Keeping the ‘Resurrection Burning Within Our Hearts’: The Art of Michael O'Brien

Author and artist Michael O'Brien speaks with the Register about his early struggles as an artist and a father of a growing family, as well as the silver linings the pandemic offers us in learning to hear ‘the small voice’ of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus dies on the cross.
Jesus dies on the cross. (photo: Courtesy photo / Michael O'Brien)

Best known as the author of Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, among 12 other novels translated into 14 languages, Michael O’Brien began his adult life as an artist. Ignatius Press, his publisher, recently released The Art of Michael D. O’Brien,  which includes more than 120 full-color reproductions of his paintings and Byzantine-style icons. Also included are some of his drawings and other works in black and white.

O’Brien’s paintings and icons hang on the walls of churches, monasteries, universities and private homes across North America, but many practical and spiritual struggles shadowed his faith-fueled mission and hampered his progress.

After an early exhibit proved successful, the Canadian artist, with the support of his wife, Sheila, decided to focus solely on explicitly Catholic themes as an artist, undeterred by the financial hardship this would entail for the couple and their growing family. After intensive training as an iconographer, his artistic approach gradually shifted, as he began to incorporate elements of expressionism and realism in his treatments of religious themes, including the Passion, the Holy Family and the saints. 

Christ in Gethsamane.
Christ in Gethsamane.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

In his work, there is a “tension between expressionism and iconic symbolism. The first conveys a spiritual sensibility, a mystic temperament, the second the objective Christian message,” O’Brien’s biographer, Clemens Cavallin, told the Register. Turning to his distinctive treatment of the Passion, Cavallin noted that O’Brien “tends to portray Christ with closed eyes, which gives a powerful sense of interior suffering even in the midst of obvious physical pain. Suffering is natural to our fallen human state, but redemptive suffering is a form of sacrifice.” 

O’Brien, who lives in Barry's Bay, Ontario, discussed his long and challenging pilgrimage as a Catholic artist in an email exchange with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond. In his comments, the artist, who spent part of his childhood in Canada’s Arctic region, also addressed the influence of Inuit indigenous culture on his work.


Many U.S. Catholics know you best as a writer, but your publisher (Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, who founded Ignatius Press) says that being an artist is your primary vocation. Your thoughts?

My life as an artist began in 1970. Not long after, I made the commitment to the Lord to paint overtly Christian works that deal with matters of the Faith and basic spiritual questions. In the late 1970s I began to write novels on the side, though it was another 20 years before the first was published. To this day I continue to paint — a visual language that works hand in hand with the written word.

A workshop in Nazareth.
A workshop in Nazareth.

How has Inuit culture inspired your art?

My youth spent in the Canadian Arctic introduced me to the wonderful Inuit people and their highly developed, quite unique arts. Equally important, the land itself, in both winter and summer, had an austere beauty and elegance of design that changed my eyes and seeped deep into my soul. 


What attracted you to iconography?

In 1976, immediately after making the commitment to paint the things of Christ, I was led quite unexpectedly to the classical Byzantine icon, through spiritual discernment and spiritual direction, confirmed by particular graces given by our generous Lord. It is not what I would have naturally chosen at the time. And yet iconography, I soon learned, has been the foundation of Christian sacred art for nearly two millennia. Submitting myself entirely to this discipline, I painted icons exclusively for the next seven years. 

The icon is highly symbolic, a grace, and a unique kind of sacramental, not just an art-form. Icons are never purely naturalistic, but are a place of prayerful encounter with the “prototypes,” the Lord and the saints the images portray. Learning to paint them according to the strict canon of traditional iconography was a path of submission that led to new vistas of freedom, both spiritually and artistically — one might say a “narrow gate.” It was one of the greatest teachers of my life. 


What led you to incorporate elements of expressionism and realism in your art, and how have traditional iconographers reacted to this development?

Many of the churches and individuals who commissioned paintings over the years wanted a more post-Renaissance style. Little by little, it became my desire to seek out a new path, by integrating the profound spirituality of the icon into the more naturalistic stream of Western Christian art, which for two centuries now has fallen into shallowness and sentimentality. In other words, our arts, by and large, have become illustration and decoration, rather than sacred encounter. Though my non-Byzantine paintings are sometimes erroneously called “icons,” I have never thought of them as such. And my actual icons are purely traditional in style. There has never been any negative reaction, and a young generation of Catholic artists understand that the Holy Spirit pours out an abundance of graces for creativity in many forms.

St. Joseph and the Christ Child.
St. Joseph and the Christ Child.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

The suffering servant is a key theme in your novels and your art. How have your own sufferings informed your writings and art? 

My life is in Jesus Christ; my home is my Catholic faith. Moreover, I think every creative person makes beauty — truth in beautiful forms — by drawing from the resources of his own life and reflections on his experience. Suffering is a great teacher, if we do not lose heart, if we artists do not run away into false consolations or rest satisfied with easy (or popular) artistic effects.


You and your wife pledged to live by the providence of God. Why was that decision central to your vocation as Christians, and for your work as an artist?

It was absolutely central. The past 50 years of my life as a Christian artist has been a long discipleship in learning to trust in God’s providence, through fairly unceasing trials and deprivations, and consistent rejection of my work by the mainstream of the art world (where I once had some success before making the choice to paint overtly Christian images). Nevertheless, there has also been so much joy along with sorrows, as well as miracles and amazing graces. But this is life in Christ for all those who seek to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. For us, our primary vocation is to marriage and family; the calling to sacred art is more a mission within that fundamental vocation. 


Your practical struggles (car trouble, housing issues, etc.) reveal the challenge of living as an artist and married man with a large family within the Church. In living the Gospel without compromise do you hope to inspire others to rethink their own path and attachment to material comforts? Is that prophetic message resonating now, as the pandemic disrupts normal patterns of life?

Yes, it is my hope that many gifted young people of faith will accept this great adventure. It won’t be an easy life, but it will be a great and beautiful life, the full value of which they may only understand in Paradise. I see more and more young writers, painters, musicians risking everything to bring beauty and truth into this world. They are real heroes and they deserve all the help and encouragement we can give them. Perhaps, too, the pandemic offers a certain increase in solitude, a chance to spend more time and focus on listening to the “still small voice” of the Holy Spirit, and for prayer that the Lord will increase their gift and make it even more fruitful. It is a time of trial, but also a time of great opportunity.


As a Christian, you believe that Christ has triumphed over sin and death. But as an artist, is the hope of the Resurrection more difficult to portray than the trauma and drama of sin and suffering? 

Yes, resurrection — and The Resurrection — is more difficult to perceive and to express. By contrast, suffering is an ever-present reality of our human condition. I think I have painted only one Resurrection and hundreds about the Passion of Christ. The task for all of us is to keep the Resurrection burning as a light within our own hearts, and our eyes on the true horizon: He is coming! He is near!

Jesus dies on the cross
Jesus dies on the cross.

 How does your family traditionally celebrate Easter? How many will gather with you this year?

Our six children and spouses, and 14 grandchildren, are now spread all across the country, so my wife and I will be relatively alone this year. For most years our family celebrations of Easter have been times of great reunions and feasting, a marathon of special baking, singing and dancing and playing musical instruments all together, along with our family tradition of walking liturgically with the Lord through Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. Oftentimes, after midnight Mass, our children would climb a nearby mountain in order to watch the sunrise on Easter morning. This year, my wife and I will be living through the Triduum as a quiet, prayerful pilgrimage.