Wineskins Archive

January 21, 2014

The Figure of a Woman (May 1993)

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by Jack Welch
May, 1993

12Finding a suitable way to use one’s talent for the Lord is frustrating for many, but Blanche Garrett Perry finally found the way. Although her life was disrupted for many years by disease, her faith was profound and sustaining. She became a prolific painter of baptistry murals in Churches of Christ during a time when many buildings were being constructed. From the 1930s to the 1960s Blanche Perry painted well over 200 baptistry scenes in buildings across this land and in several foreign countries. Although each of the scenes was beautiful in its own right, she imbued each with so many spiritual insights that she usually wrote an “interpretation” which would be made available to the congregation.

The influence of the spiritual message presented in her art was so significant that the late Jimmy Lovell, prominent California Christian and head of World Bible School, wrote to her in 1970 that “certainly no woman in all the church has made a greater contribution to it than you have done.”

Blanche Garrett Perry (1890-1981) was born in Mount Carmel, Alabama. Her father was principal of a private grade and high school, and both her father and mother had artistic talent. A large painting survives that both parents worked on. However, the father suffered from tuberculosis and died when Blanche was only eight. Her mother remarried but died in childbirth a couple of years later. The remaining Garrett children were then reared by the father’s childless sister and her husband. Blanche was always sickly, and later learned that even as a child she suffered from tuberculosis.

The Garrett family was a pillar in the Church of Christ in Mount Willing, Alabama, with Blanche’s grandfather and great-uncle serving as elders. In her autobiography, Blanche wrote of her memories of this church. The two brothers “took turns serving at the Lord’s Supper and exhorting.” Moreover, “it was in that little church we learned reverence [for] God and Jesus. The singing reverberated in that little church. Instrumental music was not missed.” Mrs. Perry further recalled, “The next memory of worship was after Papa’s death at the little white frame church at Fort Deposit [Alabama]. Aunt Georgia Davis was my teacher. She taught us well in regards to faith. Jesus was the Christ… and one must be obedient to Christ’s command to be baptized.”

Blanche attended the local schools in Alabama then went for one year to the Southern Female College for Girls at La Grange, Georgia. Blanche wrote of this experience, “The art teacher was so nice and taught her pupils still life in charcoal, then an oil study. She would take us from campus to study nature.”

Blanche Garrett married Andrew Eugene Perry (the owner of a construction company which mainly built roads for the state of Alabama) in Montgomery in 1913. He shared her love of the church and also encouraged her art. There survives a painting of a nightscape in Havana, where they went on their honeymoon.

The Perrys moved to several places in Alabama and Louisiana, and two children were born, Andrew Eugene Perry, Jr., and Myrta Blanche Perry (both of whom cooperated extensively in this study). By 1924 Blanche Perry’s health had deteriorated so much that Andrew took her to Phipps Sanatorium near Denver for treatment. She was not expected to live. “Nearly five years I was a bed patient,” Blanche revealed in an interview years later, “and five more were spent as a semi-invalid. By the grace of God I did not die. He gave me healing according to his divine will.”

After Blanche was well, the Perry family decided to remain in Denver, and Mrs. Perry was asked to paint a baptistry for a new building of the Church of Christ in town. This painting changed her life. “I painted that picture alone,” said Mrs. Perry in an undated newspaper interview, “and accidentally painted into it a perfect dove-shaped cloud hovering over the water. When it was brought to my attention that I had represented in the picture the sun, cross, and the dove, symbols of the Holy Trinity, and the three that bear witness, the spirit, water, and blood, I realized that a door was opened to me to preach the gospel in a peculiar way, and a means whereby I could glorify God, with paintings of those visible evidences of his creation. All my life I had wondered how I could glorify God with a talent. The thought of painting baptistries from coast to coast never entered my mind. Now each picture I paint unfolds lovely thoughts found in the Bible in types, figures, and symbols.”

Although Mrs. Perry painted evocative scenes of the Jordan River and of particular locales in Florida or Arkansas or California, one of her most important motifs involved the figure of a woman. This theme which Blanche Perry chose for the painting of the baptistry of the church of Christ in Anson, Texas, (and for many other baptistries) she entitled “The Word of God and The Elect Lady.” In an interpretation of this theme she wrote of a mountain which she could see from her sanatorium window. “By chance perhaps the lapping peaks of Mount Evan’s range have the form of a woman. The Great Sculptor, by the breath of his mouth, formed her on the solid rock foundation, vestured in the royal colors of the evergreens’ misty shadows. Her garment is of snow, emblematic of purity and righteousness. He veiled her in the cloudy mystery and stretched out the heavens like a curtain behind her (the heavens which declare his glory, and the firmament which showeth forth his handiwork). Exalted above all else earthly, this terrestrial woman shines beneath the sun, a symbol of the spiritual ‘Lady,’ ‘Bride’ of the Son of God who is the ‘Sun of Righteousness’ that shines upon his bride, the church, which was predestined to be an everlasting foundation for the righteous, even before he laid the foundation of the earth. ‘He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before him in love’ (Ephesians 1:5). And ‘He put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body’ (this bride).”

In the painting itself one can see the figure of the reclining woman at the line in the painting where the mountains and the sky intersect. Her head is to the left and the sculpted figure of her bosom and raised knees can be seen. The cloud in the form of a dove hovers just over the woman.

Because the title of the painting is “The Elect Lady,” the interpretation is drawn from John’s second epistle. Here John is actually writing to the elect lady, and, although commentators differ, Mrs. Perry agrees with those who say the elect lady is probably the church.

The other part of her theme for this painting, “The Word of God,” may be seen in the water, plants, and sun. In an interview in the Western Observer of Anson, Texas in 1951, Mrs. Perry quoted Isaiah 55:10-11 to reveal the source of her inspiration for the painting. “For as the rain cometh down and the snow from the heaven, and returned not thither, but watereth the earth and maketh it bring forth bud, and giveth seed to the sower and bread to the earth, so shall my Word be that goeth forth out of my mouth; it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the things whereto I send it.”

In addition to presenting an illustration of the working of God on Earth, Mrs. Perry also found a way to praise. She told the Anson reporter, “Since I can’t sing praises unto my God, painting is my only way of expressing my praise to him!”

Mrs. Perry took no money for her work, but the congregation receiving the painting would buy the materials and sometimes pay for her lodging if she painted on site. If the congregation wanted to pay more, she recommended that contribution be made to S. F. Timmerman, her nephew who was a missionary in Belgium and later in French-speaking Canada.

Blanche Perry lived a long life of service to God, and she found a way to utilize her talent for him. Her tireless meditation on complex scriptures deepened her paintings as well as her spiritual life. She was a Christian mystic in the best sense of the word, and her allegorical murals have been a blessing to a generation of Christians who never met her. To paraphrase the writer of Hebrews, she continues to proclaim her message, even though she has gone to be with the Lord.Wineskins Magazine

Jack Welch

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