Within a few weeks, the Tabernacle will be open to the public.
The bar and restaurant attached to Sweet_ness 7 Café on Grant Street is a marvel. Nearly every square inch of the space has been painted by Jeremy Twiss, a 31-year-old artist who had never completed a painting before Sweet_ness 7 owner and Buffalo booster Prish Moran hired him to work on this project.
During a year of painting on rickety scaffolding in the unheated, unfinished space, Twiss' masterwork is finally complete. Each of its vibrant panels tells a story about mythology, religion art and history, but also about the young artist’s own journey and memories.
On a recent tour through the space, Twiss shared some insights into his process, his influences and what he hopes the public will get out of it. Here are five things to know about the Tabernacle:
Before starting, Twiss had zero painting experience
Twiss, a former philosophy and literature major at the University of South Florida and the University at Buffalo, had no formal art training before Sweet_ness 7 owner Prish Moran put him on this project. He had also never painted. Prior to the yearlong project, Twiss was a cook in the cafe's open kitchen, often becoming impatient with other staffers and yearning for an opportunity to work solo. With the Tabernacle, for which Twiss did not use projectors or other crutches often employed by professional muralists, he got just that.
The wall panels tell one continuous story
Starting in the northeast corner of the building, a series of rectangular panels describe a strange, continuous narrative. If you look closely, you'll see elements of one panel seeping into the next. A human head emerging from the ground in the first panel becomes a torso in the next panel, where two pillars holding up elephants become two pillars sitting in a background desert. From that panel, the figure of Buddha becomes a sumo wrestler, and so on. If you walk from one panel to the next, the evolution is easy to trace.
Unlike Michelangelo, Twiss is scared of heights
Much of the painting was completed on scaffolding more than 20 feet above the ground, in order to reach the building's recessed and elaborately trimmed ceiling panels.
Twiss' fear of heights was a frequent concern for the young artist, adding to an already sky-high sense of anxiety over the project. But ultimately, he said, that challenge – and even the anxiety it created – was essential to the final look and feel of the project.
"It was kind of good to have that anxiety in a certain sense, because it pushed my body into pumping extra endorphins or something," he said. "Every time I look at any individual space, I look at the memories, the things that were going through my head when I painted that specific spot. Everything in here is just so full of memory."
The Tabernacle opened in 1922 as a religious space
The Sistine Chapel-esque feel of the space, now filled with religious iconography from almost every imaginable tradition, is by design. The building was originally built in 1922 as a place of worship for a society of Buffalo evangelists. Its construction, according to Moran, was financed by the Kittinger furniture company, which designed hulking wooden pews that now decorate the space.
An optical art trick anchors one prominent panel
The Flower of Life, an ancient symbol employed by architects, astrologists, spiritualists, thinkers and designers throughout history, sits at the center of perhaps the Tabernacle's most striking ceiling panel. On first glance, it appears to be just a series of repetitive circles. But with some concentration – or what Twiss called "a gestalt shift with your mind" – the image of a cube emerges from the center of the panel. The symbol, surrounded by angels, represents a "primordial, absolute kind of power," Twiss said.
Similar tricks, curiosities and inscrutable mysteries abound throughout the space, begging the viewer to seek and sort them out.