It’s been three years since gay artist and gadabout Grant Henry put up his “steeple,” opened the doors, and saw all the people. We catch up in advance of an anniversary bash for his original bar concept affectionately called Church.
Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium has fulfilled all of Henry’s dreams and then some. It truly is like the best of churches – inviting, welcoming to all, and home to the loyal faithful who couldn’t imagine their lives in Atlanta without it.
Where else can you find a straight-inclusive crowd of parishioners lorded over benevolently by velvet visages of Elvis, MLK and Jesus? Nowhere else, that’s where. The third anniversary "Hell" of a Party on Sunday celebrates the singular success of Henry's reverently irreverent little bar that could – and did – right in the heart of the Old Fourth Ward.
It’s almost hard to imagine now that he was once simply Atlanta’s favorite kooky gay art hipster known by the alter-ego Sister Louisa, as well as a barkeep long on concept, faith and cool friends. Now Henry channels all of that into his role as owner and flock leader at Church. Since opening Sister Louisa’s in 2010, he has served as local and national media provocateur, Trayvon riot squelcher, iPhone vandal chaser, Sunday Service congregant, Ria Pell rioter, and keeper of the coolest A-List celebrity sanctuary in town (Was that Gaga? Yes.)
It’s a lot to wrangle. But between artwork and thrifting for the bar in addition to day-to-day logistics, Henry and his undying positive attitude made time to provide us insight by way of his signature free-form poetry on the occasion of the anniversary. Ever-present church puns in tow, Henry breaks down for us his ever-grateful thoughts on a bar named Church, its evolution, and his equally creative plans for the future. Well that, and how a dildo on a spinning nun became a must-have part of the business plan.
Three years in, how has the bar surprised you?
I wasn't realistic about the bar.
I had only done art shows for Sister Louisa.
We spent 3 months transforming the space
from a coffee shop to a bar
but had never built out a bar
so it ended up looking more like
a Sister Louisa Art Gallery
which sells alcohol.
After the grand opening night,
December 22nd, 2010
I woke up the next day
freaked out in a panic attack
that it wasn't over,
that I had to open it that night too,
then the realization came
that it's 24/7,
365 days a year!
I never imagined that the bar
was a separate entity from me,
that the bar would make money,
I just thought I'd bartend every night
until I croak and live off the tips
like I'd always done.
I am totally blown away
that it's been three years
and people keep coming,
I am soooooo grateful
and still scratching my head.
Has Church changed from your original vision and philosophy? How has it lived up to or blown away your expectations?
I thought that I would bartend
for the same 14 people
for the rest of my life.
I could name the 14 people.
I had no idea anyone
would actually drive there,
just thought they'd walk
from Old Fourth Ward,
maybe Poncey Highland.
CHURCH exceeded my expectations,
I didn't know so many motherfuckers
Did you ever expect that it would get so much attention, both nationally and locally?
I never expected it at all.
I've lived with Sister Louisa
for the last 17 years
and had thought it would be fun,
but had no idea
that it would succeed
or be loved by so many people.
The love from the press
has been amazing to CHURCH,
I guess everybody needs
something to talk about?
All of the press
from national publications,
and all of the local press,
seems to keep on coming.
Wall Street Journal,
When CHURCH appeared
in Southern Living Magazine,
this must be getting a littttttle bit
That's when the dildo
went on the spinning nun
to weed out another layer
it's the THING
that most people photograph
today when in the bar.
What are your favorite and least favorite Church moments so far?
My favorite CHURCH moment happens almost every night
when someone new and random
accidentally walk in the bar,
starts looking around
and then they back out of the door
slowly and ever so meekly
shaking their heads
having no idea what they walked into
and looking for a quick escape route!
I could have done without the vandalism
we had last year.
That broke my heart.
CHURCH is me,
it's an outer expression
of all the questions I have in life,
and for someone to rip that apart
To what do you attribute the success, and how blessed do you feel?
I don't know.
I'm old maybe?
I've made a lifetime of mistakes?
I learn from my mistakes?
I am not real money motivated?
I don't give a shit?
I really had no choice in the matter,
CHURCH just sort of came through me,
I do feel super ble$$ed
that it continues to survive.
I was too old to get another job
so if this didn't work out,
I guess I'd be on the street.
My two major blessings
are the loyal Parishioners
who continue to find home at CHURCH,
and my staff.
CHURCH Staff are all family.
They love working at CHURCH,
they hang out together,
they are friendly,
and realize that there job
has more to do with
winning people over to
a positive experience
than pouring drinks
or laying a hot 9" thick weenie
in a store-bought Kroger bun.
What’s next for you, the bar and maybe even for Sister Louisa’s art?
I have 3 projects I am dying to do
that I'm pursuing once a matter on the table right now
is resolved and I can move forward.
One is a another CHURCH in another city.
One is an event space for SISTER LOUISA'S WEDDING CHAPEL IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS
One is a small, boutique hotel but there will be no evidence of Jesus in that place, but will be called PRAYTEL.
I don't think I'll be ever stopping,
I'm surprised I haven't given the keys to CHURCH
to someone else already.
If it weren't for me being able
to constantly buy Jesus shit
and other ignorant symbols and toys
like Pee Wee Herman dolls & trinkets
to put up in CHURCH,
I'd be totally bored.
What else? Free space! Anything I else you want to say?
What I love most about CHURCH
is that it is a happy bar,
a bar where people go to celebrate,
where people go to get into life
as opposed to escape life.
Everybody is smiling in CHURCH,
meeting new friends,
making positive connections.
It's like a...
it's like a...
it's a Church!
CHURCH is a very diverse bar,
we've got young people,
we've got every color represented
under the sun,
everybody gets along
There is something for everyone,
Grant Henry aka Sister Louisa
a straight man
who loves straight men!
Come on in, Precious!
Photo by Omar Vega