Suffolk Closeup: Making art that speaks to the spirit


Across the channel from Shelter Island, Erling Hope is busy at work in Sag Harbor, his art having a more special meaning this holiday season than others past.

Erling is the son of Judith Hope, known for her breakthrough role in government and politics. In 1973, she became Long Island’s first female town supervisor with her election in East Hampton. She went on to become New York State Democratic Party chair. It was she who got Hillary Rodham Clinton to run for the U.S. Senate and become the first female senator from New York. Politics was in Ms. Hope’s blood: Her father was the speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives.

Erling’s father is Leif Hope, known for the fine restaurants he established and ran on Long Island and his work as a carpenter and a painter.

Erling’s stepfather was Tom Twomey who, sadly, recently died, a leading Long Island attorney and key figure in the successful battle to prevent nuclear power plants on Long Island. He was active in other environmental efforts as well as numerous cultural and educational endeavors.

Erling Hope works in another dimension. His life is dedicated to creating religious art.

Hope Liturgical Works, his company, designs ecclesiastical artwork, sanctuary furnishings, liturgical appointments and furniture which are at churches, synagogues and a variety of faith communities on Long Island and across the United States.

“My work stems from a simple observation — that where we are influences how we pray. We do not worship in a vacuum,” he explains on the website of Hope Liturgical Works. “The quality of our prayer, the depth of our communion, even — by extension — the candor of our fellowship, are all influenced by our physical surroundings in subtle but inescapable ways.”
Erling studied art at Pratt Institute, Skidmore College and Yale University. Among his mentors has been the noted Suffolk-based sculptor William King.

A visit to his studio reveals remarkable works in progress and an artist with a spiritual focus. Religious or liturgical art “gives us a sense of the larger pattern of life,” he said, taking a break from his labors. He showed the visitor a photo of a painting that he did for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, and photos of his work all over the U.S.; at the Immaculate Heart Catholic Church in Junction City, Colorado; Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Silver Spring, Maryland; Our Lady of Victory in The Bronx, among other places. They included an exquisite statue titled “Resurrection Station” and a cross that Erling did in a  Celtic motif.

I first encountered Erling’s work at the synagogue my wife and I attend, Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, Long Island’s oldest Jewish congregation.

In recent years, he has been involved with a team in creating for the synagogue a sukkah, a temporary structure constructed for use during the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot. As with all of Erling’s art, it was imaginative and unusual, integrating the work of children from the temple’s Hebrew school one year. Another year there was a wall of canned food contributed to the needy at the end of Sukkot and disassembly of the sukkah.

Most recently Erling built a lectern that made a big change at the synagogue. After more than a century, the rabbi and cantor are able, with the lectern, to stand on the floor of the sanctuary with the congregation for part of the service, rather than being up on the bimah or raised platform at the front of the sanctuary.

Amazingly, Erling was able to replicate on the lectern the intricate relief carving done a century ago above the bimah and to do it in difficult-to-carve red oak matching the wood in much of the sanctuary.

Befitting his family roots, Erling also has had a kind of political role. For three years he was president of the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture whose founders included theologian Paul Tillich.

Houses of worship, mused Erling in his studio, “are not like any other place.”