"A Christian should be an Alleluia from head to foot." - St. Augustine
I'm about 12% Alleluia on any given day, but I'm working on it.

Art for the Sake of Grace

I’d like to explore how we can bring about a revival of the arts by coming to understand our own role as patrons – the value of supporting artists, the tradition that our Catholic artists can both maintain and add to, and how to tell a cornball from a Work for the Ages. It underscores the value of a liberal arts education even for those who enter other professions – the responsibility remains to invest some of our wealth in the renewal of the culture.

This series will feature interviews with various Catholic artists, focusing on getting the word out about whatever their current works include and trying to learn how the Internet has helped them to connect with patrons. Are you a Catholic artist? Do you know someone who is? Please sign up and I'll be in touch with you about setting up a blog interview!

Agnus Dei

Image of a young ram prepared for slaughter, by Spanish painter Zurbarán

Image via Wikimedia Commons

We went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston this morning for the first time—they’ve had a traveling exhibition of Spanish painting on loan from the Prado and we’ve been meaning to get there for weeks. The exhibition will only be on view through Sunday, so I wanted to make sure we didn’t miss it. I’m quite glad we made it.

This painting, in particular, made an impression—not only because we were viewing it on Good Friday. I’ve actually been to the Prado before, back in the mid-90s, but I must confess that I didn’t even remember the artist, Francisco de Zurbarán.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.

Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols A Tiber River Review

Mike Aquilina’s Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols is a quick read that provides a comprehensive foundation for further investigation into Christian symbolism. I was given a review copy of the book before a family trip that included many museums full of medieval art, and I found it to be a helpful overview for me and my older children.

Signs and MysteriesAquilina excels at writing about the early Christians in a way that makes them seem like long-lost relatives. This book is informative without being too academic in tone for a popular audience. As he says in the introduction, “This is not a work of scholarship, but an act of devotion – an act of piety towards our ancestors, so that we might learn to see the world once again with their eyes, and to pray and live as they once prayed and lived.” I enjoyed the mixture of testimony from Church Fathers, detailed illustrations showing replicas of actual Christian art, and citations from other contemporary sources.

Each chapter is a short overview of a symbol, exploring its roots in Jewish or pagan culture and showing how it was given new meaning by the early Christians. It’s a great way to learn more about the diverse groups of early Christians, including the Copts in Egypt and the earliest Jewish converts. I learned about several symbols I wasn’t aware had Christian meaning, like dolphins and peacocks, and Aquilina includes intriguing details like the hidden meaning of the “Sator Arepo” square.

Books like this one are a great way to start breaking open the central ideas of our faith. Christian symbols can be the “hooks” that draw us into a deeper understanding of a particular teaching, or allow us to see new spiritual insights in familiar images. I think this would be a great component of a course on either art history or the Creed – it’s short enough to be read in one sitting but organized in a way that makes it easy to refer to a specific chapter if you happen upon a symbol in a church window or a painting that is unfamiliar. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in learning more about the early Church. My middle schooler found it pretty easy to understand, so I would say it’s appropriate for young adolescents on up, although that’s not to say it wouldn’t be perfect for adults as well.

I wrote this review of Signs and Mysteries for the free Catholic Book review program, created by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods.

Aquinas and More is the largest on-line Catholic bookstore.

I receive free product samples as compensation for writing reviews for Tiber River.

Mail-order Zombies ~ Interview with author Ryan Charles Trusell

imageI’m so tickled that the breakout sensation of the Catholic New Media Conference is the old-media-est guy I know, Ryan Charles Trusell of Labora Editions.  When Ryan stopped by the Dappled Things table, we realized we had several random things and people in common, and so I was very intrigued when he handed me The Envelope.

I am SUCH a sucker for handmade things, for old-world things, for nice paper. So the hand-screened cover was really all I needed to become a fan of Ryan’s work, but the first chapter was even better. Yes, in case you haven’t seen this five other places on the Internet – he’s writing a true epistolary novel, your standard monastery-as-zombie-shelter story in 72 individually mailed installments.

As a long-time sufferer of mailphobia (fear of remembering to go to the post office), I am very impressed with the heroic valor required to haul crates of envelopes to the post office each week to be sent to readers around the world. I also thought this was an incredibly novel way to market a book; if he’d handed me a paperback with this cover, I would have thought “I’ll have to read this sometime,” but instead it’s the whole experience of opening the letter, looking foward to the next installment, and collecting them – that’s what you are getting. It enhances the first-person perspective from which the novel is written.

Ryan was kind enough to answer a few questions as part of the Art for the Sake of Grace series of interviews with Catholic artists and I think you’ll enjoy his responses.

1. How long ago did you come up with the idea for your novel? Was it before the current zombie/vampire/werewolf craze, or did you decide to write something that would speak to the current obsession in our culture?

I’ve had the idea since the summer of 2010, which I guess is about a year after Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out, to which my title is of course an homage. I had no plan whatsoever to write anything pop-culture relevant. I am a sucker for Benedictine spirituality. I had just visited Belmont Abbey in North Carolina, had spent some time in the Adoration chapel, and was driving around town and saw a large, outdoor statue of the Sacred Heart, but for some reason the arms on the statue looked wrong. Instead of the usual gesture of open arms, or one arm open and one hand pointing to the Heart, it looked to me as though both arms were stuck straight out in front, in the Karloffian manner. The phrase popped into my head: Ora et Labora et Zombies! It was good for a laugh, and I thought about trying to turn it into something, but really it just sat there in the back of my mind for a year, fermenting. Eventually, out of necessity, I figured out how to tell the story.

2. What’s your background as far as printmaking – are you self-taught? If not, where did you study and what has your focus been?

I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2005 from the University of Arkansas in… Ceramics. I’ve always had an interest in printmaking, though, even more so than ceramics after a certain point, (but who wants to change majors again?). My favorite college roommate was an MFA printmaking student and I spent a lot of time hanging out drinking beer with him in the print studio. I’m not sure how impressive a pedigree this is for a guy about to add a custom design and printing portal to his business, but honestly, printmaking processes are pretty straightforward. You can build a lot of equipment yourself and get good, consistent results. The harder part is good design.

Eucharistic Adoration t-shirt3. Did you do the graphics for the “adore” and “ora et labora” shirts yourself? What’s your process?

Yes. I actually made the OeLeZ logo back in 2010 when I first had the idea. I remembered a great logo from a fruitcake box from the Abbey of Gethsemene, and wanted to try to approximate that but with a third element to represent “zombies”. I thought the addition of the skull worked in that regard, as well as providing a pretty sweet memento mori. The ADORE shirt is my pithy Catholic response to Shepherd Fairey’s “Obey Giant” brand.

My process is Illustrator & Photoshop, design vellum, scanner, Photoshop, coffee, repeat. Sorta high-low-tech. I make up what I don’t know and nobody ever tells me otherwise.

4. Do you have a master plan for how the 72 chapters of the novel will pan out or are you waiting to see where the story takes you?

I love this question. I got it a lot in Dallas. The entire story arc is set, in detail. Each Letter is roughed out in a page or two of unpolished, poorly punctuated prose, and a majority of the Letters are already in their final form.

5. What prompted you to attend the CNMC? What’s been the benefit so far, for you, as an artist?

I read a lot of Catholic mommy blogs (not kidding), and basically get most of my news from the headlines page on New Advent (like the kids with Jon Stewart), and from time to time I listen to the Willits’ show on Sirius XM’s Catholic Channel. So I had heard about the conference. I live in Houston, which is three hours and change from Dallas. What can I say? I was curious. I thought, “If I can just find a couple of dorks like me who hear the words ‘Benedictine zombie apocalypse novel’ and nod their heads in agreement, maybe I can drum up some interest in this thing.”

Read more about Ryan Charles Trusell:

Happy Catholic: The Zombie Letters, including an addition that addresses the cost of the letters and the value of the experience of reading in a non-traditional way.

The Anchoress: An Experiment in Old Media

Leah Libresco: Zombies Are Like Garlic – You Can Never Have Enough of Either

A Transformative Weekend ~ The Maryvale Institute's Diploma on Sacred Art

Before we begin, let us first consider the elements to which the author has applied the descriptor “transformative” in the past seven days:

  • 85% Dark chocolate
  • Evernote
  • Vacuum-seal travel bags
  • Greek yogurt
  • Mint-infused simple syrup as basis for mojito (Y’ALL.)
  • Steam mops
  • Buc-ee’s

Therefore, it could be argued that the description of the diocese of Kansas City’s course on Catholicism and the Arts as “transformative” employs a term deprived of any sense of meaning by its hyperbolic application to any and every new experience enjoyed by the author.

Having accepted this premise…

YOU SHOULD GO. You should go next summer, when they are going to offer the course again, and you should become steeped in the wisdom of the ages.

Look at all this wisdom of the ages:

Taking notes with Evernote


I had expected an immersion in how to understand Christian art – what do the numbers symbolize, what’s that flower in the corner supposed to mean, how come Mary wears blue, that kind of thing. And the course certainly will include discussion of the traditional language of Christian art through various styles. But this class, in particular, does so within a context of how we can rediscover and reestablish a Christian approach to art in the modern world.

So much of the material we discussed is percolating in the back of my mind right now, and this weekend was only the beginning. The weekend seminar I attended was the launch of a year-long distance learning class offered by the diocese of Birmingham (England’s) Maryvale Institute in conjunction with the diocese of Kansas City. Attendees had the option of just coming to the initial weekend to enjoy the classes and conviviality with fellow artists and, uh, appreciators of art (yours truly).

I’ve elected to take the full course, which should take a year to complete. The class is intended to form catechists in understanding how to draw upon our rich heritage of sacred heart for evangelization and for our own devotion. The Maryvale Institute is a Catholic distance learning college offering programs in catechesis, theology, philosophy, and religious education:

Part-time distance learning means that students can follow stimulating and complex courses of study leading to publicly-recognised awards whilst maintaining their existing vocational, family and work commitments. In this way the Institute gives new possibilities of access to formation and to the immeasurable treasures to be discovered in the Christian Tradition and in contemporary Church teaching and thought.

Oh, there’s so much more to say, but for now I’ll just tell you to MARK YOUR CALENDAR for next July, so that you may attend this – yes- transformative event. And great thanks to everyone involved from the Maryvale Institute and the diocese of Kansas City.

Goin’ to Kansas City ~ The Maryvale Institute's Diploma on Sacred Art and Beauty for Artists

Catholicism and the ArtsI’m heading to Kansas City this weekend for the start of a year-long course on Catholicism and the Arts, led by David Clayton of The Way of Beauty.

The opening residential weeked for their course, Art, Inspiration and Beauty in a Catholic Perspective takes place in Kansas in July is intended both for working artists and those interested in art (with the thought that you might become the future knowledgable patrons of the art). The weekend is run by course director Dr Caroline Farey with whom I worked closely in Birmingham when the course was first launched and I will teach too. Maryvale’s mission is to deliver degree level education to working, mature students.

And, just so’s we’re clear, I fall under the following categories:

  • “those interested in art”, and
  • “mature students.” (hoping this is clue for “older than 22.”)

I’m so excited to begin this course. I took an art history class in college and loved it, but that’s about it as far as my actual knowledge of art, and given how long ago college was, and how dark the classroom was early in the morning…well, let’s just say I could benefit from a refresher.

So, stay tuned as I blog my way through the class, and consider enrolling yourself next summer!

This is my first experience with taking a Honest to Goodness Real Class post-college; have you done anything along those lines? Was it for professional development, personal enrichment, or escaping small children? (Oh, I shouldn’t have said that – my sweet son just said “I hope you have a good time on your trip, Mama.” He’s excited to get to spend the weekend at Grandma’s, and not just because she has a Wii.)

“Art Begins In a Wound”: Interview with Matthew Lickona ~ Part of a series - Art for the Sake of Grace

I’m very excited to kick off the Art for the Sake of Grace series of interviews with Catholic artists, and who better to begin with than my good friend and compatriot, Matthew Lickona? Matthew’s writing is profound and challenging, and his creativity is just a little bit intimidating. Ladies and gentlemen, my good friend, Mr. Matthew Lickona. (cue applause)

You’re the first person in what is sure to become a historic series of blog conversations. Are you nervous about being in the catbird seat?

No, just tickled. And honored.

Let’s start by talking about Alphonse. This is a powerful series that may be startling to some readers in its subject matter. You’ve described Alphonse  as a story that takes the horror that hovers over many facets of the abortion debate and makes it overt. This project has been close to your heart for many years; how do you introduce it to new readers?

The blunt intro: Alphonse is the story of a sentient fetus who survives an attempted abortion and embarks on a mission of revenge. But he is pursued even as he is pursuing, and haunted by his only friend’s insistence that there is another way.

The literary intro: Alphonse is a Frankenstein reboot, one that takes Mary Shelley’s decision to call the monster a monster seriously. One of the American Heritage Medical Dictionary definitions of a monster is “a fetus or an infant that is grotesquely abnormal and usually not viable.” The monster in Frankenstein is grotesquely abnormal in his conception. Thanks to Victor Frankenstein’s experiments, he receives life without having parents, and takes a twisted form of knowledge from those whose parts make up his body. The monster in Alphonse is grotesquely abnormal in his development. Thanks to his mother’s use of experimental drugs, he develops both sentience and coordination in utero, taking a twisted form of knowledge from his mother’s imagination.

My brother says that the story sounds crazy when you describe it, but works when you read it. I’m not sure how to get around that problem.

Was it originally envisioned as a graphic novel?

Yes, though I never sat down and thought about the best medium for the story. It started as a sketch, and then another, and then the first page of a comic book. I read a lot of Peanuts and Pogo and Bloom County as a kid, and a lot of Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side as an adolescent, and a lot of Sinfest as an adult. I like sequential art as a medium for the outlandish – I think it numbs the “unreality gag reflex” just enough to let the story go about its business.

What’s next for Alphonse? You self-funded the first two installments in the story via Kickstarter; what’s on the horizon for this particular project?

Actually, issue one was funded by generous gifts from friends and family. Issue two was funded via Kickstarter. But the campaign for issue three on Kickstarter fell short. I decided that Alphonse didn’t pass the butts-in-seats test – the concept just wasn’t intriguing enough to get people to engage such a difficult issue in their free time. I put it to rest, but then a production company asked for a TV pilot. That went through a couple of drafts and stalled out. I gave up again. A film producer asked for some sample short film scripts, and talked about using them to fund a feature. That went nowhere. But I posted those scripts on my blog, and was encouraged by some friends who read them to keep trying. So here I am.

These days, I’m telling myself that the story will work better if it’s all in one volume, and in full color. So I’m begging again on my website, alphonsecomic.com. If 40,000 people give one dollar each, I’m good to go. But I’m also casting about for a patron, someone who can fund the whole thing without batting an eye. I’ve got a couple of leads. We’ll see.

In other discussions we’ve had about art and Catholicism, you’ve mentioned John Gardner’s statement that “Art begins in a wound.” Can you expand on that – what struck you about that particular statement, and how do you see it applying to your own work?

Have you seen Peter Sellers on The Muppet Show, telling Kermit that he cannot stop acting and just be himself because he has no self to be? Yes, it’s a joke. Yes, it’s still amazing.

What struck me about the statement from Gardner is that it fit with my own (admittedly limited) experience. And as I got older and started learning more about the artists I admired – Evelyn Waugh, Alec Guinness, Walker Percy – it seemed to fit with their experience as well. As Dylan notes in his song “Not Dark Yet,” “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.” Maybe there are exceptions. But life seems to be teaching me otherwise.

Applying the notion to my own work would probably amount to little more than dimestore psychology. And I fear that even the accurate parts would sound embarrassingly trite. I do know that as death has become more of a quite certain reality and heaven a less certain possibility, my story ideas have gotten better.

You’ve explored themes in your own work that many might shy away from – for example, your presentation at the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing on the role of pornography in Walker Percy’s novels. Is it fair to say you believe that no subject matter should be off-limits for a writer?

Well, Dante gave us Mohammed split from groin to chin (among other things) on his tour of hell, which is to say, yes, I think everything is fair game. Though I will say that the character of the writer is both tested and displayed when he or she tackles a difficult subject. And that, as ever, context is all. I once read a bit of online fiction that was nothing more than a pedophile’s monologue as he broke down a kidnapped little girl psychologically in preparation for assaulting her physically. That was an evil piece of art, and I am very sorry I consumed it. But if you contrast it with Walker Percy’s handling of rape in Lancelot and child pornography in The Thanatos Syndrome, I think you can see what I’m getting at.

My answer to this question is O’Connor’s claim that “The Catholic writer, in so far as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for. But this should enlarge not narrow his field of vision.” Also, I sympathize with Percy’s argument that the morality of a novel proceeds from the integrity of the whole – the way the parts of a good table fit together.

I think most anyone with Binx Bolling’s nose for merde – which is to say, most people – can tell when a writer is delving into dark material for less than honorable reasons.

As part of your day job, you occasionally review films  - how did you come to take that role, and do you consider yourself a critic? What particular films or directors have informed your perspective as a reviewer?

I am a utility man at my day job. I’ve reviewed wine, restaurants, and churches. Now, I’m reviewing films – sometimes in print, but mostly on the paper’s website. I go where they tell me, and these days, they’re telling me to go to the movies. I do consider myself a critic, in the sense that I have a fair number of movies under my belt, a half-decent sense of story, and a few basic diagnostic tools in my kit. Plus, I’ve been doing it for a while. Experience is a good teacher, and I was lucky enough to have someone pay me to gain the experience.

I’m not sure what directors have informed my perspective – I try to take each movie as it comes. I do love much of the Coen brothers’ output, and I think Howard Hawks was an absolute master of popular entertainment, but I’m fairly, er, catholic in my tastes.

Who are some contemporary Catholic artists (in any medium) whose work has influenced your own, or whose work you hold in high esteem?

Well, it’s a pretty well-beaten drum, but I’ll beat it anyway: I’m a big fan of the illustrator Daniel Mitsui. He has a great interest in medieval art, but his work isn’t simply an imitation of what you can find in a history book. He’s adopted some medieval artistic principles, but he’s also incorporated stuff he learned from the great comic strips – Popeye, Krazy Kat, etc. I don’t want to misrepresent him, but I think those strips have influenced his eye for composition, the story told within an illustration. And a certain sort of cockeyed soul could view the smaller illustrations surrounding one of his crucifixion scenes as a kind of historical comic strip. I find his ability to adopt an ancient mindset without simply becoming a scribe for the ancients hugely impressive. He has a personal vision he’s realizing within some fairly strict objective guidelines.

A minor, but fun example – the background of one of his crucifixions features features cell organelles – creatures unknown to the medievals. He writes, “Some of these elements, I think, have a latent symbolism that could be developed more fully. Mitochondria seem especially appropriate to be associated with the life-giving Cross. Fossilized dinosaur eggs might represent mortification, as dragons, which for my purposes are the same as dinosaurs, represent sin. Planarian worms suggest the Holy Eucharist, due to their ability to be divided into parts no less complete than the whole…” Fantastic. Plus, I find his work delightful.

What role has the Internet played in your work as a writer, and what would you consider to be the particular challenges for artists in our information-overload society?

What role? Mostly as a damned distraction. But also as a frustration. I see how smart people, driven people, can build community, build a following, establish the media platform that makes the Internet a blessing to the artist seeking an audience. I can even see how it’s done, sort of. But actually doing it leaves me exhausted, and eats up my time to boot. Here again, I admire Daniel Mitsui, who sends out an occasional newsletter via email, blogs now and then, and is able to let his work build his reputation.

Challenges for the artist? Well, I know this is hardly a new observation, but the information overload cheapens everything a little: there is so much interesting writing available that it becomes difficult to value one thing over another. People wind up clinging to brands - The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Korrektiv Press, etc. – like they’re lifeboats. Buying a book becomes almost an act of devotion – not, “I need entertainment, so I’m trying your product,” but “I think so well of you that I will actually pay for your version of what I could probably get for free elsewhere.” Word of mouth becomes more important than ever – honest recommendations from one trusted friend to another.

While we’re at it, there are so many puppy videos and trailer mashups on YouTube, why would you ever read anything? Have you seen Hulu’s “online TV eats your brain” ad campaign? Yes, it’s a joke. Yes, it’s still amazing.

And finally, I’m a believer in the notion that the Internet is rewiring our brains, and in such a way that the structural virtues of something like a novel are less clearly worthwhile. We may never stop liking stories, but you don’t hear many troubadours reciting lyric poetry these days. Unless it’s on YouTube as a voiceover for a puppy video.

What did I forget to ask you?

Anything about Catholic fiction or Catholic art in general. Which is probably for the best. But let me just quote Abed from Community: “All stories are about death and resurrection.”