Controversy: Nude Paintings in Church

notice of exhibit - Don Slade RememberedDon Slade Remembered – a memorial exhibition on display at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver – has stirred up controversy in the congregation. Giles Slade (not related to Don Slade) responded to an email from another UCV member with this:

Honestly, I really don’t feel the way you do (in your message [not shown] below) about the nude female paintings now on display in the UCV sanctuary. I like these nude paintings. A lot.

They don’t offend me. I think it does people good to look at good paintings or listen to good music or read good books and poems.

I actually bought one of the canvases. They are not the absolute best nudes I have ever seen, but my wife is an art historian and we have lived together for 33 years so my lexicon of female nude images is pretty large. These are very good nudes. (Incidentally, the reason there are so many paintings of nude women (and men) is that a vast majority of people find them beautiful and, of  course, beauty is comforting.)

Concerning today’s service: at first, my wife was a little concerned about the use of the word penis in a song listed in the order of service, but she changed her mind as the intention and spirit of the service became clear. The contrast between the female nudes and the sermon’s focus on men’s issues made, we thought, made a very interesting tension. My wife felt that both sexes were well represented. We didn’t attend the sermon you mention (in your message [not shown] below), so I can’t really comment.

Concerning the paintings: The artist who painted these nudes, Don Slade, was a member in good standing of the congregation and a personal friend (although I did not know him well) who died the same day I visited him in hospital. He was a bohemian type who frequented that old Vancouver institution, Wreck Beach, home to free thinkers and nudists. I feel his paintings  demonstrate his devotion to enjoying the gift of freedom that marks our short time on the planet. I’m also impressed that this guy who I sat next to in church and knew only very slightly had a formidible artistic skill I wasn’t aware of. If others find the images sexual or provocative, I personally don’t find them arousing or threatening. I think they are quite beautiful and don’t really feel that beauty of any kind – certainly not beauty based on biology – is inappropriate in a religious setting.

I also don’t think religion or spirituality has to be divorced from sexuality or the body. When that kind of thing happens, you often get entrenched religious misogyny and even the tradition of accepting pedophilia that taints many of the more mainstream less liberal traditions than Unitarian Universalism. A lot of our congregants have rejected these traditions in favour of our liberal eclecticism. Freedom, after all, doesn’t just mean freedom for things you like and agree with. A real commitment to freedom embraces things you don’t like. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

I certainly don’t feel upon entering the sanctuary and looking at an exhibition of accomplished nudes that anything obscene or prurient is being encouraged or taking place. I don’t feel the children of the congregation are going to be harmed by such contact, quite the contrary. I think children who are brought up to see the human body as a beautiful but ordinary thing will have healthy, integrated attitudes towards human sexuality. They may even learn to appreciate art.


If you genuinely feel this way – that Don Slade’s celebration of the human form is inappropriate for display in the UCV Chapel – I think you should write an article expressing these feelings for the local papers, perhaps for the Tyee or an op-ed for the  Vancouver Sun.  It might succeed in attracting more attention for the show at the church which might help his daughter achieve her goal of purchasing a metal memorial plaque for the church grounds to honour her father.  I think controversy will do the show and the church a considerable amount of good.

If you do write it up, please remember to mention the line drawings of Don’s nudes are being displayed in the same room where Greenpeace was originally founded. … Now there was a real group of radical Unitarian Universalist iconoclasts! Next to them, the issue of whether or not to view nude paintings in church seems insignificant.

I’m going to pass this message along to Don’s daughter and a few other people at the church who knew and loved Don Slade. I’ll be surprised (and actually quite disappointed) if you get much traction at UCV with your request, but honestly, I do think you should write it up for one of the local print organs. Let’s put it out in the world and see what other people think.

Meanwhile, I’m going to suggest that the church purchase one of Don’s paintings and display it prominently in memory of the freedom he pursued in life and the contribution his bright spirit made to our community. We are diminished without him.


One thought on “Controversy: Nude Paintings in Church

  1. I had a very positive response to both the men’s group’s worship service (including the Penis Song from Monty Python) and Don’s lovely paintings. I served on the arts committee with mild-mannered, ethical, principled Don and yearly visited his studio as part of the East Van Culture Crawl. We had previously a show of Don’s drawings in the sanctuary but my dismay was:Oh, we should have done this when he was alive to celebrate his work. The paintings look beautiful in the sanctuary.
    I went to Don’s memorial service where a lot of art was put out just as a “gift” to anyone who wanted to take a piece.
    Thank you to Don’s family for sharing this work.
    He was one of the good guys! definitely.

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