Jason Jenicke, a 2001 graduate of University of Kansas with a degree in fine arts, has been painting sacred imagery for the past six years.
In 2005, he went to work fulltime for the School of Faith, an adult-education program of the Diocese of Kansas City, Kan. His first major project: Fill the walls of the new St. James Academy High School in Lenexa, Kan., with original oil paintings depicting important events in salvation history.
What inspired you to pursue painting?
I started college in 1996 with the intent to become an illustrator. Later, I had a drawing course taught by a professor whose specialty was oil painting. She suggested that my style was more suited to painting than illustrating. After taking a painting course, I decided to switch my focus.
When did you take up painting religious subjects?
Religious scenes weren’t my initial subjects. Toward the end of my college career, I became more involved with my faith. I met some great people who invited me to the St. Lawrence Center, the Newman Center at the University of Kansas. I began taking classes there and learning more about the Catholic faith. As my faith became more important, my artwork naturally progressed to encompass it.
What spurred you to become more active in your Catholic faith?
I’m a cradle Catholic. As a child, my family never missed Sunday Mass. My mom went to daily Mass. During summer car trips, we’d pray the Rosary. When I got to college, I found myself slipping away. Even though the Catholic faith was important to my parents, it had never become important to me. I still believed in God and that he had a plan for us, but I didn’t know what it was. I soon found myself getting involved in things I shouldn’t have.
In learning more about my faith, I found that I had misunderstood much of it. I realized I had been empty. The Church brought me deeper purpose.
What sort of impact do you intend your work to have?
My goal is to bring biblical events to life. To that end, I attempt to inspire the viewer to feel present as an event is unfolding. I strive to capture human emotion in the artwork and make my pieces historically and culturally accurate.
Could you name some details in one of your pieces that came about through your concern for historical accuracy?
When I was painting the Last Supper, I did a lot of study on the Seder meal. Everything on the table in my painting is an actual item that would have been on a table during a traditional Seder meal.
I heard you’ve even been to the Holy Land to get a better idea of what these biblical scenes may have looked like.
That’s right. I was there in spring 2005. As I began to paint more and more scenes that took place there, I realized that I struggled to portray them accurately. So I took the trip to see where these events happened. Some of what I saw was quite different from what I had imagined. When I went to the top of Mount Tabor — where the transfiguration happened — I was amazed to find myself in a heavily wooded area. Previously, I had supposed it was a barren mountaintop.
I came home with 3,400 photos, and I’m grateful for such a resource to help me set my paintings in realistic landscapes.
What other preparations do you make before you begin a new piece?
Prayer plays a major part. For example, I kept the idea for the Last Supper in my head for nearly a year before I started painting it. While praying, I would find myself being drawn into the details of the scene. How do I want to work it? Do I want to be seated at the table? Do I want to be standing behind Jesus looking at the disciples? I imagined many different views before I decided just what I would paint.
Other times, there are just happy accidents that shape my vision. I had a scene in mind for the Visitation and asked two friends to model it for me. They just happened to start laughing while I was setting them up. As they were laughing, their heads came together, and it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. Using live models has really helped bring more realistic human expressions and emotion to my paintings.
Many of your subjects have been painted many times before. Does that affect the way you come to a blank canvas?
Each painting is different. For some, I look up the old masters to see how others have approached a scene. Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” is immensely popular, but I quickly discovered that everything’s wrong about its finer details. That inspired me to create something more accurate to the Passover meal.
Other paintings, like the Visitation, have been done innumerable times. That made it a challenge for me to come up with a portrayal that I liked. Right now I’m working on the luminous mysteries of the Rosary. Since they were defined very recently, they aren’t scenes that have been painted often. I’m having difficulty finding a good image of the wedding at Cana that could give me an idea of how to set it up.
What type of feedback have you received?
Everything has been very positive. I’ve exhibited my work at several Catholic conferences. Many people have told me just how moved they were; some were even moved to tears. They were really taken aback by seeing biblical characters as real people expressing understandable emotion. I’ve heard this especially in response to the Visitation. A lot of women say they have never seen Mary and Elizabeth smiling in this scene. Looking at these two saints as actual women brings them into a new perspective.
How has practicing your art affected your spiritual life?
While at prayer, I’ll read a Gospel scene. Then I find myself getting lost in trying to depict that scene. I often put inspiration from prayer to use here in the studio and take inspiration from my paintings back to the chapel.
My painting and my faith encourage each other. I was taking spiritual direction at the St. Lawrence Center when my director challenged me: “Wouldn’t it be great one day if you did your artwork fulltime for the Church?” I kind of laughed at that. It didn’t seem as if it would be possible, or even something I would want to do. Now I’m very fortunate that my life is such a holistic blend of faith made active in my work.
Emily Ortega writes from
Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Jason Jenicke online