The fowler’s snare

Today’s Christmas art is from my dear friend, Margaret Rose Realy, Obl. O.S.B., painter, gardener, and author of three books.  You can find more of her arresting art work here; and I want to return to her art at a later date.

But today is a hard feast day, the feast of the Holy Innocents. They are the first martyrs, whose blood became that terrible red carpet to lay before the coming king.

Here is the responsorial psalm for today, the feast of the Holy Innocents:

R. Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.

Had not the LORD been with us—
When men rose up against us,
then would they have swallowed us alive,
When their fury was inflamed against us.

R. Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.

Then would the waters have overwhelmed us;
The torrent would have swept over us;
over us then would have swept the raging waters.

R. Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.

Broken was the snare,
and we were freed.
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

R. Our soul has been rescued like a bird from the fowler’s snare.”

I don’t know what to make of this. So many of my friends are so ensnared, so longing for rescue, so overwhelmed by the waters. What is the answer? What kind of rescue is that?

The answer does not come from Christ, our brother, who somehow allowed Himself to be ensnared:

christmas-art-margaret-realy

 

The answer is Christ.

What this entirely means, I do not know. When Christ is the answer, I don’t always understand the answer. But I do stop looking elsewhere, when that is the answer I get.

Not long ago I found myself caught in an old, painful memory, feeling once again some wounds and gashes that I thought had been healed. They opened again because I saw a woman going through what I had gone through many years ago — but for her, there was rescue, there were sympathetic people rushing to her aid, there was help. I survived, yes, because here I am today; but I saw myself hanging there alone at that time, and I was angry. As I walked and remembered, I cried out to the Lord, “Where was my rescue?”

He answered, “Nobody rescued Me, either.”

And He had a choice. He didn’t have to be there, but He put Himself there, His sacred head surrounded by those thorns, that snare, that unspeakable trap of wood and nails. And that was what He was offering me: A chance to willingly be snared with Him. He is the answer. I don’t know what it means, but there is no other answer. I had no choice but to suffer, at the time; but now I do have the choice to place my suffering with His.

I stop looking somewhere outside that ring of thorns. There, caught, pierced, His heart bleeds for the brokenhearted, innocent and otherwise. I place the suffering hearts of my friends inside that snare of thorns with Christ.

Caress: Iconography for the Incarnation

Merry Third Day of Christmas! In haste, in between visits with family, I’m thrilled to share with you this icon of Joseph and Jesus, written by Nathan Hicks, which I hope you can enjoy in leisure:

joseph-and-jesus-icon-christmas-art
Note how Joseph’s eyes are perhaps a little wary and uncertain as he holds the Child; but Jesus puts His face right up to his foster father and encircles his head with His arms, totally ready to give all without reservation. Babies and God, I’m telling you, man. Pay attention, and you’ll learn something.

Note also how Jesus’ little legs extend past the interior frame of the image. On his blog, Hicks says:

Icons were ultimately a relational reality. The Kingdom of God  has pierced into our souls through our wounds, creating a dynamic space where the divine reaches to the human.

This divine movement to us is not intrusive and overpowering, but gentle and accommodating. God does not require us to move beyond our nature, but instead asks for us to allow Him to transfigure us as we are. There is no swallowing of identity, which is defined in part by our wounds, but a support of and a strengthening of our identities so that they show forth God. This means that God doesn’t eradicate the things that make us miserable, but instead give us the means to make those sources of misery a source of light and joy.

And that’s why I have the buildings and objects bending towards you, the viewer. God moves heaven and earth out of the way for you and condescends to make you a god by grace.

RELATIONAL. Lots to think about (and I hope you realize how rare it is to find an artist who is interested in sharing more than a word or two about his creative thought process! Most artists I know think with paint, and when they’re done, they’ve already said everything they’re going to say).

Here is another piece that Hicks has shared with us: “Morning Caress.”

morningcaress

Hicks says:

“Morning Caress” is a Byzantine-style painting about the Earth and the environment. The Earth is a creature, just like us, and is in its own society with the other planets But with the sun the Earth has a special relationship. The earth reaches out to the sun and the sun to the earth. Morning Caress is the story of the unconscious love of the world itself.
I’ve been thinking about this lately, how the earth participates in salvation history without the capacity to be conscious of that participation — but it participates nonetheless. It makes me feel better about my sometimes absurdly passionate affection for the natural world, for fruits, for leaves, for textures and colors. It is all right to love the world, because God made it, God loves it, and most importantly, God is present in it.
I read “The Rape of Man and Nature”, a well-written (if somewhat poorly argued) book by Phillip Sheridan, a giant in the English-speaking world Orthodoxy, who finally stated the Orthodox standpoint on nature in a way that I could understand it: God is in nature in a way similar to us wearing clothes. The clothes aren’t us, but we are definitely connected to them and without us the clothes don’t have form.

And in a similar way (with much higher stakes!) we “take form,” and become who we are meant to be by our nature, when we allow God to dwell in us. Joseph was as ready as he could be to become the foster father of the Son of God, but what could he do? Saint or not, he was only a man, and could not possibly live up to the task, any more than a tree can understand the bounty of the warmth of the sun or the miracle of photosynthesis. The best he could do, the only thing any human can do, is to allow Him to come close and do what He will.

Oh, feel that sun.

Oh, time, strength, cash, and patience! I must come back to this later. Do check out Hick’s blog, The Dynamis Project, and his Facebook page, too.

Wow! So talent! Much teenage daughter!

Today I feature MY FAVORITE CATHOLIC ARTIST IN THE WORLD, MY OLDEST DAUGHTER LENA.

Lena’s just opened a Redbubble store, and would like you to know that you can order today and still get your stuff before Christmas. Lots of quirky and oddly elegant stuff here, mainly geeky, including fan art featuring Naruto, Big Hero 6, Psychopass, Metroid, Teen Titans, Gorillaz, Star Wars, X-Men, Ruroni Kenshin, and some other stuff that just fell out of her fevered brain.

Because I’m a big, elderly poop, I’m encouraging her to add some of her lovely outdoor watercolor scenes. She is uploading more art as I write. Here’s a few more images than I’m partial to. Far and away my favorite:

Wandering Swordsman:

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Song of the Sheikah:

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The Enforcer:

 

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An image from the side altar at church:

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And this obliging Wolverine with Baby Jubilee:

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Do stop by her Redbubble store! You can buy these images printed on T-shirts, stickers, and mugs.

or you can check out much more of the artwork she’s posted online on Tumblr, The Otaku, and Paigeeworld.

Guys. IT IS FUN HAVING TEENAGERS. They are always surprising you!

Catholics on Etsy! Christmas and Advent gifts for 2016

Catholics on Etsy! Mostly! Here is a selection of handmade goods by Catholics, so we can all support each other when we shop for Advent and Christmas. Some these goods are religious, some are not. Some of the stores sell all kinds of items, and the featured one is just the tip of the iceberg. It was painful to narrow down this list to a manageable size!

Today, I’m showcasing jewelry, because I like jewelry, and art and prints, because I like art and prints. Here we go:


 

JEWELRY

Mazzoni Mosaics: Handcut Glass Mosaics and Jewelry
Featured item: Red Millefiori Mosaic Pendant, $40

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So arresting! I love it. Like a poinsettia made of living stone. Millefiori is wonderful. Many more original and eye-catching designs in the store.


Cherokee Copper Greg Stice, a deacon who works for the Cherokee Nation, makes the jewelry that he and his wife, Lisa, design.
Featured item: Rain texture copper cross bracelet, $40

etsy-cherokee-copper

Oh, copper. Spectacular. You could wear this cuff with jeans and a t-shirt, or with an evening gown.


IronLace Design by Kyra Busbridge
Featured item: Silver Lace necklace with deep red beads, $60

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I think everyone knows by now how much I adore Kyra’s chain mail jewelry. It makes your neck feel strong, cool, and beautiful. Elegant and powerful designs, including earrings and chainmail rosaries, too.


Pink Salt Riot by Jill Simons
Featured item: Amen cuff bracelet, $16

etsy-pink-salt-riot-bracelet

So light and pretty! Many of the goods in this store are made from books that schools and churches were about to throw out. 


Janalyn offers handmade fiber goods, and also milagros and Day of the Dead jewelry, jewelry made of sewing notions, and some really neat bookmarks and Loteria fabric art.

Featured item:Hand-felted indigo earrings, $8

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Boy, it was hard to choose just one, because the goods in this story are so varied. Really interesting, quirky stuff.


Ornamentation by Mary
Featured item: Leather wrap cross boho bracelet with semiprecious stones, $119.99

etsy-mary-wolf-bracelet

I may have gasped out loud. Do check out the rest of the stock at this store. She has the rare skill of making artfulness look casual and careless. Gorgeous.



 

ART, PRINTS, and CARDS and CALLIGRAPHY

Wood Pigeon – oils and watercolors by Kristina Closs
Featured item: Crow watercolor, $100

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Check it out! This crow is about to launch himself off the page, as soon as  he’s done cooling off in this breeze. Many more vivid and arresting paintings of birds, bees, and landscapes on the site.


Brain Cheeks by Rochelle
Featured item: Set of eight Mother and Child watercolor print cards, $15

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Oh, sweetness. She never gets tired of looking at Him.


When Beauty Met Truth by Lauren Santos: watercolors, prints, and hand lettering
Featured item: “Wherever the art of medicine is loved” print, $15

etsy-when-beauty-met-truth

Eek, a heart! I love it, and your favorite doctor will, too.


Herons Gate Arts by Sarah Pierzchala
Featured item: framed print of her original painting of a cosmic Sacred Heart, $40

etsy-cosmic-christ

Sarah also offers an array of fantasy dolls, wings, and hair jewels. Clay, twigs, beads, loveliness.


Santa Clara Design, paper prints and instant digital downloads
Featured item: Padre Pio Print, $10

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Etsy is flooded with bland inspirational digital downloads, but there’s real artistry in Santa Clara’s graphic designs. Many designs and styles, digital downloads as well as physical prints.


Hatch Prints.

This isn’t an Etsy site, but Katrina Harrington was kind enough to send me one of her “Offer It Up” mugs, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t actually work. It makes morning better when I get that reminder. It is a nice mug, too, large and sturdy.

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Along with mugs, Hatch Prints also has watercolor and hand-lettered art prints and tote bags inspired by the saints.

SPECIAL OFFER FOR MY READERS: Use discount code LOSINGMYMIND15 for 15% off purchases of $20 or more.


Rakstar Designs
Featured item:“Jesus, Coffee, Naps” sign, $25+

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Made me laugh! It’s as good a motto as any, although most days, I’ll settle for two out of three.


Kristyn Brown Photo

Featured item: Holy Family 2, $35, one in a series called “The Saints Project” which uses Catholic photographic models

etsy-saints-project-holy-family

Neat project! I’m looking forward to seeing more.


A few WOODEN FIGURES and STATUES

In the Loft by Sue Dow
Featured item: Mary Holding Jesus wood figurine, $40

etsy-sue-dow

There’s a very appealing quietness in these gentle painted figures. Also various nativity figurines, saints, animals, and a few nativity backdrops for your home.


Brushes2Haloes
Our Lady of Guadalupe, $95

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Breathtaking. Look at her beautiful face. This is just a detail; the full work includes the entire image of Our Lady of Guadalupe supported by an angel, painted on rough wood with a laquer finish. Lots of variety in this store, including matrioshka dolls, beeswax goods, and very cozy tea cozies.


Honeychild Forest
Offer it up, Buttercup” print, $15

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HA. This is kind of perfect. Heather says, “Because sometimes I need to just gather up my fragile little buttercup feelings and OFFER IT UP, nah mean?” For when your prayer life isn’t all thees and thous and “vouchusafe unto us” this and that. Sometimes you just need to offer it up, buttercup.


That’s all for today! Tomorrow: Rosaries and rosary accessories; knitted and crocheted and fabric items; and a bunch of wonderful goods I couldn’t categorize but couldn’t stand to leave out. See you then!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Expose your kids to art! (Or vice versa)

Expose your children to art! Or vice versa.

Portrait of a youth who stopped and looked closely at a work of fine art. This is a win.

The other week, we visited the Worcester Art Museum in MA. I heartily recommend it if you’re in the area (and it’s free all through August!). They had a world class collection with tons of variety, from pre-Columbian art to this guy; it was quite kid friendly (a docent in the armor display helped the kids try on helmets and gauntlets), the docents were genial and well-informed, and they had the exhibits arranged well to really help you see them. We saw everything in about three hours, and had time to go back and look at our favorite rooms.  Looks like they have a pleasant cafe and a bunch of programs, classes, and demonstrations, too.

About what happened in the photo above, I take full responsibility. I’ve been reading them Black Ships before Troy: The Story of the Iliad and he got kind of hung up on Helen of the Fair Cheeks.

Of the Fair Cheeks.

I’m just glad he didn’t notice what was going on on the B side of some of those Grecian urns. Whoo-ee!

Anyway, we had such a good time that I want to encourage everyone to bring your kids to an art museum this summer, even if you don’t think of yourself as one of those high culture families. If you’re in New England, don’t forget about Free Fridays (which includes art museums and lots of other fun stuff).

Here’s something I wrote a few years ago, on that topic of why adults sometimes struggle with visiting art museums, and how kids can show us how to do it better. For more reading on this topic, check out “Introducing Children to Art” by an actual artist, John Herreid, who is raising three hilariously arty kids.

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Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when the Holy Grail is being snatched again by the bad guys?  Indy cries out in righteous indignation:  “That belongs in a museum!”  I love me some Indiana Jones, but I have regretfully come to the conclusion that this line was not meant ironically.  This really is the highest compliment that Americans can pay to an object of beauty and worth:  that it belongs in a museum.  I heard someone say the exact same thing in real life, when our college group first stepped out into one of the teeming, sun-drenched piazzas in Rome.  There was a magnificent fountain in the middle of the square, featuring a sculpture carved by one of the giants of Western art.  And people were sitting on it, and smoking, and drinking terrible wine, and flirting with each other, trying to sell socks out of a duffle bag, and generally acting like this timeless piece of art was theirs.  Almost tearful with outrage, the fellow cried out, “That should be in a museum!”

He meant that it ought to be protected from the elements, and also from bird droppings and graffiti and vandals.  But he also meant that it ought to be tucked away indoors, where the lighting could be controlled, where people would speak in hushed tones as they file past in reverence — where only the select few, acting in a very select way, would see it, and no one would get comfortable with it.  And there, he was disastrously wrong.

Art museums are necessary because they are the most convenient way to preserve and share works of art which would otherwise be tucked away in the private homes of the very wealthy.  But there is always the danger of museumishness taking over the work of art — making us forget why the artist made the piece in the first place.  It’s a relatively new idea that art is here to “challenge” us, to jar us out of whatever cultural sin is currently considered intolerable.  Instead, the great artists of every century have all said one thing:  “I see something!  You come and see it, too!  Do you see?”

Well, that’s a pretty big topic.  But in this little post, I can say that the problem with putting something in a museum is that it tends to give the impression that the question, “Do you see it, too?” is already answered.  We feel like we have to stroke our chins gravely and say, “Yes, yes, of course I see,” whether we do or not, because there it is, in a museum.  It must be Real Art. No wonder so many people have an aversion to art.  They think they’re expected to respond like highly educated robots when the encounter it.

What’s the cure for a case of Stifling Museumishness?  Take your kids to the museum with you . . . and do what they do.

Oh, listen, if your kids are awful, please don’t take them to a museum.  If they can’t be controlled, don’t take them.  If they can’t tell the difference between indoors and outdoors, and if they don’t obey you, and if otherwise kind people groan audibly when they see your family coming, then by all means, stay home.

But many parents underestimate how responsive their kids will be to good art.  Kids in art museums will often behave in a way that is not only tolerable, but which the adult patrons should imitate.

Kids do not talk in whispers, as if they are at the bedside of a dying tyrant.  Why do we whisper in front of art?  We shouldn’t speak loudly, to distract other patrons; but a normal, conversational tone of voice is completely appropriate.  Talking about what you’re seeing isn’t rude!  It’s a natural thing to do, and makes the experience so much more rewarding, when you hear other people’s takes on what you’re seeing. I also like to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations — so sue me.

Kids do not pretend to like things they don’t like.  It’s one thing to have an open mind; it’s quite another to be a sucker. Many museums have extensive collections in the ever-popular genre of Egregious Crapola, and sometimes it really is only kids who are willing to point this out.  Many adults have been duped into giving up on beauty; most kids have not.  (But really, each kid is allowed to say, “I could have done that in ten minutes with a gallon of housepaint and a stick!” one time, and then they’re done.  This comment may or may not be true, but it gets old fast.)

Kids are also remarkably open to admitting that there is more than meets the eye.  They may shrug or grimace in front of a wonderful piece, but they are usually ready to listen if you point out, “No, look at how the light shines through that leaf!” or “See how realistic her hand looks — but get closer, and it’s just a bunch of paint” or “But why do you think this guy on the side has that look on his face?” or “Holy mackerel, what is this?!?”

Kids laugh at paintings – not only ones that look ridiculous, but ones which are meant to be funny.  There is nothing sillier than a bunch of adults gravely appreciating the finer points of a work of art which is supposed to be hilarious.

Kids do not suffer from appreciation anxiety.  Some adults who feel insecure in their grasp of art may spend their entire museum time wondering how obvious their lack of expertise is.  Well, that’s no way get to be more of an expert!  Kids don’t think about how they appear to others; they just look at the art.

Kids do not waste their time looking at exhibits that don’t interest them, out of a sense of duty or thrift.  They will keep circling back to take another look at that one room or one piece they really like, and that is a much more natural response than trying to “do” the whole museum just because it’s there.

Okay, yes, and some kids will go berserk and behave like little demons, while their fond parents look on and do nothing. Or if you have a generally decent child who is temporarily going through a highly unreasonably, ridiculously loud stage, then this is probably not the best time to work on enhancing their cultural education. But really, if your kids are generally the non-demonic, non-berserker types, consider taking them to a small museum next time you have a chance.  Wear comfortable clothes, discuss expectations ahead of time, plan a small treat for afterwards, and just relax.  You will probably have a lovely time!
**
A version of this post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in March of 2013.

Artist of the Month: Matt Clark’s Amphibians, Minotaurs, and other Christian Art

Editors’ NoteThis article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Religion and Visual Art. Read other perspectives here.

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matt clark chicken headshotMatt Clark, 39, is a teacher, print maker, and freelance illustrator who lives in Florida with his wife and growing family (they are expecting baby #7 in a matter of weeks). This interview is one of a series with religious artists. My questions are in bold.

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You are Anglican, and make secular and overtly religious art; but on your website, you say, “I don’t believe art has to have biblical subject matter to be Christian.” Can you explain how your secular work is Christian?

Flannery O’Connor writes these stories about murder and mayhem, tattooed people, circus freaks, raging bulls . . . and you realize she’s writing about Christ the whole time. That’s the way I’m looking at my artwork — alligators, fish, saints, Moses, birds, whatnot.

matt clark fish print

I figure if God made all these things, I don’t know that we’re to draw a distinction between natural and supernatural.

matt cleark blessing of dimetrodon

El Greco was always showing heaven intruding on earth, with no clear distinction between where one stops and another begins. The scraps I feed my chickens, the bugs they dig up, they transform that into an egg. That’s magic!

matt clark chicken stare

I don’t want to sound like a pantheist — you can’t worship just as well on the golf course as in church. But I don’t like to draw sharp lines between religious and other art. Who I am is a Christian, and everything I do will be that Christianity.

It seems like your “overtly Christian” works are about making religious figures and scenes relatable and human.

matt clark st. alban

Do you see that as a form of evangelization?

I do. C.S. Lewis talks about how we don’t need more Christian apologists, but we need more books on mechanics, physics, and medicine, written by Christians, so people realize, “Oh, Christians are doing this.”

matt clark dogman

Growing up Baptist, we did more than our share of knocking on doors. It’s probably the worst thing in the world. It’s much better to live out my Christianity, and have that life move into other people’s lives. This is how we witness. I don’t ever want to make propaganda artwork. I’m perfectly willing to talk to people, but I get really itchy around propaganda.

matt clark moses aaron miriam

Since you teach at a Christian school, do you ever get any pushback for portraying or studying nudes in art?

matt clark furies

Well [laughs], the administration frowns on using nude models in elementary school. But talks about nudity with my children come early, as we go to the beach. It is Florida.

In art school, we had lots of nude models. We were doing a three-hour pose, and I remember idly wondering if the model had any tattoos. Then I realized that I would know, because she’s naked in front of me.

Some artists abuse their work and make nudes pornographic, but I believe there’s such a thing as chaste nudity. In paintings of the Madonna and Child, Jesus is almost always naked, showing His genitals on purpose, really in the flesh.

matt clark madonna and child line drawing

It’s very affirming of the Incarnation to show nudity in that way. Nudity doesn’t equal evil.

Rembrandt takes this tendency [to pornographize the nude] and he uses it. Bath Sheba is a full length nude, sitting down, right after her bath. Her maid is drying her feet. It’s very, very lovely. You see she has a note, and there’s a look of sadness of her face, and you realize that’s her summons to the palace.

Rembrandt_Bathsheba_in_het_bad,_1654

Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

She’s beautiful, she’s ritually clean, and now she’s going to be defiled in a profound way. You’re in the place of David. Rembrandt is saying, “Look at this beautiful nude — but look at is as David looked at it.” He draws attention to your own tendencies to dehumanize people.

When you draw humans, they look a bit like animals, and when you draw animals, or skulls, or dinosaurs, they look human.

matt clark dinos

 It seems like you’re constantly asking, “What is man, anyway?”

I do always ask that question. That’s why I love science fiction so much. “What’s human, what’s not human?” is the question they always ask.

matt clark satyr and robot

The robot cyborg always ends up being more human than the protagonist. So what makes us people?

matt clark minotaur as sinner

The first time I questioned this was in the Louisville Zoo. There was this gorilla, and I noticed his ear looked just like mine. I made the leap to looking at his face, and realized he was looking at me. I said to my wife, “He looks really unhappy” — and then he threw his fist at the glass and ran away.

matt clark katydid

We’re brought up to believe that animals are machines, only good as resources to be exploited, but I think that’s a terrible thing. I have some kind of relationship with the animal as a creature. That’s what it says in The Screwtape Letters: We are amphibious, animals, but spiritual as well. A creature, but immortal.

matt clark humilobites

I suppose it’s a way for me to work out the Incarnation: What He’s done is good, very good; in fact, so good that He’s going to become a little baby to a scared little girl in a Roman backwater. I haven’t worked it all out in my mind, but somehow all the dirt and plants and animals and rocks and sand and water . . .

matt clark stick

He liked these things so much, He wanted to be not just overseeing it, but involved in it.

matt clark wasps

And it seems like you are inviting the viewer to do just that: not just view, but get involved. You also write a lot about your work, which not all artists do.

I always appreciate when people explain things, or obscure the proper things. If you write clearly, you can think clearly. I want to think more clearly.

matt clark dream

Have you ever started thinking more clearly through the process of creating art?

Back in college, I did this big piece on Romans for my senior thesis. It was 36 or 40 feet wide. I worked 40-50 hours a week for a couple of months on this one drawing. All I did was think and look and I started to see the whole book as an argument that St. Paul was making. This was at the University of Florida. There was no bashing of Christianity, but no one cared. They just said, “This is a neat drawing. Wow. It’s really big. I like the way you did this . . . Oh, Brian, I see you’re wearing your tutu in this one!”

matt clark batman gets bored with his own drawings

I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? Am I making a giant prayer, telling God something He already knows? Who am I making this for? Did I think it would be like a big [religious] tract?

matt clark nimrod

I put myself in the drawing. I realized that the audience this drawing was for was me. The Bible isn’t something I need to yell out to other people. I’m learning these things for me, as a work of sanctification. Artists aren’t immune from their work. We’re part of the audience.

matt clark self portrait blue

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Mother and Child: A Christmas Gallery of Original Art

Merry Christmas, everybody! I offered up Midnight Mass for all of you, especially for anyone who is lonely or grieving or in pain today. Thanks for another wonderful year of company.

Over at the Register today, nine artists have graciously shared their lovely Madonna and Child artwork with us. Here is just one, by 16-year-old painter Noyuri Umezaki:

 

Christmas art Umizaki

 

Check out the rest here.

Calling all artists! I’m looking for Christmas artwork.

I’d love to put together a gallery of Christmas art for the Register on Christmas day. If you have a photo of a work of original art you’d be willing to share (and if you own the copyright or have permission to share online!), please drop me a line at simchafisher[at]gmail[dot]com and write “Christmas art” for the subject. I try to keep the wordiness to a minimum on Christmas, so this will just be an image and, if you like, a link to your blog or website. Thanks!

What’s wrong with message art?

PIC 3d crucifixion tattoo

If you’re a Christian artist, and you want to use your skill to make the world better, I’m begging you: never lead with the message. Instead, listen with your inner ear until something hits that special note. You don’t even have to know why it resounds for you; just listen, and tell other people what you heard. Hone your skills, stay close to God in your personal life, always be looking and listening for new things . . .  and above all, take off that delivery man’s uniform. That’s not your gig.

Read the rest at the Register.

Catholic Artist of the Month: Neilson Carlin

Here is the third installment in a series: Catholic Artist of the Month.  Rather than constantly kvetching about mediocre, sentimental art by Christians, I’ll be featuring artists who are doing it right.

This month, I’m delighted to present Neilson Carlin, whose Holy Family image, commissioned for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015, was recently unveiled by Archbishop Chaput.

Carlin’s work has been widely exhibited. He specializes in commissioned sacred work, and has been training art students for many years at Studio Rilievo in Kennett Square, PA.

Although he was raised Lutheran, Carlin says that when he was young that he wanted to be a priest. But it wasn’t until he was preparing for his marriage that he really considered joining the Church. Here is the conversation we had earlier this week. My questions are in bold.
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Tell us about your conversion to Catholicism.

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My parents became involved with Evangelical Christianity, and I believed a lot of stereotypes about Catholics: Mary worship, idol worship, that the Mass was nothing more than vain repetition, that it was a dry, dead, man-created religion.
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After college, I started going to Mass with my wife[-to-be], because I wanted to hang out with her.  The parish was authentic, with on-fire Christians.  There was a profound spirituality. The year before we got married, I went into RCIA, not to become a Catholic, but because we were going to raise the children Catholic. I wanted to at least get from the horse’s mouth what I was vowing to do.
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Was there any one issue that especially bothered you about the Church?
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The authority issue was the last hurdle. The parish priest was an accountant, and the deacon was a lawyer. The two of them had the right background for my personality. They would systematically, in a cool, rational fashion, answer anything about history, and send me looking to read more, never sending me off without something. They took me to the end of reason where faith begins.
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Two weeks before Easter 2000, my heart had to finally break. I had to get down on my knees and get over it, get beyond the issues I had with the Church. My head was in the Church ten years before I ever joined. I didn’t realize that the things I wanted to do as an artist had a place in the Church.
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You had established a career as an artist by this point already?
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Yes, I’ve been a professional artist since 1992. After doing nine years of commercial illustration, I recognized I had big gaps in my skill set. I was confident I had the ability to draw, with pen and ink — I had wanted to be comic book illustrator. I had oil paintings in my head, but didn’t have the technical ability, so I opted for watercolor.
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I met with a teacher in the West Side of Manhattan, Michael Aviano. I took a class, and within thirty minutes I knew this was what I was looking for. Now I teach classes based on what I learned from him.
carlin the calling of lazarus
It’s the Atelier movement, an old-school intensive curriculum that takes you through all the basics.  You come into someone’s studio and work directly under them, rather than getting that four-year degree. I spent five years with Aviano, learning painting and composition. The training made me confident I could move into other areas.
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Like what?
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Like portrait commissions, the gallery market, larger scale oil paintings. Also, in the mid-90′s, there was a shift in the illustration market. The entire commercial field took a hard turn toward the computer. But I like the smell of turpentine.
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By the end of the millennium, I had transitioned out of illustration and into gallery work and teaching. When I got some time, I would do sacred work that meant something to me. Portraits of Christ, paintings of the Eucharist.
carlin surrender at gethsemanecarlin ordinatio
A lot of your gallery pieces are not overtly religious, but they look pretty incarnational to me.  Some of your still lifes, especially, are really sensual.
carlin triplets
carlin redhead
Melon
I thought, “Hide the kids; that is one sexy melon!”
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Thank you!
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Then there is “Sacrifice,” with juicy meat and some very cruciform bones.  To my Catholic eyes, it’s obviously a Catholic painting. What was going on there?
carlin sacrifice
I’ve had great relationship with secular galleries, but I felt like I had to be in the closet with paintings.
Reconciliation of Contraries
They didn’t think there was a market for religious art. They wanted floral paintings, still lifes, and landscapes.
Blooms
I was making a living, which was better than some, but I didn’t want to end up being 65 years old and still doing this type of work. As much as I loved illustration, there were other things I wanted to do. And part of me still wanted to be a comic book artist, with full-scale, multi-figure, narrative paintings.
carlin pope saint pius x
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the Holy Family icon for the World Meeting of Families.
carlin holy family
The faces of the adults are full of apprehension and worry, but Jesus looks very determined, and His foot is off the stone, as if He can’t wait to get going.
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I was trying to convey the centrality of Christ in the family.  I don’t care for maudlin, smiling representations of the Holy Family. Joseph and Mary were real people with real concerns.  They were concerned about Him, but He was the rock. They had to look to their son for the promise of what He would do. All the elements of the painting bring you back to Him. He’s the center of the piece.
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How did you choose the models? 
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Mary and Jesus’ faces were the one thing I felt some stress over, getting it just right. Some people are saying that they look too Jewish, and some people say they look too Northern European.
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I guess that means you did something right!
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Technically, I knew I could carry it off. The Bishop was happy with the design, the architecture of the cathedral was incorporated. But I had some sleepless nights because I wanted to make sure they were presented in a way that was respectful. A student of mine does icon writing. She said to pray about it, and allow it to come forth.
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Is there a lot of pressure when you’re doing a religious painting? You don’t want to convey something spiritually misleading.
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That’s where I rely on the priest I’m working with. I haven’t been raised in the Catholic tradition. Who can follow 2,000 years of history? Once I presented a sketch of Christ the King. I had looked at all these paintings, but it didn’t click with me that the hand of blessing was always the right hand. The liturgical design coordinator had to correct me.
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When you’re doing a commission for a church, you must be thinking, “People are going to be looking straight at this for a whole hour, week after week.”
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Oh, yes. The current piece I’m working on has twenty saints in twelve individual panels, in preexisting marble niches, six on the left of the tabernacle, six on the right. It’s going to show the Communion of Saints.  I’m trying to create a porch where they’re existing.
carlin communion of saints panels
It’s a difficult design challenge. I want it so that, when someone comes up for Communion, the perspective is gauged for that. The perspective will make sense once the Host is in your mouth, so that all the saints are joining in the feast of the Lamb with you.
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For the Holy Family portrait, I wanted people to feel like, when you’re in the cathedral, they’re sitting there with you. There is a high degree of realism in the fabric and especially in the hands where they touch each other.
carlin holy family detail
But I didn’t want people to look at the figures and find them so real, you could meet them at the gas station. I’m always trying to separate the model from the painting.
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I know you’ve done a lot of portraits of saints, though, that are supposed to be recognizable. But I’ve seen saint pictures that are just slavishly accurate copies of photos, and they aren’t art, exactly. How do you handle this?
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I arrange the figures in original compositions, get them costumed, and then use a photograph [of the saint] and put that head on the model’s body, and reconfigure the lighting in my head. I get a good, solid line drawing, and then put the photo away and work from the line drawing. I don’t try to make it look like a photo.
carlin mother theresa
 If the photo is in front of me, I’m going to try to get every last thing in it, but that would anchor the piece too much in matter. If I put the photo away, that allows me to find some balance between the ideal in my head and representing what’s in the photo.
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I think the current interest in photorealism, cultivating the ability to copy everything within your visual field, has its root in a revival of 19th-century materialist philosophy. But I’m cultivating an incarnational aesthetic.  I used to think that being able to copy what was right in front of my visual field was the peak. But you get there, and you think, “What now?” A whole lot of people can be trained to do that. I’m looking for more.
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What are you looking for? 
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The Baroque period resonates with me the most: that Caravaggiesque dirt under the fingernails. He painted those figures from someone, but you don’t feel like it’s a model. It’s real, tangible, and exists in space, but it’s not slavishly copied from what’s in front of him.
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For instance, most of the art depicting Gianna Molla and Miguel Pro are straight up copies of photos. Instead, I tried to create a narrative, show them engaged, show some of their attributes.
carlin gianna molla
Do people sometimes get things out of your paintings that surprise you?
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All the time. People find things that I didn’t intend. Like any work of art, a painting isn’t journalism. It’s poetry.
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Who are you favorite artists now?
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Right now? Guercino, Guido Reni, and Tiepolo. Michelangelo, of course. Raphael, of course. They get back to my roots as a comic book illustrator. The first time I went to the Met in New York, I saw a Guercino, “Sampson Taken by the Philistines,” with that muscular back. It was loaded with figures, so much action, and oodles of figures and colors.
carlin guercino samson philistines
The first thing I thought was, “It looks like a comic book panel.”
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How about artists working right now? Who do you like?
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For secular artists, a young guy named Adam Miller, a superior draftsman who does a lot of multifigure work. His compositions are extraordinary.
Steve Huston does beautiful figure work.
Donato Giancola does top tier illustration. He’s a painter and designer extraordinaire.
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For sacred art: Anthony Visco is a sculptor from Philadelphia. He’s the whole nine yards in one bundle, a real renaissance man: architect, teacher, sculptor.
For painters, Raul Berzosa is my new superhero. He completed a ceiling I couldn’t believe. He’s such a young guy at such a high level. It’s mind boggling.
Cody Swanson is another contemporary secular artist, another powerhouse.
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Any advice for artists who would like to work for the Church?
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Make sure what’s in  your portfolio is what they will want to see! I had only a few pieces of sacred work in my portfolio, but it was enough to catch the eye of Cardinal Burke. That’s what allowed me to take it to the next level.
carlin communion of saints sketches
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A gallery of Carlin’s work, information about commissions, and more can be found at his website, NeilsonCarlin.com.
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This is the third in a series of interviews with Catholic artists. Previous installments:
Matthew S. Good
Timothy Jones
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Are you a Catholic artist, or do you know one who would be available for interview? Send me a tip at simchafisher[at]gmail[dot]com. I am especially looking for sculptors, photographers, architects, and painters who are doing non-representational work.