Labors of Love and Ministry

I’m overdue on talking about the Sacred Art Show that my wife and I attended in Omaha on October 20. While we only made it for the final ninety minutes I was able to spend that time viewing and discussing their crafts with several of the artists, a list of which is here.

“Going Home” by Sondra Jonson

The first artist I was able to speak with was Sondra Jonson of Cambridge, Nebraska. Jonson became well known to Nebraskans and eventually the world when she sculpted “Rachel Weeping for Her Children”. Editions of this statue are located in Nebraska, New York, South Dakota and Iowa. Sondra has also created veterans memorials and my favorite among them is “Going Home”. While I enjoyed finally getting to see her work in person I very much appreciated the fifteen minutes we were able to spend with her one-on-one talking about a favorite ancient icon of mine: Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Sondra had been commissioned to sculpt the icon by St. Robert Bellarmine parish of Omaha. It was to be the first time ever that this holy icon had been translated into sculpture. Realizing how little she knew about it Sondra dove into studying and learning all she could about it. In those fifteen minutes she glowingly gave a history lesson to me about this image that I won’t soon forget.

Next I spent some time speaking with Elizabeth Webster of Ad Orientem Sacred Art. What caught my eye at Miss Webster’s table was a manuscript illumination of “O Virga ac Diadema”. It stood out to me because it looks like a page straight out of a prayer book that monks would have created centuries ago: lines of musical staff with notes and Latin chant; a large iconic image in the upper left; and a border of gilded decorations. The saint depicted in the large letter “O” in the upper left was St. Hildegard de Bergen, a mystic who just this month was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI. I spent several minutes talking with Elizabeth as she explained the techniques she used for the image, and talked about what was most difficult about it (planning and creating the straight lines for the musical staffs) and the easiest part (“The gilding and flowers on the borders. That’s when I really just get to play!”). According to her website biography she is in the process of creating a new studio of traditional sacred art here in Lincoln. I hope she’s successful.

The third artist I spoke with was Jerome Quigley of Bloomfield, Indiana. When I’d learned he was going to be at the show I made my decision to attend. I had stumbled across his Traditional Wayside Shrines website earlier in 2012 while researching something I’ve since forgotten. I spend almost forty minutes discussing his hobby (his “real” job is being an industrial engineer) and how he got his start. He’s lived and worked in Bavaria and it was there while observing the many roadside shrines that still exist today he hatched upon the idea of creating one for his own property. As is the case with most artists visitors to his home loved what he’d created and commissioned their own. From there it has mushroomed. We talked about wood, design, selecting the right statue and ideas for future works. We were suddenly talking about history and traditions and it was like finding a kindred soul. He had also lived in England for a time and spent five minutes giving me a history lesson about the shrine at Walsingham in England. It was a shine that at one time was the second or third most traveled pilgrimage until it was destroyed by Henry VIII after he left the Catholic Church and created his own church with himself as its head. This despite the fact that as a young man Henry had devoutly made the pilgrimage himself. I enjoyed meeting and talking with Jerome and plan to stay in touch with him. (Maybe I should write a letter.)

I’ve room for one more. The last artist I spent time with was Joan McDonough of Omaha. Her business is Tread & Brushstrokes. She is an avid quilter but what drew me to her exhibit were the beautiful icons she had painted. Her online profile says that she has been painting them since 2004 and was trained by the Prosopon School of Iconology in Whitney Point, NY. She also told us about the six-day workshops she has attended that presented a study of the Byzantine-Russian tradition of sacramental icon writing. Whatever she’s learned it has worked. Her icons were simply beautiful.

Omaha artist, Joan McDonough, demonstrates the process of painting a traditional icon using egg tempera and gold leaf.

We spoke with more artists and admired their works. There were portraits, photography, and jewelry on display and on sale. I only wish we had been able to afford one or two for our home or for gifts but with the recent remodeling we had done it wasn’t an option.

What struck us the most in speaking with these artists was that all that they do is seen by them as a labor of love and of devotion. It is their ministry, and in their own small way they are spreading the gospel. From what I saw they are having a joy-filled time doing so.

Postcript: I had never heard O Virga ad Diadema. Here’s what appears to be a more traditional version. And proving that medieval saints are always hip, here’s a techno-version of sorts of St. Hildegard’s song:

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