What is a Catholic artist?
Timothy Matthew Collins designs buildings, teaches architecture classes at the City College of New York, writes essays for various publications, serves as the current President of Catholic Artists NYC, and makes theologically-inspired collages. He and Cole Matson co-founded Catholic Artists NYC in part to deal with a challenge specific to being a Catholic artist in New York City: what community existed amongst Catholic artists there remained, “notoriously parochial.” They envisioned an organization that connected these different groups as well as artists from a variety of mediums.
Collins noted that most Catholic artists in New York City must wear many hats like him in order just to pay rent. While he knows some liturgical artists that exclusively make art for Churches, most artists use their artistic craft to explore their faith while doing other professional work too. His professional work influences his own collage-based mixed media works such as Corpus Mysticum or Crawling Crosses.
Besides his architectural background on display, his use of collage to explore the reality behind the Eucharist is especially evident in these pieces. Going to Eucharistic adoration as part of a series that began in Advent put on by Sacred Beauty helped him develop this style. Collins said, “[Sacred Beauty] was trying to create a space where there is adoration, you say a decade of the rosary, they prepare interesting texts from saints, so it is very liturgically rich, but they are also trying to create a space where people can feel free to create.”
He continued, “The Eucharist is one of the central mysteries [of the faith]. Christ being present in a fragment of matter changes the meaning of all matter. I… had this moment of realizing that collage could be read Eucharistically, and the ephemeral nature of collage, the fact that things are passing away to use St. Paul’s phrase... Maybe Christ does inhabit that in a very fascinating way because he inhabits the Eucharist.”
Collins initially encountered collage through the 20th-century movement Dada, which makes its use as a conduit for exploring the Eucharist surprising. An anarchic-leaning art movement, Dadaism began as a response to World War I that glorified intuition for its antagonism to the hyper-rationality they blamed for the conflict. It eventually flowered into surrealism and other modernist movements. Notwithstanding Salvador Dali’s complicated foray into Catholicism, these movements are not known as being bastions for Catholicism or religion in general.
Collins has a multi-faceted response when asked how he navigates using this style in a Catholic context. For one, he notes the radical nature of traditional Catholic artists’ styles, such as Giotto, when they were first created. Although Catholicism infused the milieu from which the artist drew from much more heavily than in modern times, the innovations represented dramatic breaks from what came before. Those artists also benefited from a Church able to patronize and support their work, commonly lacking in our own time.
Further, he argues that Catholic artists can and should be the salt and light within these movements. Collins explained, “If Christ is king of the universe, if we really believe that… then he is king of trees and rocks and countries and weird abstract furniture and tennis shoes. And what we can do is be that leaven in the world [by distinguishing] what is true, good, and beautiful, and authentic in these things and identify them… In a sense we have to be fearless in that even in bad art, because it is created, it is made out of materials, it has physicality, there might be things that are redeemable about it even in very controversial art.”
Collins nuanced take on how art interacts with Catholicism grows from an equally interesting background. He grew up in Buffalo, New York and made his way to New York City attending Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art where he studied architecture. After graduating, he received a Master of Architecture degree from Syracuse University’s Graduate School of Architecture in Florence, Italy.
Paradoxically, his time spent in Florence surrounded by beautiful Churches and a more immersive Catholic culture contributed to him becoming more jaded about the faith. Most of his studies at the time focused on the complex political space the Church occupied in Italy rather than its identity as the mystical body of Christ.
He moved back to New York City working as an architect and eventually began teaching as a professor. His lukewarmness to the faith continued until he began reading new atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and others. Although originally attracted to the anti-theist sentiment, his exploration eventually brought him back to his childhood faith.
Collins moved on from new atheism to early-20th century German philosophy and critical theory. Although the philosophers he read did not associate themselves with any religion, the fact that they took religion and theological categories seriously inspired him.
He remarked, “I had this epiphany… In this matrix of description, there is a whole, and that whole is Christ… If Christ is real, he solves all of these big problems. Big problems of philosophy, these big problems of critical theory, these big problems about language that very very smart people are good at describing the problem, but they are always silent about the solution… then you start reading other things that lead you down a rabbit hole where you realize this could be real, and this is real. And you have spiritual moments where you encounter that greater meaning.”
Creating catalysts for such encounters is a goal or his artwork. Teaching and architectural design processes influence how he creates his art and how invites others to experience his work. “One of the ways we teach [architecture] is called a heuristic sense, which is learning by doing. So I can’t just tell you that architecture is X, Y, Z. You just have to memorize that and go do it. I can say, I think architecture is about this. Let’s do this project and see what happens… And in that process, there is a discovery,” Collins commented.
Although stained glass windows, iconography, and old paintings come to mind when someone mentions Catholic art, there remains a broader definition ripe for development. 20th-century American writers such as Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor give evidence to this in the novelistic form and Arvo Pärt provides an Orthodox analog in the musical realm. Collins shows one direction for visual artists to authentically infuse modern forms with the living tradition of the Church.
Jessica Gerhardt released her latest single “Gillian” on May 21st. The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter's primary instrument is the ukulele, which, with her vocals, make up the heart of the track. An assortment of synthesizers and electronic drums fill out the composition added by Michael Schneider. Gerhardt notes that the title of the track references the character Gillian from Frederick Buechner’s novel Godric.
Godric tells the story of an English saint, Godric of Finchale. When a young monk visits Godric to record the presumed saint’s story, his life’s complexity soon becomes apparent. Though Godric often played the prodigal, God continues calling him back home including through a mystical experience with a woman named Gillian. Gerhardt’s track takes the perspective of this watchful guardian telling her ward, “Don’t cling to me, but for your life, cling to the vine.” It ends with the repeated refrain reminding Godric that, “On this earth, all things are passing, passing away.”
This otherworldliness characterizes much of Gerhardt’s music. She released her first EP, “Words like Rainfall” in 2014 under the name Feronia. Made up of four tracks, the EP includes a cover of, "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)" by Talking Heads. Explaining the choice of the cover, Gerhardt said, “To me that song, in particular, is a prayer. And I think David Byrne [Talking Heads lead singer] admits it’s his only love song really. He tends to deal with just abstracts, but in that song, I often think of it as a prayer to the Holy Spirit… I have most certainly prayed that song when I’ve played it.”
Centered around Gerhardt’s vocals and ukulele, the song, along with the rest of the EP, features guitar, bass, keyboards, and (mostly) live percussion. She followed this release with singles including her own arrangement of the Pentecost Sequence from the Pentecost liturgy.
Last summer, she released her second EP, “Be My Hands.” Decidedly not typical praise and worship music, Gerhardt's lyrics still regularly display themes praising and/ or wrestling with the work of grace. The EP’s title track implores the Holy Spirit to, “Be my hands as I hold this person close to my heart./ Be my hands as I hold what is whole from breaking apart.” The proceeding choruses alternately ask this intercession for her eyes, words, and heart. Asking God to infuse the senses harkens to the traditional Catholic and Orthodox understanding of theosis or divinization whereby we, “may come to partake of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4) through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Some of the tracks still feature the ukulele, but this latest EP as a whole trends toward more electronic and experimental backings reminiscent of fellow Los Angeles musician Julia Holter and other contemporary indie songstresses.
Music played an important role in her life from an early age. Gerhardt explained, “[My dad] worked at Rhino Records in the accounting department, so he was always bringing home music and CDs [physical disks used to playback music from a bygone era]. Both of my parents were really into music when I was growing up as a kid, so I was exposed to a lot of different classic rock, and Motown, and all kinds of music, so it was always in the home.”
This musical background inspired her to begin creating music at an early age. Gerhardt continued, “I started writing songs when I was eight years old. But I didn’t play any instruments, so I just had melodies in my head, and I would write down the lyrics… I received a ukulele as a gift when I was 15, and I had one lesson from my friend that gave me the uke. And then I just really loved it and kept teaching myself how to play.”
Her faith life mirrors the organic growth of her musical talents. She began taking her faith more seriously following confirmation during high school, and she participated as a peer mentor in a youth group. This experience motivated her to join a small Christian group on campus at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Reed College is notoriously non-conformist, which she knew, but she was unaware of their unofficial slogan, “communism, atheism, and free love” before attending. Being the only Catholic in the small Christian group made Gerhardt more cognizant of the particularities of the Catholic faith that she largely took for granted. The first time she led in prayer, she innocently concluded with a Hail Mary to the confusion of others in the group.
Although music played an important role in her life, Gerhardt did not think of it as a career route until an experience with the group on campus. Gerhardt narrated, “One night they had this all-night vigil, and I took a shift at... [around] 1 in the morning on a Saturday night. So I was there, and I was the only one there, and I had the whole chapel to myself. So I started singing, and I basically felt this voice within me interrupt me, and say, “I want you to do this.” And I was like, “pray in the chapel at 1 in the morning?” and the voice was like, “I want you to pursue music.”
She was majoring in psychology and planned on going into counseling before this. After grappling with the experience, she graduated from Reed and moved to L.A. continuing to make music. While doing this, she took a full-time youth ministry position at a local parish, which she never envisioned herself doing. Gerhardt continued in this position until stepping down last year to pursue music and other creative endeavors full time. She sees the work of providence in how her life continues to unfold that confirms her decision to pursue music. “So far it has not been the journey that I would have picked for myself or predicted, but it has been very life-giving,” Gerhardt remarked.
Catholic themes saturate Gerhardt’s music, but they rarely come across as straightforwardly as Christian themes occur in much of modern Christian music. In this way, her music provides an invitation to a deeper spirituality for believers as well as a bridge for non-believers to begin thinking in terms of the Christian vocabulary. She cites Josh Garrells as another artist who openly espouses his faith while not falling easily into any narrow categories of how Christian music should be.
Carving out a space between Christian and secular music often proves trying, but being open about her faith brings surprising joys as well. Gerhardt said, “I’ve felt in the past couple of years that God is inviting me to be pretty open about [my faith]. And the result has been that I feel better because I don’t feel like I have to hide or compartmentalize aspects of my life, and I have also been able to get into really amazing conversations with my non-Catholic friends about things that I never thought they would be interested in or care about. But a lot of the feedback I have gotten, both from Catholics and from non-Catholics, has just been that they appreciate the way I am open about my faith without pushing it on anybody. So that’s how I hope to continue to be as an artist and a Catholic.”
Gerhardt played a quarantined-inspired Zoom concert on May 22nd in support of Gillian. She also recently started a Patreon, and subscribers received an additional St. Julian of Norwich-inspired track along with Gillian. Her music is available on Spotify, Bandcamp, and other online streaming services.
Cole Matson spends his time filling out small business loan applications and waiting on hold in long-distance phone calls lately. He is the managing director of Open Window Theatre in Minnesota. Their mission is bringing, “multigenerational professional theater with a redemptive vision to the Twin Cities,” according to their website. All of the theatre’s in-person events are postponed for the time being with the coronavirus upheaval, which explains Matson’s recent activities. Still, the theatre posts recitations of poems by actors and staff they are calling The Spoken Word Project to keep the audience engaged during this otherwise downtime.
Although Matson now takes on more administrative and behind the scene duties, he is an actor, producer, and theatre scholar himself. He bridges the worlds of performing arts and the academy giving him a unique perspective on how the two interact within the broader context of Catholicism, and his resume reflects this. He is the founder of New York City-based Catholic Artist Connection, he worked as a Programming Association for Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, and has been the editor of a string of Catholic and Christian publications dealing with the arts and religion.
Catholicism is the theological base that Matson works from in these endeavors, but he is actually a Catholic convert (Matson discussed his conversion on The Journey Home). He grew up attending a Presbyterian Church and did not truly encounter Catholicism until briefly attending graduate school at Loyola University Maryland. In the process of his conversion, he received an M.A. in Theology from Cambridge University where he lived in C.S. Lewis’s home as a scholar-in-residence. Even before becoming Catholic, Matson experienced the tensions of holding consciously Christian beliefs in the art world.
Through the fire
Prior to studying theology, Matson received his B.F.A. in drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, which proved not a congenial place for growing in one’s faith. Matson explained, “For the most part, the instructors I had were all about… [open] yourself up and get rid of all strictures including those constricting religious upbringings and sexual qualms… that you were raised with, and let yourself be completely liberated in order to be a good artist.”
When one professor learned that he enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, her comment was that, “fantasy is juvenile trash not worth indulging your time on.” The professors tended towards urbane realism made in their image and likeness. Somewhat amazingly, Matson maintained his faith and his love of good-natured fantasy through this experience.
These loves motivated his schooling and career aspirations following NYU. After getting his M.A. in theology from Cambridge, he attended the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland receiving his Ph.D. in Divinity from the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. He was more at home in this environment. “I saw that there were people… doing dissertations on C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, George MacDonald, Charles Williams, and I thought, these are my people. There were some people doing dissertations on theatre theology as well,” Matson commented.
At St. Andrew’s, Matson delved more deeply into the relationship between faith and art. Catholicism’s sacramental understanding of the world and the Church allow more penetrating insights into the dignity and purpose of art. Matson explained, “The imagination and images and stories... aren’t just lesser tools to illustrate the Gospel…, but stories and art actually communicate something of God to us in a way, which cannot be communicated just through the use of reason and through words. The experience of reading Lord of the Rings, for example, is greater than the experience of pulling out lessons to be learned from Lord of the Rings, and it’s that experience that strengthens you.”
This understanding of art saves it from falling into two different antagonistic utilitarian pitfalls. One is seeing art solely as self-expression, which Mastson encountered at NYU. In this view, which takes relativism for granted, there is no truth or even necessarily reality binding artist and audience. The most one can attain is a more comprehensive “my truth,” and the artist has no obligatory duty to do so or assist others in this anyways. We see this in self-indulgent conceptual art with little to no inherent beauty. Only those supposedly in-the-know can comprehend it, and it ultimately sours many people on the power of art and aesthetic.
On the other extreme, we find an overly-moralistic art sacrificing beauty and the complexities of human existence to portray clean-cut lessons for the audience. This tendency can lead to being overly sentimental. Flannery O’Connor discusses this idea, which can be attributed to many modern Christian and Catholic artists and audiences, in her essay, “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” O’Connor notes, “By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he [the modern Catholic reader] has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene.”
She continued, “He [the modern Catholic reader] forgets that sentimentality is an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence, and that innocence, whenever it is overemphasized in the ordinary human condition, by some natural law becomes the opposite.”
According to O’Connor, the distortions needed to create “clean art,” inevitably lead to counterbalancing perversion. A more deeply formed Catholic imagination views art as tied to truth, beauty, and goodness in a mysterious and incarnational way thus saving it from both extremes. Art can have inherent purpose, unlike the modern self-expressive doctrine, without being reducible to merely a means of instruction.
Matson’s current work with Open Window Theatre engages some of the modern complexities of effectively wedding faith and art. One of its founders, Jeremy Stanbary, previously ran an explicitly Catholic company called Epiphany Studio Productions. Matson explained, “[Epiphany Studio Productions] was formed in order to tell stories about the Gospel and about the saints for Church and school audiences, so it was stories by Catholics, about Catholics, and for Catholics.”
Although Stanbary remains unabashed about his Catholicism, and many of the people working for the company like Matson are Catholic, a broader vision guides Open Window. Matson confided, “The plays that we do don’t necessarily come from Christians, don’t necessarily have Christian or Catholic content in them, but the arc of the play is resonant with the arc of the Gospel, which is that suffering leads to death, leads to resurrection through the grace of God… [this] is what we are looking for.”
Matson continued, “Because you do not have to be Christian to be moved by and believe in that arc. But at the same time, because the founders of the theatre and a lot of people that work with the theatre are Christian, a lot of our patrons are Christian because that arc comes from Christ. We do have a large audience base who are Christian, and Catholic in particular, who are looking for plays which shine the Gospel even if they are not directly labeled as being related to the Gospel… We are trying to bring that arc of redemption to the wider secular theatre community in the Twin Cities.”
In this way, the company holds itself to high-quality theatre standards while maintaining content standards informed by a developed Catholic conscience. “Our aim is to become one of the premier professional theatres in the Twin Cities… to be known as a theatre which does good work that stands up amongst its peers… while also our audience knowing that anything they come to see will encourage them in faith, and hope, and love, and not be nihilistic or full of nudity or profanity or anything like that.”
Through his conversion and these many projects dealing with the intersection of faith and art, Matson discerned the beginning calls to a religious vocation he is currently parsing out. He has talked with many artists experiencing a similar call who are unable to find a home within communities that are hesitant to carve out a space for individuals inspired to minister through the arts. He is in contact with people on possibly beginning a community dedicated to this purpose and encourages artists who feel a similar call to reach out to him. His website with contact information is https://colematson.com/.
Faith and (art)works
Catholicism is the common thread connecting a sculptor, a director, a poet, an actress, and a playwright in Cristian Murphy’s documentary Masterpieces. Released in 2019, it marked the 20th anniversary of now St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists.” The letter remarks, “Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”
While the film has a special poignancy for artists, it serves as a guide for all looking to more deeply integrate their faith and the particular vocation to which they are called. The viewer is struck by the organic way the different artists harmonize their faith and craft throughout the work. Murphy, being a Catholic artist himself, sees his faith as a source of creative inspiration, so he does not get caught up in the novelty of a Catholic that is also an artist. Instead, he delves into the mystery of this call that Catholic artists have, which ultimately gives the documentary its depth and dynamism.
Madison Mitchell is the actress the film highlights. In the documentary, she discusses how her parents set a solid faith foundation in her life by always going to Mass on Sundays even on performance days. Still, she struggled to articulate the connection she felt between her faith and her craft for some time. Mitchell mentions, “I think when I connected my artistic career/ vocation with the spiritual aspect, it maybe was happening more subconsciously before I had the language to identify it as that.”
St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” helped her express this connection more eloquently. Mitchell continued, “When I first heard and read St. Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to the Artist”... I was like, that’s me! … I felt like, it’s not weird, it’s not crazy. This is a call, and it’s a vocation. And that really gave me this boost of [being able] to totally identify myself as a Catholic artist, and that’s wonderful, and I love it.”
Talking with Murphy, he recognizes that many young Catholic artists struggle with reconciling their faith with their drive to create. Murphy related, “I made [Masterpieces] as a letter to the 18-year-old version of myself. That is the movie I wish I had when I was 18 when I was discerning everything in life. There are so many great movies out there about if you are discerning priesthood and if you are discerning sisterhood and all of those things… We struggled to find anything that spoke of the layperson that wants to create… So that was kind of the backbone of [the film]."
The fact that there is a felt need for documentaries such as this is telling. Our generation grows weary of organized religion as countless studies on Mass attendance and faith surveys show. This not only affects those leaving the faith but also influences the living faith of those remaining as the relationship between religion and secular culture becomes more tenuous. On the positive side, it is more clear that following Christ is a conscious choice made each day. This can give a deeper sense of purpose and camaraderie to those remaining (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...”) To fellow contrarians, this is excellent!
A fragile relationship between faith and secular cultures comes with inherent difficulties as well. T.S. Eliot notes some of these difficulties in his essay, “Notes towards the Definition of Culture”. Eliot sees religion and culture as naturally co-dependent. When the relationship begins to disintegrate, “Religious thought and practice, philosophy and art, all tend to become isolated areas cultivated by groups in no communication with each other. The artistic sensibility is impoverished by its divorce from the religious sensibility, the religious by its separation from the artistic.”
In the context of film, we see this play out in the modern “Christian movie” market that, without mentioning specific films, many see as an impoverished artform. While he is careful to not cast a blanket statement over all Christian movies, Murphy explained, “[It seems to me] that some of the Christian movies, I won’t say all, but some of them are a bunch of people who are taking advantage of the… Christian audience that wants to watch something good. And I really get offended by that… And they’re lining their pockets with millions of dollars off of this industry.”
Murphy’s film, while clearly Catholic throughout, has little relation to these. He credits the documentary format as being part of this distinction. He also has a broader view of what a Catholic film is. He discussed several films that, although not made by Catholics or even Christians, have inspired him. Murphy believes that these films, in their honest depiction of human life and reality, point towards hope and inevitably Christ.
St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” shares a similar message. While the ideal of artists must be a true depiction of goodness and beauty, the late pope recognizes that this road often leads through, “the valley of the shadow of death.” St. John Paul II observes, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”
A new vision
Murphy’s love for drama began at a young age and started blossoming as he attended film classes. Murphy explained, “When I was in high school and college, I took some classes… and I just fell in love with editing… [I realized that] this is really powerful… how image and sound and all this can just come together to give someone an experience. It is really moving, and I just fell in love with it. So any chance I got from then on, I would pick up a camera and try to make something.”
Murphy spent time on film crews but decided that he was not called to study film formally. He went to school for business and got a Master’s degree in ministry and religious education. He previously taught theology and currently works as director of campus ministry at his alma mater besides running his film production company Dark Roast Films. Here, he is able to maintain creative control and be selective about the projects that he undertakes.
A recently completed project has been one of his favorites and highlights what he loves about film. Murphy commented, “My grandma-in-law, she just turned 90 years old, and she is a great-great-grandma… She has eight children. All of the children are still alive and very involved in the family… Her family is still so all invested, and this grandma is still the nucleus of everything… I was asked by my mother-in-law to put a film together about her… It ended up being this 17 minute film about her… And to share that with them, and to watch it with them… And to watch with grandma, and to see the emotion, and how all of their stories and all of their feelings towards this one human came together into this piece that we are all able to have and experience… I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it, but that’s what [film] can do.”
He just finished the script for his next project entitled Windows, which is a drama about a young musician. Although not as explicitly religious as Masterpieces, he has found a home amidst the resurgent creative milieu of Catholic artists. Murphy concluded, “I’m really excited to see what the Church is doing with art. I feel like, maybe I am just waking up to it, but I also feel like there really has been a new renaissance of just great artwork and great materials and resources that are bringing people to their faith in authentic ways. And it is really exciting to be a very very small part of that. And I am really excited to see what happens moving forward and to see how many people are stepping up to the plate and taking ownership of their faith and their craft. It is an exciting time to be doing this stuff.”
More information on Cristian Murphy’s film production company can be found at https://www.darkroastfilms.org/, and more information on Masterpieces can be found at https://www.masterpiecesthefilm.com/. Masterpieces can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video and Formed.
“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
On a rainy Thursday evening in March amid compounding concerns of the COVID-19 about fifty people watched the formerly New York-based Catholic spoken word poet Clare McCallan perform. The show took place at Spacebar-- a former warehouse turned co-working office space located southwest of downtown Grand Rapids, Mi. that also hosts artists and musicians.
Spoken word poetry has a broad definition and attempts to democratize the classic idea of poetry, which is now perceived as elitist or comprehensible only to a few. Although poetry is meant to be heard, as the name suggests, spoken word poetry focuses heavily on the oral and performative aspects of the craft. McCallan encourages audience interaction and people could be heard laughing, “ahh-ing” in agreement, and snapping their fingers throughout the performance. Spoken word artists are known for their demonstrative displays of emotion and controversial topic choices. These characteristics make it so that many are surprised that McCallan is attempting to carve out a Catholic space in the genre.
This is a concern to which McCallan is sympathetic. Many of McCallan’s secular artist friends are scrupulous about speaking “their truth,” but few recognize Truth in the Catholic sense. Ultimately, their end goal is entertainment. Further, spoken word poetry is often associated closely with rap music that has its own set of negative connotations. McCallan explained, “The spoken word scene is [perceived as] a small tumour on the side of the huge rap scene, and whether it is poetry or rap almost 70 percent of the time what I am listening to I don’t agree with. Some of it really really bothers me especially when you get into the rap scene. A lot of it can be derogatory towards women… promoting guns and drugs… so that can be kind of painful, seeing people use gifts for the wrong things.”
As a Catholic, she has a different set of standards. McCallan explained, “Catholic art has to meet all three of the transcendentals. So it has to be true, beautiful, and good… If [my work] doesn’t hit all three of those, then I don’t propagate it. I don’t share it because I think that I as a Catholic artist have a responsibility to my audience. I also am of the belief that all work in order for it to be true has to be hopeful in some way because hope is the ultimate truth.”
Despite some of the difficulties of being a Catholic artist in a mostly secular artform, she feels called to continue her work and sees spoken word art in general as an excellent tool for the new evangelization.
“Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
McCallan traces her journey into spoken word poetry to the summer before her senior year of college at Franciscan University of Steubenville. That summer she did, in McCallan’s words, the, “very stereotypical backpacking alone through Europe thing,” which ignited her passion for travel. She returned to finish her bachelor’s degree in business while she and a friend began a blog about traveling on a budget that eventually took them on a winter vacation to Costa Rica. This was her first real foray into writing.
After graduating, she transitioned into writing more substantive pieces about her life experiences and short fictional narratives. During this time, she travelled and lived in different parts of the United States and even Calcutta, India where she spent time with St. Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity. In Calcutta, she initially took serious interest in spoken word poetry while she was bedridden with typhus.
McCallan believes spoken word poetry allows people to connect in unique ways. “To me it’s a very interpersonal artform and a connective artform because… my favorite thing, often to my audience’s dismay and discomfort, my favorite thing is to hold eye contact during my show. It is one of those rare forms of art where… you can really communicate with the people with zero distraction. There’s no one else up there with me. It’s… me talking in a way that is very intentionally supposed to be emotionally effective… It’s a very direct art of communication,” McCallan explained.
After Calcutta, she moved to New York City where she began performing at open mics at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, one of the world's most famous spots for spoken word poetry. Here, she had to get to the cafe hours before the event to reserve a five minute slot. She said she was visibly shaking throughout her first performance and for two hours afterwards, but she continued going back. While in New York, she was also working a variety of jobs including a retail position and as a director of religious education at a Catholic parish.
This past July, she discerned that God was calling her to spoken word poetry full time. She toured through different parts of the country with her work. She also lived in Plain, Washington for an artist residency where she created and memorized the performance for the Grand Rapids show. Being an poet full time came with a host of trials. McCallan stated, “There was an order of what would have to be sacrificed in order to make this dream a reality. And the first thing was a semblance of a social life, not that I had that much of it, but what I did have got thrown out. And then… not getting your nails done anymore, you’re not going to get your hair done anymore, you’re not going to buy clothes anymore, all your money needs to go to this. And then came time to quit the salaried job… And then came time to leave all the babysitting gigs and the dog walking… and then the last big sacrifice this required was getting rid of the apartment.”
Following the performance, she was heading to Boston and then supposed to be working on a poetry installation in Virginia.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1).
McCallan’s current tour is called “A Saturday Night Alone” and grapples with issues related to loneliness. Some of the pieces she performed focus on biblical characters dealing with isolation resulting from the mission God gave them such as Noah building the ark. The perspective in these often bounce between that of the biblical character and McCallan’s own life experiences. In this way, she demonstrates how the message of these biblical stories can infuse our lives today regardless of vast time and cultural distances between them.
Though loneliness can be a heavy topic, McCallan stayed true to her artistic standards and always allowed hope to have the final word. She encouraged audience members to invest in community and explained how shared service provides a strong foundation for bringing people together. Her work as a whole and the particular performance echoed St. John Paul II’s consistent message throughout his potificate to, “Be not afraid!”
While some may imagine that Catholicism would provide an assortment of roadblocks to being a spoken word poet, she sees her faith as a guiding light and inspiration for her work: “I just think that [Catholics] have the best cheat sheet ever with the transcendentals. [My work] does not need to rhyme, it doesn’t need to fit a schematic element. It just needs to be true, beautiful, and good.”
More info on McCallan can be found at her website: https://www.claremccallan.com/