Intimidated Yet Inspired

Catholic painter Timothy Norman recently completed his first sacred-art commission, a portrait of the Holy Family. He spoke with Register correspondent Dana Lorelle from his home in Dallas about the intersection of faith and art — and how losing a 6-month-old child affected both.

Did you always want to be an artist?

No, I didn't. When I was growing up I was enchanted with Jacques Cousteau, and I thought I would follow in his fins. I actually had enrolled at Texas A&M in its marine biology program, but I never ended up going to the university.

So how did you make the leap from marine biology to art?

When I was in high school, I was watching a television program with my dad about Michelangelo. At the time, I was more concerned with myself than with Christ. I was watching this show and I thought, man, this guy lived 500 years ago. Look at the fame he has — people are still talking about him. So I thought, “I think I'll do what he did.” You can see how God uses the vanity and the vices in which we are enmeshed to guide us to his purpose.

How did you fulfill that goal?

I took college classes and I was introduced to the human figure. I had a teacher who really instilled in me a love of the dynamics of the human figure. After that I ended up taking some portrait classes where I would paint from life. That further pushed me into the subject matter of the human person. Again, you can see the unseen hand pushing one toward flight. From that point I did a few commissions a year.

How do you approach commissioned portraits?

It's quite a simple task. You have been commissioned to paint someone's beloved. You have an image of the Creator right there before you. This person is individual, unique. How can I paint them showing the beauty God has put within that soul? That's always the key.

Tell me about the commission of the Holy Family.

It was commissioned by a very good friend. I thought of it at one point as the making of one scene of a movie. For a realist like myself, that means being accurate to the time period of Our Lord when he walked upon the earth. You have to find the costumes, the props, the characters.

This commission took three years because I had to get all of those elements in place. Everything I said about a portrait — apply that to the Holy Family. You can see the mountain before the artist; he is to depict in truth and in beauty the three most beautiful souls that have walked upon the face of the earth.

Was that intimidating?

It was intimidating, but you know you're praying to those same people and asking them for help in painting their portraits. It's a beautiful thing. So it's intimidating, and yet you have the advocates there, you have the grace there for the asking. Intimidating yes, but doable, yes.

You also do noncommissioned paintings, many of scenes in Europe. How do you find beauty in everyday situations?

As an artist, when you see anyone, you see the Creator. You see an image of the Creator, and that could provide you with enough inspiration to paint for the rest of your life.

How do you approach the human subjects of your paintings, such as the Portuguese fishermen in “After the Catch”?

Well, I've got a fisherman before me. Think about what he is doing. A little bit of reflection can lead the thoughts to very fundamental truths of human existence. He is a fisherman; he is working. Why is he working? That is our lot. That is what we do. It is a blessing. That is what we do as humans; we are commanded to “keep the garden.” We are commanded to work. And since the fall, we are commanded to work by the sweat of our brow.

There are two aspects to work: the blessing and, sometimes, the curse of unfruitfulness. So what is the fisherman working at? He is catching fish. Why? Because he needs to eat — another fundamental truth of human existence. We require continual nourishment physically but also spiritually. So before us we have a worker and we see he's getting food and, furthermore, he's fishing. Well, what were some of the apostles? They were fishermen. And Christ himself was a “fisher of men.” So the symbolism in fishing — how could it be richer?

How have your experiences as a husband and father affected your art?

Well, earlier I talked about the beauty of the gift of humanity Our Creator has bestowed upon us and you see the very direct link it has with the [1968] encyclical Humanae Vitae [On the Regulation of Birth]. When I first read it, I was so overwhelmed by the beauty therein that I thought to myself, “This really is what I'm about as an artist. It is this beauty of all human life.”

It is such a blessing to find a woman to whom I can give myself completely — that is what the artist does when he approaches his medium, his canvas. If he wishes to make a meaningful work of art, a true work of art, he gives himself unreservedly to that piece.

As the Holy Father says in his “Letter to Artists,” your whole life is a work of art that you give back to God. After him having given you the raw materials, you give yourself back to God as a work of art.

Tell me about your daughters.

I have five daughters, ages 9, 7, 4, 3 and then Sophia Caeli, who, if she were with us here on Earth, would be 1 and a half.

How did her passing affect you?

There are two ways it affected me. The first was that I wondered if I was going to be able to paint again. I just didn't know.

She took her trip during Holy Week of last year. Her funeral was on Holy Thursday. That Easter my brother asked me how this would affect my artwork. And I looked at him and I said, “It may destroy it.”

I'd already faced that personally in a very real way about a half hour after she died. There was a temptation; I could hear the enemy saying, “What's the use of living? You don't have before you anymore this beautiful gift of heaven.” But I knew exactly by the grace of God that it was the enemy and it was something utterly wrong.

This pain that I feel — I can offer it up to Our Lord. This is something he has allowed to happen, something that, in the grand scheme of things, is very right and good because he ordained it. He will allow us to bear a cross and if we bear it well, that is a gift we may give back to Our Lord.

How did it ultimately affect your art?

When I faced that canvas about eight days later, I took up the brush and started with my first stroke. I didn't feel any shackles and I just kept going. Within about a minute and a half I didn't think there would be any problem with it. And it never has affected my painting in a negative sense.

From another standpoint, this makes you think of eternity. We were talking at the table and Francesca, our 4-year-old, said, “Daddy, don't worry. We'll be there before you know it.”

You have the pain that is natural and yet our faith supplies us with the opportunity for joy, for making that which would normally just be senseless suffering into something good.

Dana Lorelle writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.