On A Wing And A Prayer: The Bats in Churches Art Installation

To celebrate the long-standing relationship between bats and churches, we've commissioned Bats in Churches volunteer and professional artist Ilene Sterns to create a unique installation entitled On A Wing And A Prayer. Here, Ilene explains her inspiration and motivation behind the work, and gives us a sneak peek of what she's created so far....

Artwork on fabric inside St Michael's church

As an artist, I have always found inspiration in nature and history. And as a Bats in Churches survey volunteer, I have spent many hours marvelling at the remarkable winged mammals that make these ancient buildings their homes. I love to imagine the bats soaring through these sacred spaces, chattering and feeding as darkness falls. So when Bats in Churches asked if I would be interested in creating an art installation that would celebrate the longstanding relationship between bats and churches, I leaped at the opportunity.


I began by visiting St Michael the Archangel Church in Compton Martin, Somerset, one of Bats in Churches' project churches, which will be the initial venue for my piece. There I met Jean Luckett, Compton Martin's bat champion, who graciously offered to be my liaison with the church community. One of my priorities was to engage people of all ages in the art work, by asking children as well as adults for their thoughts about their church bats. Jean was happy to help me gather those comments. My inspiration for the piece would come from the community's words and also from the beauty of the historic church itself, which glows with warm light even on a dark day.

Image of artist Ilene Sterns taking photographs of the interior of St Michael's Church

As I stood quietly in St Michael's, I envisioned a number of large, atmospheric images complemented by the echoing calls of bats. In my mind's eye, I could see four, free-standing, transparent panels made up of layered photographs and text. By taking words from the church community and combining them with my own photos (shot using a selective focus lens on a digital camera), I could immerse viewers in an experience that would celebrate both bats and churches.


Although I used to be a painter and sculptor, I now create most of my work on the computer. I use a photo editing tool to blend and layer images, and I transfer the finished files over the internet to a digital print house. For this installation I decided to print the images onto sheer fabric, so that the large panels would be lightweight and easy to move. To make sure that the prints would be as richly coloured and detailed as my original images, I trialled a number of different fabrics and printing technologies. I was delighted when the most vibrant result came from eco-friendly inks on natural fabric, which will make the piece sustainable as well as biodegradable.

Image shows lighting within the interior of a church in soft focus

For the soundscape, I turned to Jean and my husband, Phil Atkin, who is an audio expert. I knew what I wanted but needed help to achieve it. Jean kindly agreed to record two nights' worth of bat echolocation calls in St Michael's, using a bat detector developed by Phil. He then edited the recordings to make them audible to human ears, by slowing them down via time expansion. The final soundscape sounds much like birdsong, which is what the bats themselves hear as they forage and call to one another on the wing.