An Artist at Work

Sorrow of MaryCompassion interviewed Brother Michael Moran, CP, an artist who lives at St. Vincent Strambi Residence in Riverdale, New York. Brother Michael has produced a number of icons and drawings. Paintings from the series he produced on the Seven Sorrows of Mary illustrate this article

How did you get your start as an artist?

In the novitiate, 25 years ago. I used to love the art books in the monastery library in Hartford, Connecticut, and Fr. Acquinas McGurk, our novice master, must have seen me looking at them. One day Ižm in my room, and therežs a knock on my door, and Fr. Acquaints walks in with a cheap set of acrylic paints in his hands, lay it on my bed and says, "Instead of looking at those paintings, why don't you try painting them?"

So I started copying the pictures from the books; and they were horrible. Yet they fired me to paint.

I was stationed twice at Shelter Island and got to know an elderly well-known artist named August Mosca. I showed him some of my drawings, and he said, "These are horrible, but I see potential." I went to his studio for three and half-hours each week for lessons. He was trained in the classical tradition. For five years all I did was draw, he wouldn't let me touch a paintbrush.

When I came to Riverdale, New York, I studied at the Art Students League for a year. Right now people, churches, various institutions, commission my icons and paintings.

What are some of the works you have done, and where are they?

I've done a large icon of John the Baptist, for a church in Scarsdale, New York. I did a black Holy Family icon for a beautiful art-deco church in Hartford. Once the neighborhood was all white, now it's changed to Haitian and African, mostly black. The pastor wanted something to reflect the sacred images in black.

Father Paul Vaeth commissioned me to do an icon for the new Catholic student chapel at East Carolina University at Greenville, North Carolina. He said he wanted me to do a Holy Family because young people come to school and they get homesick for their family. He told me to make Jesus college age and Mary and Joseph older. It was a great concept.

Recently, I was commissioned to design paintings for the Seven Sorrows of Mary, which were made into mosaics at the Passionist Retreat House in Sierra Madre, California. I also did a number of works for Holy Family Retreat House in West Hartford.

Brother MichaelWhat do you think the artist contributes to the world, the church and society?

I think we need a more contemplative stance towards life, to see the deep religious and human truths that are there. We can only go so far with words and books. There is another level within us, a symbolic level or image level, that touches us very deeply.

Artists have the privilege in the church, and they have had it throughout history, to open up that level so that people can see the mystery of God. The artist speaks, not just literally, but symbolically. I think visual images, if they are well done, can move us there. That's a ministry.

Do you think the church needs a new tradition of images?

I think every age reflects the mysteries of God in the images of its time. Some of these are timeless, but we are not the people of a thousand years ago; we are people of the 21st century, and somehow we have to express these truths pictorially or architecturally in a way that is proper to us. If we don't we will not capture the imagination of people. There's a lot of religious art today that doesn't speak to people.

So I started copying the pictures from the books; and they were horrible. If we don't produce new images in the church, the church becomes a museum.

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