Is it possible to be a professional Catholic painter today?

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

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: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”