The Akhrievs’ design for new Erlanger chapel spans all faiths
Stepping behind the construction wall door feels like falling through an accidental portal into another world. The main entrance to Erlanger Hospital is right behind me, with only a thin layer of drywall shielding this enclave from the rest of the hospital’s urgent bustle. But inside the new chapel, the atmosphere is tranquil. Father-and-son artists Daud and Timur Akhriev have spent the last few weeks layering the curved walls with shards of subtle color.
The whole room has been redesigned, shaped in an organic curve with irregular windows, according to the plans by H K Architects’ Craig Kronenberg, allowing the Akhrievs’ vision to move and breathe across the room.
“It’s very important for the chapel to lift the spirit,” Daud explains. “Erlanger is not religiously affiliated, so we wanted a very neutral space for all people to come and reflect, regardless of their beliefs.”
To this end, the chapel is lined with handmade tiles of red and white porcelain slip, some with a pinkish tinge, others with a purplish or blue hue. Daud is able to craft the tiles on site at his studio space at Baylor, where he is the current artist-in-residence, a mutually beneficial arrangement.
“The school has a wonderful program, allowing the students to work with me in my designs for projects. They learn while I am granted access to exceptional facilities. It’s been an ideal set-up,” he says.
Daud has been enjoying a mutually advantageous relationship with Chattanooga’s art community since arriving in 1991. He hails from Chechnya, a Muslim region claimed by Russia. Now, Daud and wife Melissa Hefferlin live most of the year in Spain, traveling to and from Chattanooga to fulfill various projects. He finds no barrier to his own cultural roots, despite the city’s positioning in the middle of the American “Bible Belt.”
“Chattanooga has been very good to my family, and we’ve made some of our best work here,” he says. “It’s an open place for the most part. People are interested in art, and supportive of it, so I enjoy my time both in Spain and this place.”
Although his roots are Muslim, Daud considers his family cosmopolitan, and feels comfortable around friends from a variety of religious backgrounds. Part of what so inspired him in conceptualizing the Erlanger chapel design was the directive to appeal to imagery of common spiritual inspiration. The Akhrievs began their work quite simply, bordering the central motif of a nesting bird with longer sections of blank tile. The bare ceramic and porcelain tiles dotted with Italian smalti (glass) were tranquil, but Daud and Tim agreed that it was a little too empty in a room requiring warmth and inspiration during crisis.
“We added the suggestion of script, ancient curls and flourishes so common in the prayers and texts of all religions, but without any actual words or letters,” he says. “The birds are hidden throughout in abstract representation. No one is offended that way, only lifted.”
Reviewing some highlights of Daud’s paintings, one discovers a recurring theme of birds, air, angels, flight, and space. He is a quiet man with potent, concentrated energy and a twinkle in his eye. Though he may question the divisive elements of religion, favoring commonality and community, the hidden wonder of the spirit, behind the scenes of material life draws him to play with fragmentation and illusion.
In the midst of the construction mess, with shards of tile, semi-precious stones, glues, drawings, and various tools scattered about, Daud and Tim steadily integrate life into the very walls. They take turns on either side of the room, working interchangeably to minimize disruption in the mosaic’s sense of random flow. Already something cohesive and harmonious is emerging. Daud is clearly proud of Tim’s contributions, and considers the project a true collaboration. Tim, a successful artist in his own right, smiles and gently protests: “It is really all his design. He is behind all of it, and I’m glad to be here working with him.”
As Chattanooga has already seen with mosaics at Baylor School, multiple gallery shows, and the “Seasonal Muse” sculptures near the aquarium and riverfront, when Daud Akhriev contributes his vision to a space, it is enlivened and enriched. During a period when Chattanooga needs a lift, Erlanger is making room for patients, staff, and families to rest, meditate, and rise from the nest with their broken parts made whole.
The dedication and inauguration of the new chapel is scheduled for Sept. 18.