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Ink Slingers

A Catholic Sistas Interview with Artists Daniel Mitsui

This past month I was fortunate enough to interview artist Daniel Mitsui. With stunning and unique Catholic artwork, Daniel is an artist to notice. His meticulously detailed ink drawings are made entirely by hand on paper or calfskin vellum and are held in collections worldwide. Since his baptism in 2004, most of his artwork has been religious in nature.

Daniel was kind enough to answer my questions and share a little more about himself and his art…

For starters, your art is stunning. I knew this when I asked for the interview. However, I didn’t expect to find such enlightening lectures on your website. They are a treat to read. I particularly liked your lecture titled Heavenly Outlook.

In light of that work, I was wondering if you could more generally comment on the differences between secular art and Catholic art. How should a faithful Catholic approach and appreciate art found both inside and outside of the church?

Thank you.

I do not think that art can be cleanly divided into categories of Catholic and secular. I think you need to consider at the very least three categories. First, there is sacred art that is used in the formal worship of the Church, or that is at least appropriate to be used there: musical settings of the Mass ordinary, vestments, stained glass windows, illuminated Psalters, things like that. Second, there is religious art that is about the Old and New Testaments, or the lives of the saints, or Catholic doctrines and morals – but is not really meant to reside inside the sanctuary. That includes things like Christmas carols and picture book illustrations. And then there is art that is not explicitly religious. But that art might very well present a religious worldview, or teach some important lesson, and thus still be considered Catholic art.

Although most of my drawings are commissioned or bought by individuals and used for private devotion, I try to uphold certain principles that would place them in the first category. What distinguishes sacred art is that tradition and beauty have a special, glorified meaning. I wrote in the lecture you mentioned:

To make art ever more beautiful is not to take it away from its source in history, but to take it back to its source in Heaven. Sacred art does not have a geographic or chronological center; it has, rather, two foci, like a planetary orbit. These correspond to tradition and beauty. One is the foot of the Cross; the other is the Garden of Eden. -“Heavenly Outlook” by Daniel Mitsui

So tradition is more than a matter of respecting old ways; it is about carrying Divine Revelation forward through history. Sacred art is akin to the sacred liturgy and the writings of the Church Fathers. It is one of the means by which the memory of what Jesus Christ said and did in the presence of His Apostles was kept. For example, in sacred art, sacred liturgy and patristic exegesis, comparisons are constantly made between events of the Old Testament and events of the New Testament that they prefigure. This is not just poetic fancy; it is a way of thinking that Jesus Christ Himself taught: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

And beauty is more than a manner of pleasing the bodily senses. The appreciation of beautiful art and music is a vestige of our prelapsarian experience; it is a nostalgia for Paradise lost and a means of elevating our minds toward blessedness. Hugh of St. Victor, Suger of St. Denis and St. Hildegard of Bingen, three of the outstanding thinkers of the twelfth century, articulated this theology of beauty especially well.

In sacred art, both tradition and beauty are necessary. To neglect the former is to make sacred art into little more than a showy display.

To neglect the latter – to contend that so long as the art is traditional, it doesn’t really matter how beautiful it is – is a terrible diminution of its holy purpose. Very often, this is justified by a humbug idea of prayerfulness, an idea that to pray means to close your eyes and think pious thoughts to yourself, and nothing more. If this is the idea, then sacred art gets described as prayerful just for being easy to ignore. Any art that is especially beautiful, excellent, elaborate or interesting gets condemned as distracting because it actually compels you to open your eyes and ears and pay attention to it.

I really find this idea offensive. The backs of your eyelids are not windows into Heaven; they are mirrors back into your own imagination! Sacred art is supposed to lift you out of your own imagination, toward the spiritual realm.

Pulling from your lecture Invention and Exultation you are quoted saying, In our time, tradition is not a thing that is handed down so much as a thing that must be excavated. And once an artist begins to dig, he finds, in a different sense, altogether too much.

With this in mind, what do you think the contemporary Catholic artist’s role is in restoring or protecting the traditions of the faith? Do you think there are places for growth or renewal?  

What I was trying to say in that lecture is that tradition has an objective content, a content that anyone can discover. Elsewhere, I have written:

It is an all-too-common error for the faithful in the present day to confuse tradition itself with its legal enforcement by ecclesiastical authority- as though tradition were nothing more than a stack of documents bearing the correct signatures. This is an epistemological absurdity; the bishops who are tasked with writing these documents need to know what they know somehow! –“Heavenly Outlook” by Daniel Mitsui

A pope or bishop has no privy religious knowledge that is hidden from the rest of us. Insofar as he knows what is actually traditional, he knows it the same way that you or I do: based on evidence in the agreement of the Church Fathers, the law of worship and the ancient, universal practice of the faithful. The necessary keys to understanding it are the gifts of the Holy Ghost received at Baptism and Confirmation.

I think that a many of the Catholic faithful who are frustrated by bad art, bad music and bad architecture in their churches see no way to fix the problem except by having a pope or bishop write and sign and enforce a document condemning it. I don’t expect any such document to be forthcoming. If I did, I honestly would be terrified. A magisterial attempt to regulate sacred art can do far more to impede the creation of good artwork than bad. I am remembering especially the ruinous efforts of the bishop John Molaus in the late 16th century.

Hopefully, more and more of the faithful will realize that they do not need to wait for official permission to discover, preserve and restore what is actually traditional, or to make beautiful artwork that honors it – whether contributing as artists or patrons. Sacred art is one of the few endeavors that the Church has entrusted to laymen for a very long time, and that is today an advantage.

Your art is incredibly complex and detailed. What is your process? What tools do you use? How do choose the different symbolic pieces for your overall composition?

My preferred medium is ink drawing on calfskin vellum. I do not usually make rough drafts. I work out a composition in pencil on calfskin, then ink over the outlines using a metal-tipped dip pen. I use the pen to apply dark colors, and then paintbrushes to apply light ones. A knife is useful both for correcting mistakes and scratching additional details into the ink once it is dry.

Because calfskin is translucent, I sometimes draw details on the opposite side, in reverse; these can be seen faintly through the vellum, or more clearly when the drawing is held up to a light. Thus, the drawing has a different character depending on the angle and time of day that it is seen.

As for figuring out the appropriate symbolism, that is mostly a matter of preliminary research – into patristic commentaries, art historical writings and older works of art. A useful reference is the Biblia Pauperum, a book from the late Middle Ages that presents forty events from the life of Jesus Christ, each juxtaposed with two events in the Old Testament that prefigure it, and four prophecies.

Admittedly, I am quite a novice when it comes to appreciating and understanding both the devotional purposes of Catholic art and the regularly occurring symbolism that can be found around a church. Where should beginners start? Are there any resources you would suggest?

Some of the very best books for an introduction to the symbolism in sacred art are the trilogy written by the French art historian Emile Mâle, Religious Art in France of the Middle Ages. There is one volume on the 12th century, one on the 13th, and one on the late Middle Ages. All of these have been translated into English. The volume on the 13th century, sometimes titled The Gothic Image, is the most comprehensive, and the easiest to acquire. It has its flaws, but it holds up remarkably well for a scholarly work written a century ago. Another very valuable resource is The Golden Legend, a collection of saints’ lives and commentaries on liturgical feasts that was compiled in the 13th century by Blessed James of Voragine. An English translation by William Granger Ryan is in print.

Full transparency, I am a huge fan of your rosary coloring book. I have often used it as part of my own devotional practice. I am excited to share it with my children in the coming year. As a father, what is your advice when it comes to exposing children to Catholic art?

My purpose in teaching my children about art is not for them to appreciate art just so that they can one day sound smart talking about it! I rather want them to think of it as an ordinary and necessary part of their lives and something that they can themselves make. So in my home, we present holy pictures as familiar things: my kids kiss them goodnight and carry them in household processions. We place pictures around the yard for a little pilgrimage on All Saints’ Day; we hide a handwritten Alleluia sign before Septuagesima; we cover the statues with cloth during Passiontide.

My publisher is marketing my three coloring books (Mysteries of the Rosary, The Saints, and Christian Labyrinths) to adults, but I always thought of them as being for children also. My four kids all love to draw, and don’t need any special encouragement; but for kids who are less inclined, coloring books can be a way to encourage them to participate in art at an early age.

A lot of coloring books marketed to children, especially religious ones, have really insipid artwork and that, of course, defeats the whole purpose. Children appreciate artwork that is made with care and detail; they don’t actually want to look at things that look like they were drawn by other children! I hope to offer an alternative, both with my coloring books and the individual coloring pages available for download on my website,

I advise parents to keep an eye out for picture books on religious subjects that have especially fine illustrations, ones influenced by manuscript illumination or other traditional sacred art. Some favorites in our home include Mikhail Fiodorov’s Bible Stories, Maurice Boutet de Monvel’s Joan of Arc, Heidi Holder’s The Lord’s Prayer, Pamela Dalton’s The Story of Christmas, Barry Moser’s Moses, Tomie de Paola’s St. Francis and Gennady Spirin’s Creation. I care more about my children appreciating these illustrations and copying them than about their knowing the big famous names of art history.

Where can people connect with you?

My website is www.danielmitsui.com. This is where I display recent drawings, prints, and writings. I have accounts (Daniel Mitsui, Artist) on Facebook and Pinterest, and my e-mail is danielmitsuiartist@gmail.com. I am accepting commissions now.

Categories
Faith Formation Ink Slingers Kathleen Spiritual Growth

Why I Veil: A Millennial Perspective

This Lent, I started covering my head during Mass. I know, I know- off the Traddie rails, am I right? But hear me out.

I wanted Lent to be different. I wanted to be able to say that I had prepared in a way that I hadn’t the rest of the year. I really felt strongly that I should start to do this.

And guys? It was amazing.

The Sacrifice of the Mass

The biggest thing that veiling has done for me has helped me stay focused on the sacrifice of the Mass.

As a mother of two young kids, here’s what my preparation for Mass looks like. I get up (probably late) and run around like a crazy person making sure we’re all dressed and have the diaper bag and everyone is wearing shoes and coats and underwear. My son is mad that he can’t wear his football shirt. My daughter is mad because she doesn’t like to go anywhere or do anything if she has to, but would prefer to float through life without any obligations. (Me too, kid. Get in the car.) My husband stands in the wrong place or something and annoys me because he’s not in my head and I’m mad at him for not doing what I’m thinking of asking him to do because I didn’t leave enough time to get ready. Once we get to church it’s an hour of picking up thrown books, handing out this week’s Magnifikid to my daughter if I was smart enough to bring it, handing out last week’s Magnifikid to my son to color on and having him flatly reject it (sorry, you can’t read, so you don’t get your own subscription), and convincing both children that Daddy will, in fact, come back after being an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. He didn’t go away to war.

And if it’s a weekday Mass? All that an hour earlier and by myself. Do you know how much ambient noise there is at a weekday Mass? None. Do you know how much noise my tired cranky children produce? Not none.

Wearing a veil has become a physical reminder to myself that I am in the presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament. I am participating in literally the most important thing I will ever do. Not that the obligations of my family go away, but I am able to switch my mind back much faster and focus much more after distractions.

It’s Not About Me

Wearing a veil at Mass has changed the way I feel about myself as a woman in unexpected ways.One of the concepts that I love is that we veil what is sacred. The tabernacle and altar are veiled. Women are sacred- we have a duty unlike any other. We have the privilege of veiling before the Lord that men do not.

When wearing a veil at Mass, I am not Kathleen anymore. I’m not the girl that’s worried about her forehead wrinkle and that weird hair that sticks up at my hairline. I am a daughter of God, and I am able to be much more humble before Him. It is not about me.

As someone who can tend towards the sin of vanity, I had hoped that this would happen and it has truly allowed my relationship with my God to deepen.

Sacred Femininity

One thing I never expected was the way veiling would make me feel about my femininity and even my fertility.

Since I had my son four years ago, my attitude towards my fertility was that it was basically a long slog towards menopause. I had (have) grave medical and psychological reasons to avoid or postpone subsequent pregnancies. Super fun when you practice NFP and you’re not even thirty yet.

But veiling has made me focus on my femininity. That focus has made me realize that while I don’t know if I can handle a pregnancy now (or in the near future), my fertility is a sacred gift from God and not something to be merely managed. The power and privilege to have the ability to carry a child (with regards to how God designs us, not restricted to married or fertile women) is unbelievable, and I am so unbelievably lucky that I get to experience that.

Veiling is not for every woman. It is not required for Novus Ordo Masses (although I wear mine at NO Mass), and if it makes you uncomfortable this is clearly not the sacramental for you. But if you are intrigued by the idea, I suggest giving it a try. I promise, you will never think about yourself before the Blessed Sacrament in the same way again.

 

Categories
Ink Slingers Misty Spiritual Growth

Viral Photos Change the Sacred to the Profane

Viral Photos Change the Sacred to the Profane
A perfect example of how we’re now more focused on documenting our lives than living them. (Photo by John Blanding of The Boston Globe)

Making the Facebook rounds recently was a photograph of a father comforting his extremely sick toddler in the shower. The photo has generated controversy, as Facebook has waffled on whether it violates its community standards against nudity.

What troubles me is how few people see the real problem with the photo–that it puts on public display a private moment of love that ought to have remained private. Which begs a bigger question: Is there anything in our lives–even the most sacred–that we prudently shield from the glare of social media?

I’m sure the mother who took the photograph had good intentions. As she’s said about the photo, “I was just overwhelmed with the scene in front of me. This man. This husband and partner and father. He was so patient and so loving and so strong with our tiny son in his lap. His whispers of reassurance to Fox, that he would be OK and that Thomas would take care of him were so steady and so honest.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve witnessed countless intimate scenes of sacrifice from my husband toward our five children. More than once, he’s cradled them in his arms while covered in vomit, wearing nothing but boxers, because they woke him up with the flu in the middle of the night. He’s cared for them while throwing up himself. He’s wrapped himself around them on the floor or held them in the shower to combat respiratory illnesses or cradled them in the bath while they’re infants. 

Yet never once did it occur to me to not only document those moments, but to display them to the world. 

When Facebook first arrived, I joined up just like everyone else. But as the years have marched by, I’ve dialed back my participation to almost nothing. Mainly because I saw the platform nurturing vices of pride and self-absorption in myself and others. More troubling was how the relentless Pollyanna snapshots of other people’s lives left me feeling inadequate as a mother, wife, and even child of God. I wasn’t at all surprised to see a recent study showing that depression increases in teens with increased social media use.

 

Viral Photos Change the Sacred to the Profane - Few know that 30,000 Americans died at Iwo Jima, making this iconic photograph one of the most staggering exampled of human suffering and sacrifice.
Few know that 30,000 Americans died at Iwo Jima, making this iconic photograph one of the most staggering exampled of human suffering and sacrifice.

We ought to consider where our obsession with documenting and displaying every moment of our lives is taking us. A revealing and massive new study showed that Millennials in particular say they value “money, fame, and image” most of all. Image–again, not surprising for a generation taught to covet others’ applause through social media.

Instead of living our lives and being enriched by our experiences, we’re more concerned with whether a moment will garner us attention and envy from others. Today, even the most personal and sacred moments of one’s life are fodder for public consumption, as evidenced by the couple that live-streamed the birth of their child on Monday. This is one area when the wisdom of our elders ought to be grasped with both hands, as shown in the first photograph. 

There is an appropriate time to share intimate moments; after all, some of our most poignant and powerful images have captured life’s most profound moments for posterity. Think about the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima; the soldier kissing a nurse in Time’s Square to celebrate the end of World War II; bodies falling from the tower on 9/11. The difference is that these photos were originally anonymous; their participants had to be ferreted out and even now, few know the people captured. These images are iconic and powerful because they represent all humanity and our universal joys, sacrifices, and sufferings. 

Viral Photos Change the Sacred to the ProfaneBy putting the picture of her husband and son’s shower on display, however, photographer Heather Whitten limited the photo’s impact and fell prey to the narcissism so prevalent in social media. She exposed a private family moment to the harsh glare of the public, and sacrificed her son’s privacy to do so. If the photo had been shared anonymously, it would have represented all loving fathers. But instead, we got a photo highlighting one specific father’s love. What could have offered poignant insight into the human father’s great capacity for love is instead just the latest platform for self-aggrandizement. 

There’s a reason we say these photos go “viral,” folks.