Is it possible to be a professional Catholic painter today?

A Q&A with Cameron Smith, painter of Immaculate Heart of Mary

Therese Bussen

As the Archdiocese of Denver has prepared for consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, one particular image of her stood out — a painting by Cameron Smith, which depicts Mary in both a traditional, yet totally modern style: Somehow impressionistic, geometric and iconographic all at once.

But it isn’t Smith’s only painting. He’s painted several other religious works, including the Sacred Heart of Jesus and beautiful sketches of St. John Paul II as well as Pope Francis. He also paints non-religious themes as well — and does all of this full-time. Not all artists need to starve.

So how does a Catholic painter become successful today? Smith shares his story on how he came to own his call as an artist, hone his craft and begin an apostolate.

 

Denver Catholic: How did you begin as an artist?
Cameron Smith: I was into art from childhood. I remember coloring books and kindergarten projects and was one of the class “artists” all through school. In high school, my youth minister suggested I look at North Carolina State University (NCSU) School of Design, and I went with it. While there, I gravitated towards fine arts and, in the last year of my program, started a studio co-op. I had been interested in painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and other disciplines, but somewhere in the process of developing the studio, I determined to make painting a focus. The complexity of painting and allure of color attracted me. Its possibilities seemed so vast.

Artist Cameron Smith paints both religious and non-religious art. Photo from www.wallsgallery.com/project/cameron-smith/.

DC: How did your profession as a painter take off? What motivated you to pursue it full-time?
CS: I couldn’t be invested in pursuing something unless it was deeply meaningful…and this meant defining art. I concluded that the essence of art was an “interplay with the Holy Spirit within a given medium.” Once I grasped this, it struck me as a call to pursue art. My artistic journey has mirrored my faith life in many ways. It’s an ongoing cycle of reconversion/ recommitment/ renewal.

The career aspect, however, is a puzzle I wrestled with for years and is ever-evolving. Painting haunted me as I worked various other jobs to support it. And honing my skills was just the first step in building an art career! In 1998, I received my first real fine art commission, a Degas-inspired portrait. After reading Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, expressing my faith overtly in art became a real goal. I had started apprenticing with a local Catholic sculptor who introduced me to St. Louis de Montfort’s Total Consecration, which greatly influenced my life and art. That summer (99’), I discovered my wife-to-be, Kristen, on a mission trip. By 2002, we were married, expecting our first child, and preparing to be vendors at World Youth Day 2002, Toronto, where we were launching Smith Catholic Art, our family art apostolate. Five kids and 15 years later, it’s been a steadily evolving process.

DC: What was the journey of creating the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Sacred Heart of Jesus paintings like?
CS:
The process of painting the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts was, to be truthful, agonizing…and momentous. I had wanted and tried to paint the Two Hearts images several times, but couldn’t find the right inspiration. Favorite icons, Van Gogh, Klimt, a few contemporary artists, as well as my experience with portraiture and Kristen as model, helped to produce this image. It was two years in the making, and it seemed like every time it went on the ease, l our life would just “hit the fan.” While I started it on my own, a dealer I work with was able to arrange a commission. This was a great grace, as it forced me to finish and push through many times of utter frustration. “Immaculate Heart of Mary” was the first painting in which I combined abstract designs and pattern with more traditional modeling and realism. It’s an idea from iconography, but I wanted to incorporate my own figure skills and use a pattern language that didn’t allude to other particular pattern contexts. It had to be contemporary but also thoroughly traditional. The “Immaculate Heart of Mary” illuminated and paved the way for the “Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

The “Immaculate Heart of Mary,” painted by Cameron Smith, and used by the Archdiocese of Denver for the consecration to Our Lady on Oct. 13.

DC: What is the most challenging and rewarding thing about being a painter?
CS:
Seriously pursuing art while attempting to earn a living is a tremendous challenge, like training for the Olympics without a sponsor. Adding a Catholic family to the picture, finances have without a doubt been the greatest challenge and obstacle. I am extraordinarily blessed, however, that, while I’ve certainly felt this stress, providence has managed greater artistic growth through the struggle than I could have otherwise hoped for. The most rewarding things are seeing that my work has impacted others, reaching a point in artistic growth when one knows, without question, that a work of art is good and what makes it so, and participating in creating beauty.

DC: What was your process like on the St. John Paul II sketch? How did seeing him inform the drawing?
CS:
The drawing, “Portrait of a Saint” was finished in early 2001. The success of the drawing gave us the idea to take prints of it, and another, to WYD Toronto. Just a month or so before WYD, we got the opportunity to go to Rome and see the Holy Father. It was a Wednesday audience and being in the same room with him, as large as it was, was moving beyond our expectations. His love was so palpable.

It was this that inspired the drawing, felt through many of his writings, including his letter to artists. His intensity and passion, his call to discipleship and holiness were so personal. I wanted to capture that, and this image had a piercing quality. I’d spend 10 hours of the day working on a section the size of a quarter.  My wife would come home from a 12-hour nursing shift and ask, “What did you do?” I’d point, “Right here.” In retrospect it seems almost ridiculous, but that’s how you learn.

I still really like the piece. It’s how I remember JPII the Great — aged but vigorous. He is a real father figure in many ways. St. John Paul the Great, pray for us!

Painting by Cameron Smith. https://smithcatholicart.wordpress.com/

 

DC: What are you working on now and why?
CS:
Making Catholic art available is what makes Smith Catholic Art an apostolate. Providing images for the Church and missionary organizations at no cost is important. The call of the Catholic artist is, in part, to renew the face of the Church. This may not be feasible with original work, but as most images are now seen in digital and print form, there is great potential. I’m currently working on a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe with an organization which other Catholic artists should know about, The JPII Foundation for the Sacred Arts, www.sacredartnc.org. It’s purpose is to partner with artists, providing basic funding for the artist’s own projects to be realized. It’s such a vital role, as artists can only effectively market their work once it exists. The foundation is based on a crowdfunding concept, so it’s critical for others to be involved. Directed by Fr. Michael Burbeck, it’s an inspired vision for rebuilding a culture of sacred art.

 

Edited for length and clarity. Cover image on https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/smith-catholic-art.html/.

COMING UP: Q&A: Cardinal Stafford: “The Eucharist has been the center of my life”

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On the dawn of his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, archbishop emeritus of Denver, reflects on the origins and fruits of his vocation. He will celebrate a Mass in thanksgiving with Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 17, at 10:30 a.m.

DC: What were your desires as a young man and how did God call you to the priesthood?            

Cardinal Stafford: Images of God arose very early in my life. From my parents’ encounter with Jesus in the confessional, concrete impressions developed into images. Those images spoke to me of God’s holiness and beauty. I understood that He was great and forgiving.

Reality became complex with more birthdays. The brutality of the 20th century… insinuated itself into my world-view. I was bewildered by the horror of that era… A few years later I also discovered St. Augustine’s joy in reflecting upon the beauty of the Creator of the world in his Confessions… I learned that the love of Christ transforms our unloveliness into God’s beauty.

Both the beauty of the Ancient One and the rub of evil have coexisted in my faith and experience. Jesus’s invitation, “The laborers are few”, resonated in my soul.  The fact that the priestly vocation is totally given over to the “ministry of reconciliation” became the North Star of my life.

Archbishop J. Francis Stafford blesses the altar of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Aurora, Colo. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: What practices have helped you remain faithful to your vocation during these 60 years?

Cardinal Stafford: When awakening each morning, I recite a single verse from Psalm 51, “Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Three times it is repeated. Thereafter, the grace of God sets the day on the right track. It becomes a song of praise to God. With hard practice it daily gathers momentum. It places front and center the most beautiful mystery of the Christian faith: The Triune God. The love and beauty of the Most Holy Trinity light up the whole day even when God appears more distant than near.

The psalmist has been a great catechist. He has taught me that human beings are doxological (people of praise) by nature especially in the Dark Night – not only as individuals, but also within community… Doxological prayer has led me to appreciate why St. Augustine wrote, “The goal of all Christian watchfulness and all Christian progress is a pious and sober understanding of the Trinity.”

Cardinal James Stafford holds a relic of St. Teresa of Calcutta during a Mass celebrating her feast day at St. Joseph’s Parish on September 5, 2016, in Denver. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

DC: What have been some of the challenges and highlights of your priesthood?

Cardinal Stafford: The challenges: Christians in Europe and North America are struggling with the “juggernaut” of secularization… Generally, its roots are found in the fact that most Europeans and Americans today find themselves thrust into the universe without any foundation for living. Most imagine themselves in a free-fall through space with unintelligible entrances and exits. The challenge is how to confront this unprecedented reality. The pastoral solutions have seldom been forthcoming.

The highlights of my priesthood: Visiting the home-bound. They are the hidden pillars of every local Church. Beyond the home-bound, I have always felt that Colorado’s response to the invitation to celebrate the 1993 World Youth Day was the measure beyond all measure. In other words, the event was from God… [and] God was delighted with Coloradans.

Pope John Paul II thanks Cardinal Stafford for his leadership in organizing World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Who have been your greatest role models and how have they impacted your vocation?

Cardinal Stafford: My mother and father have been my greatest Christian role models. Their love and friendship were life-long and mutual. The two were the best of friends. Their life together, ten years after their marriage, was tested severely… [Tuberculosis] struck [my mother] with extreme severity.

She required prolonged hospitalization that included three major surgical operations over a period of nearly three years. Throughout that time her faith, courage and love remained ever-present signs along the road. My father’s love for his wife never faltered during her hospitalization… His presence to her was reassuring, quiet, and unassuming.  The grace of the sacrament of marriage sustained both of them and was an enormously important witness for me.

Cardinal Stafford celebrates Mass during World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by James Baca/Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Reflecting on your priestly experience, what practices are essential to the Catholic priest of the New Evangelization?

Cardinal Stafford: The Eucharist has been the center of my life… Over the years, I learned that priestly celibacy was related to the eschatological nature of the Eucharist.  In 390 AD bishops at the Council of Carthage underlined this connection, “That holy bishops and priests of God…. observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us endeavor to keep.”

I’ve reflected for over four decades over the forthrightness of their statement. I still ask myself why the ancient bishops chose the phrase “in all simplicity.”  Their choice was related to the priest’s acting “in the person of Christ”. That’s Eucharistic and the Eucharist is doxological. Their assertion that clerical celibacy had apostolic origins surprised me.

Finally, a lay friend taught me one of the greatest graces of these sixty years, “Gratitude for the gift is shown only by allowing it to make one fruitful,” from Meister Eckhart. That is my prayer in celebrating my 60th anniversary of priestly ordination.