Brushed by the spirit

At Grace Church in Lexington, the hope of the season is captured in word, song, and paint

By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / December 20, 2009

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LEXINGTON - The altar at Grace Chapel is all decked out for Christmas. A pair of star-topped evergreens frame the poinsettia-filled stage, and artificial swag, laced with white lights, is strung along the walls and the balcony.

On the stage are the usual elements of worship here - a choir, an orchestra, an organist, and a preacher.

And then there is Lori Dupre. Clad head to toe in black, she is crouching on a dropcloth taped to the carpet, surrounded by open cans of white, black, red, blue, and purple paint, in front of a 5-foot-wide canvas mounted on a metal easel.

As the congregation sings “O Little Town of Bethlehem,’’ she dips a brush into a vat of black, and begins to paint.

Moving rapidly and quietly, she scrawls a string of tough words over a painted image of planet Earth. Abuse. Corruption. Greed. Betrayal. Prejudice. Strife. Injustice. And then, in a circle, Evil.

Bending toward the canvas, her right arm moving in broad circles, she covers the canvas in swirls of white, smearing the beautiful globe and the ugly words together, erasing them both.

Onto her bare hands, she pours blood-red paint, then pauses for a moment before clawing her fingers across the canvas, leaving finger-shaped streaks of pigment across the remains of the graffitied globe.

And then, as a cellist plays a haunting version of the Advent hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel,’’ Dupre returns to the front pew.

Dupre is a painter, but she sees her work during the sermon - which she calls “live painting’’ - not simply as creative expression, but as worship. “It’s an experience, not a work of art,’’ she says.

Grace, one of the few evangelical megachurches in suburban Boston, draws as many as 4,000 people to its four Sunday services - enough that worshipers have to park at the high school or the fire station and take shuttles to the sanctuary. There is a cafe in the church, a “kidstown’’ with activities for children, a mothers’ room, a gym, and a staff of 40 working in several nearby office buildings.

Worship is casual and contemporary. And, as at many megachurches around the country, there is almost always some form of visual or performance art built in to the worship service: a provocative film clip, for example, or a short staged drama.

“We believe that truth can be spoken in a variety of mediums, that God can use the language of the arts to convey his transforming message to hearts that are open to hear him speak,’’ the pastor of community life, Tom VanAntwerp, told the congregation last Sunday. “So this morning . . . it’s OK if your attention shifts back and forth between the pulpit and the painting.’’

The church’s senior pastor, Bryan Wilkerson, recalled in an interview that he had grown up in a Baptist church with no art other than music, and he acknowledges that not everyone at Grace accepts or understands the place of art in worship. But he believes the value outweighs the risk.

“People walk into church skeptical, and they can put up their defenses to talk, but with the arts, the truth sneaks up on you,’’ Wilkerson says. “We live in a visual world today. It’s how people process information.’’

A life-altering Bible study
Dupre, a 49-year-old Billerica resident, has been painting since childhood. As a toddler, in Medfield, she got in trouble after deciding that the brown house down the street would look better if it were white, and setting about to repaint it. And then there was the time she chose to draw a portrait of her family - a noble thought, for sure, but her choice of a canvas - the door to her mother’s Saab - was, in hindsight, not the best.

As a teenager, in Concord, she enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. And at 19, she met Peter Dupre. She had anorexia, he had a drug problem, and they felt something magical. Four days after they met, they were engaged; three weeks later, they were married. Within months, the couple was living with his parents in California, and she was pregnant.

Dupre had never been particularly religious, but in California, two women from the neighborhood threw her a surprise baby shower, and invited her to come to their Bible study.

“That was my first real time to think about something bigger and more wonderful than us,’’ she says. “I was 20, and that day changed my life.’’

The Dupres had four children, returned to Massachusetts, settled in Cohasset, and joined North River Community Church in Pembroke. Lori had pretty much given up painting - she was dabbling in pointillism, but found it frustrating - but then she attended a worship conference at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, a vast congregation in California, and saw someone paint at the altar. She burst into tears.

“It opened up that painting part of me,’’ she says. “I don’t even remember what the painting was, but I knew, deep down, I was supposed to do that.’’

She was already overseeing the “drama ministry’’ in Pembroke, and one Good Friday she took a risk. She brought to church an 8-foot-high painting of Jesus on the cross, hidden behind a curtain for much of the service, and then slowly revealed to the congregation.

“I had bought a huge Home Depot dropcloth, framed it in my living room, and prayed that God would help me paint it, because this was for him, not for me,’’ she says. “I tried using spraypaint, and almost asphyxiated the whole house in a cloud of purple. But then I got a big house brush, cans of paint, got back down on my knees, and said, ‘God: Help!’ I put on some music, and three days later Jesus was painted.’’

It took years before she would try painting in public, but each time she did, the reaction was intense. People cried. They offered to buy the paintings. And Dupre felt that this was what God wanted her to do, and that God was with her, helping her paint.

Three years ago, Peter Dupre left the corporate world to take a job as pastor of worship and arts at Grace; the family moved to Billerica, and now Lori Dupre spends 20 hours a week at the church, building sets, producing video, overseeing drama productions, and, up to three times a year, painting during a sermon.

There have been missteps, and failures, and ideas that had to be abandoned. In Pembroke, she once was seized with stage fright, and had to leave the stage and paint alone, crying, in a church basement. One time at Grace, making an aggressive paint stroke, her arm traveled past the canvas, and paint flew off the brush onto the new white Christmas suit of the organist.

Getting up to speed
Last week’s paintings almost didn’t happen.

Dupre knew the preacher would be talking about God’s response to evil in the world, and two weeks out she had come up with the concept - she would pre-paint an image of planet Earth, deface it with words representing evil in the world, and then transform the whole into an image of Jesus - expressing visually the Christian notion that Jesus will bring peace to a troubled Earth.

But, rehearsing in her basement studio, she found she could not paint an image of baby Jesus in less than an hour and a half. And sermons at Grace last just 30 minutes.

Her stomach ached as she arrived at a church meeting four days before the service and confessed her plan wasn’t working.

It was Wilkerson, the church’s senior pastor, who suggested Dupre let go of the literal depiction of Jesus, and go for something more symbolic, like a scene of Bethlehem. Dupre smiled in gratitude, and went to work.

She surfed the Internet for images of Bethlehem, and settled on a few signifying elements - palm fronds, a tightly clustered village, a lone bright star - that she thought would make the scene easily recognizable, even to worshiper sitting in a balcony.

She painted a draft, and e-mailed an image to the church’s worship planning team. The response was supportive, but also critical. VanAntwerp, for example, e-mailed, “I wonder if the town needs to be a bit larger??’’

Three drafts later, Dupre had enlarged the village and reduced the painting time to 23 minutes. Finally, at 11 p.m. Friday, Dupre wrote the group: “To think these are just silly imperfect little paintings, painted in short time with rags . . . imagine how God must feel about His real creation.’’ And at 5:45 Saturday morning, Wilkerson replied, “That will be striking, Lori, to watch that happen. It’s going to be a powerful journey that leads us to Bethlehem’s Peace.’’

Diet Pepsi and peace
On Sunday morning, Dupre was up early. By 8 a.m. she had taped the dropcloth onto the stage, arranged the paints alongside her favorite brushes and some water and several plastic plates, and attached a canvas with an image of planet earth to the easel. She was wearing her live-painting uniform - a black sleeveless dress over black corduroys and black shoes - and carrying her usual drink, diet Pepsi. Her clothing was already splattered with paint - she has learned from experience that if she wears clean clothes, worshipers get too distracted worrying about drips.

At 8:17, the worship team gathered in the “wind tunnel’’ - a drafty hallway behind the sanctuary - to review the plan for the service, and to pray. And at 8:30, as the orchestra played “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’’ the first of four services began.

Dupre works fast, because she has to. After smearing away the words on the Earth, and streaking them with red, she projected a video onto the canvas with images of war, fire, and violence.

And then, as the sermon began, she returned to the stage. She blackened the top half of the canvas - that would be the sky - and then painted blue and purple horizontal belts - those would be the horizon. She moved swiftly, up and down, back and forth, using brushes and rags. From up close, the canvas could be heard, squeaking.

At a pulpit a few feet away, VanAntwerp talked of evil, and conflict, and hope, and Christmas. He shared an anecdote about a soldier in Iraq who was inspired by the Christian playlist on his iPod, and even Dupre, lost as she was in the swirl of paint, knew he was nearing the sermon’s end.

She peeled away latex strips from the bottom of the canvas, revealing the letters she had stenciled there: P-E-A-C-E.

And then she painted the star, the bright, white, Star of Bethlehem which, Christian tradition says, led the magi to the birthplace of Jesus. There were concentric circles of light, a ray pointing to a rise just beyond the village, and, at the heart of the star, the fuzzy but intense outline of a cross.

Five minutes before the sermon was over, Dupre picked up her brushes and walked off stage. She was done, but just for the moment. There were three more services to go.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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