Q&A: Elizabeth Zelasko on creating the Denver Catholic triptych, ‘Through the Kerygma’

The beautiful artwork that adorns the latest and the last two covers of the Denver Catholic tell a story; namely, your story. In the beginning, we were created out of love and then captured by sin. For freedom we were rescued by Jesus Christ, whose love flows over us like a river. Now, we are called to respond in full to this gift of salvation we’ve been given and embark on a mission to transform the world. 

The Denver Catholic commissioned local artist Elizabeth Zelasko to create the last three covers for the magazine, which when put side-by-side form a triptych, titled “Through the Kerygma.” Zelasko worked closely with Kevin Greaney, Executive Director of Marketing and Communications for the archdiocese, to conceptualize the artwork and create it over these past few months, and the results are nothing short of stunning. 

We sat down with Zelasko to get an inside look at her background as an artist and what it was like for her to work on this triptych for the Denver Catholic. 

How did you get started in art and how long have you been doing it professionally? 
I grew up around art. My mother and uncle are both professional artists and so it was always encouraged. Art always gave me great joy and purpose so I knew I wanted to pursue it at a young age. I won various awards throughout my education. Growing up in New Jersey so close to New York City it was an obvious choice for college! I made it into the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, but quickly realized the school was lacking something that I was desperately wanting – traditional instruction. That’s when I left SVA to study Russian Orthodox Iconography at the Prosopon School of Iconology.    

What medium do you primarily work in when creating art?
I enjoy traditional mediums like acrylic, oil, graphite and watercolor paints. Learning how to work with egg tempera – the ground pigment and egg emulsion used in traditional icons – was a whole new world for me. It’s basically what we used before the relatively recent inventions of paint in a tube and art stores! Traditional religious icons are usually done in egg tempura. Today it’s a bit of an anachronism to work with this process, but my experience helped me land a job with the Denver Art Museum creating a replica 14th century Italian icon by Casentino, which will be on display in their European wing.

How did you create the triptych series for the Denver Catholic?
I used a program called Procreate on my iPad. Digital art and I have never gotten along until I found this program! It feels very much like drawing with an actual pencil or paintbrush. And with a project as collaborative as this, with frequent review, feedback and changes, it was a vital tool. The digital format lets me change things with ease and move the images around in ways that I would never be able to do with real paint. I would have had to scrap the whole image several times over if it was a painting!

What was your creative process like for this particular project?
There were several phone calls and a hand full of initial concept sketches. Kevin had a broad idea of what the images would entail and how the story was going to pan out. As an artist, when you are listing to a client’s ideas it is very much like reading a book. You can SEE the images in your head! This project was collaborative between Kevin and me. We each brought more and more meaning and theology into the piece as we talked it through. Being self-employed, it’s seldom that I get to collaborate with other people in this way. Working on the triptych has been a really fabulous experience. Although there is a ton of traditional imagery in the work, there are also many new things to feast on visually. For instance, you won’t ever find an icon of the earth with a big fiery snake trying to devour it! When you’re coming up with new imagery that involves ancient theology, one has to tread lightly and do a lot of cross examining. I was excited to take on that challenge and I am very proud of the work in the end. 

(Click to enlarge)

What was your favorite part about working on these covers?
Just knowing that this work is getting into the hands of faithful, local, Catholics – I can’t think of anything more desirable as a Catholic artist. It’s not going into a museum, but rather a significantly more important space – peoples’ homes… This is so much more important. Children are seeing this work! I have already received emails of drawings by kids mimicking the Earth and that big snake! God has given me a gift for art, and I am literally giving it back to Him and the Church. To make visible what has been invisible to us is a great task. I think that’s a huge responsibility and a huge honor. 

What do you hope people take away from seeing these covers?
The beauty of Christ has so many facets – He is often way more beautiful than we think. We can get stuck looking at just one of these facets and start to think, “this is all there is!” We can become boxed in by our limited knowledge of God. I really hope that people can enter into the beauty of Christ and the Church just a little bit more when they see this image…that they can experience the beauty of Christ in a deeper way, or a new way, and find themselves in the story.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash