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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Mitsui likes drawing on calfskin vellum the best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captivating an audience

Mainly, she tries to keep her audience in mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An artist’s struggle

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

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

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

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

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

Baritus Illustration: A war cry in stickers and T-shirts

Chris Lewis believes in preserving tradition, up to a point.

It was the ages-old, rock-solid history of the Catholic Church that first grabbed his attention and made him take his adopted faith seriously. The Georgia-based graphic artist and illustrator at Baritus Catholic Illustration had joined the Church as an adult. He was raised a Bible Christian and drifted into functional atheism; but when he met his wife and her Catholic family, he had to take another look.

“If you love somebody, you’re going to be interested in what they’re interested in,” Lewis said.

So he began asking questions and was astonished to find out that Catholics had answers.

The first thing he wanted to know was who the first pope was. When his mother-in-law told him it was Peter in the Bible, he said it was a “wake-up slap in the face.”

“Within one question, I had a connection to history in Jesus’ time, and that led to all kinds of subsequent questions. So I picked up the Bible and started reading again,” he said.

He also spent time just staring at the massive, soaring, overwhelming architecture and stained-glass windows of the church he and his new wife attended, trying to make sense of what he was seeing.

He internalized the lesson: You can teach with images.

At the time, Lewis was making his living as a graphic designer. Like so many Americans, he had begun his artistic life as a kid producing copious comic book superheroes and then shifted to crafting pixel art, square by square. These were both decent training for his eventual career in corporate branding, producing polished images and logos to sell products for his clients.

But as his new faith started taking root, it became more insistent, and he began to think, “If this is what I’m staking my belief on, I’m going to take it and put it in my art.”

“I kind of took the very formal polished approach of graphic design, but the more storytelling approach of comic books, and the simplicity and limited color palettes of pixel work and made the style that fused all my beginnings,” Lewis said.

The result is a look that’s dynamic and accessible like comic books, but with more heft and dignity; it’s polished like graphic design, but infused with authentic emotion; and yes, it’s designed to fit into a square with only a few colors, so it prints well.

So along with doing design and illustration work for various authors, publishers, archdioceses and more, Lewis also has a thriving retail business for stickers, T-shirts, cards, posters and phone cases. Some of them are iridescent; some of them glow in the dark.

How does this popular, accessible work jibe with the history and tradition he found so compelling in his own faith journey? Read the rest of my latest Catholic artist interview at Our Sunday Visitor

Previous artists featured in this series:
Kreg Yingst
Sarah Breisch
Charles Rohrbacher

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

 

The art of presence: Iconographer Charles Henri Rohrbacher

“An icon isn’t really an icon without a viewer,” Charles Rohrbacher said.

“Icons are looking out at us, and we complete the circuit, as it were.”

From his small, crowded workshop in Juneau, Alaska, the 68-year-old deacon and iconographer sends his icons out to be present for any viewer who’s willing to see and to be seen, whether in churches, in private homes or in books.

He painted his first icon for his grandmother when he was 8 years old. She kept the crude watercolor of Jesus by her bedside and prayed her Rosary before it every night.

But although Deacon Rohrbacher kept turning out art from that day forward, and went on to study art history and graphic design, it was not until the 1980s that he rediscovered iconography and began to understand how powerful these sacred pictures, with their ancient tradition of preaching the Gospel through images, could be.

He made friends with Dmitry Shkolnik, a Russian iconographer who brought him to the Easter Vigil at an Eastern church.

“The whole interior was painted in fresco from top to bottom, and I thought I had gone to heaven. I had this realization: This is what I’ve been looking for. This is what I’m called to,” Deacon Rohrbacher said.

It wasn’t just the aesthetic appeal. Around the same time, Deacon Rohrbacher was at a gathering at a Salvadoran church in San Francisco, where Catholics were grieving the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Someone had drawn his picture on a piece of white cardboard, and the people surrounded the image with flowers and candles as they prayed.

“Knowing next to nothing of the theology of the icon, it occurred to me that, when everyone said ‘¡Presente!’ when his name was read [a Latin American invocation signifying that the dead are still with us], these evil people have murdered him, but he is present among them. His image signified his invisible presence, along with Christ and Mary,” he said.

That urgent, undeniable sense of personal presence so many people feel when they spend time before an icon is no accident; it is deliberate, and hard won. When Deacon Rohrbacher is illuminating a manuscript or making a print, he allows himself more artistic license and personal interpretation; but when he’s painting an icon, he follows the age-old rules of the training he received from Shkolnik and from the Byzantine Catholic Jesuit Father Egon Sendler.

“What makes an icon different even from [other] religious painting is that self-expression and creativity are subordinated to the form, which is also the content, of the icon,” Deacon Rohrbacher said.

“It’s the opposite of photography. The stylization works in favor of the icon. It’s not the artist imagining what they look like,” he said.

Personal artistic style and self-expression make way for something more transcendent. It’s similar, he said, to how he serves at Mass as a deacon.

“You don’t make it up,” he said. “Every word I say is in a book. You don’t want to impose your personality on the liturgy.”

Which is not to say that you can’t tell the difference between different presiders.

“That’s a great thing; we’re not robots,” Deacon Rohrbacher said.

But individual interpretation present in icons, just as with liturgy, come about because their power works through individual human beings, and so some individuality is inevitable.

Icons are images that proclaim the Gospel. And images and the Gospel are meant to go together.

“There is something missing in our proclamation of the Gospel without images,” Deacon Rohrbacher said.

He vividly remembers visiting beautifully decorated churches in the early ’80s, and although they were glittering and grand, he was dismayed to realize that nothing visible made them discernibly Catholic.

“I was in a church where somebody had decided they would literally whitewash over the painted Stations of the Cross,” he said.

These pictures might not have been the highest quality art, he acknowledges, but some kind of imagery has always been vital to our faith. You can’t just do without pictures….Read the rest of my article about Rohrbacher’s work at Our Sunday Visitor.

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I’m so pleased to announce that this is the first in a monthly series I’m writing for OSV featuring Catholic artists. If you have a suggestion for a Catholic visual artist (including yourself!) you think should be featured, please drop me a line at simchafisher at gmail dot com with “Catholic artist feature” in the subject line. I am interested in all styles of art.

The Catholic Home Gallery: Interview with John Herreid and GIVEAWAY

A little something to help get you through Lent! I have in my hot hands a copy of The Catholic Home Gallery: Eighteen Works of Art by Contemporary Catholic Artists, and Ignatius Press is giving me a second copy to give away! I’ll put details for how to enter at the end of the post. 

Guys, the book is gor-ge-ous, and it’s more than a book: It’s designed so you can pull the prints out and hang them on your wall. Wonderful idea.

Here’s the back cover, showing thumbnails of all the prints:

Here’s a little preview flip book, so you can see how it’s set up. I was actually astonished that this book is listed at $26.96. That’s a sale price, but the full price of $29.95 is also an excellent deal. I can’t think of another place you could find eighteen high quality prints for that price. You could also keep it together as a book, if that’s what you prefer. There is a short bio for each artist; many artists have included a little statement about art, and there is an artist’s note about each print. Importantly, the book includes information about where to find more of the artist’s work, so you can follow them, and maybe support them by buying more art. 

Here’s the list of the nine artists included in what I hope is the first in a series of such collections:

The book includes two pieces by each artist, with a forward by Emily Stimpson.

The other day, I talked to John Herreid, who came up with the whole idea and edited the book. He is the catalogue manager for Ignatius, and also designs many book and DVD covers for them. Herreid is an artist himself, and an art collector (as well as being my sister’s husband’s brother; I’m never sure if I’m supposed to mention that). Here’s our conversation.

SF: You say in your note at the end of the book that “I kept hearing people say such things as ‘I wish we had great Catholic artists working today.’ The thing is, we do! But with the overload of information in the digital age, it is often difficult to find these artists if you don’t know where to look.”
 
It does seem, though, like there has been a sudden flourishing of variety of styles of sacred art in the last several years. There are just more, and more different kinds of Catholic art, than there used to be.
 
JH: One of the things that facilitates that is the advent of social media, especially the kind that’s devoted to sharing images, like Instagram. But before that, there were a fair number of people devoted to making sacred art, but it was hard to encounter it. 
 
Around maybe 2002, another artist, Ted Schluenderfritz, author-illustrator Ben Hatke, and Sean Gleeson, and later some others and I put together Smallpax, a group for Catholic illustrators and artists, and I started interviewing artists like Daniel Mitsui and Tim Jones. Deacon Lawrence Klimecki and Anthony VanArsdale were also involved. That’s where I first started seeing the early versions of [Ben Hatke’s character] Zita. Ben was still doing illustrations for Seton Home School, way back in the day. The website is gone now, into the mists of the Internets. 
 
But I saved a bunch of images into a folder and showed them to people at work and said, “Wouldn’t it be neat to do a collection of prints?” Then I proceeded to be annoying about it for a decade, and they eventually agreed to do it. 
 
SF: I’m really struck with how it’s not just designed to page through, but so you can take the images out and put them your home.
 
JH: I grew up in a house where my mom had art all over the place. A lot was stuff she was pulling out of magazines and putting in frames. When I started collecting art for my own purposes, several times I encountered these folios of prints from the WPA era. There would be just a collection of thirty or forty prints, designed so they could be detached and put on the walls. I was familiar with a loose folio that came in a folder, but the idea of a bound folio was really neat. 
 
If you have art on the wall, it becomes part of your daily life. It informs how you think of the saints being depicted, or of the Blessed Mother, or your image of God, which is one of the reasons I really don’t like the saccharine late 19th and early 20th century treacly kind of sacred art. 
 
If you grow up around that, you get the idea that the faith is either pretty and nice, or else it isn’t real, or else you encounter a great amount of suffering, and if this is your image of the faith, you think, well, I can’t connect with that. Some people find it deeply meaningful; they really do. But for me, that has never been something that spoke to me. 
 

Fr. Jaques Hamel by Neilson Carlin
 
SF: Have your kids let you know how the art you put in the house has affected them? 
 
JH: Some of my kids are more into visual art than others. My daughter, who is very artistic, will look at it and talk about it with me. My youngest, who is six, as soon as I showed him the proofs [of the book] that came in, he immediately told me that as soon as I get the final one, he wants St. Joseph Terror of Demons. He grabbed that one right away. 
 

St. Joseph Terror of Demons by Bernadette Carsensen
 
SF: How did you choose the artists? 
 
JH: It’s a wide variety of styles, and that was conscious. There were people I really wanted to get in there: Tim Jones, Matthew Alderman, and Jim Janknegt. Those were the initial people I envisioned building this around. Matt Alderman is doing a black and white sort of art nouveau style;
 

The Wedding at Cana by Matthew Alderman
 
Tim Jones is doing a classic realistic style,
 

The Immaculate Heart by Timothy Jones
 
and Jim Janknegt is doing a modern style with colors that explode off the page.
 
Miracle of the Sun by James B. Janknegt
 
With those three, you get an idea of the kind of variety you will find in the book. 
 
SF: Did anything surprise you as you went through the process of putting it together? 
 
JH: One person said, “I’m glad you decided to include some images of recent saints and soon-to-be saints,” and I said, “Oh, I guess I did.” I have Blessed Solanus Casey [by Matthew Alderman] and Servant of God Fr. Kapaun [by Elizabeth Zelasko]
 

Servant of God Father Emil Kapaun by Elizabeth Zelasko
 
I hadn’t really consciously set out to do that, but I am interested in recent saints. 
 
 I also didn’t realize that I had put quite so many Marian images in there. There’s . . .seven, eight, nine, fully half these images. I brought a copy to the Marian Library at the University of Dayton to give them in their library collection, and I said something like, “There aren’t that many Marian images,” but then I looked at them and I was like, oh, I guess there are!
 

Mary, the Mother of Life by Michael D. O'Brien
 

SF: I know some people have rules about sacred art, like not combining it with secular art in the same space. Do you have any rules? 

JH: I personally do not. I grew up in a house with a jumble of images, like a Padre Pio statue in a shrine made out of an old tofu press hanging on the wall. 

SF: That’s the most Herreid thing I have ever heard. 

JH: I do think, looking back, it’s funny that Padre Pio is Mr. Redmeat saint, and there he is in a tofu press. 

Saint Padre Pio by Matthew Conner

SF: I have seen the photos you’ve been posting on social media as you’ve been hanging up the prints in your house. It’s a good tip to find high quality frames in thrift shops. Frames are expensive! Do you have other advice for people who want to incorporate more sacred art into their homes?

JH: I collect art of all kinds. I love having things on the walls. One thing I think people get too finicky about is having to be very intentional about having to set up a special sacred spot in their room. That’s great if you can do that and have the room for it, and the room is architecturally appropriate for it, but often times you may not be able to do that. In that case, you may want to just put things where they fit and gather around them for prayers. 


St. Benedict by Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs

As far as collecting sacred art, antique stores are a great spot, although it’s often the more saccharine style of art. I found a great Madonna and Child, made by a great sculptor, for $8 at an estate sale. It’s huge, actually impractically huge. 

Our neighbor once brought a friend over to talk about home brewing, and the guy walked into the door and was confronted by all this Catholic imagery. And he said, “So, is the Catholic thing an aesthetic, or . . . ?”
I said, “No, I actually believe it.” 
And he said, “Oh. O-kay . . . . . okay.”
 

SF: Sure, you’re the weirdo. 

Is there anything else you want people to know about this book or about art in general? 

 
JH: I really feel strongly that we made sure to include information about each of the artists, where you can find them online, their social media info, and where you can purchase their art. It drives me bonkers when people share images by working artists and don’t credit them, and don’t say where it’s from. 
 
Sacred art in the past was commissioned by the wealthy and powerful, and they would be responsible for funding it. We’re no loner in a world like that. Most artists depend on people like me and you to buy art from them.  I feel like it’s only just to find artists online and try to support them.
 
If one of these images [in the book] jumps out at you, go look them up and find out what else they’ve done, and maybe purchase a few prints directly. That’s the only way they’ll be able to continue doing this work, if people like me and you support them. 
 

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And now for the giveaway! Nice and simple. Just leave a comment on this post, and you’re entered. I will use a random number generator to choose the winner on Monday the 13th, and I will contact the winner by email. Thanks to Ignatius for sponsoring this. 

FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE, PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT USING A NAME CONNECTED TO AN EMAIL ADDRESS THAT ACTUALLY WORKS. If the winner left a comment using the email address “nicetryfeds@noneofyourbeezwax.com” I will make rude chimp noises and then pick someone else, and then you won’t get your art. 
 
 
 

 

 

I read the museum cards when I look at art!

Last week, we went to a museum without any kids, and so the last bit of museum pressure was off. I was absolutely free to look at whatever I wanted, for as long as I wanted, in whatever order I wanted. We even took a break for coffee and scones, because museums are exhausting. And if I wanted to read the card before looking at the painting, I did. 

A crazy amount of intellectual guilt needed shucking off, to arrive at that decision. I have always been told to look first, look long, and only then to read about what I have seen. Encounter it plainly and openly on its own terms before you let your experience of it get shaped and tutored by whatever few sentences some curator thinks are vital. 

But when do we encounter things completely openly, for real? Never. It’s as if we live on one planet, and a work of art lives on another, and maybe the atmosphere there will suit us, and maybe it won’t, but we do need to bring some oxygen with us for the trip. Because we are human. We bring what we have, who we are, with us when we encounter a work of art, because we can’t breathe without it. We bring our prejudices and our contemporaneous contexts, but also just the information we have gathered in the course of a lifetime, information about what it means to be alive. This happens whether or not we read the museum card. There is no such thing as coming intellectually innocent to a work of art. That’s just not how human beings operate. If a body (me) meets a body (art) coming through the rye, my petticoat is gonna draggled. It just will. It’s not a big deal.
 
I already knew this, but it became so obvious to me when so many people came to see the Catholic works of art, which I understood, and they did not, because they had no context, no frame of reference to behold them with. For instance, I saw more than one madonna and child that was clearly painted as a rejection of Manichaeism. It’s an ode to the inherent goodness of human flesh; but without context, it just looks like the painter had no idea what a baby’s body actually look like. Silly old painter!
 
People of faith would like to believe there is something so innately human and universal about what is depicted in sacred art that it will speak to people directly whether they know anything about the faith or not. And some of this is surely true, sometimes. Think of Flannery O’Connor’s snarly Parker who gets women pregnant even though he doesn’t like them that way, who meets the “Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes” and is knocked right out of his shoes. It happens. I’ve been struck spiritually by works of art depicting faiths I know nothing about. Power is power.
 
But it is also true that when museum-goers had the option to push a button and hear some snippets of eastern chant to go along with the altar frieze on display, almost every one of them laughed. A tenor called out “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One!” into the echoing gallery, and they giggled. I don’t know why. It just startled them, probably, or maybe it sounded spooky, or maybe they were not used to hearing a man sing in that register. But despite the best efforts of the museum, this fragment of beauty did not translate well to many, at least not instantly. It did not enhance their wonder; it just confused them.
 
And of course the same failure of translation happened to me in other galleries. We beheld the art of the Marshall islands, and I had no idea what I was looking at. Even with the cards to help me see what I was seeing in those hollow eyes, rounded mouths, jagged teeth, elongated limbs, the best I could do was to remind myself that what I was seeing was very different from what the people for whom it was made would have seen. I offered a humble shrug, that was as far as I got.
 
Not all the examples of “I am here, they are there” were that jarring. There was a very odd 1618 Flemish painting depicting the artist as Icarus with his father, and his expression was peculiar, almost a smirk, and the postures were enigmatic. I did giggle, because I had no idea what I was looking at, and I checked the card, and it said it was not known what the artist intended. Even the experts thought he didn’t quite pull it off. Too dated! Not my fault!
 
And sometimes it was very obvious that I was misreading what I saw, but I couldn’t help it. I read the card that said the hands of this Asian deity were in gesture called “the fist of wisdom,” and I raised my eyes to behold it, and oop, it sure looked like the thing that Howie did in second grade at the lunch room, and everyone laughed and the teacher got mad. The card told me what to see, and it didn’t help at all, because part of me is still in second grade. A planet too far. 
 
I saw a painting that looked like it had been commissioned in 1957 for a John Coltrane album cover, but when I checked the card, I almost fell over to read: “John Singer Sargent, 1879-1880.”
 
Sargent was incredibly sophisticated, and clearly anticipated a lot of what was to come; but he also stood out in his own time, painting in a style of his own, ruffling feathers. I suppose this is one of the marks of genius, to be able to see the style of your own era for what it is, with its strengths and its limits, and not to be confined by it.
 
But we tend to feel that an artist is especially good if they break out of the mold of their era, and this is an odd thing to do, if impossible to avoid. It pits one style against another, and makes us consider everything in terms of being a response to something else, rather than existing on its own terms. This informed approach to art enriches our understanding of what we’re seeing, but at the same time, it narrows our ability to perceive it openly. Would it be better to look at a painting without knowing anything at all about art history? Just to look? Better? I don’t know!
 
I do know that the galleries with contemporary art were filled with pieces that absolutely required you to know something — not only to read the card, but to be trained in how to see what you were seeing so that it looks like anything at all. And the kicker is, I am the audience this was designed for. I live in this world. And yet I still needed help to see what I was seeing. My husband said that many artists are now making art for a culture that exists only in the art world, and not for the public in general. The art world is the context. Once, visiting a different museum with a bunch of squirrelly kids, I was at the end of my energy. Wondering if I should make the effort to climb yet another flight of stairs to get to the 20th century wing, I peered through and said to the guard at the entrance, “It’s hard not to feel like something went wrong,” and he said, “I know.” 
 
Of course, maybe he was wrong, too.
 
What a puzzle it is, trying to sort out the things that are actually timeless and the things that simply happen to speak to us in our time. People have never stopped adoring Rembrandt, as far as I know. Gauguin, I myself have made the forty-year trip from mistrusting him and feeling bad about it, to adoring him, to thinking, “If I found this painting on fire, I would look for water, but I wouldn’t run.” Cy Twombly, I didn’t even go to that floor.
 
Which is not to say that we are doomed to distort what we see. Only that we can feel at home in not knowing everything there is to know. If you can take your ego out of it, and subtract the pressure to be the smartest person who understands things very well indeed, it’s actually comforting to recall how at home we actually are in the time and world we live in. So many of us feel so alienated and displaced and out of communion with our own culture. I look at TikTok or a video game or the previews for upcoming movies, and I think, “What planet does everyone else live on?”
 
But we are more at home than we realize, more a creation and a creator of our own culture then we may know. It’s just that we may not know it until we step away from it, find some distance, and see what it would be like to be truly on the outside. And that is what happened to me. 
 
Poor William Shatner went up into space and found that distance.  He suddenly realized for the first time that earth is small, temporary, finite. I suppose going to the art museum could have me feel the same way. So much distance, so much fragility. Here was a massive marble building dedicated to showing me . . . everything. Everything there was to show, everything people thought was worth preserving, and yet so much of it is opaque to me. I suddenly felt very keenly the distance that is there between me and so many other worlds of experience.
 

But I thought of “Having Misidentified a Wildflower” by Richard Wilbur. It’s such a short poem, I suppose I can get away with quoting the whole thing:

A thrush, because I’d been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only.

 
People sit down with their brush or their sculpting tools or their beads and loom, and I suppose sometimes they are trying to make something immortal, something that will speak to the human heart in every age. But the living artists I have met are not like that. Their aims are so much more humble, in general. Many of them are simply trying to capture something because they know it’s fleeting, and they have no illusions that what they create will somehow be more permanent. (Well, we’ll talk about the Egyptians some other time.) Making art is a way of naming the unnameable, of finding a familiar spot in a vastly uncatalogueable universe of experiences.The very fact that we keep doing this is familiar enough for me, and I smiled and smiled my whole way through the museum. 
 
I suppose I’m just happy, happy to be a member of a tribe that sees the world is fleeting and decides, I know what to do! And makes something.
 
 
 
 

Tell me about your home altar

I’ve been steeping in Catholic social media for more than 20 years, seeing into the lives and homes of people who identify very strongly as Catholics. And yet somehow all that time, I’ve been able to resist the idea of putting together a home altar. It always felt like something that other people do, people with tidier home and more orderly lives.

It’s not that I’ve kept some kind of aggressively secularized home, goodness knows. I’ve always hung sacred images on my walls, and our bookshelves have been as festooned as anyone else’s with little headless and handless Catholic statuary, and I don’t even want to think about how many year’s worth of dried out palm leaves are secreted in various cabinets, fruitlessly waiting to be burned. Growing up, it affected me very much to live surrounded with the faces of saints and angels and the eyes of icons.

But for some reason, I’ve always resisted gathering everything together into a dedicated spot that has no other purpose than to be a sacred space. Possibly I’m afraid that, if we have religious images everywhere, we can just live with them more or less passively, according to our abilities; but if there’s one spot that’s for nothing other than prayer, it will become very obvious when we’re falling down on the job. Even more obvious than it already is. 

But for whatever reason, I recently finally pulled the trigger. I cleared off the top of the little piano and laid out a cloth. I bought a standing crucifix, arranged some robust potted plants around it, hung some icons and holy images on the wall behind it in a way that is visually balanced and also makes a sort of narrative spiritual sense to me, and put together the books we refer to for spiritual reading, and I guess . . . there it is.

Now what?

I am well past the notion that any kind of physical thing you can buy and set up in your house is going to magically, automatically make a meaningful difference in your spiritual life on its own. It just doesn’t work that way, and I know it. Still, I’d like to use this home altar, now that we’ve got it. Who’s got ideas for me?

We’ve done fairly well so far keeping it reserved just for sacred things, and we’re not letting random junk pile up on it (other than burnt-out matches and some dead leaves, but I’ll get to that!); but I’d like to put it to good use. I’m not really worried about doing it wrong, because I know it’s entirely optional; but I like it, and I’d like to do more.

I have a candle in a glass cup (which I bought when a priest friend said Mass in our home!), and when we manage to say our prayers at night, we light the candle in front of the crucifix first. On the anniversary of my parents’ death, I lit their yahrzeit candles there, as well. We do have little girls in the house, and when they bring in violets and dandelions and pretty rocks, I’ll encourage them to bring them to the altar.

What else? I know we can decorate it liturgically, as the year goes on. I would definitely like to emphasize more to my family how the year is anchored liturgically, and live less according to the retail seasons. This should help.

Tell me your home altar stories. Has it actually enriched your family’s spiritual life? If you’ve had a home altar for a while, have you changed your idea of what it should look like or what it’s for? Do you have rules about what belongs there, or do you let family members contribute whatever seems appropriate to them? I want to know!

A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on May 16, 2022.

 

The O Antiphons reimagined: My interview with Sr. Ansgar Holmberg

Ansgar Holmberg, C.S.J., 86, didn’t paint her O Antiphon series to edify or instruct anyone. They were meant only for herself.

Ansgar (she likes to be called by her first name) has been with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 67 years, and although she has spent time teaching children and offering spiritual direction, she created these seven paintings over the course of three years as a personal way to contemplate Scripture.

“I had read what other people had said, but I decided to paint them for myself, for me to understand them better. That’s one of the ways I learn,” Ansgar said.

Now the seven paintings, done in brilliant gouache (a kind of opaque watercolor), are gathered in a small book, Praying the Advent Names of God, paired with poems composed by another sister in the community, Joan Mitchell, C.S.J.

The O Antiphons are a series of seven verses dating from the sixth century and prayed during vespers during the last week of Advent. Each antiphon is a name of Jesus taken from Scripture, and they are the basis for the popular Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Ansgar’s images are saturated with color and inhabit a strange space between iconography and myth. Ansgar said she did not set out to express a theological idea with her works; she simply followed her intuition.

“I didn’t have any rules or laws or requests put upon me, but it was my own expression of where I was at that time as I worked with these,” she said. “I put my own spin on it, and it went a bit more cosmic.”

Wisdom, for instance, is frequently portrayed in Western art with symbols like a lamp, a book or a female form enthroned; but in Ansgar’s conception, Wisdom is a figure descending fluidly from the heavens, grasping the sun in one hand, breathing out waters and engraving the bed of a riverbank with the other hand. Wisdom, Ansgar said, is proceeding from the womb of God.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: “O Wisdom” from Praying the Advent Names of God by Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ, and Joan Mitchell, CSJ, used with permission 

 

I’m giving away FOUR books by Tomie dePaola!

Tomie dePaola is a beloved author and illustrator for good reason, and in addition to his dozens of charming and lovely books about Strega Nona and Big Anthony, he published many Catholic books, including books on the saints, Bible stories, and other religious works. Ignatius Press with Magnificat has recently been reprinting some of these in hardcover. I got to review four of them, and they’ve given me four to give away to you! The titles:

Queen Esther
Brother Francis of Assisi
Noah and the Ark
Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Enter by using the form at the end of the post. 

If you don’t win, or if you just want to order some or all of the books, I also have a 25% off code for these four books.

Use the coupon code STOMIE25 when you order any of these four books from Ignatius and get a 25% discount starting today and ending Saturday, Nov. 21 at midnight. 

And now for the books! 

Queen Esther (first published 1986) A simple and dignified telling of the story of Esther, the Jewish woman who was chosen for her beauty by the Persian king, and who risked her own life to protect her people.

Esther is rendered in blues and grays, very elegant but rather severe and sad, which seems right to me. She didn’t ask to be put in that position, but she did what had to be done once she was there. 

A good true “princess” story about a girl chosen for her beauty, who musters up courage and strength for her people. 

The story is somewhat simplified, good for young kids, and is nicely dramatic

The final page notes that her story is commemorated on the Jewish feast Purim. “On Purim, Jews give gifts to the poor and one another. This spring holiday often falls during Lent, when Catholics recall the courageous faith of Queen Esther.” I didn’t realize this was so, but he’s right! The Mass readings during Lent tell her story, paired with an exhortation to ask God for what we want and trust he will give it to us. 

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Brother Francis of Assisi (first published 1982) 
I had this one when it was first published, and as a result, I’ve always been a little afraid of St. Francis, as is appropriate. He is most certainly not the fuzzy wuzzy pal to our furry friends that pop culture has turned him into, but was an intense, passionate, singleminded man.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a scary or graphic book, but it doesn’t shy away from how hard Francis was on himself.

I had a hard time getting through the Pope’s dream where Francis holds up the crumbling walls of the Church. Oh boy. Give yourself time to compose yourself if you’re reading this one aloud.

It does include favorite stories, like Francis preaching to the birds, and dealing with the wolf of Gubbio,

and also has some lesser known stories, like Francis allowing himself to indulge in some honey almond cakes made for him by a patroness,

and a story about Francis recreating a manger scene and being visited by a real holy child who smiles at Francis and strokes his beard.

And here — get ready — here is Francis receiving the stigmata

This is one of de Paola’s longer books at 47 pages, and it includes the Canticle of the Sun and a timeline of Francis’ life, including his and Clare’s feast days. Good stories about Clare and her sisters, as well. The illustrations were painstakingly researched on site, and you get a real sense of place, as well as a sense of who Francis really was. Excellent. 

*****

Noah and the Ark (first published 1983) I struggle with children’s books about Noah’s ark! I know it has animals and a rainbow, but it’s not really a children’s story, and it bothers me when it’s portrayed as cutesy or rollicking. DePaola’s version avoids this, and is told very simply and has a sort of mythical air to it, which works well.

God is shown as a powerful, bright hand emerging mystically from the heavens, and the animals are animals, not cartoonish sidekicks

DePaola’s mastery of color is on full display here. There are two pages with no text, just the flood waters:

and then the next page pulls back a bit and shows the ark still being tossed on the waves, but with the threatening clouds receding. 

A solid rendition, bright and dignified. 32 pages, for children ages 5 and up. 

*****

And now for the crown jewel of these new editions!

Mary, the Mother of Jesus (first published 1995) 33 pages, and there is a LOT in here. An astonishing book, luminous, illuminating. If you’re looking for a religious book to give a child for Christmas, this is the one.

It covers the whole life of Mary, from before her conception to her assumption and coronation, and it draws on scripture and also on pious legend, including things like the child Mary climbing the steps to the temple by herself,

and the staff of Joseph miraculously flowering. It also, to my surprise, describes Mary as gently dying and being laid in a tomb, with Thomas meeting an angel who has him roll the stone away and find her winding sheets left behind. My kids were a little dismayed, having been taught (by me!) that Mary didn’t die, but was assumed into heaven body and soul without dying first. It turns out there’s no actual dogma definitively saying whether she died or not. In any case, the illustration of her assumption got me right in the kishkes:

Reading the whole thing from start to finish helped me remember what a straight up good story it is, and how many angels came to this family. 

All the illustrations are striking, and the expressions on the (clearly middle eastern) faces are subtle and thought-provoking.  Here is Mary proud but protective as the wise men appear to visit her little son

Here are the parents angry, dismayed, and confused to find Jesus in the temple:

Here is Mary calmly and knowingly, with a glimmer of a smile, telling the stewards at Cana to do whatever Jesus tells them

and look at this angel, busting through into the room of this young girl with her long braid

Extraordinary. It says ages 7 and up, and honestly I would give this book to an adult convert to introduce him to Mary. It’s so lovely and heartfelt. Each section is introduced with a short excerpt from the liturgy of the hours. So good. 

That’s it! Good luck! You have until Friday the 20th to enter. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

If you can’t see the Rafflecopter form, click this link and it will take you there. 

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P.S., Did I ever tell you my Tomie dePaola story? It’s not a very good story, but it’s what I’ve got. In second grade, I won a Young Author’s contest (The Day It Rained Piano Keys, by Simmy Prever. No copies extant) and dePaola presented the awards, and each winner got a kiss on the cheek. I’d been reading his books steadily my whole life, and almost forty years later, I finally got up my nerve to ask him for an interview, because he lived in NH. I wanted to know what his favorite book was, and what his relationship was with the Church, and how hard it was to paint the face of Jesus. And if he knew someone like Bambalona. So I put in my request and I waited with bated breath for his response, and then two weeks later, he died.

That’s my story. I don’t think I actually killed him, but if you want to talk to someone, my advice is to do it now, not later. SIGH.