Known for the kitschy religious artwork adorning its walls, Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium, situated on Edgewood Avenue in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, is a popular bar offering light-hearted satire on church culture. Existing as a form of ever-transforming performance art, Church is more than just a watering hole; it’s a bizarre shrine exploring the deity of man and the humanity of gods through folksy paintings that share the testaments of artist Sister Louisa’s inclusive brand of faith. As of this weekend, owner Grant Henry, aka Sister Louisa, is spreading the gospel to the Classic City through a second location, irreverently named Sister Louisa’s Church (It’s a Glory Hole!).
Sister Louisa’s Church is largely an extension of Henry—his devout spirituality, artistic passions and larger-than-life personality. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in business with a focus on hospitality and a master’s in education, he began pursuing a master’s degree in divinity during a life-changing search for himself.
“Restless for a life of truthful living, I was simultaneously drawn [to and] gravitated towards a life in the Presbyterian Church and went on to attend Columbia Theological Seminary, which was conventional and restrictive, and then on to Princeton Theological Seminary, which I found very freeing and life-changing,” says Henry. “After being told to say, ‘Only through Jesus Christ is salvation possible,’ I left that pursuit, because I felt it would be disingenuous and incongruent with my personal beliefs. So here I fucking am, in a bar called Church.”
It was around the time of leaving seminary that Henry’s alter ego, Sister Louisa, emerged as a way to allow him to authenticate himself and process his ideas on religion and sexuality through art. After moving to Atlanta in the mid-‘90s and running an antiques store called Resurrection Antiques and Other Worldly Possessions, Henry began repurposing religious art under his pseudonym, presenting Sister Louisa as a disgraced nun who left a convent in Baton Rouge after falling in love with “Luscious” Lamar Thibideau. He briefly ran an art gallery exhibiting works by Sister Louisa and other artists, and continued to build up a following while working as a bartender from 2000–2010 at The Local, where he often channeled the spirit of Sister Louisa by donning a giant beehive.
After being told to say, ‘Only through Jesus Christ is salvation possible,’ I left that pursuit, because I felt it would be disingenuous and incongruent with my personal beliefs. So here I fucking am, in a bar called Church.
“Having left seminary over the fact that the powers that be wanted me to say words I didn't believe, I started putting words on religious art. Just words, because they said, ‘Grant, they are just words, just say them; nobody believes it totally, just say the words. You'll be a great preacher, your kids will have a great education, your life will be set up in the church.’”
Breathing new life into thrift-store paint-by-numbers and decades-old velvet paintings, Sister Louisa embellishes religiously themed artwork with colorful sayings. Portraits of Jesus with the painted words, “I want to be inside of you” and “He curls his hair with holy rollers” and “Well hung” (ouch) hang in Church beside a depiction of the last supper with Jesus saying there’s no need for separate checks, “I’ll be paying the price for all of you.”
After accumulating a massive collection of paintings and miscellaneous paraphernalia—choir robes, church pews, Virgin Mary statues, vintage taxidermy and an ungodly number of Pee-wee Herman dolls—combining his background in hospitality, religion and art through creating a bar that doubles as a gallery felt like a natural step for Henry. Church’s expansion to Athens was catalyzed by a visit to town with close friend Steven Carse (owner of King of Pops), during which Henry received encouragement from civic leaders and business owners—particularly Lori Paluck, owner of Dynamite Clothing, who shares a strong love for velvet paintings.
“It's the fault of my constant need to buy Jesus shit online… and when overwhelmed with its mass, I have to get rid of it,” Henry says. “I had nothing else to do but open another bar. I bought the chandeliers, the tables and chairs and the neon cross before I decided to open a bar.”
Though some patrons will interpret Henry’s tongue-in-cheek, often satirical approach in revamping religious imagery as blasphemous, the artwork itself is playfully provocative, never mean-spirited. Its intentions lie in subtly breaking down dogmatic principles and creating an inclusive environment for people from all walks of life to be true to themselves—and maybe contemplate their existence while communing with a Spiritual Sangria.
“You know, I've been creating Sister Louisa Art for almost 20 years. The viewers’ reaction to the visual aspects of Church and their experience once inside of Church, says much more about them than about me,” says Henry. “I hope people ponder life, be grateful with their lives, ask questions of life, be open to the diversity and distinct possibility of authenticity in their own lives.”
The new bar opened its doors at 254 W. Clayton St., near Agora and Caledonia Lounge, and plans to offer service Mondays–Saturdays, 4 p.m.–2 a.m.
Check out Flagpole intern Randy Schafer's photo gallery below: