Joe Malham’s studio is distinctive not only for what’s inside it, but also its location — a former convent converted into a parish center. Malham, a professional iconographer, is a permanent artist in residence at St. Gregory the Great, a parish in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago — perhaps the only such arrangement of its kind in the area.
Since the fall of 2015, Malham has been painting a series of murals in the icon style that depict scenes from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Another wall displays the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary that Malham has done with another artist. The murals are transforming what was once a large, unused space in the parish into the “Chapel of Consolation.”
The idea, Malham says, arose out of a tragedy: A parishioner’s wife died while pregnant with twins. “Her loss was transformed into a vision to create a chapel of healing and meditation for families of all faiths who have lost children. It is a tremendously powerful and important sacred space that is evolving; a sort of homegrown Sistine Chapel — and to our knowledge, there is nothing like this in the Archdiocese of Chicago, and we hazard the guess that there is nothing like it in the country,” Malham wrote in an email to the Register.
Malham has done all the work at no charge to the parish. In return, the parish gives him studio space onsite. It’s where Malham writes his icons and, most recently, wrote a book about the art and theology of icons. But Malham says St. Gregory’s has given him much more than just material goods.
“I have a community that supports me. And that’s vital. For anybody in ministry with a vocation, support from a community is absolutely essential. I think that’s the real gift, and that’s more important than money,” Malham said in an interview.
The series of panels covers the span of salvation history, as reflected in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, according to Malham. Although the chapel is not yet complete, it has already been used for liturgies and other prayer services for families who have lost children. “Suffice it to say, it has been a very moving and sacred experience,” Malham said.
Malham’s service extends beyond the chapel. He also wrote the icon of St. Gregory the Great in the church vestibule, and he made the parish’s processional cross. In addition, Malham holds several icon-writing workshops each year for adults as well as children.
As unusual as Malham’s relationship with St. Gregory’s may be, he is not the only artist in residence at the parish.
Malham is part of a broader parish initiative known as “Evangelization Through the Arts.” The initiative includes the International Chamber Artists, which is led by Patrick Godon, who is also a pianist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; the Quest Theatre Ensemble; and a pastor who also happens to be a jazz musician — hence, St. Gregory’s reputation as the “arts parish” of Chicago, according to Malham.
“Our niche is to present experiences of beauty to people through theater or music or the arts, such as iconography, through which people might be able to experience the beauty of God,” said Father Paul Wachdorf, the pastor of St. Gregory’s.
St. Gregory’s approach emphasizes the role of the community of faith, as the parish website explains: “Our program is different from the generally accepted idea of an ‘artist in residence’ in a secular or academic setting. The St. Gregory the Great outreach does not merely celebrate the efforts and talents of the individual artist, but melds those efforts and talents into a wider spiritual vision and mission.”
Artists cannot only be nurtured by a community of faith — they can be utterly transformed by it, as Ruth Stricklin discovered. “Community is so important to the artistic process and the success of any project. I find that to be very true, even though much of the focus usually goes just to the artist,” Stricklin said.
Stricklin is an Alaska native who moved to the Phoenix area to work as a muralist and interior designer. She had arrived in Arizona as a single woman who was an evangelical Protestant.
But that all changed with one of her new clients. In the late 2000s, Stricklin was asked by a local Catholic high school to paint an icon-style mural as a backdrop to the altar where students and staff celebrated Mass. The mural, a triptych, would depict Christ enthroned in glory in heaven, flanked on the left and right by assemblies of the saints. In the process, Stricklin, still a Protestant, began to study the history of Catholic art and iconography. In a talk for a diocesan women’s conference, she later recalled being captivated by its “rich symbolism” and beauty. “Well, these images slowly began to work on me and draw me into the deeper truths of the faith,” she said, according to a copy of her remarks.
She was also aided in her faith journey by the priest who asked her to do the mural, Father John Muir, the chaplain at Xavier Preparatory High School. “He also cunningly used the principles of sacred art to catechize me in the Catholic faith,” Stricklin recalled in an email to the Register.
In order to better understand Catholic art, Stricklin turned to theology, steeping herself in the Catechism, the Church Fathers and the works of contemporary apologists like Scott Hahn. As an independent artist, Stricklin had never felt comfortable with the emphasis on art as a means of self-expression, often provocatively so.
And, as a Protestant, she had been taught that images in a church were idolatrous. Through her work and research at Xavier, that all changed, as she realized that art could serve a higher purpose of glorifying God and expressing invisible realities. “When I finally discovered the treasure of sacred art that the Catholic Church had fostered and nurtured and protected for two millennia, it felt like I had found God again in the visual arts, and I had found a home that welcomed me to explore my faith through my art. In this environment, my gifts flourished for the first time, and I discovered talents I never knew I had,” Stricklin said.
In 2010, she was received into the Church. In 2011, she was encouraged to continue her studies of sacred art at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake near Chicago. “It was here that I became stunningly aware of my true vocation as an artist toward the pursuit of Beauty, the eternal Beauty in the Person of Jesus Christ. Everything changed for me; everything opened,” Stricklin said.
She also met her husband, Geoff Stricklin, who was finishing his last semester at the institute.
They have partnered in art, founding New Jerusalem Studios in Phoenix (NJerusalemStudios.com), where Geoff has also become a theology teacher at Xavier.
“My theological training is employed to articulate and clarify the content of various works and assist our clients to realize their ideas for each project. Ruth is the artist. She has great natural talent and sensitivity, inspired by deep faith in God and trust in the Holy Spirit,” Geoff said.
Since their marriage, the Stricklins have collaborated on a number of projects. For the All Saints Catholic Newman Center at Arizona State University, Ruth was commissioned to do a mural of Christ coming in glory for the wall behind the chapel apse. The mural was done in the Beuronese style, which is named after the Abbey of Beuron in Germany.
“It attempted to move away from realistic, emotionally evocative portrayals, which tended to emphasize our fallen earthly state, and aimed to highlight our idealized, glorified, heavenly future. This is achieved by a two-dimensional approach, employment of muted colors, quiet stylized figures and faces which avoid the imposition of a particular emotive experience, but draw the worshippers out of themselves into participation in Christ’s self-offering in the Mass,” Stricklin wrote in a flyer explaining the mural. Most recently, Ruth has been working on another school mural, for St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, featuring Christ Crucified, the Virgin Mary and six particular saints.
Ruth feels blessed by her faith and art journey: “Geoff and I recognize that God brought us together to be a support to one another, but also to build this ministry. He has, through the art, brought us even more connection to each other and to the greater Catholic community.”
Stephen Beale writes from
Providence, Rhode Island.