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.