Onward, Catholic Soldier-Artist

Artist Daniel Balan went from interrogating Taliban members for the U.S. Army to designing and creating visual expressions of God’s beauty for Catholic churches. Interview by Anthony Flott.

Fine Arts

Getting to the truth hasn’t always been easy for Daniel Balan. He pursued it as an interrogator with the U.S. Army, pressing Taliban and Afghanistan prisoners for information during the war after Sept. 11.

Getting to the truth of the Catholic faith has been an even longer quest. Fortunately, Balan made it home safely — to U.S. and Church soil.

Since then, Balan has gone from the Army to the arts. In late September he completed a year-long chapel renovation at his parish, St. Paul the Apostle in Highland Park, N.J., creating a crucifix, altar, ambo and mosaic wall piece, among other works. A University of Dallas and Rutgers graduate, Balan spoke from the chapel with Register correspondent Anthony Flott.

“As an artist in college, and especially here in graduate school this close to New York City,” he said, “it’s just pretty much taken for granted that, if you want to be an artist, you can’t have a family. Or that’s something you do after you’ve made it.”

Why is that?

I think it’s the idea of a family as a sacrifice, and if each individual is putting himself and his career first, there’s this misunderstanding that family will only interfere with that rather than support it. You find it more often in the arts … in New York City, just because the competition is more fierce.

What role does your family play in your work?

They’re essential. Everything I do is a collaboration with my wife. I think that, without the daily connection to a community and one that is supportive of you — and for me that’s my family — you would just get lost. I think you need that connection to real life to bring you back down to the ground, bring you back down to realize that what you’re doing is for people. It’s not some esoteric exercise. It’s connected to real events and real people and real communities.

You had some very intense experiences in the Army. What stands out in your mind?

Looking back at it and trying to make sense of it, it was really maybe a second pivotal conversion moment in my life. At the risk of being poetic … it was the desert experience, literally and figuratively. Certainly it was a very dark time for me.

Mass was offered, a little outdoor Mass said by a priest who would come in to maybe 20 soldiers who would go, and I think I only went to Easter Mass. I was not going to Mass. It was just a really difficult time. For hours upon hours each day, meeting with men sometimes younger than you, frequently much older than you, all possibly involved with the attacks of Sept. 11. Never in a million years would I have thought that that would have been my experience in the Army. Just really a fluke.

How did you emerge from the desert spiritually?

One of the main events that I remember, sort of immediately upon arriving back in the United States, was my now-wife contacted me. We hadn’t spoken in several months. And as soon as I got back from the deployment and started communicating with her, things started to change and I very clearly became aware that … this is a return. I guess God was trying to jump-start my spiritual life again.

Good things started to happen. I remember going back to the University of Dallas to visit some friends and had spoken with a priest and received the sacrament of reconciliation, and really just felt like a cleansing of sin. That was a pivotal moment. Then moving toward marriage with my wife, just sort of hearing in my head, “Get to the sacrament of matrimony.” We were married and everything has been better and better.

Are there particular themes you like to work with?

Religion and my faith have always played a role to a greater or lesser degree in my work, but specifically making pieces for the liturgy or for public devotion, this is new. And that is a theme, in some sense. I guess there has always been man’s search for meaning and his relationship with the supernatural, with God.

From where do you draw your inspiration?

I don’t feel as though there’s one. Not yet.

I think I’m at the formative stage for that. Maybe it will always be like this. But for this chapel, for each piece and for the design as a whole, I’ve used all kinds of sources — other artists, historical and contemporary. Scripture. Church documents. Writings of the saints. Writings of various philosophers, historical and contemporary. A lot of research and prayer and talk with my wife and with other artists.

Your thesis project at Rutgers was a chapel designed as a military bunker. It took 10 tons of concrete to build. Describe that project.

It wasn’t obviously a bunker or a chapel. But it was a space that kind of both looked like a bunker and a chapel.

That was … a very personal piece. It was very much about my experience in Afghanistan and, I suppose, my spiritual journey afterward.

What is the goal of your art?

To bring about salvation for humanity. I laugh, because it seems ridiculous, but to make the goal would be to bring beauty to the world — capital “B” Beauty. Through objects, images, people can be led to a deeper relationship with God.

Anthony Flott writes from
Papillion, Nebraska.

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