Last summer I received a message via Instagram from a woman who comes from a family which, I have since gathered, takes gift-giving very seriously. Mary had a concept in mind for a Christmas gift painting for her mother and wanted me to execute it. It was my honor to do so and the result is Ex Calibur.
The driving meaning of this painting is the long and loving marriage of Mary's parents. Deirdre and I had the pleasure of visiting with Mary when she took a mini road trip to my studio in order to hand-deliver these objects which are of great sentimental value to her and her family, especially her mother. During that visit, she shared with us about the pieces and their significance.
In the painting you see an unusual sculpture that consists of two parts: a cut Steuben glass orb (if you will) and a beautifully crafted sword. The glass represents the Stone of legend and the sword is Arthur's famous weapon, Ex Calibur. Mary explained to me that this sculpture is a treasured possession and meant a lot to her parents (her father has passed away). The couple had discovered it in a shop many, many years previous but it had been outside their budget, so they kept it in mind and saved up for it while raising a large and busy family. They finally purchased it as a celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary. To Mary, seeing it is a reminder of the virtue of patience -- not to be stressed when something takes time or has to be budgeted for, since her parents waited 50 years for this gift!
The rings are her father’s Notre Dame ring and a miniature that he had made for her mother - very important to them as a dedicated ND family! (You know I appreciated this, being class of '08, myself.)
The cards are postcards which Mary and I agreed should be included in the painting. They are souvenirs from the Shrine of St. Anne in Quebec and represent the devotion Mary’s mother has to St. Anne (the mother of the Virgin Mary). Mary noted that her mother enjoys the fact that the feast of that saint falls on July 26 and that she herself also has twenty-six grandchildren.
Working on this painting was an absolute delight, as Mary was an ideal patron. She was excited to share her story and to hand off the vision while also very kindly entrusting the composition and execution to me. We had a great time communicating with her throughout the process and then hearing about how the gift had gone over at Christmastime. She told us that reflecting on the painting has even been a reminder to some of the grandchildren to visit the grave of their beloved grandfather. On a technical level, it was an interesting challenge to communicate the metal and the glass in the medium of oil paint.
It is my hope that this work will prove for many years to be a worthy tribute to a long and devoted marriage and the loving family it yielded. This world needs steadfast marriages and I was very glad to celebrate one this way.
Visit my Commissions page and read Mary’s kind testimonial here.
Perhaps you’ve noted the two coins in the center of the painting, which were my addition (with Mary’s approval). I can tell you what their significance is, but first I’d love to know what your guess is as to their meaning -- tell me your guess in the comments below!
I'm very pleased to share with you one of my major projects from 2019: my first formal portrait in oil of my wife, Deirdre.
I set out with the cooperation of my gorgeous wife, Deirdre, to make a beautiful and elevated portrait of her. I have long wanted to attempt a portrait of my wife that was more than a quick pencil sketch (which I often have the pleasure of doing) and I'm very grateful that I was able to work on it this year.
We set about gathering together three or four different outfits a few weeks before the sitting. I took these outfits in the studio to coordinate and harmonize them with different background draperies and other props that I had well before Deirdre came in for the photoshoot. With this previous preparation we were able to set about posing and snapping photos of Deirdre in the context of my studio's wonderful North light. (I actually had her come into the studio on her birthday!)
During the process I would take dozens of photos, giving Deirdre some direction about her pose ranging from asking her to perform small actions like straightening her hair or setting out a fan to inspire or discover a pose that I had not yet imagined to asking her to tilt her head slightly one way or another to refine a pose that was already working very nicely. Every once in a while I would give Deirdre a break from posing and we would discuss the images that we had taken so far and she would be able to give me immediate feedback about what her favorites were. After about an hour and a half, 300 pictures, and various adjustments, we went back home to start the sorting and editing process.
Some work in progress shots:
After hours of sorting and editing I narrowed the source material down to four photos and let our Beauty Advocacy community help us decide on the final! (thank you!) Then the work of the final painting got started.
As we went through the development of the painting it was fascinating to both Deirdre and myself how the image was transformed. A painted portrait from a photograph can never be an exact copy (which is a good thing). It will always be changed in some way through human eye and mind. It was remarkable to see how some slight shift in an eyebrow or the curve of the lips could bring about large changes in the tone and expression of the sitter and the feel of the painting altogether. I hope that the crafting of these nuances has brought about a deeper and truer image of Deirdre than the camera was able to capture; one that is in fact more reflective of her personality, warmth, and dignity.
One of the last adjustments to the image that we decided to make was to change Deirdre's earring from a large wooden one that was in the original photo to a smaller, gold, fan-shaped hearing that you see here. I made this decision for a number of reasons - the first reason was to elongate the feel of Deirdre neck to give a greater feeling of dignity and grace - I felt the large chunky wooden earrings took away too much from the vertical lines at this particular angle. After this I tried a vertical silver earring which we found made the picture overall feel too cold. Finally we decided on the earring that you see here and we're very happy with the warmth and interest it brought to the picture.
I'm also pleased with the way the wedge or triangle shape of the earring plays into and interacts with the other triangles in the composition. If you take a look you'll see a series of these shapes in Deirdre dress, made by the angles of her arms, her fingers, and of course the shape of the fan at the bottom of the painting.
The fan is an antique one that Deirdre fell in love with at a thrift store when she a teen (and had a penchant for costumes and all things dramatic) and which her mother later gave to her as a gift. The bracelet she wears is also an antique and, although it's not visible to the viewer, is actually a Rosary bracelet so that it can be a sacramental companion to prayer. Hopefully the brightness of her face and some aspects of her character are complemented by these details.
I am thoroughly delighted with this completed the painting and we hope you will be too!
Now I need your help again: what do you think should be the title?
A few weeks ago I received a visit from local reporter Robyn Kenney. She took a look around the studio and asked me a few questions about myself and my work. Take a look!
It was a pleasure having you stop by, Robyn! Thanks for the spot.
For the truly time-pressed, find a 30-second teaser version below:
Things unreal have never seemed quite so real as in our present time.
The special effects of our movies and video games offer us worlds upon worlds that can occupy us, entertain us, and oftentimes distract us completely from the real world. Such experiences can often be pleasant and perhaps even harmless in moderation, but for our culture and society, so consumed by these images and the unreality they represent, they can become a poison that is constantly consumed. Perhaps these simulated realities are today's "opiate of the masses."
In stark contrast to this dithering and dizzying world of modern entertainment stands the mission of the Catholic Artist in our times. The Catholic Artist's task is to understand and imagine reality and create forms that reflect the beauty of that reality. As John Paul II said in his Letter to Artists: "Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality's surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery."
For many Catholic artists this involves trying to articulate and communicate some of the deepest realities of our Faith in tangible forms. Most of us will never physically see these realities in this life, but the work of the artist makes them visible, understandable, and imaginable to us. Thus, when an artist reverently and skillfully portrays the mystery of the Trinity, angels, Principalities and Powers, and the holiness of saints through analogy and symbol, crafting his medium and stretching his intellect to understand and portray these things, it would be wrong for us to dismiss them as "a pleasant fantasy" or to comfort ourselves like good Enlightenment thinkers saying "that isn't real." That would in fact be exactly and precisely upside-down. Rather we should be like Moses recognizing we are on holy ground - truly great Catholic art gives us a glimpse into the depths of reality that we so often blithely ignore.
I am very honored and excited - humbled as well, when I consider the potential of the task - to be included in a merry band of Catholic artists seeking to portray the beauties of reality as I have just described. When I first saw the Catholic Artists' Directory I eagerly looked through at my fellow artists and was very encouraged by what I saw. I encourage you to uncover the treasures of art that are being produced today by some of the most skilled workmen and visionaries in the Catholic tradition. I encourage you to look through and get to know these very gifted artists working right now across the country and the world and to start dreaming some big dreams. Perhaps some of these men and women could bring beauty to your parish or your home. Now is the perfect time to reach out.
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley. Thanks for visiting the Beauty Advocacy Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator.
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