The National Catholic Review
Michael O'Neill McGrath
Image

The question put to me most frequently as an artist is, “How long did it take to paint that?” I suspect if you were to poll other artists, they might tell you the same thing. To me this fascination with time spent at the easel is curious. It also strikes me as a bit humorous, since the question is asked of a group of people, artists, who do not approach life in a linear, logical manner. Truth be told, I never have the vaguest notion of how long something takes to paint. Are we simply talking about actual brush-and-paint-on-paper time? Do we include hours of research and field visits? Meetings with editors? Walks down the hall to grab some coffee while my mind is still painting? How about the months, or sometimes years, of having a vision in my head before the first sketch even appears on the easel? Given all this, the truest answer might be “forever.” But since that sounds too pretentious, I fib. “Hmm,” I say, “about 12 hours,” with the self-assurance of someone who punches a time clock at the start of every workday. I don’t like to lie, mind you, but these are complex questions.

 

Sometimes I feel like a geologist instead of an artist. Just as a simple “How are you?” can prompt me to contemplate many layers of experience, “How long did that take?” sends me back on an excavation through time to early childhood. For it is there that my mid-life visions and symbols usually find their origins. The paintings you see on these pages, for example, are from a series of 21 images of Mary inspired by the Litany of Loreto. And before you ask, I would like to tell you just how long they took to paint. For this, I will have to put on my geologist hat and lead you on a sort of personal journey, through several layers of experience.

The series began, paint-on-paper time, in 1999. On sabbatical, I was living as a sort of anchorite for a monastery of Visitation nuns in a neighborhood in north Minneapolis. Every Tuesday morning we went to Mass at St. Philip’s, a local church that had begun as a Polish parish and now quietly lives in an entirely different, African-American, cultural reality. Devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa is still strong, however, and every week after Mass we prayed to her, using the Litany of Loreto.

The design of the church is stark and modern. Because the structure is made completely of stone, I had the feeling of old and new meeting across the boundaries of time, like rock and sea. With these surroundings, the words of the litany prayed week after week moved from a tedious drone to a visually rich source of inspiration. In time, I began to paint some very contemporary black madonnas—and later, some white girls—who bore the ancient titles from the litany.

The painting process led to further excavation as deeper layers of memory were unearthed. I recalled my childhood delight over images of Mary and the saints in painted plaster or stained glass, and it tickled my creative urges to make some images of my own. I remembered my childhood belief in an unshakable, unchangeable fortress of a church built of stone, one that seemed to have all the answers—but that now leaves me with more questions. In that place of tension between past and present, the series was born.

“Mary, Queen of the Saints” is one of the last in the series I painted over the next four years. In a nod to another title, Queen of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, I included Moses, Abraham and Sarah. Ever since my own parents became part of the vast communion, I see the saints differently than I did as a Catholic schoolboy. They are no longer impossible to reach or imitate or even like. Now they are soul friends who guide me to my true self, encouraging me to love the journey of life.

“Our Lady of the Rosary” sprang out of my current love for praying the Rosary, something that was unappealing to me as a child. I now see the beauty in things I once thought of as tedious, like the litany. Once, while on pilgrimage through France and Spain, I took my deceased father’s rosary apart bead by bead and left the beads at each of the cathedrals and shrines I visited. It was my way of connecting him with countless generations of souls and saints through the ages. All of a sudden I was connected too.

“Our Lady of Refuge” also sprang from two different places in time. When I was a child, I loved reading books about slavery and Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass; and I was fascinated by the concept of the underground railroad. Decades later, in the midst of working on these paintings, I read Hidden in Plain View, a book about the secret meanings of quilt patterns during the days of slavery. Intrigued by the ways in which symbols helped slaves on the run, I envisioned “Our Lady of Refuge” as a symbol of safety for each of us in our struggles to be free of all that enslaves us.

In the Agathistos, an Eastern litany, Mary is referred to as the Promised Land of Milk and Honey. She is the human mother of God, without whose willing consent Jesus would not have been conceived. She leads us to the holy source of purity and sweetness, to our own promised lands where dreams are fulfilled and broken selves made whole.

So, how long did it take to paint these images? Did I begin them after Mass at St. Philip’s, or years before, when my parents died? Or was it when I was a second-grader at St. Matthew’s staring up at the windows in church? It probably started long before I was even formed in the womb, in a place and time that only God can know. Meanwhile, I know what I will tell the next person who asks: nine months.

Michael O’Neill McGrath, O.S.F.S., of Washington, D.C., is familiar to America readers. The paintings mentioned here are selected from his book Blessed Art Thou: Mother, Lady, Mystic, Queen (with prayers by Richard Frago

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