National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Renaissance on the River

In the Twin Cities, a Sacred Art Boomlet

BY BARB ERNSTER

June 17-23, 2007 Issue | Posted 6/12/07 at 9:00 AM

 

Mark Sanislo has been a professional portrait painter for more than 25 years, capturing the likenesses of CEOs, professional ballplayers and family members in oils and pastels. His most rewarding work, however, is painting sacred art.

Sanislo is one of a number of artists around the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul who are feeling called to evangelize through their work. Some say they were inspired by Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists, which called for “a more constructive partnership between art and the Church” and invited artists “to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age.”

“If it were up to me, I’d be working exclusively for the Church, but I have the reality of making a living doing that,” says Sanislo, a Catholic father of six from Coon Rapids, Minn. 

Sanislo has a gallery downtown Minneapolis and a website where his portraits of Pope John Paul II, Blessed Mother Teresa, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Padre Pio are proudly displayed alongside his secular works. (Go to marksanislo.com.) But it’s a challenge to market Catholic art and culture to the larger world.

“We’re all trying to make inroads into the culture, but we’re all cutting our own path,” he says, noting the recent developments in Catholic radio and television, movies, writers and authors. He cites the successes of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and calligrapher Donald Jackson’s illuminated St. John’s Bible as “indicators that we can operate out in the secular world and be a moving force. But if you don’t have a name and can’t afford to underwrite a large project, where do you go?”

Sanislo hopes to do a project with the 20 mysteries of the Rosary that could possibly be an exhibit for an art tour. He is also exploring the idea of developing an annual Catholic arts and culture conference. In the meantime, he continues to do commissioned paintings for individuals as well as churches — where, he says, there is great potential.

“The days of fine sculptures and masterpiece paintings ornamenting Catholic churches have gone by the wayside in recent decades, but I believe there is a new opportunity to swing the pendulum the other way,” he says.

Gratitude and Purpose

Oil painter Eric Menzhuber feels fortunate to be doing more sacred subjects lately. The 31-year-old Twin Cities artist has been commissioned for paintings by the St. Paul Seminary, the Cathedral of St. Paul, Franciscan Brothers of Peace, Sharing and Caring Hands and several churches. Menzhuber agrees that there is a developing market for sacred art in churches.

“I’m being commissioned for more pieces for a chapel renovation or a church building; it’s become a priority for traditional style sacred art,” he says. “There was a time 30 years ago when church statues and decorations were removed and the churches built after that were very plain. I think that’s changing now.”

Menzhuber (who’s online at ericmenzhuber.com) hopes his work will eventually inspire a national audience. For an artist to make a living, he says, there has to be secondary markets and wide distribution through print reproductions.

“The biggest honor for me would be to have an original piece that can be appreciated by a large number of people. Prints in homes would be a nice secondary effort,” he says. “The funny thing is, 80% of my day in the studio doing these sacred subjects feels very ordinary, like a job, but there’s a sense of gratitude and purpose. There’s always hope and belief that God is helping me do these and they will contribute toward some greater good.”

Christopher Santer has utilized the Internet and personal contact with galleries to market his work over the years, but selling is not his strong suit. He worked as a professional artist exclusively for four years, but now teaches full time at a private Catholic academy. Since 1993, he has done multiple projects for Catholic hospitals, churches and schools. Several pieces became popular enough that he started an online store where he can sell prints to a wider audience (pacemstudio.com).

“I think it is very difficult to make new works out of what might be deemed traditional sacred art. The ancient practices and commitment have mostly been lost, especially in the last century,” says Santer. “Don’t get me wrong — many great artworks and movements have come along in that time. [But,] with the Internet, all attempts at sacred art are out there for all to see — the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Minnesota’s Michelangelos

Bob Balk, owner of St. George Books in Blaine, Minn., says there is always a demand for something new and fresh, but art is subjective. A lot of stores will carry five or six different Last Supper pictures and only one will be the right fit.

“I normally tell artists do what you do best and let someone else do the marketing,” he says. “I don’t know if Michelangelo was a rich man, but he was consumed by what he was doing.”

Ann Tristani of Maplewood, Minn. (anntristani.com), is reaching a wider market in 40 stores around the Midwest with a line of note cards depicting her original oil paintings. Not all of her paintings have a sacred theme. In fact, her note cards are mainly landscapes and florals, and store owners have told her they would sell more if she removed the Bible verses. But Tristani says they’re more than just pretty pictures.

“I have found that people who are touched by my work are profoundly touched by it. Those are the people I’m communicating with,” she says. “There’s enough out there for the rest of the world.”

One image of a grieving angel, called “Blessed Are Those Who Mourn,” has been used by the pro-life group Silent No More of Minnesota because it speaks to women who have had abortions.

It’s an example, says Tristani, of Pope John Paul II’s vision for artists.

“I totally heard his call to respond to a New Evangelization and I thought: That’s exactly what we as Catholics need to do with our gifts that God gave us,” she says. “There’s a longing for God in this dark world.”

Barb Ernster writes from

Fridley, Minnesota.