Monday, February 23, 2015

An invitation to Black History

When I draw a pencil portrait, there’s often a connection with my client.  I hear precious stories about the portrait subject – love, pain, regret, joy.  Those stories are what this blog and my job are all about.

Yesterday, the history of a portrait became more meaningful, on more levels than I ever could have expected.

When Steven Small called to ask if I would draw the pastor of his church in time to surprise him for Christmas, I groaned inwardly.  I was already overbooked.  They wanted a BIG portrait – the largest I’d drawn of a single subject – and they wanted it fast, neither of which was welcome at that particular stressful time for me.  But there was something about Steven’s warm, friendly voice and the way he described the Apostolic Church of God and their beloved pastor. 
“We’ll be presenting Dr. Brazier with the portrait in two services of about 3,000 people each,” Steven told me, encouragingly, hopefully.  Charmers like Steven are what get me in trouble.  I wavered – partly because of the business sense of that kind of exposure (when have 6,000 people seen one of my portraits at once?) – and partly because it just felt right.

I gave in, and I was rewarded in so many ways. 

Dr. Byron Brazier
I often receive poor quality source photos, but Dr. Byron Brazier’s photograph was perfection… crystal clear and full of wonderful expression.  I loved drawing him and finished it promptly. Steven came to my home to pick it up and I hugged him when he left.  He was that kind of guy.  His team was thrilled with the portrait and later he sent a photo of the beautiful framing they chose. 

Knowing what I know now, how I wish I could have been there to see the Christmas presentation. 

A couple of weeks later, Steven told me that Dr. Brazier liked my work so much, he wanted me to draw the previous three pastors, including his adored predecessor who had led the church for fifty years.  That one would be a particularly important portrait, Steven explained to me, because not only was the previous pastor beloved to the church, he is also Dr. Brazier’s father. 

District Elder Walter M. Clemons
I began working on the portraits of ACOG’s first two pastors, emailing my progress.  Choosing the photograph of Bishop Arthur M. Brazier took a little longer as he was so very important to his congregation.   He’d passed away in 2010 at the age of 89, leading his church even through illness.  The quality of the photograph was a little dicey, and we needed to tweak the portrait to get it just right.  Steven was apologetic in asking for adjustments, explaining its importance.  “He was like a grandfather to me,” Steven told me, “and I wasn’t the only one.  It has to be just right.”  We were very happy with all the drawings in the end.  
These were large portraits of men whose dignity and integrity showed on their faces.  I did my very best to capture each man’s strength and wisdom.  When Steven picked up the portraits, I wondered again if that would be the end.

Elder Ahart F. Medders

Instead, it’s been the beginning.  I was welcomed into their history.

My family was invited to attend the presentation of the portraits. Again, there would be around 3,000 people at each of two services.  “You’ll be my guests,” Steven said with his usual warmth.

Unfortunately my husband and sons had sports and travel commitments.  I asked my mom to come with me instead.  I had a feeling that I needed a witness to what was about to happen.

The first service was at 9 am on the south side of Chicago.  My mother and I are NOT morning people.  One of the joys of being my own boss is sleeping until I wake up.  But we managed to pull ourselves together and drive an hour or so to the beautiful brick church on Dorchester.  Steven had assured us there would be plenty of parking, but it was PACKED.  An ocean of cars in every direction, parked in several lots, on side streets… and we were a half hour early.  We wedged ourselves into a hidden, skinny space and walked through the doors.

This lot was full.  And the one across the street.
And the one across the other street.

I have deep respect for faith.  My parents taught Sunday school when I was young.  Our Lutheran pastor infused his sermons with personal stories and laughter.  He came to our house for dinner.  When he left our church, his replacement was more stern, less engaging.  My father was working so hard at growing his small business, that Sunday became another full work day.  I lost touch.  My questioning, critical, skeptical mind never found a spiritual place to call home.  More than anything, I believe in love.  That’s how I think of God.

“Praise the Lord!”

Each and every member of the church enthusiastically greeted us with the church’s official hello, “Praise the Lord!” reaching out to clasp our hands in welcome.  It almost felt like a wedding, a celebration.  Everyone was resplendent in three piece suits, sparkling jewelry, high heels, beautiful dresses, fedoras, furs.  Steven hadn’t arrived yet, so we waited for him and watched the joyful parade of fashion.  This was an EVENT.  We watched as people embraced and kissed and laughed together like an enormous family. 

We were the only white faces in a sea of color.

All day, the face of each person who saw my mother and me brightened in welcome.  We were obviously different, but they were so happy to see us.  It was humbling.  I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to each “Praise the Lord!”  I said hello and good morning and squeezed the friendly hands extended to me.  I looked into each set of eyes and prayed my own prayer of hope that they’d know my heart was full of love, even if I didn’t know quite how to respond the same way.

Steven took us to meet Dr. Brazier and to see the framed portraits.  When I draw someone, I spend hours and hours examining every line and nuance of a face.  When I saw Dr. Brazier, I felt like I knew him and he treated me like an old friend.  My mom and I were seated on the feather soft couch in Dr. Brazier’s spacious office while the portraits were unwrapped… they’d been delivered from the framer just that morning.  The photo had not done them justice.  The beautiful silver carved frames with grey and red mats took the 19x24” portraits to an even grander size.  I’d never seen my work in such elegant framing.  I was speechless.  Just kidding, you know I never shut up, but it was dazzling.  Dr. Brazier sat down and chatted with my mom and me for a bit, then we were ushered to our seats like VIPs. 

Later, Steven wondered at how easily Dr. Brazier acted as if he had all the time in the world to visit with us, when he was actually incredibly busy.  The Apostolic Church of God has 20,000 members.  There’s a lot going on all the time and Sunday is big.

When we walked in the church, I gasped.  It was like a theater, with grace.  Soaring wood ceilings, impossibly high brick walls, enormous beautiful birds carved above words of praise.  This was worship on a level I’d never seen.  A huge main floor was overlooked by a balcony full of happily chatting people.  The congregants sparkled and hugged and the energy bounced around.  Mom and I kept looking at each other with our eyebrows raised.  I mean, wow. 

We had reserved seats right in front.  The praise began in song and on a professional level I’ve only bought tickets for in the past.  Singers, musicians, choirs, soloists… 3000 people swayed in worship and joy.  Dr. Brazier spoke with passion, reminding each and every soul present that they were never alone.  Worries and pain and loneliness may make them feel differently, but even if they were alone, returning to an empty room, Jesus was already there waiting to lift them up.  He spoke to all as if speaking to one.  I cried.  A young, lovely soloist sang as if she were borrowed from heaven, closing her eyes and letting her voice soar to a place of grace I’ve never witnessed in person.  I cried again.  We were welcomed into this beautiful world of history and culture and hope and redemption, when we’d normally just be at home watching TV.  An elderly woman wearing an ivory brocade suit, pearls and a pretty hat repeatedly got up to dance for most of both services.  Her joyful, rhythmic steps reminded me of dancing with my grandmother in her kitchen.  I had to restrain myself from jumping up to hug her.  During a piano and organ duet, one of the choir members leaned back in her seat, arching her back as she moved her arms high in the air, gracefully interpreting the music with gentle hands.  It was lovely, as if it was flowing through her. 

In Catholic and Lutheran services, we’ve said to our neighbors, “Peace be with you”.  At ACOG, the people turn to each other and say, “You’re important to me.” 

My portraits were brought out on large easels, each draped dramatically in red cloth.  The crowd hummed with interest.  Dr. Brazier asked me to stand to be recognized, and my heart pounded.  He told all of God’s people in the room, “This is black history month.  But black history does not have to be only about slavery or struggle.  It can be about our history right here; the history of our church.” 

Bishop Arthur M. Brazier

He went on to captivate everyone with the story of how the church began, when the first two pastors, Elder Clemons and Elder Medders, lived in the same six flat building in Washington Park.  Later, Dr. Brazier’s parents rented a room from Elder Medders, and Dr. Brazier and his sister were born there.  He unveiled each portrait as he spoke about the church’s history and the passion and integrity of each of its leaders.  When he removed the drape from the face of his dear father, 3000 people leapt to their feet and applauded.  Chills.  He modestly revealed his own portrait that had been presented at Christmas time. 
Gesturing to each of the men’s wonderful faces, he said, “So… all four leaders of our church once lived in the same building, at the same time.”  There was a palpable surge of delight – don’t you love a family story you haven’t heard before? 

As the unveiled portraits stood in a proud row in their regal frames, beaming toward all those eager faces, projected on the large video screen above our heads, in that beautiful place… I knew I’d never have another moment quite like it in my career. 


And that was the first service.

We have great taste.
Afterwards, many of the church members greeted my mother and me.  One told me my hands were anointed. Another told my mother she was a holy vessel.  Each wondered at the talent God had given me, thanked me for the portraits as if I’d offered them as a gift.  (I was paid well for them.)  We were embraced and our cheeks were kissed over and over.  One woman was wearing the exact same dress as me.  After giggling over it, we posed for photos together.  I told her she made me feel like I fit in.  She told me if she was wearing the same thing as me, she must be doing pretty good.  I mean… oh my. 

Never in my life, have I had a day of love like this, a day of welcome, a day of acceptance and invitation.  The closest thing would be a big family gathering, but never with this kind of power.  The energy was unlike anything else.  It didn’t ebb, but grew.

Between services, we were guided into a private formal meeting room with delicious fruit, pastries, coffee and juice served on a gleaming, polished table.  A beautiful room meant for important visitors.  And today, it was for mom and me.

“You know,” Steven confided over our pastries with a smile, “You might be sitting in the same seat where President or Michelle Obama once sat.” 

Did I mention that Steve found me online when he saw a portrait I’d drawn of Barack Obama?  Politics can be as personal and passionate a subject as religion.  People have different views for private reasons.  Personally, I love our president and believe in his hopeful heart with all of mine.  Like him or not, you have to admit that there was just a flow to all of this.

The second service was more passionate, more energetic than the first.  How???

When it was over, after we accepted nonstop invitations to come back and worship with them again, Steven took us to lunch at a favorite nearby Italian restaurant. I tried to grab the check – I mean, he’s my CLIENT, for Pete’s sake – but Steven said that the pastor would be mad if he hadn’t taken good care of us. 

It’s Black History Month.  I was invited to be a small part of what it means to one beautiful church.  

And as I write this, I’m crying again.

Apostolic Church of God, 1931
With love,


  1. Oh, honey! Tears again for me, too. What an amazing job you did of recreating our experience and the vibrant spirit of that congregation and their church service. Your gift so often brings wonderful gifts back to you, but this was certainly about the best! Love you!

  2. I'm so glad that you were there with me, Mom. It was such special day from beginning to end. Hearing so many people comment on my "beautiful mother" was like music.
    Love you!

  3. Wendy, This is an amazing story! How wonderful that you were able to experience the warm and welcoming love from this beautiful church. Beautifully written! Love, Aunt Beth

    1. thank you so much, Aunt Beth! I love when I have a good story to tell.

  4. What a beautiful article! It was such a joy to meet you and your warm spirit was unforgettable. Also your mom taking our pictures was fun! She did great! May God continue to bless your anointed hands! I hope you visit us again at our church!

    1. Are you the beautiful lady who was wearing the same dress as I was? That was one of my most favorite parts of the day... unexpected and welcoming and fun. Bless you!

  5. Just read your blog about your visit, have to admit I may have teared up a bit. Wasn't there that Sunday but I've been going every Sunday since I was a kid I know the 2 ladies you described you should hear their stories. I'm in that last picture you posted I'm one of the little boys in the front and the portrait you did of my grandfather Elder Clemons is beyond words......Thank you so very much.

    1. I'm so glad you took the time to read about my experience in your beautiful church. You are so lucky to have such an amazing place to worship. I'm looking forward to visiting again. Not sure if I'll recognize you from your boyhood photo, so I'll have to ask around and see if I can say hello!! Thank you so much for your kind words.

  6. Dear Wendy, I think that this is a wonderful story . It is touching and an inspiration to all who would read it . I hope that someday I can be as blessed to have a similar experience. You see , I am a self taught artist myself and was going to write to ask how you had got started doing portraits for a living. My Wife who is now with the Lord above and some friends and family members have told me for years that I should be doing portraits for a living but I have always been afraid to leap into this endeavour.I was like you in a lot of ways I taught myself to draw .I've just never really done it for a living . I ran across your website while looking on the internet to see what to charge for a pencil portrait and I'm glad that I did . One because I would have been short changing myself and two I found you and read this wonderful story of your journey into your future. I must say I was touched by your story and how that in people that truly believe in the love of the Lord can come together in a loving and harmonious way and not let the troubles of race be involved . This is a story I think all of mankind should see or hear about , because God sees no color in us but anyway I hope and pray that I will have a inspiring story of one of my experiences one day to share , and I thank you for sharing this one with me . I wanted to ask you if you had any pointers that could help me get started in this unknown territory into the business of art . It just seems that it comes so easily to you which I'm sure it probably was not the case. But if you can I would be forever indebted to you . Maybe I could send you some pictures of some of my drawings to look at to see if you think I am ready for this journey at all. I would love to know what another artist thinks of my drawings because I have never shown them to anyone before . I live in a small town in South Carolina and don't even know any artists personally but you just somehow have touched my soul with all the compassion that you have for doing what started out as a hobby and now a wonderful , budding and inspiring career for yourself. If you would consider looking at my drawings please notify me and let me know where to send the pictures.

    1. I'm so glad that you enjoyed the story, it was a precious day for sure and an honor to help celebrate the history of this church. You can read all about how I got started in my blog, if you are interested... here is my whole story:

      You can certainly email your images to me at The most important thing to start making money from portraiture is to share your work where people can see it. Use social media and ask your friends to share. See if you can hang your work in local businesses. (I started with dog groomers, vets and funeral homes). Join your local art league... you'll get lots of advice there!


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