Did you know you are called to make your life a masterpiece? Did you know, therefore, that whether or not you have the ability to draw well or create a polished sonnet, you are also an artist? The new Catholic documentary, Masterpieces, will inspire you on this journey.
My own artistic identity as poet and writer was as intrinsic to me from early childhood as my faith. It was these twin gifts that I would lean on when I was only 11 years old and my beloved father died. It was my faith and my poetry that saved my life. The career I’ve designed has been centered on the place where faith and the arts meet. So last year, when I received a call out of the blue inviting me to be one of the Catholic artists featured in the new documentary, Masterpieces, I was filled with gratitude for the chance to be able to show how, for me, a life as a Catholic and a life as an artist are two halves of the same heart.
Pope St. John Paul II thought so, too. He wrote about it eloquently in his 1999 “Letter to Artists.” This year, 2019, marks the 20th anniversary of the encyclical. To celebrate it, the documentary Masterpieces, directed by Cristian Murphy, interviews five artists: a sculptor, a poet/author, an actor/filmmaker, a dancer, and a playwright. As you meet each artist through their interviews and footage of their creations, it quickly becomes clear: these are people who live their art for the honor and glory of God.
There are common questions I receive when I’m interviewed about my role in this film. They are: can you really make a successful career as a Catholic artist? (Yes.) Does your faith conflict with a life in the arts? (No.) Are you ever looked down upon in the creative world for being a Catholic? (Probably. But Jesus was looked down upon plenty, so who cares? And, if you are true both to your faith and your talent, “doors will open where you did not know there were doors,” as Joseph Campbell would say when he encouraged people to “follow their bliss.” We Catholics know who our bliss is: it’s Jesus. And he is the Door to all good things, after all.) JP II explains that “the church needs artists” and “artists need the church.” He reminds with these words that from the sculptures of Michelangelo to the verses of Dante, from the compositions of Vivaldi to the paintings of Fra Angelico, the greatest art the world has ever seen has been Catholic. He also reminds that the dispositions of artists, inclined to be visionary and prophetic at best and desperate or depressive at worst, needs the Church to ground their God-given genius for beauty in Truth and Charity.
I don’t think it would be right for any one person who’s a part of this film to discuss it publicly without mentioning each of the artists in the film, and so let me shine a light on each of the artists. All are fusing their faith to their art and achieving success in the process. The maker of the film, Cristian Murphy, filmed a short drama titled Nazarene (Follower of Christ), illustrating the terror of a Christian held hostage by ISIS; produced pieces about an Agape community in central Massachusetts; and filmed the faith of the O’Regan family, who have five beautiful children including two daughters with Down syndrome. Much of Murphy’s work has aired on the Catholic Faith Network, CFN.
The sculptor in the film, Christopher Alles, is an accomplished working artist who is classically trained and who, like the Renaissance masters, is often commissioned by churches to sculpt patron saints such as St. Charles Borromeo or St. John Henry Cardinal Newman.
The award-winning actor and filmmaker Deniz Demirer‘s filmography includes five feature films as writer and director: Nocturnal Jake (2009), Not I (2010), American Mongrel (2014), Ezer Kenegdo (2016) and Chinaroom (2016) and a short, Simon’s Agony (2019). His body of work makes his faith apparent as it delivers a searing search for light in the darkness.
Madison Mitchell, the dancer, was in the ensemble of the 2016 Broadway revival of Cats and is currently touring the country as part of the National Tour of Cats. In Masterpieces, as she speaks about the connection she feels to God while she dances, she is visibly joyful and as she gazes out a studio window, the scapular hanging down her back bears witness to a faith brighter than any spotlight.
Playwright Brother Joe Hoover, S.J. has an impressive resume of directing and acting credits in Manhattan and also happens to be the Poetry Editor of America Magazine. He eloquently describes the importance of story as an “axe to break up the frozen sea within us.”
Yours truly has served as Writer in-Residence of the Walt Whitman Birthplace, and is credited with innovating a new poetic form, the “Mirror Sonnet.” My work has been featured in America Magazine, Our Sunday Visitor, The New York Times, and O: the Oprah Magazine. I’m an author of ten books and host of the Catholic radio shows, “Then Sings My Soul,” and “Destination: Sainthood,” on WCAT Radio.
Each one of the artists in Masterpieces is “successful” as a working and achieving artist. But for this documentary, each artist speaks vulnerably and frankly of a vibrant relationship with God.
Masterpieces is a worthwhile documentary to watch, bite-sized at 35 minutes, because it will inspire you with the confidence that YOU are an artist, too, whether or not you’re one in the conventional sense of the word. In the words of Pope St. John Paul II, “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.”
In the end, to be a great artist is to take the dark moments of life and juxtapose them with moments of great redemption. To be a great artist is to be vulnerable, to show glimpses of your soul and to give of it in order to create beauty. To be a great artist is to be willing to face rejection and to remain prophetic. To be a great Catholic is to do the same. May God bless you on your journey to follow the call of JPII to make your life a masterpiece. If we are successful, in the end we will hear the only review of praise that matters: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Photo: L-R: Filmmaker Deniz Demirer, Playwright Joe Hoover, Sculptor Christopher Alles, Filmmaker Cristian Murphy and Poet/Author Annabelle Moseley at the Premiere of Masterpieces at the Sheen Center in Manhattan, October 18, 2019)