Meet Janet McKinstry: Her life's tapestry is woven of God and art

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Art and religion have been linked for centuries, artists and clergy hand in hand in delivering their messages. Less common is finding one person playing both roles. Meet Janet McKinstry, painter, writer, musician and fabric artist. Then shake hands after church with Pastor Janet, in Richmond or Tyringham.

McKinstry's vibrant personality comes across at first meeting. She sees unity in her dual careers and says she "could not be a pastor without my art" and vice versa. And thus she has melded a degree from The Fashion Institute of Technology with a master's of divinity from Andover Newton Theological School.

She considers her fabric art spiritually inspired and, in reverse, finds that her time alone in her studio fuels time spent in her upstairs study at the Richmond Congregational Church. Part of what joins the two is the number of Richmond congregants who are also involved in the fiber arts: quilting, knitting, crocheting.

Turns no one away

Another link is her sense of community. The small Richmond church, which surely must struggle to pay the oil bills and periodically paint the building, has a long reach into the small town that surrounds its State Road property.

With their now legendary tag sale in mid-July, the parishioners raise thousands of dollars — much of which goes not to operating expenses but to town scholarship funds, fuel assistance and support of food pantries.

McKinstry, who lives in Great Barrington with her husband (the musician Douglas Schmolze), agrees that the role of the church in Richmond extends beyond its own space. Townspeople may or may not come to church on Sundays, but she considers them part of the congregation.

"A church," she says, "is not just the members anymore. If anyone wanted something, I'd minister to it."

She believes families want to "feel connected to something that is stable," and her goal is to be a source of that security.

"If there's a spiritual need, I turn no one away," she says.

That view is shared by many of her congregants who met her when she was a fill-in minister at their church. Before long, she and the people searching for a new pastor realized that they had found someone who truly "fit."

"She's awesome," said one longtime member.

"She's so full of energy," said another, pointing out that on Sunday mornings she not only conducts the service but often sings with the choir or adds her flute playing to the singing and the organ.

As for her other career, which includes various media, she feels that the art world draws people together.

"Art gives life and color to the community," she says, "and people take pride in their artists."

In the several years that she's been connected to the Richmond church — first as a fill-in pastor and then as its ordained minister — she has learned that the town has many connections to the arts, from its history with the famous Stirling and Alexander Calder family to the number of current residents involved in theater, painting, music, writing and sculpture.

Her own art is focused right now on fiber handbags, large and small. They are wildly colorful and range from clutches to bags that could serve as carry-ons. She is ever on the hunt for vintage fabrics, upholsterers' leftovers, outdated fabric samples from retailers like Paul Rich and Sons. And she adapts all kinds of things, from jewelry to buttons, for her clasps.

Her bags and wall hangings, which she sews herself, are scattered around the Berkshires in small shops like the Berkshire Museum, Karen Allen Fiber Arts in Great Barrington, the Red Lion Inn gift shop, and the Williams College Museum of Art.

Varied directions

Her artistic side has gone in a number of directions over time.

In the past she created unique marionettes and performed with them. She wrote a children's book, illustrated by her and her father, John, also an ordained minister. But she often finds herself thinking about a new direction.

Last week, she did a finger painting on a wood block, inspired by the Berkshire landscape, and commented, with excitement, that it was a rush to have nothing between her and the canvas.

Musing about whether Van Gogh might have finger-painted "Starry Night," she said, "When you're holding a tool, you have to be thinking about how you are holding the tool. What attracts me is the carefree energy of the finger painting."

The Rev. Janet McKinstry's enthusiasm for her life, from greeting each day with the birds to spending most evenings quietly at home, spirals off in many directions as she carefully plans her time each week. She may well be care-free, too, but she's also focused — on both of her careers.


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