Sarah Breisch doesn’t really draw what she wants. Not yet. Breisch, 40, is the mother of eight children, ranging in ages from 17 to 4, and she only recently started showing and selling her work. It’s been a long time getting to this point.
Her artwork — primarily watercolors and lively linocuts of birds and other animals — is vigorous and arresting and sometimes comical. A frazzled mother bird approaches a tangled feathery nest stuffed full of fat, ravenous chicks, in a posture that somehow conveys both love and exasperation. A fox slinks under the moon, casting a knowing, uneasy eye directly at the viewer. A thrush grips a branch between its thorns and sings his tiny heart out into the darkness. They are just animals, but they all seem like someone particular, familiar and very alive.
But Breisch would like to do more. A demanding critic of her own work, she considers her pieces to be mainly decorative, and calls them illustrations without stories. She would like to make art that tells stories, because she has a lot to say.
Breisch had very little in the way of formal art training. Homeschooled from fourth grade through high school, she was free to pursue her own interest in art and artists, and taught herself through museum trips, by leafing through numerous art books inherited from her grandmother, and by using the miscellaneous art supplies she found in her house.
“At that time, art was intensely personal,” Breisch said.
So personal, in fact, that she could hardly stand to show what she had made to other people. And so, although her father, a skilled carpenter with an artistic bent of his own, encouraged her to go to art school when she finished high school, she chose instead to pursue other academic interests and entered the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire.
Inspiration in the Church
It was in the college’s chapel that she first encountered the beauty of the Catholic Church: the beauty of its theology and also of its physical art.
“In the churches I grew up in, art had no place, beauty had little place. Sentimentality and kitsch, what [founder and then-president] Dr. [Peter] Sampo called ‘the banality of received ideas,’ had a huge place. I never set foot in a Catholic church until I went to college, and the moment I did, I was overcome with a sense that this was what I was looking for. And it specifically had to do with the architecture and the art,” she said.
She recalls that the chapel was “not even anything fabulous,” but what there was looked like it had meaning and belonged.
Then the class spent a semester in Rome.
“I came home exploding with joy and inspiration,” she said.
Talents that glorify God
Breisch, whose mother is ethnically Jewish, said, “I knew more than your average kid did about tabernacles and the Holy of Holies and those sorts of things. So when I saw the baldacchino [the ornate bronze canopy-like structure built over the altar at St. Peter’s Basilica], I thought, ‘I know what that is.’”
She thought her father might be open to hearing what she had discovered. But he was not able to.
“He suffered from that sort of mental divide of Protestants [in that] he was artistic and creative, but also an iconoclast, and somehow it felt wrong of him to marry the two,” she said.
As for herself, Breisch had never felt that her faith and her artistic drive were at odds.
“I thought, ‘I glorify my creator through my God-given ability by trying to imitate what I see in nature, because I think it’s wonderful.’ Because it was so private, it was almost like a private meditation,” she said.
Finding time to make art
It was obvious to her that art and faith belonged together — less obvious that what resulted was something that should be shared with other people, even after she decided to join the Catholic Church.
And soon enough, the decision about how to approach her art was taken out of her hands. Shortly after college, Breisch went through RCIA, married and began having children. Over the course of the next several years, she was simply too busy to draw, and too overwhelmed, and didn’t have the money to spend on art supplies. She would make flashcards for her children, or make materials for curriculum when she worked as a teacher, but it was always something utilitarian….Read the rest of this article, the second in a monthly series for OSV featuring Catholic artists.
If you have a suggestion for a Catholic visual artist (including yourself!) you think should be featured, please drop me a line at simchafisher at gmail dot com with “Catholic artist feature” in the subject line. I am interested in all styles of art.