Alumna of the Year 1999: Esther K. Augsburger

Esther K. Augsburger-1For Esther Augsburger ’71, sculpture is prayer, worship and art. It is also the story of the human heart and its relationship with God. “I believe sculpture is a gift that God has given me and I need to use that.”

The artistic talent of Augsburger, a renowned sculptor who has placed work around the world, surfaced as a small child living in India with her missionary parents, Lloyd and Esther Kniss. She collected the green fruits that fell in the compound and carefully carved them into toys. Decorating these with bits of fabric gleaned from her mother’s scrap bag, she shared the results with her friends in their jungle village.

Back in the United States, Augsburger’s gift lay dormant for years. But as a stay-at-home mother after she married Myron and their children were born, she channeled her cre­ative gifts into raising three artistic children. W hen the youngest entered fifth grade, Augsburger began pursuing a music major at Eastern Mennonite University (then “col­lege”), where her husband was president.

The Mennonite Church did not encourage artists and there was no art major at EMU, but Augsburger couldn’t shake her interest in art and soon changed majors, taking art courses at nearby James Madison University (then “Madison College”). As EMU’s first art graduate, she taught art at Eastern Mennonite High School for five years and then went back to JM U and earned a Master of Arts with a concentra­tion in sculpture. When she and her husband were in Princeton, N.J., for a year, she studied at the Johnson/Artillier foundry and school there.

“During that year I really worked on producing my own sculpture. It helped me focus on doing it instead of teaching it,” Augsburger says, noting that she attended lectures and vis­ited museums and galleries in nearby New York City. She also produced her first commissioned work, a large edition of “The Sower,” and then a classical piece of Christ washing Peter’s feet.

Following her husband to Washington, D.C., Augsburger took another career turn when she started an art program for inner-city children and began interacting with other artists, many of whom had turned their back on the church.

“At this time I was meeting other artists and talking about how you can be an artist and a Christian, and I thought, why not start a support group of artists to dialogue and share ideas about what it means to be a Christian and an artist,” she recalls— a theme she still explores with audiences on college campuses around the country.

These streams eventually came together in ways the sculptor could never have imagined, beginning when she and Myron took a sabbatical to teach at a seminary in India. But instead of teaching, the seminary asked Esther to create a nine-foot sculpture depicting the idea of serving one another in love.

The real challenge was to create a piece that would not be seen as an idol in a country that worships the visual image. Augsburger returned to the theme of foot washing, but in a new semi-abstract style that has characterized her work ever since. A similar piece sits outside Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

Before leaving India, Augsburger met Kathleen Nicholls, an expert on Asian art and author of the book Asian Art, Christian Hope. The two began organizing conferences for Christian artists throughout Asia, first in Indonesia and then other countries. This led to similar conferences in Eastern Europe.

Her deep belief in peace, coupled with the handgun vio­lence that she witnessed in Washington, moved Augsburger and her son, Michael, to create the stirring sculpture, Guns Into Plowshares, which features disabled handguns and sits outside Washington police headquarters. Then, during a Christian artists conference that she coordinated in Lithuania two years ago, members of a Baptist church in Siberia approached Augsburger about creating a sculpture honoring Christian martyrs of the Soviet Gulag.

The piece was to depict the theme that the seed must go into the ground and die before it can bear fruit. Interviewing eyewitnesses and hearing the stories of these martyrs moved Augsburger deeply and reminded her of the Anabaptist mar­tyrs of her own faith.

“I came back to my studio filled with all the pain these people had experienced and prayed a lot. 1 found myself singing ‘Guide My Hands, While I Run this Race’ out loud … and I just let my hands and my heart and the Spirit of God guide me,” Augsburger says, adding that the same thing occurred when she and Michael worked on “Plowshares.”

“I don’t feel as close to God in anything else I do as when I am working on a sculpture,” she says. “There are some things that I feel so deeply about that words can’t express it.” When she is working on such pieces, Augsburger says her commitment to be Christ’s servant keeps her grounded inwardly while her husband’s love and encouragement sup­ports her outwardly.

“My responsibility is first of all to God to guide me, sec­ondly to be true to who I am and to my own expectations of what I believe is good art, and then, last of all, to those who have commissioned the piece or to the public that sees it,” she says. She hopes her dedication to Christ and the church has helped the church see that art is important.

“I believe that we were created in the image of God and part of that image is to be creative,” she says. “I believe that artists are given a gift of artistry and even the process of creat­ing it is worship because it is giving glory to God. When I am sculpting, I feel God’s pleasure. And that is part of worship.”

Published in Crossroads, Spring 1999.