“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.”
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.
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.
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:
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!