National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Artists Showcase Catholicism’s Beauty in Their Craft

Paintings and Sculptures Inspired by Saints and Blessed Mother

BY Jim Graves

November 20-December 3, 2011 Issue | Posted 11/14/11 at 5:37 PM


Pope Benedict XVI told artists who contributed to a recent exhibit for the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood that the world needed beauty, which is “capable of awakening admiration, wonder and true joy in men’s hearts.”

That tradition is very much alive today.

Lisa Andrews ( of San Mateo, Calif., created a life-sized painting of Blessed John Paul II as a university student for the John Paul II Library of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. Initially, she was hired to paint St. Francis, but she suggested to the university board that they instead have her paint a young Karol Wojtyla going to college. They agreed.

She researched her subject for six months, including looking at every old photo of the former Pope she could find; she even hired a Polish model to pose for the painting. The end product was a 6-foot-by-4 ½-foot painting that was officially unveiled on the day of John Paul’s funeral in 2005. She has received numerous compliments on her work, especially from one particular group: “It’s had an amazing impact on young men discerning the priesthood. I think of it as my own little contribution to encourage religious vocations.”

John Paul and the Blessed Mother were featured in another of her recent paintings, Totus Tuus, for the Church of the Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Hopedale, Ohio. Another recent work, The Assumption, can be found in the Father of Mercy Chapel in the motherhouse of the Franciscan sisters in Toronto, Ohio. She is currently working on a piece featuring the biblical story of the Prodigal Son.

Andrews grew up in the Los Angeles area and earned a master’s degree in finance from UCLA. She moved to the San Francisco area to pursue a corporate career, but chose to be a stay-at-home mom and artist 26 years ago when her son was born. For much of her art career, she painted secular still life and portraits, but, over the last decade, her interests have turned to creating religious art. She explained, “I thought I was ready for it. It’s a great responsibility and can be a bit scary because you’re impacting how people view the faith.”

“I believe I’ve been called to create religious art,” she said. “It’s the most important work that I do. And doing it gives me great joy.”

Reed Armstrong ( of Front Royal, Va., was making figures out of clay in the first grade when his teacher told him he would one day be a sculptor. After studying art in the U.S., he moved to Spain in 1964 and spent 20 years creating religious sculptures for churches. Many Spanish churches were destroyed in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and were in the process of being rebuilt when he arrived.

From the beginning, his Catholic faith has motivated his work: “I’m a Catholic before I’m a sculptor. For many artists, it’s the other way around. My art has always been motivated by my faith.”

Armstrong creates his images in clay, which are cast in bronze. In preparation for sculpting saints (such as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta), he begins by reading their writings in order to immerse himself in the saints’ lives and thoughts. He said, “I want to get to know their spirituality, intensity and inner life.”

Having lived in Spain, he has a particular fondness for portraying the Spanish mystics, such as St. Teresa of Avila.

Armstrong returned to the U.S. in the 1980s and continues to sculpt for churches. Additionally, he teaches about religious art. He has lectured at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and Ave Maria University in Florida. He has also taught art history at Christendom College in Front Royal. In addition, he teaches at secular venues, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. He has also been featured in the Catholic media, recently being interviewed, for example, by Father Benedict Groeschel for his EWTN program.

When he lectures, the artist stresses the important role good religious art has in helping the viewer understand profound truths: “Good, pious art speaks to our imagination, which stimulates our reason and intellect. It is a Summa Theologiae in stone and glass.”

Armstrong is pleased to see a “tremendous return to beauty” in recent years: “Art is an expression of the soul that requires a God-given talent to produce. Faith and talent together can produce some great art.”

Jean Ryan of San Diego was selling shoes in 2002. Then she saw an image of the Blessed Mother and believed she heard Mary give her a clear command: “Put me out there.”

After months of research, she launched Madonna Arts ( She said, “For the first time in my career, I had a sense of purpose and peace. It is my mission to help people connect to Mary, who, in turn, will bring them to her Son.”

The images for sale are embellishments of works by the Italian masters, both Renaissance and pre-Renaissance. She takes public-domain work, and then goes through a 22-step process of embellishing it. Steps include, for example, adding a gold background and incorporating images of the Rosary. The end product is a paper image on a custom wood panel. In her nine years of selling Madonna images, she has seen many examples of how they inspire devotion and change lives. One young woman, for example, bought an image of Our Lady of Good Remedy for her parents. Her normally stoic father was reduced to tears when he saw the painting, sharing how he remembered praying before this particular image of Mary when he was a boy in Mexico.

Her future plans include establishing a Marian center in the San Diego area so she can help even more people come to know and love their heavenly Mother.

But, for now, she’s content bringing Mary to the public one image at a time. As she said, “I love Mary, and she loves me. I want to help others come to love her, too.”

Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.