The Lord God Made Them All

Portrait of Jake

For pet portraits, call or visit my shop on Etsy.

I never met Jake. He died when he was young, only twelve years old. His family was devastated.

Jake was a chocolate lab. Jake’s owners said he had been with him since before the birth of their two children. They admitted Jake was, in fact, like a child to them.

The husband called me first. A bit hesitatingly, he asked if I “do” pet portraits. He explained that Jake had died rather rapidly of an unexpected illness, that Jake was a real character – and “a part of our family.” He said his wife had gone into mourning as though they had lost a child. And he thought maybe a portrait of Jake would be a wonderful gift to commemorate how very special Jake was to them. Would I be willing to do a painting of Jake?

I have always said I don’t do pet portraits. I’ll admit right up front: there is an element of snobbery there. An assumption that a pet is not an important enough subject for art – or, at least, my art. (This may also have something to do with the fact that our childhood family schnauzer, Poppy, always seemed a bit more interested in table scraps than in our affections.)

But the caller’s story pulled at me. The thought flitted through my mind, “What makes painting a portrait of this animal less worthy than any other subject?”

Some people argue that an animal doesn’t have a soul. That the gift of a soul is the birthright of Homo sapiens alone.

But those who have known an animal intimately know the truth. The spark of the Creator that shines in each of us exists just as surely in all His living creatures, great and small.  For all who are willing to see, it seems self-evident that God manifests Himself in every sparrow and lily in His Creation.

The British veterinarian and writer James Herriot wrote about the love shared between humans and animals in a series of books, the titles of which were based on the words of this beautiful old Anglican hymn:

“All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wide and wonderful –

The Lord God made them all.”

Painting a portrait is about more than capturing a physical likeness. The portrait channels and communicates what the painter can discern about the essence – the true nature – of the subject.

For Jake, it seemed to be his laughing mouth, his soulful eyes, and above all, those expressive eyebrows, so like ours, it’s as though we are looking into a human face. For this final glimpse of Jake, he looks up at those he loves, and he smiles amidst the wide green fields and tall blue skies of Heaven.

Footloose Artists and Trappist Monks: Kindred Spirits?

monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit

“Beside the Still Waters” – painting, 9″ x 12″

Footloose Artists and Trappist Monks: Kindred Spirits

My friend and fellow artist Marsha Savage called me on Monday night. She was headed for an outdoor “paint out” for artists, invitation only, at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit this week. They’d had a last minute cancellation. Was I interested?

I’m stuck.

Two thoughts immediately popped into my head and began doing battle. Yes: I have been wanting to visit this Catholic Monastery for years. It is well known for its bonsai collection and as a retreat on 2300 acres of bucolic land just east of Atlanta. I would love to see the monastery – of course.

No: I’m scared. I’m not a regular outdoors (plein air) painter. Plein air is French for “open air.” But painters who fit the term are no French salon sissies – they are the cowboys of the artist world. A rugged bunch, they paint and finish their work, usually in a few hours, entirely in the elements of the Great Outdoors. I, on the other hand, love to take my time inside the air conditioned comfort of my studio, massaging the edges of painted shapes until they melt into perfectly distilled space. I’d dabbled in plein air painting. But now I felt a nagging undercurrent of insecurity. Could I measure up?

Against my better judgment, I go with Yes.

My van packed with paint and blank canvases, I barreled down the highway through Atlanta and then east on I-20, slowing as I left the city and turned into the old farm roads. As the traffic thinned, I felt my heart and pulse slow. Reaching the Monastery entrance, I called Brother Callistus, the monk in charge of public relations for The Monastery. I found myself surprised – how could a monk be in “Public Relations?”

I knew that Brother Callistus had organized the “Paint Out,” inviting select artists to stay for seven days and paint. The resulting art works would be featured in an “Art Collectors Gala and Wet Paint Sale” at the end of the week, to benefit the Monastery. I could only stay for two days. I worried, Will I will be able to contribute something worthy?

Surprises

Brother Callistus drove up the wide green lawn in a golf cart. He is a tall slim man with bronze skin, and he wore traditional monk’s garb, hood pulled back. I would later discover that Brother Callistus, in his younger days, worked on Wall Street. But his first words of greeting revealed only his passion for the nature of monastic life. “I read your artist’s statement on your website. You are a true contemplative,” he enthused in a lilting Caribbean accent. “The words are beautiful.”

I was pleased and surprised. My artist’s statement is my raison d’etre. It’s held a quiet spot on my website since 2006, but since that time, to my knowledge, only one other person in the world has read or commented on it. Ironically, earlier in the week I had decided it was too “airy-fairy,” and had edited it out of the biography Brother Callistus had requested after I accepted Marsha’s invitation.

It was as thought I had been recognized by an old friend. And I was suddenly pierced with the feeling we experience too seldom:  I have come Home.

I’ve believed for quite some time that being an artist is not just a calling with a spiritual side, but that it’s a calling that is entirely spiritual. One thing an artist quickly learns  –  when people have money to spend, a couch wins out over a painting nine times out of ten.

I don’t blame anyone. I own a couch myself, my first purchase out of college, as a matter of fact. Money is for the needs of this world – and art has nothing to do with our worldly existence. Art does not feed the body. It does not clothe the body. It does not shelter the body. It does not carry the body around on four wheels with leather seats in an air conditioned box.

Money, money, money

So artists do not choose to paint because they want to get rich (although a few do). But if we agree on that, then what exactly so powerfully compels a sane person to desert the more logical vocational choices?

I’ve arrived just in time for lunch, and this is the question that Brother Callistus wants to talk about.  Because obviously monks, too, have a calling that is not about money.  Is there a common bond? Are these monks, constrained in their monastic lives to vows of obedience and stability – never leaving – akin to artists, famously footloose free spirits who often ascribe to no established religion at all?

Plein Air artists at The Monastery Paint-Out in the Guest House

Artists and Monks Share Wine and Fellowship

Brother Callistus and I take a seat at a table with a half dozen other artists. I’m pleased that somehow I know many of them – from various studio tours, or odd days painting together on informal outings. They range from mostly middle-aged to outright gray-haired. Maybe I will fit in, after all.

Brother Callistus speaks about the contemplative spirit that is the basis of monastic life. He says that in leaving behind the world, a monk learns to discern the spiritual nature that permeates all living things. He says that as you grow this perception, you learn to see beneath the surface of things to a spiritual truth. You look beyond the physical appearance of a person to their eternal nature. You are looking at the soul.

All the artists seem to speak up in agreement. Yes, creating art is like that. When you paint, you are not simply painting what you see on the surface. You are looking for – perceiving – the unique voice that inhabits each subject. Otherwise, you could simply take a snapshot and be done with it.

Brother Callistus nods and smiles. “Yes, perceiving the spiritual is the nature of a monk’s contemplative life. That is what we are all here for.”

As lunch ends, I head outside with the other artists. We acknowledge the challenges of the physical world with our umbrellas, our bottles of sunscreen and bug repellent. But we are full of hope – that we will see something Wonderful. That we may produce a painting that will capture – dimly, or miraculously, with glorious vividness – the Eternal Truth that inhabits every tree, stone, and human being her on earth.

 

paintings by Ann Litrel of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit

Two works from the Monastery, the Belltower and the Cloisters – “Lift Thine Eyes”, and “Morning Illumination”