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LUMA Exhibition
The Art of the Crèche: The Collection of James and Emilia Govan

The gilded figures of Mary, Joseph and an angel surround the Child in this modern rendition of a traditional nativity carved in Germany in the Gothic style. (The Collection of James & Emilia Govan; courtesy LUMA; photo© Crè

James Govan and LUMA Director Pamela Ambrose at the opening of Faith & Art: The Collection of James and Emilia Govan at Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago. (The Collection of James & Emilia Govan; courtesy LUMA; photo© Crè
It's almost eleven-thirty as you leave your hotel with Jim Govan to walk across Michigan Avenue to his exhibition.

It's a cold morning, the sky is overcast, and it's drizzling rain. But that doesn't deter shoppers who pack the streets.

A "Don't Walk" sign, and the sight of a Christmas tree all aglow, stops you, and you realize it's a perfect spot to take Jim's picture. You may be in the heart of Chicago's Magnificent Mile, but you wouldn't know it looking at Jim's photograph.

As you walk past the historic Water Tower, you can see the gold letters of the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA) on the side of a red brick building with Gothic arches. Colorful "Art & Faith of the Crèche: The Collection of Jim and Emilia Govan" banners decorate the doorway and a nearby street light announcing the exhibit to passersby.

You walk up a floor, and find yourself in the spacious Museum galleries. Pamela Ambrose, Director of Cultural Affairs, and the curator for this show, sleeves rolled, is putting the finishing touches on the exhibition with the help of her staff.

"Welcome, it's a pleasure meeting you," Pamela says. You can see nativities everywhere and you want to see them all up close. But before visitors begin to walk in, you've got to talk with Pamela. "It's a wonderful, a real teaching exhibition," she says. "I saw part of the Govan's Collection in Washington at the John Paul II Cultural Center, and the minute I saw it I was very enamored. The Museum we're in today, LUMA [Loyola University Museum of Art] wasn't open yet, but I knew that I was going to get that exhibition here.

"I called Jim Govan, suggested we do the show, and he was very nice and said, "yes." We've had a lot of people calling, and tonight is the opening of the show and the Festival of Lights for Chicago. There will be thousands and thousands of people out in the streets…

"In any exhibition, there are many ways to interpret what you're seeing. I was drawn to the Govan's collection because of the fact that it represents a wide depth of collecting throughout the world.

"I was particularly interested how a Christian story of The Nativity could be interpreted visually by people who are non-western or non-Christian. So when I look at some of these crèches, I see much of the individual culture of Thailand or Palestine or another country in the world. I see how much of an individual and personalized nature these crèches have. It's pretty evident when you look at them, you can definitely see that a crèche wasn't made in Europe or the United States. That's what's so great about this exhibition.

A rose window decorates the costumes of Mary and Joseph in this clay nativity by Jeni Babin (New Mexico). (The Collection of James & Emilia Govan; courtesy LUMA; photo© Crè
"Then there's this great diversity of materials: some are very humble, some more elaborate, as in some of the ceramic pieces or crèches that may have been gilded or heavily glazed.

"I think what else we could do here, that I hadn't thought about, is perhaps have a visitors book in the lobby so people can tell us where they're from, what their ethnic heritage is. That would be very interesting, too.

"I'm hoping that this exhibition will inspire, maybe not an annual event, but perhaps a tri-annual one. I hope anyone involved in crèche collecting or who has these terrific memories of their childhood putting up the crèche under the Christmas tree will come and visit the show.

"It's great to have you here. Will you be able to join us and Jim for dinner after the Opening?"

Outside, the drizzle has turned to rain. Thinking of all those miles home you wonder, will it turn to snow? You thank Pamela for the invitation, say you'd love to have dinner, but are worried about the weather. She understands, and she's off to join the hubub of activity all around us: light sources are redirected, exhibit signs arranged, floors vacuumed.

It's now just past 3:30 p.m., an hour-and-a-half before the opening, and already people are gathering in the Museum gift shop asking to see the exhibition. A family says they read about the show in the Tribune and have a plane to catch. Would it be alright if they don't wait until five?

Linda Bierit of Chicago is here with friends, her mother, and Aunt who's visiting from Germany. "These nativities are incredible," Linda says. "All these different ethnic varieties of the same scene, all the different costumes, different variations. It's really fascinating to me to see the same story translated from many different cultures.

"My name is Lotte Avramovic, I'm originally from Germany," says Linda's mom. "It's a beautiful exhibit. I grew up with the crèche tradition, and it takes me back to my childhood. I really appreciate all the hours that have gone into the construction of the nativities."

Her sister, Heidi Foke, speaks in German and Lotte translates."Yes, we always had a display of crèches at home in Germany," she says. "It's such a beautiful tradition."

Jim Govan, who's standing nearby, couldn't agree more. He has now added Museum Guide to his titles of collector/author/crèche missionary/Past President of the Friends of the Crèche. But he's not just showing you the exhibition, he's also being videotaped, so he can share it with crèche afficionados everywhere on the Web.

How do you describe the treasures that fill these rooms? Maybe a list of materials, alone, will give you an idea of the depth and diversity of the Govan collection: there are crèches of thornwood, olive wood, bamboo, clay, chaqua fiber, straw, bronze, powered metal, cinnamon paste, bread, papier-maché, volcanic ash with resin, even one made of branches, another from a tree trunk.

The photos that illustrate this article really are worth, as the saying goes, a thousand words. Then there's the special treat of Jim's Video Tour. You'll enjoy being guided through his exhibition by the collector himself.

Five o'clock is fast approaching, the temperature has dropped, and the rain has gotten worse. Jim stops his tour and says, "We'd love to have you join us for dinner, Alexis, but I'm concerned about your ride back. "

You think of last snowstorm that buried Chicago for days, and you'd like to be home for Thanksgiving. Besides, if you stay, you know you'd be holding microphones and cameras in front of visitors—not to mention asking Jim Govan even more questions. Better to head home—and let Jim and the Museum visitors enjoy the beautiful "Art of the Crèche: The Collection of James and Emilia Govan."

© 2021

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