and they are inspired to see their own faith in a new way and connect to themselves or others more deeply. That’s really where it’s at for me.”
Yoder developed a special technique for dynamic painting on silk, which includes using fiber-reactive dye. Once completed the paintings are steamed, allowing the dye to fuse with the protein fibers in the silk. After steaming Yoder washes the finished piece until all of the excess residue is removed; then, the work pressed and hemmed.
Growing up in various towns in suburban Philadelphia, Yoder says her father, Ray, was a Mennonite pastor, and her mother, Edna, a nurse. Although her father didn’t make a career as a professional artist, he did paint, but more importantly, both her father and mother were (and still are) outstanding gardeners.
“Their house was in a garden tour,” Yoder says. “Their gardens are so beautiful. It’s like an arboretum to be in their backyard. My parents were creative in shaping color, in the installation of plants and flowers, and that has influenced me. Both of them have been an inspiration to me. I think you could put them anywhere in the world and they would make friends immediately.”
“They always encouraged me to be creative, and that support was essential,” she says. “I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember, and my parents were so supportive. They always made sure I had pens and pencils, paper and other materials.”
Her sister, Cynthia Yoder, an author, has also been a source of encouragement throughout the years. So has Yoder’s son, Niko, who is about to graduate from Rutgers with a degree in biomedical engineering.
“His self-reflection and pursuit of knowledge expands my view of the world,” Yoder says.
After attending Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, Yoder earned a B.A., with a major in art, from Goshen College, Indiana, and an M.A. from Eastern Illinois University, where she was awarded a full scholarship and a teaching assistantship. She also earned a teaching certificate from the College of New Jersey.
On the website for Hillstream, Yoder’s bio mentions her participation in a group pilgrimage to Assisi and also Laverna, Italy, in the spring of 2010. “The overwhelming smell of jasmine, the gorgeous stone and terra cotta, and the panorama of the valley provided a place for Yoder to explore small, personal works. This experience continues to influence her spiritual practice and artwork,” the bio notes.
Gardens — especially her parents’ masterful creations — have continued to be important in Yoder’s life, and this interest took her to Comisky’s Greenhouse on Franklin Street in Hightstown, where she has been collaborating with owner Ed Comisky in a couple of ways. She works there part time, but Yoder and Comisky have also put their energies together to introduce the new Gallery 33.
“I was filling in on occasion, helping in the greenhouse because I just love plants, and last spring Ed asked me what I might do with his store area up front,” Yoder says. “We talked, and the next thing you know, we were launching Gallery 33, an art, plant, and gift gallery, hoping to introduce people to New Jersey artists, potters, glassblowers, wood-turners, as well as Jersey-made jams, sauces, chocolate, and Jersey-roasted coffee.”
The “soft” opening of Gallery 33 was last fall; Yoder hopes art, antiques, artisanal crafts and food, and music will bring more and more folks into the space. Currently,there is live music every third Saturday, usually featuring Daniel Trent or Lance Reichert, both guitarists, but by May, Yoder says there will be entertainment every weekend.
“So while you’re thinking about your garden, you can also see local art, hear local musicians play, and enjoy (culinary creations) by local chefs,” says Yoder. “Having Gallery 33 here creates an event, and it creates community.”
Juanita Yoder on the Web: www.hillstream.com.
Juanita Yoder’s paintings on silk can be seen around the area, including at the Princeton University Chapel; her ceremonial kites will be part of the processional at the Princeton University Chapel’s Easter services, Sunday, March 27, 8 and 11 a.m., 609-258-3047. religiouslife.princeton.edu/chapel
Gallery 33 at Comisky’s Greenhouses, 315 Franklin Street at Route 33, Hightstown, showcases works by a variety of regional artists, including Yoder, as well as regionally crafted foods and coffee; and live music every third Saturday. 609- 448-1705. www.facebook.com/comiskys. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.