It’s a great loss when we train ourselves to stop receiving beauty

I can learn to decipher what their calls might mean, but it would be a great loss, a bizarre and ungrateful act, to deliberately train myself to stop hearing their music as music.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

The hard way

We could have done without a multitude of categories of clouds, without birds that migrate, bugs that pollinate, mint and milkweed that battle, and little girls who know something about flying. We could have been moved by fear and panic and compulsion, rather than by beauty and longing. Why is there beauty? Why is there life that delights in life?

The world gleams. But it is so untidy.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by Colin Poellot via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Something to say to God

“I like praying the Liturgy of the Hours,” says Leah Libresco

because, at a bare minimum, it gives me something to say to God.  Not just the words of the prayers but, basically, “I’m really grateful for prayer traditions because I’d pretty much suck at having to make all this up on my own.”  Instead of just being grateful for language period, it’s kind of like being grateful for slang — the shared set of references that characterize a relationship or a community.

Jennifer Fulwiler addresses a related phenomenon when she speaks of praying the Liturgy of the Hours:  She realizes that, when the words don’t apply to her life, that’s a good thing, because she is praying as part of the Body of Christ.  She says,

I found myself saying “we” and “our” more often than “I” and “mine.”

We all need the discipline of praying about things that are not immediately relevant to our needs.  She says,

 It all finally clicked. For the first time, I think I really understood the power of the Liturgy of the Hours as the universal prayer of the Church …

As my heart swelled to think of the great drama playing out all over the world that morning of which I was only a small part, I thought back to my words at the beginning of the office — “But this Psalm doesn’t have anything to do with me!” — and realized that I had learned something critically important about prayer: It’s not all about me.”

This is not to say that we can never pray about things that do concern us.  But in my experience, the formal, selfless, ritualized prayer comes first, before there can be any depth of sincerity in individual prayer.

We can, for instance, try to flog our hearts into a sensation of awe during the consecration, but we probably won’t get anywhere.  But if we simply humbly accept what is being offered, and obediently participate in the ritual of thanksgiving, that is what lays the groundwork for heartfelt awe and wonder.

So both kinds of prayer are necessary for us and pleasing to God — both the formal, “ready-made” prayers that we participate in as an act of will, and the personal, immediate outpourings of our own soul.

Praying only in own language is limiting and inadequate — but so, I believe, is only ever praying in the formalized language of the Church, because it’s all too easy to keep it formulaic, and to forget that prayer is conversation, and conversation implies a relationship.

We ought to pray, at least some of the time, in our “native tongue.”  Leah has already discovered this:

When I think of immaterial things, I tend to think of Morality, which might not be that bad as a focus of prayer, even if I need to expand it out a little.  The trouble is I also think of Math, and since it’s much easier to think about clearly and distinctly, I was running into a problem.  I certainly wasn’t intending to pray to the Pythagorean theorem (which would make me a very strange sort of pagan), but I was drifting away from trying to talk to a Person and over to just thinking about immaterial ideas.

And kudos to her for noticing the problem!

So, basically, instead of fighting these thoughts, I kept thinking about whatever math concepts popped into my mind.  I thought about when I’d learned them, how exciting they were, and the way I got to share that joy with my friends.  Then I basically reminded myself, “God is Truth, so he totally shares your delight in these things.  In fact, he delights in your delight and would love to draw you further up and further in to contemplate and be changed by higher truths in math and in everything else.”

And that meant I was basically thinking about a person and a relationship again.  In my own weird little way.

Brilliant.  Leah is drawn to truth; it’s her native tongue. For others, it’s goodness; for me, it’s beauty.  Pythagoras doesn’t do much for me, but corn on the cob bubbling away in my blue enamel pot as the steam sifts through a shaft of evening light? This is something I invariably hold up to God, so we can delight in it together.

The saints all found different ways of praising God according to who they are, according to the native language He gave to them.  And so we have St. Francis in his tattered robe, and also Josemaria Escriva with his precisely groomed hair; King David with his wild dancing, and Mother Theresa washing wounds.  All of them related to God with some combination of formal language inherited from the Church, and spontaneous outpourings of their particular kinds of heart. These individual orientations are not something to struggle against; they are languages which God gives us so we can sing love songs to Him.

Do you speak to God in your native tongue?  Or do you hide your personality from Him?  Do you compartmentalize your spiritual life from your daily experience?  Or can you remember that everything that is good comes from God?

This is the main thing to remember when we pray, and when we live our daily lives:  “He the source, the Ending He.”  Both root of idea and flower of expression.  Here’s Hopkins:

the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

This is how we become more like Christ:  by allowing God to refine who we already are. We become more like Him by speaking to Him in our native tongue. If, like Leah Libresco, we are looking for “something to say to God,” we could hardly do better than, “Here is what I am, Lord. Make me more like You.”

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This post originally ran in a slightly different form in the National Catholic Register in 2012.

Image: The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Selfie culture, the male gaze, and other moral panics

Lots to unpack in this meme:

The thing about this is that sculptures like this in art history were for the male gaze. Photoshop a phone to it and suddenly she’s seen as vain and conceited. That’s why I’m 100% for selfie culture because apparently men can gawk at women but when we realize how beautiful we are we’re suddenly full of ourselves . . . .

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing

The second quote has a lot more on its mind than the first. I haven’t seen or read Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but this short excerpt raises a topic worth exploring. Women are depicted, and men and women are trained to see women, in a way that says that women’s bodies exist purely for consumption by others. If anything, the phenomenon has gotten worse since the 1970’s, when Berger recorded his series.

The first comment, though, about being “100% for selfie culture,” is deadly nonsense.

The first thought that occurred to me was: Anyone who’s set foot in a museum (or a European city) knows that manflesh is just as much on display as womenflesh, if not more; and all these nakeymen would look just as “vain and conceited” with a phone photoshopped into their marble hands. Thus the limits of education via Meme University.

I’ve already talked at length about the difference between naked and nude in art — a distinction which has flown blithely over the commenter’s head. But let’s put art history aside and look at the more basic idea of the gazer and the gazed-upon, and the question of what physical beauty is for.

I saw a comment on social media grousing about pop songs that praise a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. The commenter scoffed at men who apparently need their love interest to lack confidence or self-awareness, and she encouraged young girls to recognize, celebrate, and flaunt their own beauty, because they are valuable and attractive in themselves, and do not need to be affirmed by a male admirer to become worthy.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But, like the author of the first quote about selfie culture, she implies that there is something inherently wrong with enjoying someone else’s beauty — specifically, men enjoying women’s beauty; and she implies and that it’s inherently healthy or empowering to independently enjoy one’s own beauty and to ignore the effect that it has on men.

(I must warn you that this post will be entirely heteronormative. I am heterosexual and so is most of the world, so that’s how I write.)

Beauty is different from the other transcendentals. At least among humans, goodness and truth are objective (they can be categorized as either good or true, or as bad or false); and they exist whether anyone perceives them or not. Not so beauty — at least among humans. Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Can a face be beautiful if everyone in the world is blind? I don’t know. Let’s ask an easier question: Is it possible to enjoy one’s own beauty without considering or being aware of how it affects other people?

I don’t think so; and I don’t think that’s only so because we’ve all internalized the male gaze and have been trained for millennia only to claim our worth when we are being appreciated by someone who is comfortable with objectifying us.

Instead, I think we are made to be in relation to each other, and physical beauty is a normal and healthy way for us to share ourselves with each other.

Like every other normal and healthy human experience, beauty and the appreciation of beauty can be exploited and perverted. But it does not follow that we can cure this perversion by “being 100% for selfie culture.” Narcissism is not the remedy for exploitation. It simply misses the mark in a different way; and it drains us just as dry.

Listen here. You can go ahead and tell me what kind of bigot I am and what kind of misogynistic diseases I’ve welcomed into my soul. I’m just telling you what I have noticed in relationships that are full of love, respect, regard, and fruitfulness of every kind:

A good many heterosexual girls pass through what they may perceive to be a lesbian phase, because they see the female form as beautiful and desirable. As they get older and their sexuality matures, they usually find themselves more attracted to male bodies and male presences; but the appeal of the female body lingers. When things go well and relationships are healthy, this appeal a woman experiences manifests itself as a desire to show herself to a man she loves, so that both can delight in a woman’s beauty.

This isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need correcting. This is just beauty at work. Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a healthy response to love, a normal expression of love. Beauty is there to be enjoyed.

Beauty — specifically, the beauty of a woman’s body — goes wrong when it becomes a tool used to control. Women are capable of using their beauty to manipulate men, and men are capable of using women’s beauty to manipulate women. And women, as the quotes in the meme suggest, very often allow their own beauty to manipulate themselves, and eventually they don’t know how to function unless they are in the midst of some kind of struggle for power, with their faces and bodies as weapons.

That’s a sickness. But again: Narcissism is not the cure for perversion or abuse; and self-celebration very quickly becomes narcissism. Self-marriage is not yet as prevalent as breathless lifestyle magazines would have us believe, but it does exist. And it makes perfect sense if your only encounter with, well, being encountered has been exploitative. If love has always felt like exploitation, why not contain the damage, exploit oneself, and call it empowering? People might give you presents . . .

The real truth is that selfie culture isn’t as self-contained as it imagines. The folks I know who take the most selfies, and who are noisiest about how confident and powerful and fierce they are, seem to need constant affirmation from everyone that no, they don’t need anyone. Selfies feed this hunger, rather than satisfying it.

As a culture, we do need healing from the hellish habit of using and consuming each other. But selfie culture heals nothing. Selfie culture — a sense of self that is based entirely on self-regard — simply grooms us to abuse ourselves. A bad lover will grow tired of your beauty as you age and fall apart. A good lover will deepen his love even as your physical appeal lessens, and he will find beauty that you can’t see yourself. But when you are your own lover, that well is doomed to run dry. Love replenishes itself. Narcissism ravishes.

In the ancient myth from which the clinical diagnosis draws its name, the extraordinarily beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and refuses to respond to the infatuated nymph Echo, who then languishes until nothing remains of her but her voice. In punishment for his coldheartedness, Narcissus is driven to suicide once he realizes that his own reflection can never love him in the way he loves it.

So, pretty much everyone is miserable and dies, because that is what happens when love and desire are turned entirely inward. It simply doesn’t work. That’s not what beauty is for. We can enjoy and appreciate our own beauty and still be willing and eager to share it with a beloved. But when we attempt to make beauty serve and delight only ourselves, it’s like building a machine where all the gears engage, but there is no outlet. Left to run, it will eventually burn itself out without ever having produced any action.

I’ve seen the face of someone who is delighted entirely with her own appeal; and I’ve seen the face of someone who’s delighted with someone she loves. There is beauty, and there is beauty. If it’s wrong for a man to be attracted to a woman who delights in her beloved, then turn out the lights and lock the door, because the human race is doomed.

Beauty, at its heart, is for others. Selfie culture, as a way of life, leads to death. You can judge for yourself whether death is better than allowing yourself to ever be subject to a male gaze.

 

It was a beautiful confession

On Saturday, we went to confession. Mine was a pretty standard operation: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. It has been two months since my last confession. I did that thing I always do, and that other thing I always do. I also did that other thing I always do, except more so than usual. And I stopped doing that thing I usually do, but then I started again.  And I was mean on the internet. For these and all my sins, I am truly sorry.”

And the priest said what this particular priest always says: “Thank you for that beautiful confession.” He says this when I have a long and sordid list, or a short and sordid list, or when he can barely understand me because my nose is running from the sordidness of it all. The point is, I am not aware of ever having made a confession that any normal human being would consider “beautiful.”

But the confessional is not a normal place. It’s the one place that no one would ever go for normal, worldly reasons. No penitent goes to confession to get ahead in life, or to make money, or to get a full belly, or to impress anyone; and no priest goes to confession to be amused or entertained. It’s where we go to unload our miseries, to show our wounds and our infections, to take off the disguises that make us appear palatable to each other.

So, not beautiful. No, not especially.

Or is it? If the ugliness, the squalor, the sordidness, and the running nose were all that happened inside a confessional, then it really would be an ugly place — just a latrine, a ditch, a sewer. But of course, the part where we lay out our sins is only the first part.

What happens afterward is more obviously beautiful. The priest reaches out and picks up the ugly little load you’ve laid in front of him. And right then and there, he pours the living water over it until the parts that are worth saving are healthy and whole again, and the parts that cannot be salvaged have been washed away entirely. What is useless is gone; what was dead is alive again.

This is beautiful!

And the beauty of absolution does one of those neat Catholic tricks where eternal things reach back in time and impart beauty wherever they want, regardless of chronology. The beauty of absolution makes the confession itself beautiful. Even though my sins are ugly, the very fact that I’m bringing them into the confessional has something beautiful in it: the beauty of trust that I will be forgiven; the beauty of believing that something real and life-changing will happen; the beauty of being willing to accept forgiveness even though I know that I don’t deserve it; and the beauty of knowing that, whoever’s turn it is to sit behind the screen, it is really Christ who is waiting to meet me.

If that isn’t beautiful, then nothing is.

***
This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2014.

Blessed Are the Useless

homeless-845752_1280

This is the connection that we need to hear over and over again: we’re not here, in this world, to get ahead. We’re not here to prove how useful we are, and we’re not here to use other people. We’re not beloved by God because of how useful we are to Him! We’re useless. We’re beloved in our uselessness, because God is too big to fit into a simple equation of cost and benefit, debits and credits, loss and gain. We’re beloved because we exist, and that’s it. And if we want to meet God, we will find Him in service to others who can do nothing for us, because He came here in service to us, who can do nothing for Him.

Read the rest at the Register. 

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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.

Catholic Artist of the Month: Matthew S. Good

Here is the second 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. Last month (okay, it was two months ago! June was . . . rough), I had a wonderful conversation with Timothy Jones.

This month, I’m featuring Matthew S. Good, 31, who lives and paints in Hickory, North Carolina. His paintings are moody and intense, reminding me of Rembrandt, and it took several weeks to find a time when he was available to talk. I was somewhat nervous, expecting a reticent, brooding artist type. Instead, I was delighted to find myself chatting with a cheerful, self-deprecating fellow with a quick wit and a thick Southern accent.

Good has been apprenticed under Benjamin S. Long IV for several years.

Good’s work can be found at matthewsgood.com, and he blogs sporadically, mostly about the technique of painting. He has a large collection of studies in storage, and intends to list more of them on eBay.

Here is part of our conversation. My questions are in bold.

 

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Have you always known that you wanted to be an artist?

I’ve always drawn. When I was about twenty, I saw Raphael and [Flemish Baroque painter Anthony] van Dyck, who are heroes of mine.  I bought a bunch of pigment for oils, and made about three hundred terrible paintings. I had no formal training; it was just trial and error.

What is the thing you’ve struggled with most as you improve as a painter? What did you really need to learn?

An understanding of anatomy. Drawing is all about how light hits the form. If you don’t understand the form you’re looking at, you can’t understand what’s going on.

 

That’s a big thing [Long] pushes: learning anatomy, and just drawing.  A lot of great painters that hardly draw anymore. Even if you go to restaurant, you should draw people when they’re not looking. Draw, draw, draw; practice, practice, practice; patience, patience, patience.

 

 

It looks like most of your training has been private.

I never went to art school. I’m in a personal apprenticeship with Benjamin S. Long IV. He’s renowned for his true frescoes. The first one was in Italy, in Lucignano, where he lives half the year. It was a memorial to one of his friends.

There are thirteen or fourteen frescoes here in North Carolina. It’s the highest concentration of frescoes outside of Europe.  The one I helped him with was three years ago. I helped grind colors, get the plaster ready, clean brushes.

 

 

How does that work, being an apprentice?

I work with him on a weekly basis with oils and drawing. He doesn’t tell me how to do anything .  It’s helpful to work on your own as much as you can; but it’s really helpful to have him there when you get into a bind. “Look at this, see how bad I am!” His whole thing is that you never use photographic references; use models.

 

 

I notice that a lot of your models don’t look like privileged people. They look like they just got off work, or just stepped out of a bar.  They have tattoos.

 

 

They’re all my friends! It’s important to me to paint my friends. There’s a whole variety of people I paint, and I don’t choose one type or another.

Well, they look like lovely, wonderful people! But I mean that you show all of your subjects with a great amount of dignity.

 

 

That’s very important to me. Rembrandt is the top. One thing I really love about his work the psychology in his paintings. Peasant, aristocrats — he painted them all with dignity. No person is more important than the other.

 

 

 

That emphasis on people’s dignity seems very Catholic to me. You are Catholic, right?

Yes, I am. I’ve done commissions for churches, but I don’t put a lot on my website about liturgical art. I love my faith, but I am a sinner. I struggle with my faith. This is the big thing:  I believe in loving absolutely everybody. Some of my deepest friends are from all faiths and walks of life. I don’t select only Catholic for friends.

Is there any particular kind of religious art that you especially enjoy?

I love all religious art. It’s in a public space, you don’t have to go into someone’s hallway to see it. And there’s a narrative to religious art, which is just the pinncacle of art, for me.

 

 

Is your family artistic?

No, I don’t know where it came from. I drew with my friends as a kid all the time. Michelangelo is the first artist I really loved.

What did your parents think when you said you wanted to be an artist?

They love it. A lot of my artist friends’ parents hate the idea, but my parents are very proud of me. My parents are both Protestant, very humble religious people. They have never tried to tell us we have to make a lot of money to be successful.

I’ve been making a living as an artist for five years now. I scrape by. I do travel to Italy!

 

 

Who are some of your favorite artists who are working now?

My favorite living painter, Ben Long, paints the life around him. He does large frescos, multi-figured paintings, and he doesn’t doctor it up. He paints life solely from observation, and he has a humble approach to the world around him.

I also love Steven Assael, who is not religious.

And I’ve never met him, but Neilson Carlin does religious work on a great scale, very beautiful work.

Do you see any kind of return to the kind of art that you enjoy? It seems like people are getting tired of ugly and bland things and are thirsting for beauty.

Believe me, my fingers are crossed.  John Paul II and Benedict have talked about bringing back art into the Church. It does seem like there’s a growing interest.

A lot of us are very anxious to return to the traditions of the church. I’m not militantly opposed to Vatican II, but traditional settings more reverent. Modern spaces aren’t thought through the way they used to be.  “Traditional” doesn’t necessarily mean repeating the past word for word, but I don’t see why we have to disregard thousands of years.

What kind of work would you most like to be able to put your name on?

Any sort of narrative from scripture or from the saints. This is something I would really like to get into. It’s hard doing it on your own. I don’t have much resources for models. Just doing paintings for churches would be my dream job.

But you weren’t raised Catholic.

I was raised Lutheran. In high school, I didn’t know if I believed.  It must have been when I was 19, I went on a little journey: Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal. I wasn’t even sure if I could go to Mass, but I went, and I could see something special was going on.  I got some library books on Catholicism, and appreciated the theology.

Ten years ago I converted. It’s a beautiful. I love the Catholic Church. You don’t hear much about sacraments in protestant churches, but it’s the most important thing we’ve got here.

 

 

*****

 

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.

Please tell your daughter she’s pretty.

Powerful Ad Shows What a Little Girl Hears When You Tell Her She’s Pretty” runs the headline on the Huffington Post, describing a new ad by Verizon.

Before we even watch the video or form an opinion, let’s remember one thing. The real, true, deep down message of this ad is that you, the viewer, should like Verizon. Whatever societal goals it may have, it’s an ad. It is trying to sell something, and so it’s a given that the message it’s sending is calculated to stroke the egos of the viewer. So there’s that.

Now for the actual message. The Huffiington Post sums it up like this:

The video depicts one girl’s development from toddler to teenager. She wanders curiously through nature, examines the plants and animals around her, creates an astronomy project, and builds a rocket with her older brother. But all along the way, she hears many all-too-common refrains from her parents: “Who’s my pretty girl?” “Don’t get your dress dirty,” “You don’t want to mess with that,” and “Be careful with that. Why don’t you hand that to your brother?” These statements are subtle, but the ad suggests that they can ultimately discourage girls from pursuing traditionally male-dominated STEM subjects in school.

Sure. If someone followed me around telling me “Knock it off!” every time I got interested in math or science, I would probably stop pursuing math and science. It’s a bad idea to thwart kids (boys and girls) and to discourage their curiosity and intelligence; and it’s especially absurd to tell girls, overtly or by omission, that their main job is to be pretty. I’m fairly sure Thomas More, Edith Stein, and Gianna Molla already knew that, without any help from Verizon.

But the ad ends this way: “Isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant, too?”*

Is that what we’re doing when we do say, “You’re so pretty”? When girls hear, “You’re pretty,” does that automatically mean they can’t hear anything else we say? Not that I’ve noticed. Here is what I have noticed:

  • When girls never hear their parents — especially their fathers — say that they are pretty, many of them will go find someone who will say it to them. And sometimes that turns out to be someone who wants to hurt or use them, and uses “pretty” as a hook.
  • When girls get no attention for dressing prettily and looking nice, they find other ways of getting attention with the way they look. A lot of those girls whose entire style is super sexy sexy sex all the time? They’re just trying to be pretty, and no one has taught them to recognize any other form of appeal besides sexiness.
  • If they want to be admired by men, but have been taught that that this desire is a sign of pettiness and lack of character, then many women will become so twisted inside that even marital sex is pure anxiety and guilt.

Why? Because women were made beautiful. They were designed that way. No, not every woman; no, not all the time; and no, not beauty above all other things. But the world is a machine, and one of its driving forces is the attraction between the sexes, where men delight in women and women delight in showing their beauty to men. This is not oppression; this is not sexism; this is not some manipulative societal construct — or at least it doesn’t have to be. It’s a gift from God that girls and women can cultivate and delight in beauty — the beauty around them, and the beauty in themselves. Yes, even their physical beauty. Yes, even from a very young age.

 

 

So no, don’t tell your daughters that they must be pretty because they can’t be anything else. But don’t make them think that beauty is petty, either. Beauty is one of the transcendentals, which means that beauty it is one of the paths to God. Even when that beauty resides in a little girl.

And one more thing: it is good for us, the beholders, to praise beauty when we see it. It is a good thing to see something beautiful and to let ourselves murmur, “Oh, how lovely you are!” We are made to receive it and to enjoy it. We are not made to quash and rein in everything that brings us delight. There is not much beautiful in the world. Why deny yourself what little there is? Parents, let yourself tell your girls they’re beautiful. She needs it, and so do you.

 

 

___

*Actually, recent studies show that kids do worse when you praise them for being smart. If you want

Catholic Artist of the Month: Timothy Jones and the Art of Gratitude

Today begins a new 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.

I am delighted to begin with Timothy Jones, an award-winning American realist whose photorealistic oil painting “Tempus Fugit” was just named a finalist in the BoldBrush Painting Competition.  He graciously spent an hour talking to me while he was still in the throes of final exams at Chesterton Academy, the private Catholic high school in Minneapolis where he teaches art.

My questions are in italics. All the paintings featured, and more of Jones’ work, can be found at his online studio and at Fine Art America, where many pieces are for sale.

*****

So, what’s your favorite color?

For the longest time it was blue, but recently I realized it had changed, and now I prefer green — a natural, mossy green. I don’t know what that says about me. I grew up in Alaska, which is very cold, blue, and kind of stark, beautiful in romantic landscape way. But moving to Arkansas as a teenager,  there was just a wall of green. I didn’t really appreciate that at first. It took a while to settle into that. And it was just steaming hot.

How long does it take you to finish a painting?

I don’t keep close track of the hours. It takes from a few days to a week, depending on how thing go and how much time I have.

A lot of it is just kind of staring at it. You kind of collect yourself, let things suggest themselves, or just walk away from it for a while, then come back and see what you have.

Do you work on more than one painting at a time?

I should! It would be a good system, because I do work in layers. But I focus on one painting at a time.

Persimmons

It would be great for my production, to do more than one at a time. Collectors like to see consistency. They like to group things thematically. But I always feel like I’m just learning to paint, because I’m trying out different things.

What’s something new you’ve tried recently?

The last couple of paintings have been done in a style that’s been around for a few decades, called hyperrealism.  I’m not sure how I feel about it, but I wanted to try. There are certain aspects of it that appeal to me — strong shadows; detailed, meticulous work.

Tempus Fugit

In a lot of circles, what’s popular now is impressionism. You do more with color, you appeal to the emotions, use expressive brushwork. I love that.

Water Lilies at Moonrise

 

Winter Mist

 

Hyperrealism — is that the raspberries

Raspberries

and the chokeberries?

 

Those take more of a macro view, with a more contemporary composition I was trying out. The response has been terrific.

But it seems like a classic composition is what you keep coming back to — the straight-on view, a glass, a piece of bread, a piece of fruit . . .

 

Blue Cheese

 

Blue Vase with Plums

 

I feel like I’ve been learning to paint all this time. By using this traditional structure, I can work with and can try things inside that, and feel like I have some confidence and change one thing.  For instance, I was in the habit of using a dark background,

 

 

and it was a little leap to use a lighter background.

 

Good Company

 

Beer has this beautiful color, but you can’t see it well with a dark background.  I paint a lot of beer!

 

Mug of Beer

 

It’s been good to work out some how I deal with light, things like these last couple I’ve done, like some eggshells.

 

Nascent

 

Another was “Tempus Fugit,” [see above] which is made up of a lot of things that remind me of the passage of time. I didn’t set that up intentionally; there was some stuff in a box, and I decided to paint it, and it turned out they were all themed.

One painting that my sons loved was the hamburger. You’ve done a few hamburgers.

 

Suzy Q Double Cheeseburger

 

I was happy with it. It ended up in a show. Everyone thought it was great, but then it stayed around forever. Nobody bought it.

Is there a struggle between wanting to paint something and having to make a commercial decision?

I did some orange paintings that sold while they were still wet.

 

Orange Peeled

 

 

Oranges

 

The gallery guy said, “Go home and paint about twelve more oranges.” But this weird little thing in my brain says, “I can’t paint an orange now, because it’s been requested! I’m switching now to submarines!

But I have a genuine interest in everything I paint. You spend a lot of time lying in bed thinking about what you want to paint next. I haven’t always had a really clear idea of what direction I want to go in, but I have had a clear idea of what I don’t or shouldn’t want to do.

Like what?

There’s the temptation of doing something that’s going to sell well: kitschy, sentimental stuff, might have worked out.  My family might have wanted me to do some of that!  But I always really had to paint things that I was interested in. I find beer really beautiful. A lot of the setups are trying to create an atmosphere of fellowship or camaraderie.

 

Pewter Stein and Pipe

 

Speaking of an atmosphere of fellowship, you teach classical art in a private high school, Chesterton Academy. How did that come about?

I went to a Chesterton conference with a painting and a drawing of Chesterton,

 

Astonished at the World

 

and the head of the Chesterton Society came up and said, “We’ve started a school.  Would you like to move to Minnesota?”  Now I’m finishing my second year there.  If there’s one thing that could drag me away from painting, it’s that.

The school is in its fifth year. They started with eight or nine students, and now they have 115. The school has this character of a little, crazy school – a private, Catholic classical high school – and the spirit of Chesterton plays a big part in that. It’s a joyous, thankful approach to Catholicism, a very human Catholicism.  We have the greatest conversations in the faculty lounge. The kids all take drama, and they all take four years of art – studio art, and art history.  It’s kind of a luxury for me to delve into those books again.

A lot of the kids are surprised to learn that there are steps to making a work of art. They think you just come out of the womb with this talent, that you pick up a pencil and it’s magic. There is an element of that, but there are also a whole lot of ways to systematically help yourself. The kids open up in a way that is gratifying, and fun, to see. They surprise themselves.

After I teach them, they can go on and paint like Picasso if they want to. I try to keep things positive and not bash that kind of art. But I want them to be aware of all this beautiful stuff.

Last year, the juniors and seniors took a field trip to Rome. (I couldn’t afford to go; moving had done such wonderful things to my budget!).  You don’t have to convince them that Caravaggio or St. Peter’s Basilica is great. It changes a person.  Compare that to the absurdity of some modern art movement . . . it’s not anything you really have to spell out.

And you have been through some spiritual changes yourself, as a convert to Catholicism?

It’s all Jimmy Akin’s doing. He and I were friends in college. In our thirties, my wife Martha and I lived close to him and his wife. It was a great time. He has one of the quickest minds I’ve ever seen.  I can’t keep up with him, but it was fun to try. Also, he’s just an honest person.  Wherever the logic takes him, he’ll go. He began to help me start learning to think. One thing led to another and here we are.

What sort of art have you been looking at recently?

I just saw a bunch of painting from ancient Rome, nature studies on their walls. Still life. They were just doing the same thing:  “Isn’t this great, we have these fish!” I think that’s part of Chesterton’s writings: this love and gratitude for the material world, a reaction against the puritan suspicion of the physical world, or the gnostic suspicion.

What do you mean, “gnostic suspicion?”

I see currents of gnosticism in modern art. Suspicious, antagonistic to dull reality, to life, to the rocks in the street. We don’t wanna paint things that are all around us, we have to transcend that! But for me, the transcendence comes through the experience of things. Explore this, talk about it . . . that’s what I love about art. That’s what art, especially original art, not reproductions, is: this tremendous dialogue. Someone painted this a thousand ago, and I’m reading his  mind. I like this idea of this dialogue, fellowship over a bird or a plant.

Your art strikes me as very Catholic, even the ones that aren’t explicitly religious, like “Immaculate Heart” is.

 

Immaculate Heart

 

I’m glad to hear that! I try to think sincerely what I should be painting. What can I do to move people toward the truth? I try to think of things I can show my own gratitude for. The essence of art is the artist saying,  “Look, I have something to show you. I saw this plant, I saw this bird!”

 

*****

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.