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