In the sculptures of Charles McCollough, art, religion and politics combine in a surprising way.
That combination is on display through Easter weekend in the exhibition of his work at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, which features sculptures of clay, elm wood, and bronze depict biblical scenes, animals, and figures in high relief.
Although many of the sculptures are religious, McCollough is not always depicting religious figures. Many of the sculptures depict animals which he says contain “no known religious bias.” This interesting mixture is what makes his sculpture unique, he says. “It’s very odd to have an artist who is also religiously trained,” his wife, Carol, says.
Growing up in Texas, McCollough says he was a “jock.” His father was a bookkeeper for Pigsand, which he says was the country’s first drive-through restaurant, while his mother was a school teacher until she had her first son.
McCollough and his older brother grew up “consumed with athletics,” he says. His favorite sports were football and boxing, for which he earned the Golden Gloves in both Dallas and Austin. Although he earned scholarships to several junior colleges in Texas, he took his studies to University of Texas at Austin after suffering a severe leg injury.
While in college, McCollough found the motivation to learn about the world on an intellectual and spiritual level. When asked what his interests were at the time, McCollough responds, “Besides girls? I got pretty interested in philosophy and religion and what makes people tick.”
He decided later that he wanted to teach theology. He studied at Southern Methodist University in Texas, before going on to earn his Ph.D. in theology at Drew in Madison, Morris County.
Even then, McCollough had a predilection for art. “When most of my colleagues were taking notes, I was drawing pictures,” he says. He would sit in class, sketching pictures of his professors and classmates—as he had done for years. “A friend of mine saw me in class one day and said ‘Charles, you’re coming with me to an art course in Downtown Madison.’ So I went,” he says.
Since that first art class, McCollough has been studying art in studios, workshops and classes. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, and took classes at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton. While wife Carol wife taught English at Mercer County Community college, he could take art classes there for free, and did. Through his studies, his interest in art developed alongside his theological interests, until eventually the two overlapped.
His work with sculpture came later in his artistic growth. First, he began working with oil painting, but “the paint got thicker and thicker until it turned into sculpture,” McCollough says.
“I’m pretty much on my own now that I’ve had at least 30 years of art study,” McCollough says. “We have shows here and there,” his wife says. “We’ve been to Europe, Hawaii—all over for conferences.”
When McCollough was earning his doctorate at Drew University, doctors informed him that he was dyslexic. But he took even this diagnosis as motivation for his art. “Not only because I’m dyslexic but (also) because I’m an artist, I think it’s very important to have a visual image to communicate,” McCollough says. He has written six books, mostly on the subject of the image and religion, and he says that most of his books are illustrated because he believes “the eyes tell us a lot.”
Politics also mingled with his religion. He taught adults at local churches before he was hired by the National Office of the United Church of Christ, the then-headquarters of the Protestant denomination. “The National Office hired me first of all to do adult education,” says McCollough. “But then I was accused of taking religious education into politics. And I said, ‘Guilty.’”
That moment, McCollough says, led him to pursue social justice through religion. “Eventually I became a policy advocate in Washington, working for social justice issues such as native American concerns,” McCollough says. “Social Justice is an expression of religion.”
As he walks through the displays of his sculptures, he is careful to point out the theme of reception in his portrayal of the parable of the Prodigal Son and of the Great Banquet. “That’s how the Church should be,” says Carol. Outside Nassau Presbyterian Church, where McCollough’s sculpture is on display, there is a large banner that reads, “Refugees are Welcome Here.”
The Rev. Heather Murray Elkins, professor of Worship, Preaching, and the Arts at Drew University Theological Seminary, writes in an email that “Charles has the gift of bringing the gospel within reach through his sculpture.” Elkins is the owner of many of McCollough’s pieces, and has a deep familiarity with his work.
One of her favorites is a piece called “No Room.” “Where the Innkeeper bars the door to the tired couple with the lights of [the] Christmas tree shining through the window,” she says. In the dark corner of the stable, you see the animals peering out in welcome, making room for the firstborn of creation.”
Elkins says such a work is that of an agitator. “Many of his pieces are designed to stir up whatever status quo we settled for and into,” she says. This political expression of religion, she says, also informs his sculpting.
When McCollough was working for the National Office, the office was moved from Philadelphia to New York. For a while he commuted, transferring to a now-defunct train from Hopewell through Newark. But the commute was long, and the couple later decided to move to Hopewell directly. After he worked at the Nation Office of the United Church for Christ, the McColloughs moved to Hopewell.
“We found a house in such horrible shape we could afford it,” Carol says, laughing. “We had more energy than we had money, so we put some work into it.”
The land started with 20 acres before they started selling it off, and “that’s where the value was,” says Mrs. McCollough. “We have horses now, but we had chickens, cows, everything.” At one time the couple had three cows, but since they didn’t want to get too close to the animals before they were slaughtered, they decided to name them “Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.” “We were part of the ‘Back to the Earth Movement,’ Carol says.
The property includes a barn which houses the horses that McCollough calls his “nude models.” He now uses the two-story, 19th century barn as his studio, which includes a kiln that burns at the 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit necessary for making clay sculptures. Both McColloughs have been retired and lived in Hopewell for over a dozen years.
While McCollough was studying art and teaching theology, his wife was teaching English at Mountain Lakes High school, where she created a humanities program. She also taught at English, Writing, and Journalism at Villanova and Eastern College, and worked as an administrator at Princeton’s Engineering School and History Department.
The McColloughs have been married for 57 years. The couple have three children, Colin, Wendy, and Tim, as well as two grandchildren, Dylan and Christopher.