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: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.