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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan Finaldi: Teaching painting, finding God

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awakening a dormant ability

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

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

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

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

The natural world

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linocuts or laundry? Sarah Breisch speaks about art, faith, and family life

Sarah Breisch doesn’t really draw what she wants. Not yet. Breisch, 40, is the mother of eight children, ranging in ages from 17 to 4, and she only recently started showing and selling her work. It’s been a long time getting to this point.

Her artwork — primarily watercolors and lively linocuts of birds and other animals — is vigorous and arresting and sometimes comical. A frazzled mother bird approaches a tangled feathery nest stuffed full of fat, ravenous chicks, in a posture that somehow conveys both love and exasperation. A fox slinks under the moon, casting a knowing, uneasy eye directly at the viewer. A thrush grips a branch between its thorns and sings his tiny heart out into the darkness. They are just animals, but they all seem like someone particular, familiar and very alive.

But Breisch would like to do more. A demanding critic of her own work, she considers her pieces to be mainly decorative, and calls them illustrations without stories. She would like to make art that tells stories, because she has a lot to say.

Breisch had very little in the way of formal art training. Homeschooled from fourth grade through high school, she was free to pursue her own interest in art and artists, and taught herself through museum trips, by leafing through numerous art books inherited from her grandmother, and by using the miscellaneous art supplies she found in her house.

“At that time, art was intensely personal,” Breisch said.

So personal, in fact, that she could hardly stand to show what she had made to other people. And so, although her father, a skilled carpenter with an artistic bent of his own, encouraged her to go to art school when she finished high school, she chose instead to pursue other academic interests and entered the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire.

Inspiration in the Church

It was in the college’s chapel that she first encountered the beauty of the Catholic Church: the beauty of its theology and also of its physical art.

“In the churches I grew up in, art had no place, beauty had little place. Sentimentality and kitsch, what [founder and then-president] Dr. [Peter] Sampo called ‘the banality of received ideas,’ had a huge place. I never set foot in a Catholic church until I went to college, and the moment I did, I was overcome with a sense that this was what I was looking for. And it specifically had to do with the architecture and the art,” she said.

She recalls that the chapel was “not even anything fabulous,” but what there was looked like it had meaning and belonged.

Then the class spent a semester in Rome.

“I came home exploding with joy and inspiration,” she said.

Talents that glorify God

Breisch, whose mother is ethnically Jewish, said, “I knew more than your average kid did about tabernacles and the Holy of Holies and those sorts of things. So when I saw the baldacchino [the ornate bronze canopy-like structure built over the altar at St. Peter’s Basilica], I thought, ‘I know what that is.’”

She thought her father might be open to hearing what she had discovered. But he was not able to.

“He suffered from that sort of mental divide of Protestants [in that] he was artistic and creative, but also an iconoclast, and somehow it felt wrong of him to marry the two,” she said.

As for herself, Breisch had never felt that her faith and her artistic drive were at odds.

“I thought, ‘I glorify my creator through my God-given ability by trying to imitate what I see in nature, because I think it’s wonderful.’ Because it was so private, it was almost like a private meditation,” she said.

Finding time to make art

It was obvious to her that art and faith belonged together — less obvious that what resulted was something that should be shared with other people, even after she decided to join the Catholic Church.

And soon enough, the decision about how to approach her art was taken out of her hands. Shortly after college, Breisch went through RCIA, married and began having children. Over the course of the next several years, she was simply too busy to draw, and too overwhelmed, and didn’t have the money to spend on art supplies. She would make flashcards for her children, or make materials for curriculum when she worked as a teacher, but it was always something utilitarian….Read the rest of this article, the second in a monthly series for OSV featuring Catholic artists. 

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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 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 prime directive: Make something beautiful. An interview with Jim Janknegt

One of my favorite living artists is James Janknegt. In 2017, he kindly gave me an interview for Aleteia about his life and work. Janknegt, 66, who lives in Texas, is currently working on a commission for five paintings for a book on the meaning of baptism. You can find more of James Janknegt’s art and purchase his book on Lenten Meditations at bcartfarm.com.

Jim Janknegt via Facebook

Here’s our interview:

You converted to Catholicism in 2005. What led up to that?

James Janknegt: When I was a teenager back in the 70s, there was a nationwide charismatic movement. I was Presbyterian at the time. There was a transdenominational coffee house at University of Texas, with the typical youth band playing Jesus songs. There was a frat house we had taken over. We had 20 people sleeping on the floor; it was crazy. A super intense time.

What kind of art education did you have?

I went to public high school, and they didn’t teach much about art history. I would look at books at book stores, and that was my exposure to art. We had a rinky-dink art museum at University of Texas, not much to speak of. After I had this deepening of my faith as a teenager, and really wanted to follow Jesus 100 percent, I was really questioning whether it was legit to become an artist. I didn’t know any artist who were Christians, or Christians who were artists.

Thumbing through the bookstore, I found Salvador Dali. The book was cracked open at “Christ of St. John of the Cross.”

Wikipedia/fair use

That still, small voice that’s not audible, but you know it’s authentically God speaking to you — it felt affirmed. Yes, go forward to be an artist and be a Christian. Those are not incompatible.

Crucifixion at Barton Creek Mall – James Janknegt

Your pieces move from dark and lonely to radiant after your remarriage and conversion to Catholicism — that shift that you define as going from “diagnostic to celebratory.” But even in the “celebratory” stage, there is drama, even agony, along with ecstasy in your pieces.

Foxes Have Holes/James Janknegt

When I was involved in that youth group, they were very super-spiritual, filled with the Holy Spirit, thinking, “Now we can do everything!”

Summer Still Life/James Janknegt

But we never looked internally to see if there are psychological problems alongside your spiritual life. My dad was bipolar and manic depressive, in and out of mental institutions and jail. I met a woman at that Jesus freak outfit, and we got married. I carried a lot of baggage into my first marriage, that I hadn’t dealt with at all. I went to grad school and my marriage fell apart.

Breakdown/James Janknegt

Getting divorced ripped the lid off. All this stuff I had repressed was all bubbling up and coming to the fore. Questioning not my faith, but my ability to be faithful. Can I hear Him and be obedient to Him and do His will? It was a very dark time.

Jet Station/James Janknegt

When we look at your paintings chronologically, it very obviously mirrors different stages in your life. Is it strange to have your whole life on display?

You take that on when you become an artist. It’s very self-revelatory. It’s part of the deal, if you’re gonna be an artist, to be as honest as you can. I think that’s the downfall of a lot of bad religious art: It’s not technically bad, but it’s just not honest. We live in a fallen world. Bad things happen.

Sudden and Tragic Death/James Janknegt

That’s part of life, and that has to be in your painting. You can’t paint sanitized, Sunday school art.

But you do seem to create art that has very specific meanings in mind. Do you worry about limiting what the viewer can get out of a piece?

There’s a painting I did of Easter morning zinnias. They look like firecrackers; Jonah’s on the vase; in the corner, there’s an airplane.

Easter Morning/James Janknegt

I just needed something in the corner to make your eye move into that corner! People were trying to figure out what it meant, but sometimes an airplane is just an airplane.

To me, the role of art is to make something beautiful. Very simple, that’s the prime directive: Make something beautiful.

James Janknegt – supplied
Bug Tools and Beyond/James Janknegt

It doesn’t have to be figurative or narrative or decorative. But my feeling is: The history of our salvation, starting with Genesis to Revelation, is indeed the greatest story ever told. What’s better? As an artist, why wouldn’t I want to tell that?

James Janknegt – supplied
Nativity Christmas Card/James Janknegt

How does the secular world respond to your works? They are full of parables and Bible stories, but also unfamiliar imagery.

A painting is different from a sentence or a paragraph. Paintings deal with visual symbols. I’m trying to take something that was conceptualized 2,000 years ago in a different culture, keeping the content, in a different context.

James Janknegt – supplied
Two Sons/James Janknegt

It’s almost like translating a language, but with visual symbols.

I have a definite idea of what I’m trying to get across. But you [the viewer] bring with yourself a completely different set of assumptions and experiences, and I have no control over that. I don’t want to.

 

James Janknegt – supplied
Holy Family/James Janknegt

When I look at a painting, it’s a conversation. I’m talking into the painting, and the painting is talking to you.

James Janknegt – supplied
Grain and Weeds/James Janknegt

Part of the problem today is that we do not have the same visual symbolic language. In the Renaissance or the Middle Ages, the culture was homogeneous, and symbols were used for hundreds and hundreds of years. If I put a pelican pecking its breast, no one [today] knows what that means. We’ve lost the language. So it’s challenging.

Are you inventing your own modern symbolic language? I see birds, dogs…

You kind of have to. It’s a balancing act. In art school, they say, “Just express yourself! You’re painting for yourself; it doesn’t matter what everyone else gets out of it.” I’m not doing that. I’m trying to communicate with people.

 

The Wise Bridesmaids/Janknegt – supplied
The Wise Bridesmaids/James Janknegt

Tell me about the state of religious art right now.

People complain about how there’s no good religious art.  But there’s a lot of good art out there; you just have to search for it. I feel like I’m hidden away, in this weird place between two cultures, but they are out there.

Saint John the Evangelist/James Janknegt
Saint John the Evangelist/James Janknegt

In our time, people who collect art aren’t religious, and people who are religious don’t collect art. And for an artist, in the Venn diagram, you’re in the place where it says “no money.”

If you could just find an artist you really like and ask them if you could buy a piece for your home shrine.

The Visitation/James Janknegt-supplied
The Visitation/James Janknegt

If every Catholic could buy a piece of art from a living artist, think how that would impact your life, and the life of the artist. You could give them a living.

James Janknegt-supplied
Divine Mercy/James Janknegt

Your farm is called “Brilliant Corners Art Farm.” Is that name a reference to Thelonious Monk?

It is! But it also has a hidden spiritual meaning. Honesty is the light. If you’ve got brilliant corners, then the whole room is lit up.

I Will Make All Things New/James Janknegt-supplied
I Will Make All Things New/James Janknegt

You can find more of James Janknegt’s art and purchase his Lenten Meditations book of 40 paintings based on the parables of Jesus Lenten Meditations at bcartfarm.com.

My interview with James Janknegt of Bright Corners Art Farm

In case you missed it, here’s my interview at Aleteia with Catholic artist Jim Janknegt. Fascinating guy, incredibly powerful work. I wish I could have made the interview five times as long.

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

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

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

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

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

matt clark fish print

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

matt cleark blessing of dimetrodon

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

matt clark chicken stare

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

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

matt clark st. alban

Do you see that as a form of evangelization?

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

matt clark dogman

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

matt clark moses aaron miriam

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

matt clark furies

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

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

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

matt clark madonna and child line drawing

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

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

Rembrandt_Bathsheba_in_het_bad,_1654

Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

matt clark dinos

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

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

matt clark satyr and robot

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

matt clark minotaur as sinner

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

matt clark katydid

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

matt clark humilobites

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

matt clark stick

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

matt clark wasps

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

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

matt clark dream

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

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

matt clark batman gets bored with his own drawings

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

matt clark nimrod

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

matt clark self portrait blue

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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.

 

 

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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.