North Carolina Church Covers Wall With Fresco of the Poor and Downtrodden

Artist Christopher Holt works on the Hayward Street Church fresco in Asheville, N.C., on Sept. 5, 2019. Photo courtesy John Warner/Warner Photography

Poor people have often told pastor Brian Combs that the hardest thing about standing at highway intersections holding up a cardboard sign and begging for money is not watching the windows roll up or hearing the click of automatic doors locking.

It’s seeing people avert their eyes.

So when Combs, pastor of Asheville’s Haywood Street, and his friend artist Christopher Holt began talking about collaborating on a project, they envisioned a fresco on an entire wall of the sanctuary featuring images of the poor and downtrodden.

When completed later this month, the 27-foot-by-10-foot composition will illuminate in bright colors the faces and gestures of the people who visit Haywood Street Church’s principal ministry — The Welcome Table, a dining room with a reputation as one of the best places to eat in this mountain town known for its creative spirit.

To Combs and to the hundreds of poor who stop in for a meal each week, the fresco is intended to make the invisible visible.

“The primary intent of church, in my opinion, is to communicate something about sacred worth,” said Combs. “In God’s sight, you are anything but a throwaway. You’re priceless. You’re royalty. That’s one task of urban ministry we take seriously.”

The fresco’s composition is loosely based on the Beatitudes, the nine blessings recounted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

But unlike traditional frescoes that have often offered visual representations of God, Jesus, Mary or the saints — think of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Fra Angelico’s “The Annunciation” in Florence or Giotto’s “Adoration of the Magi” in Padua — this one puts the poor front and center in a style known as Classical Realism.

There’s Robert Stafford, a gardener at Haywood Street. A 58-year-old recovering drug addict, Stafford first came for meals and stayed on to work the grounds. In the mural, he’s depicted clutching three sunflowers.

And then there’s David Holland. A decade ago, Holland quit his job at Buffalo Wild Wings, threw his belongings into a dumpster and walked into the woods. In 2011, he came to Haywood Street for a meal. He’s now the “banquet steward,” or executive chef. He’s portrayed in the fresco wearing his trademark apron.

Both men were meticulously drawn by Holt, the 41-year-old principal artist.

A student of Ben Long, an Asheville-based master fresco artist who has created a dozen fresco paintings in churches and municipal centers across the state, Holt said the Haywood Street project was unique because of its subjects.

“The most enriching part of it was getting to know different folks from the community and maintaining a friendship with them,” he said.