Make Church art great again

How artists and the Church can work together to evangelize the modern world

Therese Bussen

Art in the Church is not what it used to be.

But in the past, particularly during the Italian Renaissance, the Catholic Church contributed some of the greatest works of art the world has ever seen.

While the Church has lost some of its cultural influence in the arts, many Catholic artists, such as Father Peter Mussett, pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder, are asking themselves how to change that.

Father Mussett believes that one of the best ways to change this is for artists to take honing their skills seriously and simply “make stuff.”

“The solution isn’t merely just patronage,” Father Mussett said. “I just encourage [any] artist to make, and try to put myself out there in the reality of who I am. It’s really hard to make things.”

But it isn’t enough to just create for the sake of creating something — it won’t be effective without beauty. There is a distinction between art and beauty, and both need the other.

The necessity of art and beauty in the New Evangelization

Father Mussett learned from a young age the importance of art, which is skill, and beauty, which is truth, he said.

“Art is the proper way of making. It’s skill. It’s reverence to materials,” Father Mussett said. “Beauty is reverence toward God, yourself, your neighbor, creation. Beauty is truth. Beauty is meaning — even if it’s ugly, beauty still has meaning.”

Father Mussett gave the example of art without beauty, skill without truth or meaning: The summer blockbuster.

“It’s very exciting [in the senses], but where’s the spirit? Where is it speaking about the truth of human nature?” he said.

On the other hand, beauty can still deal with “ugly” things but still have a deep sense of truth and meaning — something Catholic artists should not be afraid of.

“Catholics need to stop being afraid of how grisly reality is, how their own lives are grisly — but there’s still meaning, it’s not nihilism. Everything always ends in Jesus Christ,” Father Mussett said.

Combining art and beauty is the necessary way to speak to culture in the New Evangelization, according to Anthony D’Ambrosio, co-founder of Catholic Creatives, an up-and-coming online community of Catholic artists.

Art is the proper way of making. It’s skill. It’s reverence to materials. Beauty is reverence toward God, yourself, your neighbor, creation. Beauty is truth. Beauty is meaning — even if it’s ugly, beauty still has meaning.”

“Beauty is the experience of the true,” Anthony said. “The Church is unfortunately in a place of not being able to speak the truth to culture because truth has already been dismissed. [The Church is] already dismissed because of the impression the world has of the Church.”

The solution? Change our methods of communicating.

“If we just keep batting down modernist arguments with our apologetics, like homilies and teachings that are just philosophical, we’re playing a losing game,” Anthony said. “That’s not the way God spoke to his people, it wasn’t the way Jesus spoke, and somehow we got pulled into…focusing on trying to defend ourselves rather than trying to actually give people an experience of God. And beauty is the only way to do that properly.”

Beauty, Anthony said, “reprograms us” — our experiences of sunsets, for example, are proof of that.

“That is the language of God, it’s how he speaks to us. If we want to be able to make a big change in the world, we have to start speaking in the language of God, and show his face to the world, not just telling his face to the world and describing it,” Anthony said.

Catholic Creatives: One resource for artists and the Church

In order to “reach the ends of the earth” in the New Evangelization once more, there is a great need for Catholic artists who are committed to taking their craft seriously to glorify God through their talent and to effectively communicate the Gospel in new, innovative ways in a language the world can understand — and many of them exist in Catholic Creatives.

What began just two years ago with a Facebook group (which now has over 1,500 members) is becoming a resource for artists looking to be challenged and grow in their skill with other fellow creatives, and is inviting other Church members to look to the group as a resource for their projects.

It all began with twin brothers Anthony and Marcellino D’Ambrosio, who, two years ago, found themselves “complaining about the state of art, beauty and creativity in the Church.”

“And then we asked ourselves, ‘What if we could actually do something about that? What if we could actually change the culture of the Church and make it incredibly creative?’” Anthony said.

The brothers then hosted an event for other creatives to put their heads together to tackle one creative problem: Church bulletins.

Anthony (right) and Marcellino D’Ambrosio (left) started Catholic Creatives, an online group of artists.

“The value that came out of that conversation made all of us feel like we could actually do something,” Anthony said. “The Church doesn’t always have to be ugly, or cheesy or cheap. And that sense of empowerment really poured into [Catholic Creatives]. And we’re just beginning to see the real power it can have in the Church, I think.”

This year, the group held a summit in Dallas with attendees from all over the country, which propelled the group forward even more.

“It’s interesting to brainstorm with other people…what the Church could be if we had more influence in the world,” said Kate Hazen, a summit attendee and Denver graphic designer. “It made it more of a possibility rather than just [having] an image of being a creative Catholic.”

Anthony said that the theme for the summit was “New Renaissance,” how to bring the Church back into “being a leader in the arts, culture, education, science and politics in the way that it was in the Renaissance.”

“The Medicis were a giant clan in the Italian Renaissance who were behind a lot of the culture that was produced. So we see Catholic Creatives as being the connection point that gives the artist proximity to each other and also proximity to financiers,” Anthony said.

“We’re at a similar junction to where the early Church was with Rome. There was this new infrastructure of roads and commerce. Because of the Roman network, Christianity was able to spread through the entire known world. Right now, we’re looking at a new network, and it’s a digital network,” Anthony continued. “So what the early Christians did at the speed of walking, if we did in the same level of intensity, with the same speed the early Christians had, we could [evangelize] the world in 50 years.”

Catholic artists and the Church need each other

This goal of creating a “New Renaissance” doesn’t necessarily mean a sudden surge of more paintings and sculptures — although it does include finer arts.

The work of creatives in the Catholic Church is more broad and includes “new media” methods: Graphic design, creative marketing strategy, video, photography and other methods.

But in order to create in these various mediums well — with beauty — both artists and the Church have to work together.

To work toward this goal, Catholic Creatives recently rolled out an initiative on Patreon, a crowdfunding platform, where artists can support another and financiers can invest in artists.

And support, particularly in the form of money, is a crucial part of the creation of truly good art.

Quality and beautiful Church art is a key part of reaching souls in the New Evangelization, and as such, the Church is in great need of artists who take their craft seriously. (Stock photo)

“The Church needs to realize these people…need to be paid a livelihood. If they’re going to be making art that’s worth being made, that’s at the standard of the rest of the world, they can’t just be volunteers doing it on the side,” Anthony said. “As long as the Church thinks those people should be giving as a volunteer, we’re going to let our artists flounder, and when we let our artists flounder, our art flounders, and when our art flounders, we’re not able to connect with the culture.”

But financing isn’t the only way to support artists, as Father Mussett said. He also encouraged parishes to promote art education both in churches and in the seminary, which is “spreading the tools of the skills, which are seeds.”

Catholic Creatives also encourages support beyond money as well.

“Catholic Creatives wants to be the place that connects your resources to the artist,” Anthony said. “Connect us with people [that could finance], pray for artists, and speak to your priest.”

“Ask [your pastor] to hire someone who knows how to design well. Having those conversations can be an ally for artists and pave the way for them,” Anthony said.

COMING UP: Women, the world and the Church need your creativity

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Women, the world and the Church need your creativity

‘Hello Beauty’ retreat aims to inspire women to encounter God in creating

Therese Bussen

Creating a culture of hope can start with the smallest of seeds: creativity.

This was the message “Hello Beauty” — a retreat aimed to inspire women to encounter God through beauty in the act of the creative process —¬ planted in attendees.

“[My hope is that it] opens their eyes to the potential transformative power of beauty, even in small ways,” said Tara Wright, co-founder of Scatter and Sow, the platform hosting the retreat. “No matter how you’re practicing the creative process, it can help you commune with God. If we cultivate beauty…and help others see it, the implications are creating a culture of hope.”

“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence,” wrote St. John Paull II in his “Letter to Artists.” “It is an invitation to savor life and dream of the future.”

Beauty, then, can inspire hope and call man to his greatest desire: Christ.

The themes of beauty and the call to be creative in John Paul’s Letter were the main inspiration of the retreat. And while he writes that all of man is called to be creative, women have a role in beauty in a particularly unique way, according to Wright and fellow co-founder Erin Day.

The natural intuition and receptivity of a woman’s soul is a key component of beauty. Artists, who especially possess an intuition for the beautiful, are more open to receive an experience of beauty. So, while not all women are artists, women have a special relationship to beauty in a similar way.

Women paint with watercolors during the Hello Beauty retreat May 5-7. The retreat was inspired by Saint John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” and sought to bring the participants into deeper communion with God through creativity. (Photo by Therese Aaker | Denver Catholic)

“Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery,” John Paul wrote.

“I think the main thing of the retreat is being receptive, which is a trait of the feminine genius,” Day said. “Beauty allows us to really receive Christ into the depth of our hearts. That way they can learn to be receptive at the retreat and in their daily lives.”

One of the key ways to experience beauty is through the creative process, Wright and Day said. Because God himself was creator, the act of creativity is a special way to be close to him.

“It gives our creativity purpose. It’s not just creativity to be creative, it’s that it’s a communion with God,” Wright said, pointing out this theme from the Letter. “It will be a starting point for women to draw closer to Christ. As creative people, it has the potential to draw the world [toward God].”

But this isn’t just a calling for women who see themselves as artists — anyone can be creative and enter into this communion with God through creativity, said Day.

John Paul wrote, “Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make it a work of art, a masterpiece.”

“[St. John Paul II] was inviting anybody, not just artists, to be creative…he highlights this ‘beauty that saves.’ We get this glimpse of what we’re trying to get to [which is God], but we do this as a tangible way on this earth,” Day said.

The retreat’s workshops, which included flower design, brush lettering, stained glass and rosary making, were all aimed to provide a place for women to enter into that encounter and rest in beauty. While the activities themselves might not be classified as “art,” they are creative — solidifying the point of John Paul that while not all are artists, anyone can create.

Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and dream of the future.”

“As we were trying to bring authentic beauty to the workshops, we wanted women who have a personal testimony of how women live this out,” Day said. “We wanted a mix, so it’s not, ‘You always have to make religious art to be a Catholic artist,’ and also seeing those things in light of and in context of the retreat.”

“As women, the desire to craft and create isn’t just a shallow waste of time,” Day added.

Wright was one of the speakers for the retreat, and in her talk, “Resting in Beauty,” she emphasized that we can find rest in God as we create, especially through moments where we meet resistance: the point of creating where the craftsman or artist realizes, “This was not what I was hoping for,” and wants to give up. It’s another point in the creative process where we can encounter God.

“When you meet that resistance point, that’s where you meet God. You meet yourself and become aware of your flaws…and if I keep going, I’m able to see how God fills that smallness,” Wright said.

God “filling that smallness” in the creative process is still a part of encountering beauty — it is still the transcendent experience of, as John Paul says in his Letter, “a momentary glimpse of the abyss of light which has its original wellspring in God.”

For more information on Scatter and Sow’s events, visit scatterandsow.squarespace.com.