24 Drawing Churches

Above: the church here in Queens that I used as my model for the church pastored by Harland Pepper in my novel. I had originally planned to use as my point of departure the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, target of the 1963 church bombing that was documented in Spike Lee's moving film Four Little Girls. Although the city in which my story is set is fictional, I tried to visually pepper my book's pages with echoes of images that some older readers might remember from the news reports of Birmingham's racial strife forty years ago. Both my fictional Melody Motel and the Rattler Hill Hospital for Negroes, for that reason, are based on analogous Birmingham institutions that had high profiles during the Civil rights era. (An equally important reason why I turn so often to photographs when drawing a building is that, as I said a few web pages back, any architectural structure I create purely out of my head is guaranteed to be totally undistinguished.)

But the more I looked at the snapshots I had taken of Sixteenth Street Baptist during one of my Christmas trips home, the more I felt inadequate to capture its unusual architectural spirit. I felt the building in my story needed a facade that was more spare, so that crowds and coffins would be what drew my readers' eyes, not the building in the background.

Driving home through our neighborhood one night with Eddie, I noticed the church shown in the snapshot above. "That's a good look for a church," I thought, making a mental note to come back the next day with my camera.

On my way home from photographing that church I passed a police patrolman. I had been having a lot of trouble with the cops' hats in my book, police hats being surprisingly tricky to draw from memory. So I told the cop I was an artist and asked him if I could take a snapshot of the hat he was wearing to use as reference for a drawing. He was hesitant but decided it would be ok to set his hat on a flat surface and let me photograph it from different angles. He wouldn't let me photograph him wearing it, though. I can understand. For all he knew I was laying the groundwork for a gangland hit!

LETTER TO KIM (February 13, 1993)

… I have no talent for architectural art, so I’m skating on thin ice when I try and draw a church. The trick is to avoid drawing it so badly that the reader will be distracted from the story. If I can keep the reader thinking about how it feels for my characters to be a part of the crowd at this emotional event, I’m home free. Most readers will only spend a couple of seconds glancing at a drawing that has taken me four days to put on paper. Then it’s on to the next panel and the next emotion! But if I screw up and get the steeple crooked, then they'll stop short and think, "That jerk’s really bad at drawing churches!" And the emotional momentum of the scene will be lost.

Last week I took snapshots of a church in my neighborhood that has some of the correct qualities for the church in my story. It’s reasonably stately but doesn't look like a "rich people’s church." The building’s façade isn’t terribly southern looking, but then again, neither is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (which has got some pretty weird architecture for Birmingham, actually)!

If anybody asks, I’ll tell ‘em my church’s fictional congregation hired a transplanted New Yorker to design their church for ‘em.