Eilieen Cunis: The art of whatever is asked for right now

Eileen Cunis, 67, makes banners for churches. Not those primitive and graceless felt-and-burlap banners that dominated liturgical decor through the ’60s or ’70s, but thoughtfully crafted, dignified works of art produced by a woman who just wants to walk through whatever door the Lord has opened for her.

One of Cunis’ pieces, a processional banner of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, was recently accepted for the National Eucharistic Revival Art Exhibit, and it will travel from Connecticut to Indiana. It is a shining, intricate, iconlike work with many layers of fabric and brocade carefully pressed, folded and sewn into position, the faces and hands of Mary and her baby delicately rendered in paint.

As delighted as Cunis is to have her fabric work honored, she’d really rather be painting. She prefers the freedom and flexibility of working exclusively with paint, and she’s starting to wade into the deep waters of iconography, with its profound theology of light.

“I would love for a priest to say, ‘I have this big wall and I want you to do a big mural, and it’s going to be in the church for 50 or 100 years,’” she said. But it all comes down to how the Lord is leading her right now.

Right now, she’s just finished a set of four tapestries for Sacred Heart Church in Bloomfield, Connecticut, a building that had some vast, empty spaces to fill. It’s a gymnasiumlike structure, and that’s not just a coincidence. The church was built in 1962, when Catholicism in the United States was still burgeoning. The congregation assumed their parish would continue to flourish and grow, so they built the church intending to eventually convert it into a gym for the Catholic school.

“It just didn’t happen,” Cunis said. “People were caught flat-footed, and the gymnasium church remained the church.”

The school closed in the ’80s, a nearby church also closed, and the large, simple structure of Sacred Heart became the main church building for the congregation. It had been decorated and made suitable for worship, but still had a rather bleak facade on the apse wall.

The pastor saw Cunis’ work in a local shop, and a lightbulb went on. The gray space has now been transformed by a small host of angels rendered in shining fabric.

Cunis’ first banner, though, wasn’t designed to enliven a large space, but just the opposite…

Read the rest of my latest artist profile at Our Sunday Visitor

What’s for supper? Vol. 373: Little lamb, who ate thee?

Happy Friday! This week at our house was A DOOZY. Possibly multiple doozies. Luckily, most of it was scheduled dooze, except for both cars having issues (my sliding door stopped closing, and one of Damien’s tires blew out spectacularly, and also his alternator lost its will to alternate) and also Damien has been working on Dora’s car, so, you remember how Damien once added “and cheese” to every item on my shopping list? It was like that, except every day had “and everybody needs a ride” added to it. 

BUT IT IS SPRING. And that counts for so much! We had a big snowstorm last week, but it slowly warmed up over the weekend, and it’s been raining for a few days, so the snow is now mostly gone. 

I tried THREE new recipes this week and a new decorating technique, and Corrie had TWO sacraments, and NO ducks died, although some of them tried to kill each other. I think there is a dead mouse somewhere in the WALLS. And we are having SPAGHETTI for supper. We are all pretty TIRED. But it is spring, for real! 

SATURDAY
Pizza? 

Saturday I did a monstrous shopping because I skipped shopping last week. I feel like there was something else big going on, but I don’t remember what. We had just regular pizza. 

SUNDAY
Banh mi, german chocolate cake 

Sunday we celebrated Lena’s birthday! They had pork belly on sale at Aldi, so I poked around for recipes and decided to try the Crispy Pork Belly Banh Mi from Recipe Tin Eats, because Nagi has never failed to delight, and also because, despite our best efforts, we still had chopped liver in the house.

Before I forget, here is my chopped liver recipe. Chicken livers are cheap and this is an easy recipe. Why not make up a bunch, separate it into servings, and keep some in the freezer in case of banh mi? I think you should. 

So, pork belly is the cut of meat that’s made into bacon. If fat upsets you, you will not like this recipe! But if you are someone who has fond and lavish imaginings of what could possibly be meant by “crispy pork belly,” then I urge you to give this a shot. It was magnificent. And easy! But it did take some planning. 

You have to let the meat dry out in the fridge overnight, or at least several hours. Then you rub the flesh side with oil, kosher salt, white pepper, and Chinese five spice, and make a sort of foil packet to enclose the sides and bottom, so none of the juice will escape while it’s cooking. Then you cook it in a low oven for two hours.

You’re supposed to check it halfway through and tighten up the foil, because it shrinks as it cooks, but I forgot. The pork will have changed shape at this stage, so you level it off by putting balls of tinfoil under the lower side. 

Then you turn the oven way up to 465 and let it brown up for about half an hour, rotating it halfway through and using foil to protect any spots that are browning too fast. You salt it at some point, but I forget when. 

Sooo, here is how it came out:

ooooh. 

Probably could have let it get a little browner, but I really have no regrets.

This particular dish is meant to be cut into chunks, rather than shredded, so I cut it up

and served it on toasted baguettes with mayo, cilantro, pickled carrots, cucumbers, jalapeños, chopped liver (paté) and the wonderful, velvety sauce suggested in the recipe (hoisin sauce, coconut milk, and a little soy sauce), and also some crunchy fried onions from a can. 

Amazing. Pretty different from the banh mi I usually make, which has fish sauce and is a different texture. 

Jump to Recipe

This was sweeter and less bitey but also richer and more complex. An excellent, excellent sandwich, and the sauce was so good. I did make the pickled carrots using her recipe, and I think I prefer mine, which are less sweet,

Jump to Recipe

but it was a negligible difference. 

The pork belly chunks were sublime. The fat layer on top was salty and crackly, and the flesh inside was so juicy and succulent, and it had layers of fat inside that were meltingly tender. No chewiness in any part, and each individual piece of meat was, I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but almost like a layered sandwich in itself. So it was like a sandwich full of little baby sandwiches. Not, uhhhhh, an everyday food, for a variety of reasons. But I enjoyed it so much. 

And I made a cake! I decided to use the Tastes Better From Scratch recipe for German Chocolate Cake. I actually made the two frostings on Saturday, to save time, but then left them sitting on the stove all night by mistake. One has egg in it, and I wasn’t crazy about the texture anyway, so I decided to remake it. Because I was being smart. 

I then proceeded to be very dumb and decided that, when I got to the part of the cake recipe where you add a cup of boiling water to the batter, I would use a metal measuring cup without a handle.

Do you know, boiling water is hot? I didn’t realize this. So I basically tipped a little water in and then shrieked and flung the measuring cup into the moving mixer, with predictable results

So I wiped down every single surface of every single thing that was in the kitchen and then I remade the coconut pecan frosting. I made a double recipe of the cake, and it came out, like so many of us these days, a little too fragile. Also the chocolate frosting was so thick, you couldn’t really spread it, but you could squish it, so that is what I did. So the resulting cake looks a little like someone held it at shoulder level and then dropped it

but everyone assured me it was delicious! You have to agree, this is definitely a lot of cake. I have finally started on Emgality, so who knows, maybe some day I will have chocolate again, and find out for myself. 

MONDAY
Eclipse! 

Monday, if you recall, was the eclipse! We were in the 95% range, and we’ve seen a partial eclipse before; so I decided to excuse the kids from school and hop in the car to see totality. Our goal was St. Johnbury, VT, which is normally about two hours away. It took about 3.5 hours, so I deployed the car DVD player, which is reserved for the longest trips, and we watched Ice Age, which holds up, at least if you’re only listening to it. 

We were thrilled to see clear skies, and it was one of the warmest days of the year so far, so we felt very lucky. Staked out a spot, ate our sandwiches, checked out the craft tables and information booths, and then the moon started to steal across the sun, and then . . . 

I don’t know if you guys realize this, but the sun is what is making us alive, and when it gets covered up, things change DRAMATICALLY and IMMEDIATELY. We went from sweating in the sun to shivering, and the light was . . . not twilight, like when the sun is going down. It also wasn’t “there’s a storm brewin'” light. It was light I have never seen before in my life, and there above me were immense heavenly bodies silently moving themselves in a completely new way. Everybody stood up. People shouted and cried out. I wept. It was quiet and cold. I don’t know what to say.

I did take a few pictures

but of course they aren’t anything like what it was like. Neither, I may say, are the dramatic, high resolution pictures that people have been sharing. If you haven’t seen a total eclipse, it is simply not like anything else

We did bring a colander and use it as a pinhole projector to make the little crescent shapes before totality.

Strange, strange stuff. The whole thing was just so strange. And it was just the sun, and the moon! The sun and the moon, that we already know about and have lived with all these years. If this is how strange the physical world can get, it makes you wonder what other surprises may be in store. Phew. Phew. Quite a day. 

Lots of people turned right around and zipped off to their cars the very second totality was over, but we hung out and kind of caught our breaths, and then headed over to the Fairbanks Museum, which is a strange little natural history museum full of taxidermy and cultural oddities from all over the world. I enjoyed every bit of it, including the document hand written by Robert Louis Stevenson deeding his birthday over to a little local girl who had the misfortune of having been born on Christmas. Sweet man. 

 

Oh, I forgot to mention that just before totality, we saw strange ruby-red gems of light on the bottom edge of the sun. These turned out to be something called Bailey’s Beads, and it is the sunlight leaking out between the crags of the moon just before the moon moves totally over the sun. 

So after the museum, we plunged back into traffic and spent another 3.5 hours getting home. We watched Help on the way back, and Corrie lost a tooth, and we sampled Wendy’s Orange Dreamsicle Frosties (exactly what you’d expect), and then we came home and collapsed. 

TUESDAY
Chicken burgers, chips

Tuesday I was like, wow, I’m not even that tired. I got the kids to school, took one kid to a rather fraught doctor appointment, cleaned out the car for the first time in months because Corrie lost her tooth and then lost it again, and was pretty distraught about it; and then I decided that it was time to do something about the duck house, which was in a truly shocking state. And then I thought I would sit down for a minute, and of course I fell asleep. SO asleep. So ASLEEP. It was such a deep nap, I feel like I’m still waking up several days later. Man. 

So yes, chicken burgers and chips for supper. It was finally warm enough to eat outside, so that is what I did!

WEDNESDAY
Hot dogs, fries

Wednesday was the rehearsal for Corrie’s First Communion and confirmation right around supper time, so I got Elijah to manage supper and we got it done! Wednesday was supposed to be nachos for supper, but I had so many other things to do, we didn’t even have time for that, so hot dogs. 

After dinner, I made a cake for the next day – just a box mix, which are really quite good these days. I made some kind of white cake that uses just egg whites.

THURSDAY
Qeema and rice with minty sour cream and coriander chutney; white cake 

Thursday I just . . . didn’t want to make nachos. I don’t know why. So I went back to Recipe Tin Eats begging for a ground beef recipe, and dear Nagi said I could make qeema. 

I’m telling you, that lady does not miss. I minced up a bunch of garlic and ginger, cooked that a bit, added finely diced onion, cooked it some more, and then added the ground beef along with kosher salt, cayenne pepper, garam masala, cumin, coriander, and turmeric, and browned up the meat. Then you just add some water and simmer it until most of the water evaporates.

And that’s it! I set up some rice in the Instant Pot for Damien to start while I got the kids, and I wanted to make some yogurt sauce, but since I had been planning nachos, I had bought sour cream, and we didnt’t have yogurt. So I defrosted a couple of the mint cubes I had put away last fall

and stirred that in with the sour cream (I froze them with a little olive oil. I also found a bottle of coriander chutney in the cabinet and chopped up some cilantro, and IT WAS ALL DELICIOUS.

Definitely making this meal again. I told the kids it was like Korean Beef Bowl

Jump to Recipe

except Indian, which is sort of true, but also kind of a silly thing to say. It was not spicy, but was absolutely bristling with garlic and ginger, which I love. Just a wonderful, warm, homey taste, and the sauce from the meat soaked right into the rice and made the whole thing savory and good, and so nice with the cool chutney and minty sour cream. Great meal, and really quick (or a great make-ahead meal). 

I also realized that I’m very tired of not really knowing how much meat I actually have (the ground beef was in a ziplock bag from last week, after I divided a giant package and used the first part on areyes. So I got a cheap kitchen scale, and I’m looking forward to seeing if this improves my baking, too, if I can measure dry ingredients by weight rather than volume. Probably not! I think I’m just a mediocre baker, and I’m mostly okay with that. But who knows, maybe this will change everything. Anyway, I’ll know how much meat I have. 

We ate really early and then headed off for Corrie’s confirmation and First Holy Communion! 

Bunch of pictures here. 

It was lovely. Just lovely. Clara was her sponsor, and she chose the name Casilda, who is a saint she learned about from Meg Hunter-Kilmer’s excellent book Saints Around the World. It didn’t ring a bell at the time, but Saint Casilda of Toledo is the subject of this famous painting by Francisco de Zurbaran

which was the reference for a painting by Roméo Mivekannin which we saw in person a few months ago at the Currier Museum in Manchester.

 We do get around. 

For the cake, I often make a stained glass cake for sacrament parties. You cover the cake in royal icing to make a stable surface, let it dry, pipe lines in black, and the carefully fill them in with various jellies whipped up with a little water. This isn’t the greatest example, but it gives the general idea:

I wanted to try something different, so I frosted the cake and then melted some white candy melts and just kind of dabbed them onto parchment paper

When they were dry, I peeled them off and arranged them into a flower. 

I thought it was pretty, if a little rough; but it didn’t really say “Catholic” to me. First I attempted to make crosses out of candy melt. They looked pretty terrible when I cut them out with a knife; and when I tried to use a cookie cutter, they kept breaking when I tried to release them. So I found some gum paste and

behold, it’s THE LITTLE LAMBY OF GOD. 

This is the cutest religious cake I have ever made. Corrie loved it, and I’m happy to have a new way to decorate cakes. I see many possibilities. 

I’ve been on a poem-printing kick lately. I follow several poets and poetry lovers on social media, and the printer has been amazingly obliging lately (= it prints things???), so any time something strikes my fancy, I print it out and stick it to the wall. Here’s The Lamb by William Blake, if you’d like to do the same. When we were at the Fairbanks and I pointed out the Robert Louis Stevenson document to the kids, I reminded them that he was the one who wrote At the Sea-Side (“When I was down beside the sea/A wooden spade they gave to me…”) which is the poem that’s been hanging in the bathroom for several years, and my favorite poem of all time; and one of my kids said, “Oh, I have it memorized. I stare at it every time I take a dump!” So I guess you could say [looks smugly at fingernails] I really know my stuff, parent-wise. 

And now, my friends, all ten of my children have been baptized and confirmed and they’ve all been to confession and received Communion. And they’ve memorized at least one poem. I’m not saying my work is done, but it sure feels like a milestone. 

FRIDAY
Spaghetti? 

I believe we’re having spaghetti. I gotta clean up the kitchen from yesterday (it was Benny’s turn, but we got home so late), and the ducklings are meep-meep-meeping and the dog is whining and I’m still in my pajamas and there are things overdue and there simply isn’t time for it all, but I am so glad for my life. What a life! 

And look at my flowers, which did NOT DIE.

The greens are daffodils and possibly red tulips, I don’t remember. Some of my winter sowing jugs are finally poking out of the dirt. And the buds on my peach tree look fine! We had a freeze and I was rushing around in the dark, draping sheets over things and weeping, as one does, but it looks like everything survived. 

Happy Friday! I’ll pray for yez all at adoration this afternoon. 

 

5 from 1 vote
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Korean Beef Bowl

A very quick and satisfying meal with lots of flavor and only a few ingredients. Serve over rice, with sesame seeds and chopped scallions on the top if you like. You can use garlic powder and powdered ginger, but fresh is better. The proportions are flexible, and you can easily add more of any sauce ingredient at the end of cooking to adjust to your taste.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup brown sugar (or less if you're not crazy about sweetness)
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
  • 3-4 inches fresh ginger, minced
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3-4 lb2 ground beef
  • scallions, chopped, for garnish
  • sesame seeds for garnish

Instructions

  1. In a large skillet, cook ground beef, breaking it into bits, until the meat is nearly browned. Drain most of the fat and add the fresh ginger and garlic. Continue cooking until the meat is all cooked.

  2. Add the soy sauce, brown sugar, and red pepper flakes the ground beef and stir to combine. Cook a little longer until everything is hot and saucy.

  3. Serve over rice and garnish with scallions and sesame seeds. 

5 from 1 vote
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Pork banh mi

Ingredients

  • 5-6 lbs Pork loin
  • 1/2 cup fish sauce
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 minced onion
  • 1/2 head garlic, minced or crushed
  • 2 tsp pepper

Veggies and dressing

  • carrots
  • cucumbers
  • vinegar
  • sugar
  • cilantro
  • mayonnaise
  • Sriracha sauce

Instructions

  1. Slice the raw pork as thinly as you can. 

  2. Mix together the fish sauce ingredients and add the meat slices. Seal in a ziplock bag to marinate, as it is horrendously stinky. Marinate several hours or overnight. 

  3. Grill the meat over coals or on a pan under a hot broiler. 

  4. Toast a sliced baguette or other crusty bread. 

5 from 1 vote
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quick-pickled carrots and/or cucumbers for banh mi, bibimbap, ramen, tacos, etc.

An easy way to add tons of bright flavor and crunch to a meal. We pickle carrots and cucumbers most often, but you can also use radishes, red onions, daikon, or any firm vegetable. 

Ingredients

  • 6-7 medium carrots, peeled
  • 1 lb mini cucumbers (or 1 lg cucumber)

For the brine (make double if pickling both carrots and cukes)

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup rice vinegar (other vinegars will also work; you'll just get a slightly different flavor)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbsp kosher salt

Instructions

  1. Mix brine ingredients together until salt and sugar are dissolved. 

  2. Slice or julienne the vegetables. The thinner they are, the more flavor they pick up, but the more quickly they will go soft, so decide how soon you are going to eat them and cut accordingly!

    Add them to the brine so they are submerged.

  3. Cover and let sit for a few hours or overnight or longer. Refrigerate if you're going to leave them overnight or longer.

“My conscience will not allow me to make boring art for God”: Artist Daniel Mitsui

Daniel Mitsui likes drawing on calfskin vellum the best.

It’s popular with artists who, like Mitsui, create works in a medieval northern European style. But it’s not mere tradition or attachment to history that makes calfskin so appealing to Mitsui.

“It’s really, really, really nice,” he said. “It’s a very precise medium because, on a microscopic level, it’s an organized layer of skin cells. You get a more precise line, and you can make corrections easily by scraping away a layer with a knife.”

Try that on paper made from vegetative matter, and you’ll tear your picture up. But calfskin vellum is forgiving.

“People sometimes say, ‘How can you be so precise?’ That’s part of the secret. You draw on a better surface,” Mitsui said.

Mitsui, 41, has spent decades doing the work of carefully sorting, modifying and balancing tradition with innovation — or, more precisely, “combinations of influences, rather than wholly new ideas,” he said.

His work is distinctly medieval but brings in elements of Persian, Celtic and Japanese art.

“I think of it as a living style, rather than a historical one,” he said.

“In religious art, there’s a requirement that you try to uphold tradition in some manner, but I think that tradition is mostly in the content and the arrangement of the picture. It’s not really stylistic, so much as what you are showing, and with what associations,” Mistui said.

Thus he brings his audience “Great Battle in Heaven” in the style of a Japanese woodblock print.

On his site, he explains how he synthesized the appearance of the angelic warriors, who look like the heroes in prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, with a composition from one of Albrecht Dürer’s apocalyptic works. The result is at once arrestingly unusual and weirdly familiar, like a vivid but coherent dream where the mind feels free to draw on any meaningful image.

He is aware that not every viewer will be well versed in the Patristic writings and artistic conventions that enrich his work, so he tries to write descriptions to help the viewer understand more fully what they are seeing.

“It’s something I’m not as on top of as I’d like. I’m a relatively fast artist and a relatively slow writer,” he said. “I’m always behind.”

He said that medieval art is full of well-established symbolism, which is not necessarily obvious when you first look at it, but a little bit of analysis will provide the background to show how well it corroborates with what the Church Fathers have always taught.

“I very strongly value tradition as a theological concept, as the basis of Catholic epistemology. It’s how we know what we know as Catholics. That underlies my artwork; that’s part of what I’m trying to communicate,” he said.

But his work enjoys enormous appeal across a wide range of audiences because the images themselves are so compelling. And remaining faithful to tradition doesn’t mean limiting his scope.

“There’s really very different views on artwork even in traditional Catholicism,” he said. “If you even go back to the 12th century, the Victorines and the Cistercians had very different notions of aesthetics. I can’t just say, ‘My work depicts traditional Catholicism.’ Well, which part of it?”… Read the rest of my latest artist profile at Our Sunday Visitor

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Image: “Jesus Christ in Majesty with Cherubim and Seraphim” by Daniel Mistui

 

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This is the ninth in a monthly feature on Catholic and Catholic-friendly artists I’ve been writing for Our Sunday Visitor. 
Previous artists featured in this series:
Mattie Karr
Jaclyn Warren
Daniel Finaldi
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs
Chris Lewis
Kreg Yingst
Sarah Breisch
Charles Rohrbacher

If you know of (or are) a Catholic or Catholic-friendly artist you think should be featured, please drop me a line! simchafisher at gmail dot com. I’m not always excellent about responding, but I always check out every suggestion. Thanks!

What’s for supper? Vol. 367: I knead you so badly

Happy Friday! We’ve been eating a little too well for Lent. Don’t tell my bishop. Or, actually go ahead and tell him. I went and got fired from the diocesan magazine already last week, so do your worst. (I don’t really know why it happened, other than that I am annoying. It’s fine. Something else always turns up, and I can go be annoying to a slightly different subset of readers, inshallah.)

Anyway, here’s what we had this week, which was February vacation for most of the kids:  

SATURDAY
Grilled ham and cheese, chips

Usually, for grilled cheese, I buy a few loaves of sourdough bread that comes in very large pieces, but they were out of them at Aldi, so I got some pleasant-looking Italian loaves that seemed likely. Dinner time comes along, I open the bag, and here is what the individual slices look like:

and I’m like, huh. Possibly I’m a pervert, but this feels slightly awkward. Maybe they will look more normal if I put mayonnaise on them

Ah well, we’ll just call it theology of the body and fry ’em up. 

Yes, they all looked like this. 

So everyone got one and we also had pickles and let us never speak of this again. Definitely not to the bishop. 

SUNDAY
40 garlic whole chickens, orzo al limone

I have mentioned in the past how allergic I am to cooking whole chickens, because we had them SO often when we were super poor and they used to be like 49 cents a pound, and I just feel so gloomy and oppressed by whole chickens now. But I’m trying really hard to shop the sales, so I made a tremendous penitential Lenten effort and bought two whole chickens for cheap, which I prepared using this recipe for 40 garlic clove chickens

You melt butter and oil in a dutch oven and brown the chickens on all sides, take out the chicken and drain off some of the fat, and stir in the garlic cloves. Yes, we peeled 80 cloves of garlic.

In fact, it was after we peeled about 65 cloves of garlic that I more carefully read the recipe I was going to use, and discovered that it calls for unpeeled garlic. So I quickly switched to the recipe I linked above, which doesn’t specify. No, I will not read to the end of a recipe before starting it! You can’t make me!!

So then you put the chicken back in along with a little water, and lemon juice, salt, thyme (it calls for dried but I had fresh), and pepper, cover the dutch oven, and bake it in the oven for 90 minutes.  I don’t actually have a dutch oven, so I browned the chicken in a pot and then transferred it to a giant oven pan, covered it with tinfoil, and then put a second pan on top. 

Good enough! When I opened it up, the chickens were [Danny Kaye doing his drooling Clever Gretel voice] nicely cooked

I cooked them breast-side-down in “humble frog” position, because I knew the skin wasn’t going to be the star of this chicken anyway, and I really wanted the meat to be juicy. It was not the most visually stunning chicken I have ever met, but it was extremely juicy and full of flavor. I actually used quite a bit more lemon juice than it called for, and I have no regrets.

Before I made the chicken, I started on the orzo. I was using this recipe from delish, and if it sounds tasty to you (and it will), I recommend taking a screenshot, because they limit how many free page views you get. I assemble the ingredients and knew this would be a winner. Just look:

It’s basically the same as risotto. Sauté some garlic, then lemon zest, and oops, I threw my chives in there too soon 

then add your orzo with salt and pepper and toast it a bit. Then you add chicken broth, a bit at a time, so the orzo slowly absorbs it.

Yeah man. 

When it’s cooked, stir in the cheese (it called for Pecorino Romano, but I had parmesan) and the parsley, lemon juice, and chives. 

I actually cooked the orzo first and then put it in the slow cooker, and then got to work on the chicken.

They were SO nice together. 

Some asparagus or spinach would have put this meal over the top, but it was pretty great as it was. The cloves of garlic were as soft as boiled potatoes, so what I did was just fork-mash them onto my chicken 

and we were all in garlic heaven. “We” being the chicken and the orzo and me. 

The orzo is amazing. I loved it so much. It was rich and creamy and cozy, but also piquant and sharp with the garlic and lemon and herbs. Some of the kids did not like the texture, probably because they are used to risotto and it’s not the same. But Damien and I thought it was great. 

On Sunday, I also did some winter sowing, which is something I only recently discovered. The idea is that you can start seeds outdoors in late winter even if it’s cold and snowy out, because you’re planting in milk jugs that act as little greenhouses; and then when the frost is past and your seedlings are big enough to transplant into the ground, you don’t have to harden them off, because they’re already acclimated. I have never successfully hardened seedlings off, because I take it too personally and all I can think is that nobody ever carried me in and out and in and out because my little leafies might get cold. 

You cut the milk jugs about four inches up from the bottom, leaving the last bit intact for a hinge. Fill the bottom with seed starter material, plant your seeds, water, and put the top back and tape it shut. That’s it. 

I was delighted to find a sack of seed starter I had bought on clearance last year, so I got out my saved seed stash and did three jugs of eggplants, three of pumpkin, and two butternut squash; and I did two jugs of morning glories for my friend Millie, who is in the nursing home again. And I got some more spiles and tubing for maple sugaring! But I used up all the milk jugs, so we have to build up some more supply before I can get going on that.

MONDAY
Spicy chicken sandwiches, fruit salad

Monday I went to see Millie in the morning. If you could keep her in your prayers, please, I’d appreciate it! She’s going to be 90 the first week in March and she’s hoping to be able to get back to her house and garden soon. 

I had some boneless, skinless chicken thighs I had stashed in the freezer when they were on sale a few weeks ago, and I made these wonderful sandwiches that everybody likes. They come together really fast. You just season the chicken thighs with Cajun seasoning — actually I used Tony Chachere’s, which is creole, but close enough — and then pan fry them on both sides. While they are cooking, you cut up some shishito peppers (just cut the tops off) and slice some red onions. When the chicken is done, you blister up the peppers in another pan, and lay some American cheese on top of the chicken and put a lid on it so it melts. 

(I didn’t actually cook the chicken this close together; I used two pans, and then transferred the chicken to one pan for the cheese treatment.)

Layer the chicken, peppers, and onions on brioche buns, with BBQ sauce top and bottom. Boom, amazing sandwich.

I just love this sandwich because it’s so SIMPLE. One bottle of spice, one step with the peppers, easy sliced cheese, bottled sauce. You really couldn’t improve it if you made it complicated and fiddly (although I’m sure Sam Sifton would like to try). 

You can see that I made a fruit salad, which we haven’t had for a while. Strawberries, blueberries, grapes, and kiwis. Nice to have some color. 

TUESDAY
Beef barley soup, french bread

Beef was on sale, so I got a likely-looking hunk and made some soup. Garlic, onion, and carrots, chunks of beef, tomatoes, beef broth, mushrooms, and barley, and plenty of pepper. So good. 

Jump to Recipe

This is the soup I sometimes make in my head when I can’t sleep. 

While that was simmering, I thought it was high time to test out my lovely new marble countertop, which I purposely installed lower than the rest of the counter, to make it easier to knead dough. (I’m kind of short; I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this.)

IT WAS PERFECT. Made such a difference. I never realized I was struggling with dough on the higher countertop, but now that I have a lower one, it was so much easier. 

Here is the simple french bread recipe I use:

Jump to Recipe

It makes four long loaves — or, in this case, three long ones and three shorties, because I was sending some food over to one of the kids. 

I do love rolling the loaves out. Zoop!

Then I set them for a second rise and managed to drop BOTH pans as I was moving them, so they got kind of wadded up, but they baked up well enough. 

They had a really nice thin little shattering crust on the outside, and they were soft and tender on the inside. Good stuff. 

So we had the soup and the bread

and at this point I’m just dragging the narrative out because I have more pictures. 

And now I’m done!

WEDNESDAY
Korean beef bowl, rice, raw veg, crunchy rice rolls

Wednesday we had a bunch of errands – haircuts and what have you – and I started supper late, but it was a quickie: Good old Korean Beef Bowl. I had bought extra ground beef when it was on sale for the Super Bowl, and this is a fast, easy recipe, even if you do go for fresh garlic and fresh ginger, which I did. 

Jump to Recipe

So I put the cooked beef in the slow cooker, and made some rice in the instant pot, cut up some cucumbers and took out the packages of crunchy rice rolls I had been saving. 

Tasty little meal. The beef has sesame seeds and chopped scallions for garnishes. I don’t know why I feel the need to point that out, but there you are. 

On Wednesday I cut up the leftover chicken and made a simple chicken salad (just mayo, I think maybe lemon juice or cider vinegar, salt and pepper, celery, and green apple), and then I made soup with the rest of the carcasses, just so as not to waste it. I had a brainwave and realized I could freeze it all and get a jump start on Passover cooking this year! I really hate making the chicken soup some years, so I’m delighted to have this already done. I will need to add parsley and dill, but it already has the chicken, carrots, celery, and onion in it

THURSDAY
Pizza

The kids had mainly been playing board games all week (including Dixit, which was a Christmas present, and turned out to be a hit) for vacation week, but I did promise/threaten a trip to an art museum; so five of the kids and I went to the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester. Great stuff. Admission is reasonable (one adult, two students, two youth, and a kid got in for $35) and their descriptive cards are good, providing enough context and explanation to help you see, but without leading you too much. They have a really solid, varied collection for a small museum.

Interesting things happening in the contemporary art world! There is still a certain amount of “hoo HOO, I bet THIS transgressive bit of plastic really pushes your conventional little buttons, DOESN’T IT??” getting churned out, but also some far more interesting stuff. (Yes, I realize I opened this post with some penis sandwiches, so maybe I should shut my yap about who’s childishly transgressive. On the other hand, they were just sandwiches.) I was especially taken with two large works by Kara Walker, who will have an entire exhibit there soon, but there were other thoughtful, skilled, intriguing, moving contemporary pieces as well. I shared a few images on Facebook:

It is a small museum, so we did a thorough tour in two hours. Then we hit a few thrift stores just for fun, and then we got pizza and talked about art. Lovely day with my lovely kids. On the way there, they played an ice breaker game (“If you were an animal, what kind would you be? What is your favorite movie” etc.), but they played as different characters, so everyone had to guess who they were. Let me tell you, if we had run out of gas, we could have made it home under the sheer white hot heat of the quantity of in-jokes flying around. I had no idea what was going on, but they had fun. 

FRIDAY
Tilapia tacos and guacamole

I don’t really have a solid plan for this fish, but I’m tired of having it in my freezer. It was on clearance at Walmart quite some time ago, and I don’t want to look at it anymore. Hoping the avocados I got aren’t totally overripe by now. 

And I need to make a cake! A Squirtle cake! For tomorrow is Corrie’s birthday party. It’s going to be Pokémon-themed, and Sophia is making a treasure hunt and Irene is making a piñata. This has honestly been one of our nicest February vacations, despite some trials which, nay, I shan’t mention. Love seeing my kids enjoy being with each other. 

My other thing is that I’m a little frustrated with yoga lately, partially because I managed to injure both knees (one by falling on the ice, one by doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING; the little fucker just started hurting for no reason, and now I go up and down stairs looking like I imagine Strega Nona would, on stairs), so I have started pilates. I kind of hate it, but it keeps my attention because you have to be SO SPECIFIC about what muscles you’re using, so at least it’s not boring. I did one random class on YouTube and then I found this lady, Banks (that’s how she refers to herself, as “Banks”), and I have done three of her thirty-minute core classes for beginners. Tough stuff, but I’m hanging on. She is very specific about what you’re supposed to be doing and how it’s supposed to feel, which I appreciate, and she’s not especially annoying. So, now you know everything I know. 

Beef barley soup (Instant Pot or stovetop)

Makes about a gallon of lovely soup

Ingredients

  • olive oil
  • 1 medium onion or red onion, diced
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 3-4 medium carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2-3 lbs beef, cubed
  • 16 oz mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
  • 6 cups beef bouillon
  • 1 cup merlot or other red wine
  • 29 oz canned diced tomatoes (fire roasted is nice) with juice
  • 1 cup uncooked barley
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a heavy pot. If using Instant Pot, choose "saute." Add the minced garlic, diced onion, and diced carrot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions and carrots are softened. 


  2. Add the cubes of beef and cook until slightly browned.

  3. Add the canned tomatoes with their juice, the beef broth, and the merlot, plus 3 cups of water. Stir and add the mushrooms and barley. 

  4. If cooking on stovetop, cover loosely and let simmer for several hours. If using Instant Pot, close top, close valve, and set to high pressure for 30 minutes. 

  5. Before serving, add pepper to taste. Salt if necessary. 

 

French bread

Makes four long loaves. You can make the dough in one batch in a standard-sized standing mixer bowl if you are careful!

I have a hard time getting the water temperature right for yeast. One thing to know is if your water is too cool, the yeast will proof eventually; it will just take longer. So if you're nervous, err on the side of coolness.

Ingredients

  • 4-1/2 cups warm water
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp active dry yeast
  • 5 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup olive or canola oil
  • 10-12 cups flour
  • butter for greasing the pan (can also use parchment paper) and for running over the hot bread (optional)
  • corn meal for sprinkling on pan (optional)

Instructions

  1. In the bowl of a standing mixer, put the warm water, and mix in the sugar and yeast until dissolved. Let stand at least five minutes until it foams a bit. If the water is too cool, it's okay; it will just take longer.

  2. Fit on the dough hook and add the salt, oil, and six of the cups of flour. Add the flour gradually, so it doesn't spurt all over the place. Mix and low and then medium speed. Gradually add more flour, one cup at a time, until the dough is smooth and comes away from the side of the bowl as you mix. It should be tender but not sticky.

  3. Lightly grease a bowl and put the dough ball in it. Cover with a damp towel or lightly cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise for about an hour, until it's about double in size.

  4. Flour a working surface. Divide the dough into four balls. Taking one at a time, roll, pat, and/or stretch it out until it's a rough rectangle about 9x13" (a little bigger than a piece of looseleaf paper).

  5. Roll the long side of the dough up into a long cylinder and pinch the seam shut, and pinch the ends, so it stays rolled up. It doesn't have to be super tight, but you don't want a ton of air trapped in it.

  6. Butter some large pans. Sprinkle them with cornmeal if you like. You can also line them with parchment paper. Lay the loaves on the pans.

  7. Cover them with damp cloths or plastic wrap again and set to rise in a warm place again, until they come close to double in size. Preheat the oven to 375.

  8. Give each loaf several deep, diagonal slashes with a sharp knife. This will allow the loaves to rise without exploding. Put the pans in the oven and throw some ice cubes in the bottom of the oven, or spray some water in with a mister, and close the oven quickly, to give the bread a nice crust.

  9. Bake 25 minutes or more until the crust is golden. One pan may need to bake a few minutes longer.

  10. Run some butter over the crust of the hot bread if you like, to make it shiny and even yummier.

 

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Korean Beef Bowl

A very quick and satisfying meal with lots of flavor and only a few ingredients. Serve over rice, with sesame seeds and chopped scallions on the top if you like. You can use garlic powder and powdered ginger, but fresh is better. The proportions are flexible, and you can easily add more of any sauce ingredient at the end of cooking to adjust to your taste.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup brown sugar (or less if you're not crazy about sweetness)
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
  • 3-4 inches fresh ginger, minced
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3-4 lb2 ground beef
  • scallions, chopped, for garnish
  • sesame seeds for garnish

Instructions

  1. In a large skillet, cook ground beef, breaking it into bits, until the meat is nearly browned. Drain most of the fat and add the fresh ginger and garlic. Continue cooking until the meat is all cooked.

  2. Add the soy sauce, brown sugar, and red pepper flakes the ground beef and stir to combine. Cook a little longer until everything is hot and saucy.

  3. Serve over rice and garnish with scallions and sesame seeds. 

The freedom of wearing your faith on your sleeve: Artist Mattie Karr

Mattie Karr wanted to be an infiltrator. The 28-year-old Kansas native had big dreams of traveling to Hollywood and stealthily planting spiritual seeds in the work she did, smuggling religious themes into mainstream stories and animation.

“I loved the idea of being incognito with my art. I could be this Catholic evangelizing spy, almost,” she said.

It didn’t work out, and she is so glad.

First of all, she loves living in Kansas and loves the parish where she just finished a massive commission, three years in the making. It consists of two 15-foot high triptychs that bring color and warmth to either side the rather austere apse of Holy Name of Jesus in Kansas City.

Second, she found that she couldn’t stop making religious art if she tried. “As I grew in my faith, I couldn’t help it. The art just came out and it was all religious, mostly Mary. I couldn’t stop drawing Mary,” she said. The big shift came when she went on retreat, and some people prophesied over her, saying that God was calling her to do something and that she needed to be brave and step out.

“It was very clear he wanted me to leap,” she said. A week later, she did, quitting her job in sales, and launching her full-time career as an artist. Karr paints and draws sacred and liturgical art and also does commissions with specific religious themes, depicting spiritual tableaux that are particularly meaningful to her patrons.

Now that she’s surrendered to the idea of being a sacred artist, she said life has gotten so much easier.

“The images come a lot quicker. It doesn’t feel like as much of a struggle,” she said. “I appreciate wearing my religion on my sleeve in my business. It’s much more freeing.”

Karr said she once met a priest at a wedding, and he was adamant that she is an iconographer. Although Karr has done a painting that, at the request of a client, borrows some elements of traditional iconography, most of her work is in a very different mode. But the priest insisted, “Your spirituality is that of an icon painter. I can tell you pray through it.”

And this is so.

“Even if I’m not consciously praying, I’m praying,” she said. “Even in artist mode, I’m aware of the Holy Spirit.”

When she’s working with a client to develop a commissioned piece, she prays with them, and asks the Holy Spirit to give her an image for them. This is what happened when a client asked her to portray Mary, Undoer of Knots.

She collaborated with a client whose wife is a mental health counselor and had a recurring dream of Mary dressed in work clothes, diligently unbinding the tangles in a long ribbon that shines in the light falling on her shoulders.

Karr said that, although the image was made for one client, it often brings people to tears, even if they previously knew nothing of this traditional title of Mary.

“I’ve seen how much God can speak through these images. Beauty has this quality of stopping people in their tracks and making them pay attention,” she said. It breaks through the silence, even a silence we may not be aware of.

“So many people in their relationship with God don’t think he has much to say to them. Even devout Christians don’t experience the love of God in their lives,” she said. But sometimes beauty can speak to them with God’s voice.

“It’s a collaboration with the Holy Spirit. I’m always asking,” she said.

Sometimes that collaboration seems to come in the form of failure…. Read the rest of my latest monthly artist profile for Our Sunday Visitor.

***

This is the eighth in a monthly feature on Catholic and Catholic-friendly artists I’ve been writing for Our Sunday Visitor. 
Previous artists featured in this series:
Jaclyn Warren
Daniel Finaldi
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs
Chris Lewis
Kreg Yingst
Sarah Breisch
Charles Rohrbacher

If you know of (or are) a Catholic or Catholic-friendly artist you think should be featured, please drop me a line! simchafisher at gmail dot com. I’m not always excellent about responding, but I always check out every suggestion. Thanks!

Don’t feed on the redhearts only

One of the great benefits of having teenagers in the house (WE HAVE FOUR TEENAGERS IN THE HOUSE) is that you get constant updates on the things you do strangely, or poorly, or stupidly, or wrong. It’s pretty great. 

Today, on the way to school, I was waiting for Eight O’Clock Bach to come on the radio, and they were playing some silly little French pieces with a flute, and a lot of airy runs and pointless meandering, and I said, “Ugh, could this sound more French?” 

One of the kids asked in an exasperated voice, “Well, why do you listen to music you don’t like?” It seemed like the height of stupidity to them, and I can see why.
 
But as so often happens when I am challenged, I discover I’m not actually a complete moron, and I really do have a guiding principle for my behavior. So I said, “Because I believe in exposing myself to things that are not my favorite!” 
 
This is absolutely true, and I think my parents deliberately raised me to think this way, especially my father. I remember going to art museums and never skipping the modern art galleries, even though they were, to put it mildly, not my father‘s favorite. We tramped through and probably obnoxiously proclaimed our opinions about the piles of lightbulbs and penis couches and whatnot; but we didn’t skip them. I also remember going to concerts of John Cage and Philip Glass, and also of less-talented composers who were heavily influenced by Cage and Glass, if you can imagine. And we would always debrief afterwards. 
 
And sometimes we just complained, but usually we talked about why we didn’t like what we didn’t like. We talked about what people might find compelling about it, and why it wasn’t enough to make it worth it in the end, for us. And sometimes we did like it, and we talked about that, too. The key was, we didn’t encounter art that wasn’t our style just for the sake of enduring it. We really looked and really listened, and we really thought about it, and hashed it out. At least that’s how I remember it.
 
My kids have grown up in an era where everything is tailored to follow their tastes, and where everyone is expected to curate their own list of favorites This is considered the sensible and normal and sane thing to do. Why would you not? Why not make a playlist solely of things you enjoy, and stock your shelves with your favorite foods, and subscribe to only your most well-tested channels? 
 
Let me be clear, this is not a moral question. There’s nothing wrong with making playlists of music you like! But it is a question of what you are doing to yourself, and what richness you may be missing, if you live your whole life this way.
 
And also what will happen when you come up to some unpleasant thing that you really can’t avoid, but you haven’t built up a habit of enduring. 
 
Part of the answer is something I remember reading in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. Ransom, who has found himself sent as an emissary of some kind to an alien, untouched planet, is wandering around figuring out how to survive on a literally unstable landscape, and discovering which growing things are good to eat. Some of them are more to his liking than others!
 
He made his way gingerly towards the coast, but before he reached it he passed some bushes which carried a rich crop of oval green berries, about three times the size of almonds. He picked one and broke it in two. The flesh was dryish and bread-like, something of the same kind as a banana. It turned out to be good to eat. It did not give the orgiastic and almost alarming pleasure of the gourds, but rather the specific pleasure of plain food–the delight of munching and being nourished, a “Sober certainty of waking bliss.” A man, or at least a man like Ransom, felt he ought to say grace over it; and so he presently did. The gourds would have required rather an oratorio or a mystical meditation. But the meal had its unexpected high lights. Every now and then one struck a berry which had a bright red centre: and these were so savoury, so memorable among a thousand tastes, that he would have begun to look for them and to feed on them only, but that he was once more forbidden by that same inner adviser which had already spoken to him twice since he came to Perelandra. “Now on earth,” thought Ransom, “they’d soon discover how to breed these redhearts, and they’d cost a great deal more than the others.” Money, in fact, would provide the means of saying encore in a voice that could not be disobeyed. (Perelandra, chapter 4) 
 
This is a slightly different phenomenon than what I was talking about. The plain berries aren’t bad; they’re just plain. Still, he has to compel himself to keep on accepting them, rather than skipping past them to get to the redhearts. He is not on earth; he’s in a different kind of place, where some things are better than others, but at least so far, everything is good.
 
I thought, too, of the little story of “The Magic Thread,” where a young boy is given a magic ball that is his own life, spun out in thread. When he comes upon something in his life he’d rather skip, all he has to do is tug on the thread, and he’ll instantly find himself past it. 
 

The following day at school, Peter sat daydreaming about what he would do with his magic thread. The teacher scolded him for not concentrating on his work. If only, he thought, it was time to go home. Then he felt the silver ball in his pocket. If he pulled out a tiny bit of thread, the day would be over. Very carefully he took hold of it and tugged. Suddenly the teacher was telling everyone to pack up their books and to leave the classroom in an orderly fashion. Peter was overjoyed. He ran all the way home. How easy life would be now! All his troubles were over. From that day forth he began to pull the thread, just a little, every day.

You can imagine how this goes. He finds himself pulling on the thread of his life more and more, skipping over difficult and boring and laborious times more and more often. And it’s not only because he’s selfish or lazy: Sometimes, as he grows, he pulls on the thread to skip over the painful spells for the people he loves: The teething and trials of his babies, and the sickness of his beloved wife. 
 
But of course as he skips and skips, he finds himself older, sicker, and more feeble, and “as soon as one trouble was solved, another seemed to grow in its place.” The more he skips, the less he finds there is to enjoy, until he finds himself at the end of his life, everyone moved away or dying or dead, the thread all pulled out. Oops. 
 
There’s less here to consider than in the Lewis book. The “magic thread” is more of a simple “stop and smell the roses” idea, because if you don’t stop because you think there might be a thorn, you’ll miss the roses; that’s all. In Perelandra, though, there are no thorns. It’s an unfallen world, untouched as yet by death or sin. And yet Ransom still feels impelled to stop and make his way through everything that is given to him. What’s that about? 
 
I haven’t read the book in a long time, but I believe it has to do with accepting our relationship with God: Who we are is receivers, and it is our place to accept what we are given. Either with intentional thanksgiving, or with radical acceptance of his will. The fallenness in that scene was not the existence of the plain berries; it was Ransom’s initial idea to reject them because they weren’t good enough.
 
One happy secret is, making your way thoughtfully and attentively through the parts you never would have chosen give so much more savor to the redhearts. It happens in little ways, like with music. Bach is always Bach and always something I want to listen to, but man, a Brandenburg Concerto is a thousand times more satisfying if you’ve just sweated your way through Trois Petites Pièces du Augusta Holmès.
 
And it happens in bigger ways. If I weren’t in the habit of leaving the radio on through my less-favorite parts, I think I would find it a lot harder to have teenagers in the house, with their winsome habit of telling me how weird and dumb I am all the time. The truth is that all of my kids are my favorite, and they all have dear and wonderful and compelling virtues and attributes, and I really do want to be with them. But their virtues are much easier to note and appreciate when you are in the habit of patiently enduring and accepting . . . you know, the other bits. This habit of acceptance is one of those muscles you can use to lift all kinds of loads.  
 
So that’s why I listen to music I don’t like. As I said, it’s not a moral issue, except in that it’s the kind of thing that trains you for the times when it is a moral issue: When it’s not plain berries or subpar flute music, but it’s the suffering and sorrow and struggle that comes into every life, especially the life of someone who’s chosen to seek God. By the end of Perelandra, as I recall, Ransom is put in a place of accepting far more painful realities than eating a berry that doesn’t taste exquisite. And he does it. 

 
The “inner adviser” that spoke to Ransom is the same one who speaks to us in our world. I hear the message, “Don’t feed on the redhearts only.” So, I try. 
 
Image: Edited version, original via Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

“Beauty is always the right answer”: Painter and illustrator Jaclyn Warren

“I was so nervous about having the chalice and paten in my garage,” Jaclyn Warren said.

“We have too many kids and too many cats; something’s going to happen to them,” she said.

But the precious liturgical vessels survived. They were in Warren’s home, along with a priest in full vestments holding a censer billowing smoke, because she was making sketches for a series of paintings of the North American Martyrs for a high school chapel.

The project, the brainchild of Father John Brown, who commissioned the pieces for Jesuit High School in New Orleans, will show two of the martyred laymen toward the back of the church, and then some of the saints in liturgical dress worshipping along with the congregation, with their vestments becoming more splendid the closer to the altar they are. It’s a huge project, and Warren is working feverishly in between caring for her young children, who, like everyone else in the country, keep getting sick.

Warren, a Louisiana-based liturgical painter and illustrator, said what’s more overwhelming is when she remembers where her work will be displayed.

“It plays on my nerves a little bit. It’s kind of a big deal. People are going to be looking at this for I don’t know how long, maybe after I’m dead and gone, and thinking maybe that nose doesn’t look quite right,” she laughed. “But I know the mission is so important, I can’t get hung up having an artistic crisis.”

Captivating an audience

Mainly, she tries to keep her audience in mind.

“I think of all the boys that are going to be looking at [the paintings of saints]. It’s important that they see them as a source of inspiration and strength, and not just, ‘Look at all these bald guys,’” she said.

She knows from personal experience how an off-putting depiction of a saint can stick with you for years.

“I remember growing up, I had my book of saints, and Mary Magdalene was wearing this bright pink dress and green eyeshadow, and even at 10 years old I was thinking it was so dated,” she said. She also remembers the Black saints were painted so clumsily, their skin almost looked green.

That was a missed opportunity by Catholic art. Warren grew up loving the saints, but it was despite these illustrations, not because of them; and even though she wanted to be an artist herself, nothing she saw drew her in personally. It never occurred to her that she could be the one to update those unappealing pictures.

“It had already been done. The books have been illustrated; the churches have been decorated,” she remembers thinking. She didn’t see herself as someone who could step up and answer a call.

So when she did study art in high school and then at Savannah College of Art and Design, sacred art was not on her radar.

“I thought, ‘I have to do something that’s going to sustain me. I have this talent; I’ll be a portrait artist. That will make money, and I’ll be secure,’” she said.

An artist’s struggle

But when she attended a summer program at Yale, she found herself the odd man out, ostracized because of her faith and because she made figurative art that wasn’t designed mainly to shock and titillate the viewer. She also noticed that artists who chased the cutting edge of artistic fads might have their moment of fame, but then they were just as quickly forgotten.

“I had to rethink, ‘Is being famous and well-esteemed all it’s cracked up to be?’” Warren said.

Read the rest of my latest monthly artist profile for Our Sunday Visitor

***

This is the seventh in a monthly feature on Catholic and Catholic-friendly artists I’ve been writing for Our Sunday Visitor. 
Previous artists featured in this series:
Daniel Finaldi
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs
Chris Lewis
Kreg Yingst
Sarah Breisch
Charles Rohrbacher

If you know of (or are) a Catholic or Catholic-friendly artist you think should be featured, please drop me a line! simchafisher at gmail dot com. I’m not always excellent about responding, but I always check out every suggestion. Thanks!

Dan Finaldi: Teaching painting, finding God

Dan Finaldi doesn’t have a studio. His house in New Jersey doesn’t have space, and that might become a problem when he retires from teaching to spend more time painting, which he plans to do in the next few years. He’s been a high school teacher for 23 years, and as much as he enjoys teaching teenagers, at age 62, he’s finding it harder to match their energy.

But he’s still teaching now, and when the weather’s too bad to go outside, he often stays after school to paint. More often than not, he ends up painting his students. “They’re posing or eating, and I’m painting them. They talk, they share. They tell me their life stories,” he said.

“I just want to paint them. Sometimes, people will come to me and say, ‘Can I pose?’ and I say, ‘Sure.’ I’m fascinated by looking at people. There are so many different things to look at in a face. I love looking at their faces,” he said.

Finaldi teaches at a public high school that welcomes lots of Indigenous students, many with complex or traumatic histories.

“Last year I painted two double portraits, sisters from Mexico. They told me their grandmother speaks an Indigenous language, not Spanish, some ancient language that has perdured,” he says.

The Southern and Central American migrant students often speak of their families, and Finaldi said they also seem to bring a heightened sense of color and design to their work, as well as an apparently innate talent for working with pottery and clay.

Awakening a dormant ability

All students have a “dormant ability in drawing,” he said, and he sees it as his job to teach them the skills to wake up that dormant ability. But it helps when some of the students also supply enthusiasm and inspiration.

“When you’re in a class of 25 kids, it does lift all boats, when you have kids that are not on their phones, and they’re looking at other kids’ artwork,” he said. “Their work improves aesthetically. They see the line work and the color, and they try to imitate it.”

Finaldi is just inspired to paint the kids themselves, though.

“They’re such beautiful, interesting-looking people; I just want to paint them. I’m fascinated by looking at people,” he said.

The natural world

But when the weather is fine, Finaldi will be outside, using oil paint or watercolor to capture his other great love: The natural world. He’s learned to harness the power of Instagram and will share a video panning slowly past a busy playground where he’s set up his easel, his unfinished canvas blending into the rosy sun and shadows of a late summer afternoon.

The loose, light-filled strokes of color are typical of Finaldi’s work, which presents fluid, unpretentious scenes of daily life: the rusty glow of autumn leaves under a cerulean sky; a moody moonlit nocturne with power lines; teenagers just hanging out…Read the rest of my latest artist profile for Our Sunday Visitor. 

This is the sixth in a monthly feature on Catholic and Catholic-friendly artists I’ve been writing for Our Sunday Visitor. 
Previous artists featured in this series:
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs
Chris Lewis
Kreg Yingst
Sarah Breisch
Charles Rohrbacher

If you know of (or are) a Catholic or Catholic-friendly artist you think should be featured, please drop me a line! simchafisher at gmail dot com. I’m not always excellent about responding, but I always check out every suggestion. Thanks!

 

A ‘very human life’ is the hallmark of Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs’ sacred art

Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs said her husband Andrew asked her after Mass, “Did you see the guy with Jesus hair?”

She did see him and had wanted to run after him, but she hesitated, and now she regrets it. He would have made a great model.

It was one leap she didn’t take, but only one.

Four years ago, she and her husband took a chance, and now she supports the family full-time with their home business, Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs Sacred Art. She mostly paints commissions and also teaches painting in person.

As a working mother and breadwinner, she’s something of an oddity in her community.

“In my parish, many of the mothers stay home full time, and the husband works. I try to explain to people we chose to have this small business of making sacred art because it allows us to live the liturgical year more fully,” she said.

As fulfilling as this life often is, it wasn’t easy to land there.

“To take that leap, God sort of had to put us in a situation where we lost a different job and we didn’t know what else to do. It didn’t seem prudent to try to raise a family on being an artist, but God knew we didn’t have the courage to do it without taking away the other options,” she said.

Thompson-Briggs said she looks to the medieval model of a family workshop, including apprentices who were part of the household.

“It seems like a very human life to live, that my children see their father throughout the day, and we’re always switching off with childcare and homeschooling and business duties. It’s a model I love, but it has been rare. It may be coming back, since everyone’s been working at home,” she said.

That “very human life” is a hallmark of Thompson-Briggs’ approach to art. Many of her live models, like the one with the Jesus hair who got away, are not professionals, but fellow parishioners at the church down the street from her studio.

“I will snag them and say, ‘Are you available to linger for an hour next Tuesday after Mass?’ and surprisingly, most people are amenable. I’ve gotten to have so many wonderful conversations. You meet so many people you think you know because you see the back of their head for months, and then you start to talk to them, and you’re always surprised,” she said.

The in-person conversation and time together give her visual insight an artist can’t attain by working from a photograph.

“When you’re working from a photo, you can get caught up in the detail. [But] when you work from life, you introduce the element of time. What’s the most natural way their head would tilt or that drape would fall?” she said.

As her model settles in and gets comfortable, her eyes also discern more breadth of color, more depth in shadow, and more atmosphere.

Her favorite models are good conversationalists, and she also acknowledges that talking helps keep them awake. Her studio heats up tremendously in the summer, and fans can only do so much when a model is draped in layers of wool.

Even their discomfort can be a revealing part of the artistic process, though.

“If you’re carrying something heavy in one arm, it’s going to affect the angle of the hips, or something,” she said.

But because she is making sacred art, she is not trying to paint a recognizable portrait, but to assist the viewer in prayer; and so to portray a beloved saint, or Mary, or the Sacred Heart, she often uses three or four models, combining select elements from their various faces and bodies, hands and hair.

“Using multiple models allows me to approach the idealization of the saint who is a distinct personality, who is separate from all the reference models. Sometimes, I will transform someone, make them older or younger; other times, it’s a rare person who has really beautiful hands,” she said…Read the rest of my latest artist profile for Our Sunday Visitor.

Image: Detail of St. Martin de Porres by Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs

Carving light out of darkness: The art of Kreg Yingst

Kreg Yingst had set himself a task: He would make one block print for each of the psalms.

“I thought I was gonna knock it out in a year,” he said.

He did not knock it out in a year. Some of the images came to him easily, but some were a struggle. The project dragged.

And that was perfect.

“I had to wrestle with it. It became my daily prayer. If nothing came, I had to sit on it, and that would be the one prayer I would pray. If a visual didn’t come, I would read it tomorrow,” he said.

 

He compares the process to meleté, the intense word-based meditative prayer of the Desert Fathers. Many of them were illiterate, so they would go to their abbot, receive some lines of Scripture and immerse themselves in them all day to “pray without ceasing” in their cells, perhaps in song. This slow, repetitious meditation would purify their hearts and allow the words to take root.

More than two years later, Yingst’s prints that grew from these words became a book, “The Psalms in 150 Block Prints” ($35.95).

Yingst, 63, was heavily influenced by the black-and-white graphic woodcuts of German artist Frans Masereel and American Lynd Ward, whose wordless novels are considered a precursor to the modern graphic novel. Yingst’s deft, striking compositions, which often incorporate text, are sometimes exuberant, sometimes mystical and often jarring.

As an artist who shares his work on Instagram as he makes it, Yingst has had the disconcerting experience of knowing his most heartfelt pieces will probably be social media “duds.”

“We all want to be happy, and we all want sunshine. It’s the sweet aroma of prayer that everybody likes,” he laughed.

But the psalms also carry a lot of darkness, struggle and fear. He chose not to skip over those verses.

“When the rainy days come, how do I deal with it? Because I can’t escape it. That’s what the psalmists were doing. They always came back to [saying to God], ‘You’re still here. You’re my rock, my foundation,’” he said.

At the same time, he learned that some of the more fearsome psalms — the ones begging God to crush our enemies, and the ones that speak of dashing babies against rocks, are not what they first may seem.

“I need to understand this is a spiritual language. I can’t let this bitterness take root in me but cut it off while it’s still a baby. I started reading the psalms that way,” he said.

He discovered that they’re not so much inveighing against an enemy that’s some literal group of people but against whatever darkness every human will encounter.

One especially dark moment was the school shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012. Yingst had two young daughters and couldn’t come to terms with the horror and loss those parents were enduring. So for his New Year’s resolution, he decided to carve one prayer a week for the entire year. Those images became a self-published book, “Light from Darkness: Portraits and Prayers” ($29.95), and he donated the proceeds to orphanages. Sandy Hook parents had lost their children, so he wanted to help children who had lost parents.

“It was reactionary. I wanted to throw light. At least, this will bring a little light,” he said.

Woodcuts and linoleum prints are particularly suited to that goal.

“With the block print, and with linoleum or woodcuts, you have that black square, and every time I make a mark, every time I make a gouge, I’m carving light out of darkness,” he said.

Read the rest of my latest artist profile for Our Sunday Visitor

Previous artists featured in this series:
Sarah Breisch
Charles Rohrbacher

If you know of (or are) a Catholic or Catholic-friendly artist you think should be featured, please drop me a line! simchafisher at gmail dot com. I’m not excellent about responding, but I always check out every suggestion.