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: Relationship, not sacrifice is at the heart of Lent

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When we began Lent on Ash Wednesday, the Lord said to us, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments and return to the Lord, your God.” (Joel 2:12-13).

During Lent we strive to unite ourselves with Jesus’ experience of conquering temptation in the desert and pursuing the Father’s will, so that we can fully experience the joy and victory of Easter. The Scriptures and Fathers of the Church consistently recommend three forms of penance that help us on this journey: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

But before we can fruitfully carry out these forms of purification, we must rend our hearts. In the Jewish tradition, ripping one’s garments – known as keriah – is done when mourning a relative who has passed away. Today, some Jews specifically rip their clothes over their hearts if the deceased is one of their parents. The Scriptures mention this expression of grief several times, including Jacob mourning his youngest son Joseph when he thought he was dead, or King David rending his garments at hearing that Saul had died.

Even more important than this outward expression of grief is returning to God with our whole heart, tearing it away from any unhealthy desires and attachments. In his 2018 message for Lent, Pope Francis offers some insights into the ways people develop unhealthy attachments today by reflecting on the passage from Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus warns, “Because of the increase of iniquity, the love of many will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12).

The Holy Father echoes Jesus’ warning that there will be many false prophets who lead people astray. One kind of false prophet, which he calls snake charmers, are those “who manipulate human emotions in order to enslave others … with momentary pleasures” like dreams of wealth or the belief that they are self-sufficient and don’t need others. Pope Francis also alerts us to “charlatans” – people who offer “easy and immediate solutions to suffering that soon prove utterly useless.” Their traps include drugs, disposable relationships and the temptation of a “thoroughly ‘virtual’ existence, in which relationships appear quick and straightforward, only to prove meaningless!”

But despite these snares laid by the Devil and his false prophets, God the Father declares through the Prophet Joel that he is “gracious and merciful … slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:13). God’s mercy and love for us can transform our hearts, if we are willing to open them to him and deepen our relationship, especially through the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

When it comes to prayer, pursuing a deeper relationship with God means going beyond our first inclination, which is to make ourselves the focus of our prayer and to even boast of our accomplishments. Instead, we should ask God to help us know him better, to experience a greater intimacy with each person of the Trinity. The great Doctor of the Church, Saint Teresa of Avila, calls this kind of prayer “mental prayer.” “In my opinion,” she said, “mental prayer is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.”

If we pray in this way, then our fasting and almsgiving will naturally flow from us as acts of love for Christ in others, rather than being a set of tasks or Lenten requirements to fulfill. Our hearts will be rent, and not merely our garments.

Fasting is another way for us to draw closer to God. Saint Augustine observed this when he wrote, “Fasting purifies the soul. It lifts up the mind, and it brings the body into subjection to the spirit. It makes the heart contrite and humble, (and) scatters the clouds of desire … .” By denying our appetites and giving up distractions, we can more clearly hear God’s voice and place ourselves at his service.

The final practice of Lent that conforms our hearts more to Jesus’ Sacred Heart is almsgiving. Pope Francis notes in his Lenten message that almsgiving “sets us free from greed and helps us to regard our neighbor as a brother or sister. What I possess is never mine alone.”

This other-centered approach will help us to draw closer to the heart of Christ, particularly if we follow the advice of Saint Mother Teresa. “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving,” she was known to say.

As we seek to rend our hearts this Lent in preparation for Jesus’ Resurrection at Easter, let us remember that God desires to draw each of us closer to him. He is waiting for us to seek him out so that he can pour out his mercy, love and kindness upon us.