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On the Arts: The Liturgical Logic in the Art of Theaster Gates

Dr. Maria Fee

Maria Fee is the author of Beauty Is a Basic Service: Theology and Hospitality in the Work of Theaster Gates. Maria holds an MFA in painting, an MA in theological studies, and a PhD in theology and culture. 

In 2018, the University of Arts London conferred an honorary doctorate degree on the Chicago artist Theaster Gates. He concluded his acceptance speech performing his bedtime ritual, singing: “Guide my hands. Guide my hands. Guide my hands, while I am on this tedious journey. Guide my hands.”1 The deed expressed a trait found in much of Gates’s work, unabashed offerings of spirituality in public forums where such private sentimentalities are often suppressed. The gesture also represents the primacy of the Black church in Gates’s upbringing, its patterns of worshipful communal life now extended to all. Theaster Gates models a circular liturgical logic. Schooled by expressions of collective belief, he translates them in a decidedly not religious art world. Gates critically reframes faith works as artworks, completing the circle to inspire religious communities to explore, broaden, and revive their own traditions. 

Because Gates’s spiritual formation has informed his philosophy of making, his work is particularly relevant to the critical and creative efforts of liturgical theologians, artists, and leaders of worship. Gates’s work is influenced by his experiences in worship, and his work can influence our liturgical theology and practices. Thus, I want to turn the liturgical circle back to the church. What follows is a short appraisal of Gates’s making maxims, which are “To make is to love,” “Making is about believing,” and “To make is to challenge,”2 all of which are applicable to Christian liturgies in many contexts—works by people, for people. 

To make is to love. 

The act of making models sacrifice, compassion, care, and commitment, all of which are reflected in Theaster Gates’s best-known work in progress, the Dorchester Project. In his South Side of Chicago neighborhood of Greater Grand Crossings, Gates purchases abandoned properties and transforms them into cultural venues and gathering spaces for his neighbors. These houses become repositories for the arts, listening rooms, film screening venues, community arts centers, libraries. Building materials salvaged from these sites become materials for art objects and installations. When these more traditional works are sold, a portion supports the Dorchester Project through the nonprofit Rebuild Foundation. Gates calls this a circular ecology, where the collaboration of art and real estate transforms the environment. This type of ethical stewardship recalls past and present community development efforts by Black churches responding to societal exclusions. The Dorchester Project also reflects Gates’s interdisciplinary background. With graduate study in urban planning, ceramics, and religion from Iowa State and experience as a youth choir director, Gates comes to his work with many different influences, each of which finds a place in his work. His experience with church music finds voice through the performances of his musical ensemble The Black Monks of Mississippi. Inspired by East Asian monastic chants and the Black musical traditions of gospel, blues, and soul, The Black Monks of Mississippi performs on their own or as part of a larger exhibition or event related to Gates’s work. The ensemble’s music sonically anoints Gates’s installations and those present, reminding visitors that place, people, and materials hold spiritual weight. 

Making is about believing. 

Just as Gates trusts the mediating elements of liturgies to help give form to what cannot be named, he trusts the properties of the physical world to help grasp what is immaterial—like faith, love, forgiveness, and compassion.3 Perhaps this is why he contends that art isn’t what he leads with, noting, “I believe in places, I believe in people, I believe in the value of material things.”4 His 2015 installation Sanctum illustrates this well. Utilizing the place-making methodology of the Dorchester Project, Gates built a chapel-like structure within the perimeter of the bombed-out ruins of Bristol, England’s Temple Church. Constructing the chapel using saved items from abandoned factories and churches draws attention to the secular and sacred labors of Bristol. Continuing the theme of labor, Gates enlivens the space with 522 hours of nonstop sound presentations by area musicians and performers. “Sanctum,” explained Gates, “is primarily a platform on which the people of Bristol have an opportunity to hear each other.”5 Such tangible sociability aligns with theologian Catherine Pickstock’s liturgical ethos. Unlike the dispassionate, autonomous, and “formalized civility” of Western structures, Christian liturgies are grounded on love, enabling “the natural turning towards the series of human others.”6

To make is to challenge. 

Just as Pickstock declares Christian liturgies to be “site[s] of resistance” where place, people, and things are valued before God and each other, Gates, too, considers art making as resistance. Art and liturgy both live in an aesthetic realm, resisting modernity’s detachment and disembodiment. Rituals, whether we experience them in worship, through the multiple iterations required to turn clay pots, in repeating song refrains, or continually reviving buildings, gather a kind of accumulated, transferrable knowledge. Realizing the relationship between the mundane and the monumental, hands-on making empowers and mobilizes. “Art functions,” notes Gates. “It gives us the capacity to say things in a new way that the political and social world needs to hear.”7 Take for example how Sanctum and the Dorchester Project both ask the provoking question “Who is my neighbor?” much like in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan. These art projects also challenge ideas of art for art’s sake, property development, and public/private divisions. To be sure, as an artist Gates calls all of us to reconsider the aesthetic, social, and transformative dimensions of liturgies, the kind that happen in a religious space as well as events outside the bounds of what we may call religious, offerings like the leiturgias of ancient Greece, whereby patrons invested in civic programs for the good of all.

The art of Theaster Gates highlights the reciprocal and fluid relationship between secular and sacred labors. The energizing rituals involved in making teach us to learn the turns of the liturgical cycle by heart. They enable faith communities to love, to believe, to be challenged, and to challenge prevailing ideologies and practices of Empire like consumerism, autonomy, and hegemonies. Theologian Raimundo Panikkar insists that “only worship can prevent secularization from becoming inhuman, and only secularization can save worship from being meaningless.”8 This kind of integration and exchange is also present in Gates’s work and has much wisdom to share with the church. Gates reminds both priests and poets that love must ground their labors. His plea, “Guide my hands,” displays a keen longing to move beyond the self to benefit others—in the presence of Sacredness itself.



1. Mackenzie Goldberg, “Watch Theaster Gates Give Moving Speech as He Receives Honorary Doctorate from UAL,” Archinect, July 20, 2018, accessed August 22, 2022, -doctorate-from-ual. 

2. Goldberg, “Watch Theaster Gates Give Moving Speech.”

3. Theaster Gates, “Working the Public, with Theaster Gates,” interview by Naima J. Keith, January 24, 2018, California African American Museum, Los Angeles.

4. Jeffrey Deitch, “Jeffrey Deitch & Theaster Gates: I Believe in Places,” The Avant/Garde Diaries, Mercedes-Benz, January 13, 2012, YouTube video, 4:13, 

5. Jessica Klingelfuss, “Theaster Gates Hits All the High Notes in Bristol’s Temple Church,” Wallpaper*, October 30, 2015,

6. Catherine Pickstock, “Liturgy, Art, and Politics,” Modern Theology 16, no. 2 (April 2000): 179. 

7. Goldberg, “Watch Theaster Gates Give Moving Speech.”

8. Raimundo Panikkar, Worship and Secular Man (Orbis Books, 1973), 1.


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