Dr. Marji Bell served CUW for 36 years as a professor of art—and a master crafter who created beautiful theme verse chapel banners for more than 20 years.
To mark the beginning of a new semester, we’d like to once again draw your attention to the 2021-22 theme, “Shaped with Purpose,” and theme verse, Isaiah 64:8, and (re)introduce you to Dr. Marji Bell, who helped us celebrate the tradition for many years.
For years they adorned the chancel in the Chapel of Christ Triumphant on the CUW campus: beautiful, hand-crafted banners displaying that school year’s “theme verse” from scripture. They were almost exclusively the work of one dedicated servant: Dr. Marji Bell, a now-retired professor of art. Each year she would spend the summer months pondering, praying, and crafting, asking God to guide her as she created each new banner.
Sometimes the ideas would come easily. Other years, it seemed like God waited until the last possible minute to inspire her. In the end, she always came through. And she always credited God for her handiwork.
“I was really blessed to do it,” she said. “It was amazing.”
RELATED: Concordia’s 2021-22 them is “Shaped with Purpose”
Following God’s lead
Dr. Bell has a history at Concordia that long predates her employment here. She’s been connected so long, in fact, that she even took swimming lessons at the pool at the old campus when she was just 8 years old.
Though she always loved art, it was never her intention to teach it. Rather, she had ambitions of “making it” in the art world. In particular, she would have loved to illustrate children’s books. But God had other ideas.
Before Concordia, she taught four years of high school art and two years at a grade school, and also worked as a keyline artist and illustrator. She started at Concordia as a part-time adjunct instructor on the Milwaukee campus. They kept asking her to come back, and before she knew it, she was teaching almost full-time.
“I never set out to teach, but God said, ‘You’re going to do it!’” she explained. “’And you’re going to do it, even though you don’t want to, because you’re good at it!’ And I was good at it. And I did enjoy it.”
Learning to trust God this way is a lesson she always tried to instill in her students.
“I would tell them, ‘When God opens a door, go through it.’ Because it just might take you where you want to go, without realizing it,” she said. “So just let Him guide you, and then go for it.”
These banners were not just about beautifying our already beautiful chapel; they were also about focusing the selected Scripture passage for the school year.
“We would customarily have the banner up all year long,” explained Rev. Steve Smith, CUW’s campus pastor. “So whenever the preacher would touch on the theme verse, we had that visual representation to reinforce it. Marji helped make the words come to life. It’s a great way to keep the theme verse before everyone’s eyes, literally.”
She had help, of course. Dedicated assistants pitched in on the sometimes-tedious work of cutting out the intricate shapes. These are not printed pieces, after all. Each completed banner consists of dozens or even hundreds of individual fabric pieces. Sometimes they’re stitched, sometimes they’re glued, and always precisely designed and placed for maximum artistic effect.
In particular, she credits retired staff member Sandy Vick with being a reliable and valuable helper. Originally, the intention was to involve more students, but the summer work limited students’ availability.
The projects stopped when Bell retired in 2017. Beyond the collection of banners, her most lasting legacy are the lives of the countless students and colleagues she influenced through her her artwork, teaching, and faithful witness. And though it’s not the path she would have necessarily chosen for herself, she’s confident it’s one God had in mind for her.
As she often told her students, “I have everything I wanted but not the way I thought I should get it. And that is why you should go wherever God leads you.”
Preserved in print
Recently, Dr. Bell put together a book that showcases all of the theme verse banners. A copy of the publication, entitled To the Glory of God, is now on display in Rincker Library.
Scroll down to to view select photos of the banners (typically 3- by 6-feet large and excerpts from the artist’s statements. Or, stop by Rincker to view the entire collection with the full artist’s statements.
Click images to enlarge …
1998-99: “I Know the Plans I have for You”
Theme Verse: Jeremiah 29:11
Artist’s Statement: “The image here is the floor plan of the Basilica of St. Sernin in Toulouse, France, built during the Romanesque Period between 1080 and 1120 AD. It was one of the first churches designed in the form of a cross. Like the architects of St. Sernin—who carefully planned this edifice’s meaningful foundation—God too has plans for us. We need only to follow His plans for us as we build our lives on His foundation.”
2004-05: “Hearts on Fire”
Theme Verses: Jeremiah 20:9
Artist’s Statement: “When God is present within our heart, the Gospel of Christ is too much for us to hold inside. It is as if flames burst forth when we share our enthusiasm for the Good News.”
2009-10: “Christ’s Path for Us”
Theme Verses: John 14:4-5
Artist’s Statement: “The challenge for this banner was to create the vision of a path that would represent Christ’s call to us. Our life’s path can be perilous. We face ‘crossroads’ as we begin to take the high road. The message on the cross directs our way as we travel with our Christian brothers and sisters toward His waiting arms.”
2010-11: “Can You Hear God Sing?”
Theme Verse: Zephaniah 3:17
Artist’s Statement (excerpt): “The whole verse from Zephaniah is filled with God’s love and concern for us. The focus on signing is interesting because God is not talking to us in a small voice or a whisper but rather with the sound of loud singing. This is the song of your life.”
2012-13: “Joined Together—Built on Christ”
Theme Verses: Esphesians 2:19-22
Artist’s Statement (excerpt): “It’s all about ‘perspective.’ The building begins with the corner stone. The right side demonstrates Christ’s Divine nature as part of the Trinity; the left, the saving work of Christ’s human nature. We are but individuals as designated by the myriad of hues, but as fellow citizens of the household of God, we are joined—hence the concept of puzzle pieces.”
2013-14: “Living Letters Confident in Christ”
Theme Verses: 2 Corinthians 3:3-4
Artist’s Statement: “The fiery golds demonstrate the unity of the Godhead. Beginning with God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, to the Son, our Triune God writes his message on our hearts. He emboldens us—as living letters—to be witnesses of His Love (Agape).”
2016-17: “Steadfast Service”
Theme Verses: 1 Corinthians 15:57-58
Artist’s Statement: “This is a different perspective on Christ’s metaphor of “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Being rooted in God’s love, Christ—the trunk of the tree—give us strength to be steadfast—to grow in our love and in our service to others. The dove represents the Spirit among us who upholds and encourages us in our endeavors. The hands—as the leaves—represent the service that we are actively doing. The multitude of colors and sizes show that we—as varied individuals—serve in whatever capacity we can.”
2017-18: “God is Our Refuge”
Theme Verses: Psalm 46:1 & 7
Artist’s Statement (excerpt): “The verses chosen from Psalm 46 brought to mind the image of a castle I had seen in Milan, Italy. Castello Sforzesco had been a refuge for those who had lived within its walls during the Renaissance. I had been impressed by its massive walls and huge turrets. It gave the feelings of security and safety. Yet, there was elegance within its large and spacious courtyard, its wide stairs, and open balconies.”
For more information about art programs at Concordia University Wisconsin, visit cuw.edu.
— This story is written by Mike Zimmerman, corporate communications manager for Concordia University Wisconsin. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 262-243-4380.
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