National Catholic Register

Inperson

He’s On a Crusade For Beauty

BY Matthew Brooks

September 19-25, 1999 Issue | Posted 9/19/99 at 1:00 PM

 

In college, frustrated and discouraged, he abandoned his childhood passion for art altogether. He was brought back into the art world by classical sacred art, and launched a single-minded effort to promote his new love.

Now the professional painter and sculptor is academic director at the St. Michael Institute of Sacred Art and founder of Art for the Catholic Restoration. He recently spoke with Register Correspondent Karen Walker about culture, sacred art and a dawning Catholic renaissance.

Walker: What drew you to become an artist, and what later caused you to abandon it?

Brooks: By age 6, I was fascinated by the images of architectural and fine art masterpieces in the books that filled my parents' bookshelves. I'd spend hours just looking at them. My father was a talented landscape artist and draftsman, and he encouraged me in my instinctive fascination with color and composition. By high school, it was clear that I was going to be an artist.

But in college, I experienced misdirected courses that emphasized self-expression at the expense of those genuine objective principles that underlie every great masterpiece. That's when I got frustrated and discouraged. I left after a year and never wanted to do anything in art again. I tried to do other things, but nothing satisfied me.

Yet after holding different jobs you returned to sacred art. You even established a Web site outlining your vision of a future for classical sacred art. Explain this new direction.

I think God puts passion in those he's given his gifts to. A person can ignore God and go in a different direction, but he becomes restless. I was drawn back to communicate about God through beautiful art. But it wasn't easy. At first I felt like I was shouting to the walls.

How would you define sacred art?

Sacred art must include three elements. First, it must be able to communicate to the viewer, using “language” that everyone can readily understand. It can't be introspective or so intellectual that no one can understand its message.

Secondly, it must portray order, an imitation of God who is the Supreme Orderer, who called the material world into existence. When there's order, there's peace. But a lack of order, chaos, is depressing and doesn't bring peace.

Thirdly, sacred art must be a work of beauty; it must please the eye. If it is not pleasing to behold, then what would it communicate about God, beyond whom nothing can be more pleasing? Any ugliness or chaos in sacred art should be used only to bring the beauty and order of divine realities into sharp relief. Sacred art must evangelize.

How are you received in dioceses?

Fine. I'm not a theologian and not involved in doctrine. I do paintings and sculptures. I've received letters from bishops, archbishops and pastors saying encouraging words. But it's all grown exponentially by word-ofmouth. I've never had to advertise.

What do you think about modern art in churches?

I won't argue about modern art itself. It's a scene; a happening — something different. But it is not sacred art because it doesn't readily communicate something about heavenly realities. It's like giving stones for bread to Catholics who need a sustenance of beauty to counterbalance the chaos and ugliness of the world.

We need beautiful sacred images in our churches to also counterbalance the images put out 24 hours a day by Madison Avenue and Hollywood. Because of the chaos and disorder of much of modern art, it does not lead people to God. Rather, it tends to ignore God, to go off in a different direction and evoke a sense of restlessness.

But there's another aspect. God deserves our very best. If his house is allowed to remain unadorned, sterile and nondescript, then how does this show respect for a God who loves us so much that he imprisons himself in a circle of bread and waits for us without complaint in the holy Eucharist?

He waits patiently and with tremendous love while we put his tabernacle off to the side and cover it with plants. We have stripped our churches and left them bare without a single thing to remind us of this loving, merciful God. It isn't fitting. The human soul demands truth and beauty; it's the antidote to the chaos of the world.

Are you seeing a revival of interest in sacred art these days?

Absolutely. There are lots of signs of this. Several years ago, I still felt like I was talking to the wind. My first work for a parish was done for free — for a poorer parish whose pastor wanted to use beautiful art to help inspire devotion in his flock.

But the interest is definitely starting to grow. I see it around me, in the increasing number of requests and commissions I receive, in the increasing number of lay people, priests and religious who are building things for the glory and honor of God and I hear similar things from other sacred artists who are scattered around the country.

Even my Web site which just went up last January and is a detailed exposé of what sacred art should be, has already received more than 25,000 hits and, to my surprise, is linked up to a wide variety of other groups — from Georgetown University to Latin Mass groups. It's a sign to me that the breech isn't irreparable. I think we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg of a renewed interest in sacred art.

As academic director of the St. Michael Institute of Sacred Art, please explain the significance of this year-old institution located on Enders Island in Mystic, Conn.

The institute is a ministry of St. Edmund's Retreat, also centered on Enders Island. Our common mission is to respond to Pope John Paul II's call to foster evangelization in the world — through personal holiness, sacred art and all forms of communication.

The institute emphasizes evangelization through beautiful sacred art, and offers weeklong master classes in iconography, sculpture, painting, illumination, stained glass and frescoes. We opened our doors in January, and the enthusiasm and response has been phenomenal, with students attending from throughout the country.

How many priests are out there struggling prayerfully to lead their flock to heaven, but they are looking for help? Sacred art can be one of those helps. St. Michael's is a tremendous resource for those who want to know more about sacred art. Already this year, we've referred out $150,000 worth of commissioned art — the result of inquiry calls from pastors, institutions and lay people.

The institute also held its first conference on “Sacred Art and Culture in the Third Millennium,” featuring keynote speaker [Franciscan Friar of the Renewal] Father Benedict Groeschel; Deal Hudson, editor and publisher of Crisis magazine; and Steve Schloeder, architect and author of a powerful book on sacred art and architecture. Sacred artists can spend a long time thinking they're the only ones out there, but they're not.

This was one of the most exciting weekends that I've ever been a part of. People were networking and talking about things like starting guilds and disseminating information and education. We're now working on a sacred art component to the Catholic Marketing Network trade show in January. This is just the beginning.

In addition to your work with the institute, you started an apprenticeship program this summer. Why do you think it's best to learn art by this means?

I think God puts passion in those to whom he has given his gift of artistic skill. Prior to the French Revolution, artists learned by apprenticing under a master until they had acquired enough skill to go off on their own. They did everything he did. They ground clay, mixed mediums of egg tempera or oil to pigment, prepared marble for sculpting, filled in bits and pieces of the master's work. It weeded out those who were less than serious.

But after the revolution came schools which were geared to teaching large numbers of students at one time. They were rigid and rigorous, training students to copy with stiff realism and exactness. God, or any intent to serve him with one's gifts, wasn't part of the process at all. The result was highly skilled draftsmen who lacked genuine creativity.

Years later, when the camera was introduced, it made this kind of artist obsolete. It was as though the sacred artist had lost the soul and purpose of his work, for from this point forward, novelty became the driving force of art.

Modern art can be entertaining, amusing and interesting, but it isn't sacred art. What good are unintelligible markings on a canvas to teach God's children about him? It's left the common people behind.

My wife and I live on 11 acres of land. We took in 12 high school students for six weeks this summer in an apprenticeship program. They got a real taste of what a working studio was like, including working on actual projects for churches. It was a tremendous experience, and I expect the program will germinate and develop over the years. There was no shortage of people who wanted to attend!

Does your prayer life affect your work in any way?

Absolutely! It gives me far more graces that I deserve. My work and prayer are intertwined. I spend the whole day in contemplative labor, working with images of our Lady, the saints and our Lord. I cloister myself up when working, which can be almost monastic in its flavor.

What I'm trying to do now is to give something back to God, who has been so generous to me. I'm never too busy to talk with someone who's interested in art. I feel it's my responsibility; to repay for his gifts and to do all I can to bring back beauty to his house. At the end of the day, the only thing that calms the restless soul of the artist is using God's gifts to serve him — it brings peaceful contemplation and undoes all the knots the world ties you in.