‘It Is a True Vocation’: 5 Catholic Artists Share Their Stories
Creative talent with a faith focus is seeing a popularity boom.
If you’re a Catholic on Instagram, or who shops on Etsy, you have likely noticed an increasing number of small Catholic artisans with faith-based wares on offer, from paintings of a wide variety of saints, to stickers, holy cards, coffee mugs, saint dolls, and more.
What motivates these artists to marry their creative talents with their lives of faith? We spoke to five of them to find out.
Ann Vaeth: Paper Monastery
Annie Vaeth has always considered herself an artist, in large part thanks to the influence of her father and grandmother.
“My dad was into painting, and he’s very artistic; he has a lot of different creative pursuits,” Vaeth told the Register. “And my grandmother was very into the arts; she would always encourage us with supplies or ballet lessons.”
While her sisters took ballet lessons and found their creative outlet in dance, Vaeth said she was more interested in drawing and painting.
“It was much easier for me to express myself on paper,” she said.
But Vaeth wasn’t always Catholic, and so neither was her art. Vaeth said she converted to Catholicism after meeting her husband, whom she met on a train heading to Rome.
“He asked me: ‘Oh, you're going to Rome. Are you Catholic?’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s a weird question to ask.’”
Despite the strange introduction, the two hit it off, and Vaeth said that she asked her now-husband every question she could think of related to Catholicism — and she liked the answers.
Still, Vaeth said, it took about 10 years before she was able to express her faith through her art.
During college, Vaeth had been encouraged to think of her artistic identity as separate from her identity as a wife, a mother or a Christian. She thought she had to choose between being an artist and being a mother, and so she put her art on pause for a bit while she had children. It took time for her to realize that those identities could actually be her greatest sources of artistic inspiration.
“The process of living through … [the] monotony, the rhythm and repetition of motherhood, and learning how to be Catholic with these daily rituals ... it really filled my artistic soul and gave me a bank of interest inspiration to pull from,” she said.
And Vaeth realized that her art could enrich her faith as well. When she started to paint images of Mary, she realized how connected she felt to her as a mother for the first time. As she started painting the saints, their stories came alive for Vaeth and her family.
“The more I painted Mary, the closer I got to her,” Vaeth said.
“It’s beautiful to me that God has chosen to bring me into the Catholic Church, because the depth of my faith … I don’t know how I would have accessed it without painting Mary, without painting the saints, without painting Jesus in the Eucharist.”
For her paintings, Vaeth uses a unique form of printmaking that involves layering paint onto a gel plate. Vaeth then presses the paper down on the plate, and when she peels it off, the image is on the paper. She chose the method, she said, because it was a quicker way to get a finished product — something she needed as a busy mom.
One of the signature marks of Vaeth’s images is the way in which they incorporate movement: St. Martin de Porres hops with his broom, St. Rafael Arnaiz playfully wields his paring knife at some turnips, St. Rita of Cascia’s arms fly forth from her body and her dress billows as a beam of light shines from the stigmata she bore in her forehead.
This style, Vaeth said, was inspired by years of attending her sisters’ ballets and sketching the dancers.
“I would sit through their classes and sketch the whole class,” she said. “And so movement is something that still inspires me. I love dance, I love the physical expression of how graceful God has created our bodies to be, and … [there is a] rush of emotion that is expressed through the joy of dance.”
Vaeth’s store features saint prints, holy cards, medals, stickers and more. Her work can be found on Etsy and Instagram.
Chris Lewis: Baritus Catholic
From a young age, Chris Lewis had artistic inclinations. Art came naturally to him, and as he went through high school, he even considered doing it as a career.
But this was in the ’90s — before Facebook, Instagram, Etsy and other online social platforms existed.
“There was no real internet presence or social media,” Lewis told the Register. “So I kind of didn’t know where to take my skill, so I put art aside for a little while.”
In the meantime, Lewis met his wife, a Catholic whose family (also all Catholic) was from Lebanon.
“I knew nothing about Catholicism, so I learned it really through their family,” Lewis said.
As someone who had rejected the fundamentalist Christian faith of his youth, Lewis said he found that the Catholic Church was more intellectually fulfilling and answered the questions he had been left with in his younger years.
“When I found Catholicism, it started to connect all the dots for me,” he said. “But it took a long time of digging into the history and understanding it. And then I had an intellectual conversion to Catholicism, which eventually led me to a deep spiritual conversion.”
Around the time that he met his wife, Lewis also felt pulled to go back to doing art. Although he had been doing some freelance illustration on the side, he found that in order to have a job in art, most positions required an education. So Lewis got a two-year graphic design degree, and he started working in corporate graphic design.
“Although I consider myself an illustrator, I went into graphic design because it was a lot more stable, in my mind, in those days. I could go work corporately and know I’d have a salary and benefits and that sort of thing,” Lewis said. “So I did corporate graphic design for 17 years.”
After Lewis’ conversion to Catholicism, he said he found himself doodling Catholic illustrations during his free time at work.
“Art sort of followed as a part of that [conversion] because it had always been what I would gravitate to, but now I actually had something meaningful to express through my art,” he said.
Before his conversion, Lewis said he was drawn to the work of 19th-century illustrators like Arthur Rackham or Gustave Dore, as well as engravers and woodcut illustrators, and their work continues to influence his style today. After he became Catholic, he was also inspired by the deep bench of Catholic art that he hadn’t been exposed to previously. In particular, he loved the statues of the Church and took pictures of some of Catholicism’s most famous statues during a trip to Rome.
With social media, and particularly Instagram, Lewis said he felt that he had a place where he could market his Catholic illustrations. He recently decided to leave corporate design and start his own Catholic illustration and design company, Baritus Catholic. He was surprised at how quickly it grew.
“I thought maybe 10 people would follow me and that would encourage me to just keep drawing,” he said. “And before I knew it, I had thousands of people following me on Instagram, and it was pretty unbelievable.”
Lewis said he has received commissions from people who are looking for an artist with “one foot in the Catholic world and one in the design world.”
In his shop, Lewis sells prayer cards, magnets, stickers, phone cases, prints and more, all with images of saints, or the Sacred Heart, the Eucharist, or other Catholic imagery.
His most popular piece by far? His image of St. Joseph, Terror of Demons.
“The funny thing is when I first did that [image], I wasn’t sure how people were going to receive it, because it’s a little bit darker,” he said. “In America, Catholicism is sort of pristine. But you go to Europe, and you see a really gritty Catholicism: I mean you go into some of these old churches, and you just see some, some, some pretty shocking things — like St. Catherine of Siena’s head in a case.”
Lewis said he wanted the demon in the image to be fearful, but that he wanted the power of St. Joseph and the Child Jesus to be all the more evident.
It has been his most popular piece, “without a doubt,” he said.
Lewis said he would encourage any Catholics with artistic talents to create art, even if it is just for the enjoyment of themselves and their friends and family.
“Sometimes the fruit of doing Catholic art is something that we don’t even see,” he said. “Maybe it encourages people. It motivates them in a way that speaks to them and teaches them. It helps them connect to the true, the good and the beautiful. And we might not ever hear about those things, but if you’re a Catholic artist making art, I know that it’s doing something out there in the world. And we need more of this. We need more beauty. So I would encourage any kind of artist to do it.”
Lewis’ work can be found on his website, Baritus Catholic, on Etsy, and on Instagram.
Erin Marek: Marekmade
Erin Marek was raised Catholic, and she never wanted to be anything other than an artist.
When she went to art school in Boston, Marek said she was nominally Catholic. She went to church sometimes. She had some Catholic friends. Her faith was something that she “would get around to if I had the time. It’s not something I was super excited about.”
But it was her art that drew her back into the faith. Marek, whose family has a strong Irish background, said she became intrigued by incorporating some of the characters of old Irish legends into her work.
At one point, she created an Irish character that she unwittingly turned into a saint. “I made a halo behind it and just started to incorporate the things I’d grown up seeing,” she said.
She was inspired to do more research about saints for her art. She went in with the assumption that saints came from “back in the day” — and she was surprised when her research turned up stories of contemporary saints.
“I realized that even today there are people who are alive, doing saintly work,” she said, and she became inspired to bring stories of the saints — especially some lesser-known ones — to life in her work.
As for her popular saint dolls, Marek made her first one a few years ago, when her youngest sister was making her first Holy Communion.
“I wanted to make her a patron saint that she could hold,” she said. “And her name is Monica, so I was looking online for St. Monica dolls.”
Her search didn’t turn up much.
“But as I’m Googling, I thought, ‘Wait a minute: I can make this.’” Marek had sewn for years, usually making small odds and ends for the house, and so she whipped up a St. Monica doll for her sister.
“My mom loved it so much, she showed it around her parish,” Marek said. “And then, kind of just by word of mouth from my mom, I got some orders.”
Word caught on about the dolls at her own parish, “and it just kind of snowballed from there,” she added.
Marek said she loves creating the saint dolls because she wishes such things had existed during her childhood.
“When I was younger I don’t remember having that many saint items specifically geared towards kids,” she said. “And I think I need to be a part of [providing] ... something that kids can hold in their hands. It’s tangible, versus just a photo on the wall. I think, for kids, being able to feel something in their hands is really important.”
Over the years, Marek said that she found her faith has transformed her art.
“When I was younger, creating art — I always created it for myself — I wanted to express ... what was going on inside of me,” she said.
“And when I got more into my faith, I started to realize that this talent that I’ve been given is such a gift, that it’s really selfish to want myself to be seen. I think that is the gift of being able to create something beautiful and to give that gift to the world: It is a true vocation.”
Marek’s shop includes saint dolls, prints and stickers. Her work can be found on her website, her online sketchbook and her Instagram.
Rakhi McCormick: RakStar Designs
When Rakhi McCormick finished a watercolor project for her high-school art class, her teacher told her that she didn’t have the knack for art and that she should stop taking art classes.
The conversation stuck with McCormick for years.
Even though she has always thought of herself as a creative person, “I still kind of recoil at the word ‘artist’ because I for many years was under the impression that I couldn’t do art,” she said.
She went on to get degrees in political science and educational administration. In the meantime, during her junior year of college, she converted from Hinduism, the faith of her childhood, to Catholicism, and ever since, she said, she has had a heart for ministry.
She dabbled in photography, following in her dad’s footsteps, but she had largely set art aside, thinking that it wasn’t for her.
It wasn’t until seven years ago, when a college friend led an online calligraphy class, that her artistic passion was reignited. She realized that her art gave her a channel through which to express both her creativity and her faith.
Though she had been involved with campus and young-adult ministry for years, being married and having children limited her availability for that kind of ministry.
“[Art] took my ministry into a very different format,” McCormick said. “It gave me an ability to minister through creativity, which has been really fulfilling.”
McCormick, who largely draws and paints her art on the Procreate app, said that honing her skills as an artist has helped her reimagine what the word “artist” means.
She said she has come to realize that art exists outside of “this narrow box of European fine art.”
“I think that we’re seeing a revival of art that represents the fullness of the Catholic experience,” she said.
“I think that there’s a great desire for communities to feel represented within our parishes, within the walls of our home, to be more authentic about who our saints were, to be sure that they are being appropriately represented. And I think that what we’re seeing is a diversification of art, the decentralization of who is being represented, so I think you’re seeing a lot of non-European art.”
McCormick, who is a first-generation Indian American, has incorporated a lot of Indian art and influences into her creations. For example, one of her saint images is Our Lady of the Mangoes, a fruit that, in Indian culture, is a sacred food, representing divinity.
“It's so interesting to see the path that I’ve been on, from just drawing and getting back into it, doing it for fun, to being more intentional about it and being Spirit-led; and then now, as I’m improving on the technical end, I’m trying to really go in and look at some of the cultural influences and have a better voice to create something distinctively mine,” she said.
McCormick urged other aspiring Catholic artists to focus on creating art that is authentically their own, instead of trying to focus on what is trendy or popular on social media.
“It’s really important to figure out what your voice is, and especially as Catholic artists, to be sure that we’re being led by the Holy Spirit,” she said, “... and that you’re weaving your own work into what God is asking you to do with it.”
She also encouraged Catholics, whether they consider themselves artists or not, to read St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” to more deeply understand how the Holy Spirit is calling everyone to create something in their lives.
“We are all artists, because God is an artist,” she said. “And he calls us all to create in some way.”
In kindergarten, when Leanne Bowen’s teacher asked the class to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up, Bowen drew herself as an artist. She couldn’t understand why her classmates were choosing other professions, because she loved art so much.
“I was like, ‘What are you doing?’” she told the Register.
As Bowen was nearing the end of her college years at the University of Kansas, where she had studied drawing, painting and art history, she went to the Catholic chapel at the Newman Center to pray about her future.
She had thought about a lot of different career paths she could take, Bowen told the Register. She considered teaching, or going to graduate school, or maybe working for a design firm.
But in her prayer, she told God that she wanted to do whatever he wanted her to do, as long as he made it very clear. As she walked out of the chapel, she was approached by a missionary with Fellowship of Catholic University Students.
“He said, ‘Leanne, I need you to apply for FOCUS,’” she said. The directness jumped out at Leanne — the missionary hadn’t asked if she had considered FOCUS or implied that she would enjoy it. He said she needed to apply.
“It was just exactly what I prayed for,” Bowen said. After a “transformative” experience at her FOCUS interview weekend, Bowen was hired and worked as a campus missionary for three years. Afterwards, she got another job in campus ministry.
During this time, Bowen said, she would take artistic commissions here and there, though she always felt the pull to do more with her art. Then she attended a conference for work, where she listened to a talk about helping students discern their futures.
“One of the talks was on a Mary Oliver quote: ‘Tell me what you would do with your one wild and precious life.’ Instantly, I was like, ‘Oh, I’d be painting,’” Bowen recalled.
It wasn’t that she disliked campus ministry. “But if I was actually fully alive, 100% me, who the Lord was calling me to be: I’d be a painter,” she said. “I felt very strongly the Lord giving me permission to paint again, to create again.”
A few weeks later, Bowen launched a website where she could sell prints and take commissions. It was clear that the move was “anointed by the Holy Spirit,” she said, and the work took off. Three years ago, it became her full-time work.
Much of what Bowen paints or draws are images of the saints or images that come to her in prayer.
“I don’t know if I ever thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to go be a Catholic artist.’ The Lord gave me the freedom to be an artist, and my faith was just something that I loved, so that’s what came out,” she said.
One of her more recent images is of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a young girl, smelling a rose on a rose bush. The image was partially inspired by an image of a girl in a garden by illustrator Jessie Wilcox Smith, as well as Bowen’s own prayer about what the life of Mary was like.
“I was just picturing Mary as an adult, and thinking about how much she endured and embraced with freedom, and how that must have come from years of freedom, her whole life,” Bowen said. “And so I pictured her intuitively knowing that there would be thorns that would pierce her and her life, but her willingness to embrace the beauty instead.”
One of Bowen’s most popular pieces is a watercolor image called Sacrifice of Love, which depicts a couple on their wedding day, holding hands with each other, and then each placing their outer hands on Jesus’ hands on the crucifix.
“It’s a depiction of what goes into the sacrifice that is marriage,” Bowen. “I think [it has been popular] because it’s a depiction of the deeper reality of what marriage is, so people that are married really resonate with it.”
Bowen currently lives in a town of about 130 people in California with her husband and toddler daughter. Running an art business with a toddler underfoot can be difficult, Bowen said, and so she leans heavily on the Holy Spirit when she starts feeling overwhelmed.
As an example, Bowen said that she hit a very busy point last fall and needed to find some help. But in her small town, where most of the workforce is ranching or operating the few establishments in town, Bowen knew it would be difficult to find.
But she prayed, and the Lord provided. The next day, someone contacted Bowen, saying that they knew a young woman named Michelle who was looking for an art internship. Michelle moved out to the Bowen’s ranch and worked as Leanne’s intern for about six months.
“[God] has always provided so intricately,” Bowen said.
Lately, that trust in the Lord has looked like Bowen designing labels for a candle business. While it isn’t the kind of art she imagined she’d be doing when she first started, Bowen said it still fits what she feels is her vocation.
“My vocation is to make beautiful art, and to make [God] known in whatever ways he desires,” she said.
In particular, she said, she has a strong desire to “put Christ’s beauty in the hands of young people” who typically can’t afford pricey, lofty art.
“I deeply desire for young people to have good, fully beautiful things in their presence, in their hands, in their Bibles,” she said. “I don’t care if people tape my artwork to the wall ... a lot of the college students that buy from me, they don’t frame my stuff.”
“My art gets tucked into spaces of prayer and ... that is such a beautiful calling.”
Bowen’s work can be found on her website, Instagram and on Etsy.
- Annie Vaeth
- Erin Marek
- Rakhi McCormick
- Chris Lewis
- Leanne Bowen
- catholic artists