If it surprises you that a lifelong Protestant would be painting Catholic saints, you don't know Lisa E. Brown. Her outlook is as broad as her art. A professional artist for more than 10 years, her work includes portraits, murals, furniture painting, landscapes and figures in a wide range of mediums.
This year, she was commissioned to paint the patron saints of World Youth Day 2002, which include St. Agnes of Rome, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, St. Josephine Bakhita, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Blessed Andrew of Phù Yen, Blessed Pedro Calungsod, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Blessed Marcel Callo and Blessed Francisco Castelló Aleu.
Originally from Ann Arbor, Mich., Brown lives now in Arlington, Va.. Some of her work can be seen at http://www.lisaebrown.com Regis.ter correspondent Zoë Romanowsky recently spoke with her about her latest project.
Tell me how you were commissioned to paint the patron saints of World Youth Day 2002.
A friend of mine, Christopher Séguin, is the director of registration at World Youth Day and he had the idea of having portraits done of the World Youth Day patron saints. Along with other artists, I was invited to submit samples of my work. When the art director for World Youth Day saw some paintings of blues artists I did for a restaurant, he thought that style would work, so they hired me.
You're a devout Christian, but not a Catholic. What attracted you to this particular project?
I was drawn to paint fellow followers of Christ who have loved God with all their lives. I also love to do portraits — that's my favorite subject because there's so much in a face. I feel close to God when I'm painting a face because we're made in his image. To paint what's going on — what's behind the eyes and face — is to paint the soul. And these are huge souls for God.
Tell me a little about your own faith background.
I'm a Presbyterian minister's daughter and I grew up in a rich environment of both traditional and charismatic faith. My background included a very ecumenical focus as well. When I was in college, my father became pastor of a fellowship in an ecumenical community. That's a very comfortable thing for me and something I'm desirous of — to have as much unity as possible, knowing that's the heart of Christ. My Catholic connection started with a friend who went to Franciscan University. My undergraduate degree was in art but I was interested in studying counseling so I went to Franciscan University for my master's degree. Since then, I've spent a lot of time in Catholic environments.
What are the portraits like?
Each canvas is roughly 20 by 30 inches. I wanted to focus on the face and get a lot of emotion and expression so I painted them larger than life. The process is two colors — the canvas is a midnight blue and the name of the paint is “Hockey Puck,” which I thought was appropriate for World Youth Day in Toronto! It makes a good contrast with the white. I used tiny brushes with a fine point to get the range of light and dark, grays and brights.
Did you paint from specific images?
World Youth Day sent me some images to work from but the decision on how to paint each one was mine. I did the patrons’ faces so they look directly at the viewer. With some, like St. Agnes of Rome, I photographed a living model and then looked at frescos painted of young girls from the time of St. Agnes to use for reference on clothing and hairstyle. For the saints we didn't have photos for, I tried to go with models of people from the same ethnic background.
Let's talk about a few of the portraits. St. Thérèse of Lisieux is a favorite of so many people — why did you paint her the way you did, and what did you want to communicate in your rendition of her?
There's a photo of St. Thérèse when she's about 15 years old where her hair is up and she's looking very expectant. I liked the expression of love on her face. Although I made her look a little older, I wanted to capture her before she entered the convent and to show her on the verge of making a vocational decision. As I painted her, I had a strong sense of her strength and intensity, her passion for God, and her deep love.
I've seen that painting and you can see that in her face, especially in her eyes. You mentioned St. Agnes of Rome, and that's a beautiful painting — maybe my favorite. Tell me about her.
When I painted Agnes, I imagined she was before her accusers, knowing she was going to die for her faith. I thought about how she faced her death — with strength, pure love for God and acceptance. She knew she belonged to God. There's a quote when she was about 13 years old where she says, “For a while I have been engaged to a celestial spouse.” At that early age she felt strongly called to be God's alone. Also, I really got a sense for her stand on consecrating her virginity to God and keeping her body for God. She's a great example for youth today and it was powerful to paint her.
While painting these saints, did you learn anything new or did it affect your faith life?
The portraits were in my living room as I painted them and it made me think of Hebrews 11, “Since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.” I felt surrounded by them, their goodness and love. Now they're gone and I miss them! I really felt their presence — that they were with me. And it meant a lot to be painting for youth.
How do you think these images will communicate with younger people in particular?
Michael Madden, the art director of World Youth Day, said that he sees these portraits as a form of icon — a modern icon. The goal of the whole project is to make the saints real, not idealized. Many saint images, while serving their own purpose, are very idealized and glamorous-looking. I tried to make each saint look human — for example, I painted Kateri Tekakwitha with her smallpox scars. Another goal was to show each saint's unique love for God so that the youth might be inspired to realize their own unique way of expressing and living out God's love.
Do you have a favorite? Which one, and why?
On one hand, no. I connected with each one. But as a painter, I particularly like how some turned out — the lighting or the expression or how various factors came together. There are others whose stories I connect with more. Some are less known and you have to use your imagination about what their lives were like. I love how Agnes of Rome turned out, and Thérèse, and I love the lighting in Francisco Castelló Aleu's portrait.
What will World Youth Day be doing with these paintings?
The portraits will be made into 20 by 50 feet banners and displayed along the main entrance of Exhibition Place, where the main events will be held. They will also be made into postcards.
Will the Holy Father have a chance to view the paintings?
They will be the first things the Pope sees when he processes through the main entrance way during his arrival ceremony. The original paintings will be on display at his Toronto residence and I am scheduled to meet and talk with him about the paintings on July 28.
Zoë Romanowsky writes from Washington, D.C.