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We should think of our humanity as a privilege. Marilyn Robinson

Dal Schindell Tribute

Dal Schindell Tribute

by Ken McAllister


 

Influencers get a lot of press these days, though the meaning of the word has morphed somewhat. In days gone it would likely evoke images of powerful people pulling political strings in back rooms. Today you’re more likely to think of social media personalities with an audience big enough to affect the purchasing decisions of their followers, usually for their own profit. Which, of course, was what the previous generation did as well. And so the world turns.

The truth is, all of us, every day, have a chance to be an influence to those around us, for bad or good. A good influence can have a profoundly positive effect. A bad influence can lead to disastrous results. I’ve been fortunate to have many of the former in my life. Dal Schindell was one of them.

I first met Dal in the spring of 1999, when he interviewed me for the position of webmaster at Regent College, a job I somehow (at least at the moment of writing this) still manage to hold down 20 years later. At that time Dal had been on staff at Regent for 19 years, but his connection with the school went back further than that. As a grad of 1972 he was one of Regent’s first batch of students. After graduation he married Kit (another Regent student), and with the help of a significant Canada Council grant, left to paint and pursue graduate studies in the UK, where they remained until 1977. Soon after his return he was back at Regent, this time as Director of Publications and as a faculty member, lecturing on Christianity and the Arts.

Those who knew Dal were very aware of his quirky sense of humour, and it didn’t take long for that quirkiness to show up in Regent’s advertising. Magazines like Christianity Today and Books and Culture had plenty of seminary ads, and most tended to be (as Dal put it), “religious and serious”. Dal’s ads were anything but. In a 2018 interview with the Regent World1, Dal reflected on this: “Part of it was my own wacky personality,” he explained. “It’s just the way l was. I’d like to say it was strategic but l just thought it was part of being human, and it was humans we were trying to attract.”

Being human has always been a part of what Regent College was about, and one of Dal’s objectives was to make sure people knew that. This resulted in ads that featured J.I. Packer holding a set of jazz albums (“J.I. Packer Loves the Classics”) and Gordon Fee reading Agatha Christie (“Gordon Fee Without a Clue For Once”).

This was strategic on Dal’s part. In the same Regent World interview he shares how he wanted to show Regent faculty “as people who had interests beyond their very specific biblical/theological skill sets….as vital, deep, interesting men who took life seriously—and laughed, often at themselves.”

Many of these ads came under the banner of the UnSeminary campaign. Inspired by the famous “UnCola” 7-Up ads, this campaign was designed to point out that Regent was different than other schools, which it was. While most seminaries focused on training people for the “ministry”, Regent was the first graduate school of theology in North America to make education of the laity its central focus. Its desire was to see graduates to go back to their various vocations, equipped to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to where it was most needed. The UnSeminary campaign was a success, and the ads were often cited by students as the main reason they chose Regent.

While Dal’s ads and sense of humour became the stuff of legends, it was his influence on the arts at Regent that may be his biggest legacy. Dal was convinced that the arts and theology needed each other. A very good artist himself, it irritated him to see the low standard of artistic work coming out of the modern-day Church, and he saw Regent College as a place that could do something to change that.

Along with other faculty members such as Loren Wilkinson, Dal helped introduce a concentration that allowed students to complete their degree with an arts thesis project, now called the “integrative project in the arts and theology” or IPIAT. This consists of a presentation of an original work of art combined with theological reflection. The works presented have been varied, the quality outstanding, and the theological reflections profound. Multiple generations of Regent students—and as a result the Church as a whole—have benefited from Dal’s firm belief that the arts matter.

Dal’s love of the arts led him to pull off a clandestine bit of territorial annexation that has resulted in one of his most enduring legacies. In 1988 Regent moved from holding classes in old University of British Columbia dorm rooms to their then newly constructed (and still current) building on the corner of Wesbrook Mall and University Boulevard. On the second level of the new building was an open space designed to be a classroom. Its location at the north end of the atrium meant it had excellent natural light and a beautiful view of the park outside. Unfortunately, it also suffered from terrible acoustics, something that became abundantly clear after the first few attempts to hold classes there.

The space sat unused for a while, until one day staff, faculty, and students arrived to find it had been converted (seemingly overnight and without permission) into an art gallery. The culprit turned out to be Dal, but instead of giving him a reprimand, then president Carl Armerding recognized the wisdom of such a move and let it stand. And so the Lookout Gallery was born.

That was over 30 years ago, and since then the Lookout Gallery has hosted hundreds of exhibitions by artists from all over the world. In keeping with Dal’s personality and influence, some have been more traditional while others have been quite odd. But all have been interesting.

Exhibitions at the Lookout Gallery have been responsible for some of my most profound moments at Regent College. One in particular stands out clearly in my mind. In October 1999 the gallery hosted a show by Vancouver sculptor David Robinson. David is now an established and successful artist whose works can be found in private and corporate collections nationally and internationally, but like all artists, this was not always the case. When Dal first came across David’s sculptures he immediately recognized his talent, and in 1991 the Lookout Gallery hosted David’s first solo exhibition.

The 1999 exhibition was David’s third at the gallery. It featured many works, but I remember distinctly one in particular. It featured the small figure of a man, dressed in a business suit, holding his two shoes in his hands. He’s positioned on a dome of metal, part-way between the edge and the centre. His gaze is fixed on the horizon. Titled “On Holy Ground”, this simple sculpture did something deep inside me that I have a hard time putting into words. Perhaps that’s why God gave us poets: to express the inexpressible. I must lack that skill, for any attempt I make to describe it fails utterly. All I know is that somehow the experience worked a change in me that stays with me to this day. (click here for an ArtWay visual meditation about this work)

In April 2019, just a few months before his death, Regent College honoured Dal in perhaps the most fitting way possible: it changed the name of the Lookout Gallery to the Dal Schindell Gallery. This was the last time I saw Dal alive, and he almost didn’t make it. The event was planned as a surprise for Dal. Kit was to bring him to Regent under some sort of ruse. But Dal ended up having a rough day to the point where Kit thought she might have to take him to the hospital instead. But he made it, and dozens of his colleagues and students and friends were waiting to honour him. The ruse worked, but I don’t think he had a clear idea as to why all these people were there until he was asked to draw aside a curtain to reveal the new gallery name.

During all my time working with Dal I rarely saw him become emotional. But as he pulled aside the curtain and saw his name, he bent forward and leaned his head and hand on the wall, overcome, just for a few seconds, with the emotion of the moment. I have a video of the unveiling, and watching it still brings tears to my eyes.

I don’t believe Dal ever set out to be an influencer. But he did have a mission to bring change to how modern Christians understand and appreciate the arts, and to inspire and encourage a new generation of Christian artists to believe that their gifts were important and even crucial to the health and well-being of the church of Jesus Christ. I know he influenced me in profoundly new ways in how I view and use the arts in my own life, and in doing so, changed me. For that I am deeply grateful.

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  1. Schindell, D. (2018, November 29). The True Origins of the Un-Seminary | Arts & Theology | Regent World. Retrieved September 22, 2019, from https://world.regent-college.edu/arts-theology/the-true-origins-of-the-un-seminary

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Ken McAllister is Webmaster, Regent College, Vancouver B.C., Canada