San Isidro Labrador

San Isidro, or St. Isidore, lived in Spain in the late 11th/early 12th century. He is the patron saint of farmworkers, and of agriculture in general. His feast day is May 15th.

The Spanish word labrador refers to someone who works the land, not a laborer in the more general sense of a worker. Isidro was a farm worker–not a landowner. He labored in the fields of others. The most famous story of him tells of the other farm workers resenting Isidro because he showed up late to the fields every morning, having stopped to attend Mass first. They complain to the landowner, who comes to check at day’s end and finds that Isidro has accomplished as much, or more, work as the others. Puzzled, he returns earlier the next day, and finds that Isidro is accomplishing more because there is an Angel plowing alongside him.

Isidro was said to be able to bring water forth from dry ground. In another story, he sees wood pigeons scrabbling for food on the hard winter ground. Taking pity, he feed them half of his master’s grain, which he was taking to be ground at the mill.  Observers mock him for foolishly throwing away the grain, but when the remaining grain is run through the mill, it produces twice as much flour as expected.

The worker bee is both Isidro and the angel. Any one bee, like any one farm worker, may seem inconsequential, but without them, there is far less food. Not just our survival, but all our accomplishments, depend on forces greater than and beyond ourselves.

San Isidro Labrador, 12" x 9", multiple plate etching
San Isidro Labrador, 12″ x 9″, multiple plate etching, 2015
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St. Joseph

St. Joseph is the patron saint of Fathers and of Carpenters. Or you may just know him as the husband of Mary and adoptive father of Jesus Christ. The focus of my treatment of him focuses on the fatherhood role. I went to penguins to represent him because my original use of penguins, way back in 2006 or so, was about emperor penguins as roll models for dedicated fatherhood (see Voyage, Nest, or 10 Mile Stilts).

I love the story of Joseph because he embraces the responsibility of fatherhood selflessly–this child may not even be his, but he steps up to the job anyhow, demonstrating that fatherhood is about much more than biology. This points to a bigger notion, that the world is better if we strive to see all children as our own, and care for them accordingly.

The large number of “children” gathered around Joseph may represent this. They may also allude to the references in the Gospels to Jesus having siblings. These references have provoked controversy over the centuries. Were those siblings literally brothers and sisters? Were they Joseph and Mary’s later children, after Jesus? Were they Joseph’s children from one or more previous marriages? Regardless, Joseph is “fathering” them: watching over them and caring for them while allowing them to pursue their interests, even if those interests involve risks and danger. At the suggestion of my own daughters, the penguins are the sons, and the puffins are the daughters.

Joseph’s carpenter role is important too. In that dimension, I think this piece is also a homage to my grandfathers. Both built things, and I think of that heritage of Making as my central legacy from them. My biological maternal grandfather worked in construction and had been in the Army Corps of Engineers in World War II. Unfortunately, he died while I was quite young, but that does leave me with only happy, positive memories of him. My paternal grandfather was likely mentally ill, and sometimes was a little scary. I think it would have been rough to have him as a father. The grandparent/grandchild relationship provides some distance, though, and I mostly remember him as someone who Did Things: built houses, farmed, fixed machines.

 

St. Joseph, multiple plate etching, 12" x 9", 2015
St. Joseph, multiple plate etching, 12″ x 9″, 2015

 Saint Joseph (1st Century, Jewish)

Adoptive father of Jesus. Patron saint of fathers and carpenters/workers.

The swing represents a playful attitude to responsibilities of fatherhood. Gospels mention Jesus having four brothers and an unspecified number of sisters. Theoretically, the egg is Jesus; however, some claim Jesus would have had younger siblings. Penguins are sons, puffins are daughters. Bird at top references Holy Spirit.

St. Sebastian, Pt. 2

In 1987 or 1988, one of my undergraduate art history classes met at the Denver Art Museum. While walking through the museum to the meeting, I happened on a small (approx. 3′ tall) wooden statue depicting a male figure, shot through with arrows. The arrows were separate pieces of wood that had been inserted into holes drilled into the wood of the body. This was my first encounter with Saint Sebastian. I already had a fascination with martyrdom and crucifixion, especially the acute, intense suffering involved and the voluntary nature of it as depicted in Christianity. That statue, of wood riddled with arrows, brought a new angle on the topic.

I continued to be interested in St. Sebastian as time went on. It is surprising that I had not happened on him sooner–he is frequently depicted in Medieval, Renaissance, and Modern art. As I began to more consciously explore religious themes in my etchings (e.g. here or here), my imagination kept drifting back to Sebastian and that wooden statue. When I first started exploring iconography, in my Archangels series, I thought about depicting Sebastian as a porcupine. I was intrigued by the arrows becoming reversed into quills, but was not able to develop the idea at the time.

I came to see Sebastian’s martyrdom by arrows as a form of crucifixion, and, as my theological understandings deepened, to see crucifixions–going back to the famous one–as a form of embracing one’s Fate. By this I mean seeking out our purpose in life and accepting that purpose, even if it is painful to do so. Evading that purpose will ultimately cause greater pain then accepting it, but accepting it will be transformative. Like Sebastian’s arrows, the thing that seemed to be pain will turn out to be strength.

In Sebastian’s case, the arrows didn’t actually kill him. St. Irene came to collect his pin-cushioned body, in order to bury him. She found that Sebastian was still alive, and nursed him back to health. Unfortunately, the early fourth century was a rough time to be a Christian. Both Sebastian and Irene did end up martyred; Sebastian was clubbed to death, and Irene died of either burning or an arrow through the throat (stories vary).

 St Sebastian

Saint Sebastian
3rd century, Italian, martyr.

The porcupine has accepted the arrows and turned them into useful protection.

Bird in upper right is St. Irene, who nursed Sebastian back to health after arrow incident (later martyred herself).

The dove in upper right represents the Holy Spirit.

Plants at bottom are arrowhead plants (genus saggitaria).

St. Clare of Assisi

With some reluctance, I set out to create an image of St. Francis of Assisi. The reluctance is because he is so famous that it seemed preposterous to add anything to the numerous representations of him. Then a friend suggested depicting St. Francis as a llama, “because they bear their brothers’ burdens,” and I became intrigued at the idea of depicting Francis.

After skimming through some general references on his life, I picked up the recently published Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, by Albuquerque Franciscan priest Richard Rohr. A portion of the book is about St. Clare, an earlier follower of Francis. I quickly became more impressed by her, as it seemed that she did everything Francis did, but as a woman in the 13th century and largely confined to her convent. I wanted her image to go with the eventual Francis one, so I still went with the llama motif:

st clare
St. Clare

13th century, Italian. Founder of the Poor Clares.

The markings of the llama that modeled for this image (see photo below) match the habit of the Poor Clares. Clare’s convent of San Damiano is at her feet. The labyrinth in the sky is metaphor for spiritual journey, while the water represents nourishment (spiritual or otherwise). The tree on the left may be Tree of Life, but may just be abundant growth. Llama at top of ladder on right is St. Francis. The vessel at base of ladder is a Pyx—a container for communion wafers. Pyx is associated with story of Clare convincing Saracens to stop attacking town of Assisi.

The model, Dalai Llama of Llamas del Sol:
image

What is a Saint?

Saints are not necessarily people who are pure and holy and virtuous or sin-free. They are mostly people who did not avoid dealing with their shit and the shit of the world. They did not run from it, they did not look the other way when it came along, they did not try to get someone else to deal with it or look for someone to blame for it. They jumped in, wrapped their arms around it, and dealt with it–even if it took their entire life, did not have epic short-term results, was frustrating or tedious, or ultimately killed them. They did not always do this perfectly, or with a friendly beatific smile on their face and charity in their heart. Many of them were probably not at all “nice” in person. But they tried, and went on trying, day after day. Just trying to be the best human they could be.

St. Brendan of Clonfert, the Navigator

Brendan of Clonfert was one of those delightful early medieval historical figures like King Arthur–probably real, but with his achievements and journeys highly enhanced, elaborated, and embellished. His story ends up being sort of a medieval Gaelic version of Homer’s Odyssey.

Brendan sailed around the North Atlantic, in search of the Isle of The Blessed. Some have hypothesized that he may have been the first European to reach North America, before the Vikings and long before Christopher Columbus. Because of my own journeys, though, I am more taken with the notion that the Isle of the Blessed may have been the Faroe Islands.

st brendan

Forty-Seven Million Drawings of St. Lucy/Santa Lucia

I thought St. Lucy would be a relatively straightforward image to create. Especially after discovering that St. Lucy was the same as Santa Lucia, of Swedish-girls-with-candles-on-their-heads fame, she looked like a simple celebration of light in the midst of December darkness. Light source plus eyes plus maybe some oxen and a dagger equals image.

Unfortunately, I am an expert at making the simple complicated. I started working on St Lucy back in mid-December, right after her feast day (Dec 13). Somehow the endeavor turned into an artistic anxiety-fest of self-doubt.

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The fish, by the way, is a lantern fish. They have bio-luminescent spots. I like the idea of using those for light in the darkness. Eventually, I arrived at somethign I like, and have started drawing on the plates. To try to make the bio-luminescent spots shine correctly, I will be making the color plate first, and then basing the key plate off that (usually the key plate gets created first).

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ps.  In my research, I discovered a Hungarian tradition of planting wheat on the Feast of St. Lucy. The wheat then sprouts by Christmas. It works!

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St. Teresa de Avila, Part 1

I have been reading Interior Castle, by Teresa de Avila, and working on preparatory drawings for an etching about her. The book is fascinating. The Interior Castle refers to the soul, conceived of as a diamond with seven mansions. I especially enjoy her use of the term “reptiles” to refer to anything and anyone that tends to drag ones attention away from one’s spiritual quest and back to an over-involvement in the material world. Although it she goes to great lengths to be humble and soft-spoken, it is clear that she means “{expletive deleted} reptiles!” and has no patience for them. Of course, I am reading an English translation from 16th century Castilian Spanish/Latin, so I would love to know what the original word was.

She also captures really well how ideological smugness can blind one to spiritual progress. This comes up in the third mansion, and it is clear that many never get past this point (in fact, I myself am barely past it in my own reading). She references Christ’s words about passing through the eye of the needle.

The owl is a pygmy owl (glaucidium gnoma). I resisted using the owl because it seemed to cliched as a reference to wisdom, but then it worked so well when I settled on representing the seven mansions as a labyrinth, A pygmy owl because of Teresa’s modesty and humility despite her many accomplishments.

I will need to begin the etching soon, before the drawings get to complex and unwieldy and/or I start to overthink the whole thing.

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St. Sebastian, Pt. 1

Sorry–I haven’t posted anything here for a while. I have been too busy researching and creating! The first etching of the Saints Reimagined suite, St. Sebastian, is nearly complete. Here is one of the color proofs:

sebastianThat bird in the upper right is St Irene, who goes to collect Sebastian’s arrow-filled body, intending to bury him. She discovers him still alive, and takes him home and nurses him back to health.