Award-winning artist John Carroll Collier's latest major project is a sculpture of Jesus the Good Shepherd for the Diocese of Greens-burg, Pa.
That piece was unveiled in August. Collier, based in Plano, Texas, spoke about his striking religious works with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.
You spent 32 years doing commercial art. What led you to transition to religious art?
I love the Lord, and artists always want to paint what they love, but this was one of the things that I was aware of, but never able to solve early on: What should I paint? When I would take my work to a gallery, it was so varied that they often didn't know what to do with it. My Christianity was always important to me, but I never thought of myself as a religious painter. Most contemporary religious paintings that I had seen weren't very good.
My favorite painters were always religious narrative painters. The idea that you would tell a story in art was for a long time anathema in the fine-arts scene. Religion is also considered anathema to most people in the cultural scene, so I never considered doing such work. It seemed impossible.
So, in coming up with a subject, I started thinking about paintings that I could sell to churches. Unfortunately, all of the evangelical churches that I knew didn't buy art. Then, I reasoned, perhaps I could give the art away to churches. It finally occurred to me that Catholic churches buy art. I was educated by Catholics in high school, and I like to read the early Church Fathers [even though I am] an Episcopalian.
I had heard about Environment and the Arts magazine in the Archdiocese of Chicago and sent some photos of my Madonna and Child sculpture to the editor there. He put the photos in the magazine and I was contacted by a priest who was building a new Church in Rockwall, Texas. That made me realize that there were still churches that bought art.
Most of my commissions are from Catholic churches. People in the pews are tired of barren churches. While they may be reluctant to donate money for carpeting, they are willing to give financially for good artwork.
And what led you to sculpting?
I continue to paint and sculpt for galleries, in addition to churches, but I get bored easily and was looking for something new that I could do, when a friend in California encouraged me to sculpt. I would like to have a kind of secular witness and approach in some very small way like what C.S. Lewis did with literature — serve as a bridge over which the secular world can get at Christianity.
While your subjects tend to be holy men and women, your sculptures present accessible, real-life men and women. Why have you embraced this approach?
The Bible is about amazing things that happened to ordinary people. I want to be faithful to that. There are certainly heroic people in the Bible, but their heroism is seen against the backdrop that this is an ordinary person. So I want the figures that I sculpt to be like that. I like the intersection of ordinary things and sacred things.
In old paintings of the Gospels, there is a kind of quaintness that comes with age, which, while beautiful, gives us an excuse not to follow it in some ways. I sometimes like casting the Gospel in a contemporary [setting] so that someone can look at it and say, “Oh, this is something that happened to someone just like me.”
Often pieces that I do are about some portion of Scripture. I'll read that portion of the Bible and daydream about how that part relates to other parts. Reading the early Fathers has allowed me to see things in a much bigger sense than I ever have before, especially when it comes to Mary.
All of your religious sculptures have been created for Catholic churches. To what do you credit your appeal to Catholics?
Well, there aren't many artists working in this field. When you're a priest or committee looking for someone, you're eager to find the right person because you've been warned by the people sitting next to you in the pew not to get ugly art. Catholics have a strong theology of art in churches. They need it and want it. [Many other Christians] don't think they need it and so they don't want it.
How does your work inform your faith?
It's necessary to think about these things in order to paint them. I think it's that thinking that has given me a great love and appreciation for little things in the church that I hadn't thought of, like Mary — little things that have become big things.
Tell me about your recently unveiled sculpture for the Diocese of Greensburg, Pa.
Bishop Anthony Bosco had seen my artwork and asked me to submit an idea of Jesus the Good Shepherd. I went back to John and read where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. In that passage, he's talking about being the good shepherd because he lays his life down for his sheep. He is talking about his sacrifice, the crucifixion and resurrection.
Christ also says that, when the wolf comes, the hired man runs away. In this context, Christ's statement is prophetic in that the wolf could be said to represent the Roman empire, while the hired man represents his apostles who run away. So, in addition to including Jesus with his sheep, I felt it was necessary to include a wolf as well. Shepherds are only necessary because there are wolves.
In addition, I began thinking that this didn't happen in a vacuum. There were types of Christ the Good Shepherd early on. Abel, for example, was the first shepherd to offer a sacrifice to God. Moses took care of his father-in-law's sheep, and David was the ancestor of the Lord — the shepherd that became king. There are a lot of parallels between the lives of these men and Jesus, so I included them in the sculpture as well. They are watching the upcoming confrontation between Christ and the wolf and are upset.
Do you see signs that a new renaissance in religious art is taking place?
I hope that's true because it's been in the doldrums for so long. The thing about a renaissance is that you don't know if it's happening until it's already happened. I do see signs of hope. Artists’ organizations exist where there were none before.
One might wish that the current interest in spiritual things in the general culture is genuine. There is a kind of longing in the hearts of ordinary people for meaning in life. People are realizing that money, their jobs, and even their families will not give that to them. There has always been a longing in people's hearts for God and it is especially strong now that the culture has abandoned God.