The Hunger for God and the Passion for Art
(Interview with the National Catholic Register, June 5, 2005)
Michael O’Brien is a Catholic artist and novelist who lives near Combermere, Ontario with his wife, Sheila, and their six children. He is perhaps best known for his Children of the Last Days series of novels dealing with an apocalyptic future. His sixth novel, Sophia House, was published this spring. He spoke with Register correspondent Joy Wambeke.
Do you come from a strong Catholic family?
I was born in Ottawa in 1948. My father was an air force pilot and later a bush pilot in the Arctic. My father was not a believer, but my mother was a very strong believer so we were raised in the Catholic faith. I’m the oldest of four children. We lived in many places because of my father’s work. We lived in a small Inuit village for a few years when I was in my teen years. We were in Los Angeles for a year, and really all over the map.
When did you first realize you had an artistic gift?
My mother recently gave me my grade 5 report card, and my marks were all A’s except I failed in one course. I looked down the list and read: A, A, A, A, D. I looked to see what subject I had failed so miserably, and it was . . . Art!
But, my father was a painter. He loved to paint. He was just a Saturday afternoon painter, but as a boy I thought he was phenomenally good. I have one of his landscapes in my studio and I’m irrationally proud of it. When I was 12, he gave me my first set of oil paints. I painted for a little and gave it up. Then during my late teens I lost my faith, drifted away from the sacraments. During that time I never thought about God. When I was 21, I had a St. Paul type of conversion. It was total, instantaneous, a stunning surprise, and it was really the hand of God taking over my life at a very dark period. Shortly after returning to the Church, I picked up a pencil and went out to the woods one day and drew a tree. Then I drew another, and couldn’t stop—didn’t want to stop. An amazing torrent of creativity came pouring out which I had hardly given a thought to since I was a child. I began to draw everything. Within a couple of years I had an exhibit at a major gallery in Canada. The images were mostly nature scenes and human situations. Practically everything was sold.
Tell me about when you first decided to be a Christian artist.
Immediately after that first exhibit, I went on a long journey with the proceeds of the show. In British Columbia, I met a priest who was inviting young people to work in a lay apostolate among the rural poor. So, I stayed and put my art on the shelf for another three or four years. There I met my wonderful wife Sheila, also a devout Catholic, and in 1975 we were married in that village in the Rockies.
Shortly after our marriage Sheila said to me, “You’re an artist, Michael. I think God wants you to give at least a year of your life to Christian art.” This was something I had never seriously considered before. So, after we had prayed a good deal about it, I quit my job. After Mass on May 1, 1976, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, I put my brushes under the altar and consecrated all my talents to the Lord and for his Church. In the back of my mind I was certain it was an impossible task, but I also felt it was important to give God a chance. I thought, “It probably won’t come to anything, but here I am Lord, I come to do your will.”
Were you successful from the start?
That first day I went to my studio, which was a small shack, I thought to myself, “Well, now I’m going to do something for God!” But nothing would come. Again and again I picked up my charcoal and pencils, my paints and brushes, and I couldn’t do a thing. I was like a car without any gas. No creativity. And that scared me because now we had a family, we were expecting our first child, I had quit my job, and we didn’t have much to live on. But I just sat there for three weeks in total emptiness all day long, wondering what on earth God was doing. At the end of that period, within 24 hours, from three different directions and from unrelated people, came words of guidance saying, “Have you ever thought of painting Byzantine icons?” None of them knew each other and none of them knew my dilemma. It was God’s answer. We sold our house to finance a period during which I could learn icon painting. It seemed to me that we were going from impossibility to an even deeper impossibility.
And then, after a year, we moved to eastern Canada where there was an icon painter in a religious community, from whom I hoped to learn more about icon painting. Indeed, she gave me an excellent grounding. With my Western eyes, I had a lot to learn.
For the next seven years I painted mostly icons for churches and individuals. Gradually, more and more of my commission work was post-Renaissance, Western style. During the years that followed, it was always a life of poverty, always a life of radical trust. It has been very hard at times, and the struggles against discouragement have been frequent.
The great blessing has always been my wife Sheila’s total support in this way of life, her willingness to embrace poverty for the sake of Christian art. We have been one heart and mind all the way. The other great blessing is that divine providence has always provided our basic needs, what we need to survive as a family with six children, though there has never been any security. There have been many scary moments, but we learned that the Lord is always dependable—it’s a path of total trust, continually expanding our capacity for confidence in God.
Where do you get your inspiration for your paintings and your novels?
Most of the images in my painting come from what I would call the “baptized imagination,” as the fruit of prayer, grace building on my human nature. Writing Catholic fiction is a somewhat different process, though it is created through the same spiritual dynamic. Every novelist writes from his own experiences, his own struggles, and those of his friends, and observations of human nature — not observation in a clinical sense, but rather in the sense of pondering things in the heart while invoking grace. Catholic theology would call it co-creation. It is similar to a married couple bringing a child into the world.
I never work without praying. Catholic artists should always work “on their knees,” so to speak. I pray a lot every day for the specific work at hand. When I’m painting an art commission for a parish church or a religious order, for example, if it’s for a community with good people who haven’t necessarily opened themselves up yet to the necessity of deep and strong prayer, my work goes along all right, but it’s still a hard struggle.
On the other hand, whenever I paint for a community where the people are fully alive in Christ, are completely and dynamically orthodox and pray for me every day, offering their Masses, Rosaries, and various other forms of prayer for the creation of this work, then my painting is so much easier. Both the making of the work and its quality are almost always better. To me, the key for fruitful culture is to be found in prayer and sacrifice.
You spent a few years in your adolescence living in remote Canada. How did this experience shape your life?
For three years, my family lived in a small Inuit village on the Arctic coast hundreds of miles above the Arctic Circle. It was a primitive hunting and fishing village. It was an extraordinary adventure for us. People lived in igloos and tiny shacks. We lived in a small house without plumbing. I didn’t wear shoes for three years, only mukluks. We had a kayak and a dog team. Life was very real. Our friends were Inuit children. Between us, there was no common language. They learned a little English, we learned a little of their language. But mostly we spoke the language which transcends all races, the language of the soul, the language of the heart. I think that was one of my earliest experiences of seeing the universal in human nature, the eternal, and there I began to learn some important things about what was real.
When I was sixteen years old, we moved back to a large city in the south. This was a total shock to my system. It was a hard experience to return to the incredibly fast pace, the elements of unreality, the hyper-organization, the coldness and disconnectedness of the urban environment. I had to relearn to dial a telephone, to get on a bus, and strangely I found it more difficult to “speak” with my own white English-speaking peers than to my Inuit friends whom I had left behind in the north. I never got over it, and maybe that’s a good thing.
What lessons did it teach you?
I think there is a de-humanizing element in mega-cities. Many people whom we might consider insignificant in the modern age, people without power, prestige or education, often fall through the cracks of such a civilization—the poor, the weak, the handicapped. So, all my novels have such characters, those whom Scripture calls “the great and the small.” I try to express how the “small of the earth” are particularly beloved by God. So, I tell stories which remind my readers that we are all the small of the earth. Modern man has forgotten this, swollen as he is with pride and almost God-like powers.
In your last book, A Cry of Stone, Rose Wabos, the main character, does incredible artwork for the glory of God, yet she never receives public recognition for her art. Have you known artists such as this?
I’ve met hidden geniuses all my life, people who make beautiful works of art, but because of certain circumstances never surface in front of the public eye. I’m thinking of a native Canadian carver I knew in British Columbia. He was an alcoholic who had been in prison many times for violence—smashing windows and things. But he was a believer in Christ, and when he was sober he was like a lamb. He was an incredibly gifted wood-carver. He would sell his carvings, which I thought were world-class works of art, for a few dollars to tourists so he could buy a bottle of alcohol. And there’s a woman we know who lives in a cabin in the B.C. mountains, who has been spending the last 20 years carving a wooden stations of the cross. She’s a wife and mother, so it's unlikely she’ll ever be able to be a full time artist. It takes her a year to carve a station, and whenever one is completed she gives it to her parish. Her talent is phenomenal and her works are very original, moving, and spiritually enlightened.
I could go on and on about the Catholic artists I know, scattered across the world, most of them unknown. They’ve accepted to be small and hidden because they love Christ and they love the work itself. They’re not concerned with being a success, being well known, having exhibits, being called capitol “A” artists. They’re concerned with the good of the work itself. They live with a quiet passion (in both senses of the word), a passion to make images of truth in beautiful forms.
And to my mind that is what makes a true Catholic artist. Most of them are known only in the heart of God, but I think they are the kind of people who hold the world together.
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Joy Wambeke writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.