Painting through the dark places

Art has allowed me to look at pain, grief and dislocation obliquely, instead of confronting them head-on.
Carrying the cross, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY.
You may have noticed that I haven’t done much this week. I finally collapsed from the ailment we dragged back from South America. Despite a slew of tests, no pathogen has yet been identified. However, our nurse-practitioner treated the symptoms. I’m almost back in fighting form, albeit very tired. Hopefully, my fellow travelers will recover as quickly.
Yesterday I attended a virtual meeting. One of my fellows, normally a very cheerful woman, was awash with anxiety. “I can’t paint!” she confessed. “I go in my studio and start, and then I go back and turn on CNN.” Later, I asked her if there was anything I could do to help. She elaborated. Her daughter has had COVID-19; she knows a young person currently on a vent and has lost another friend from it. She—like me—is from New York, the epicenter of this disease. That’s where our kids, friends and family are, and there’s nothing we can do to help them.
My heart goes out to her. It’s an awful thing to feel helpless in the face of disaster.
The Curtain of the Temple was Rent, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY.
When we were waiting out our confinement in Buenos Aires, I was thoroughly disinterested in the non-existent landscape. It was not until the end that I decided to start painting what I felt instead of what I saw. That’s not necessarily easy for a realist to do directly (although we’re all doing it indirectly). That’s why I started with the idea of home, and then moved to Blake’s Jerusalemfor inspiration. I could look at my feelings of griefand dislocation obliquely, instead of confronting them head-on.
Twenty years ago, I was asked to do a set of Stations of the Cross for St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester, NY. The request was made in the summer; by September I’d been diagnosed with a colon cancer that had perfed the bowel wall and spread to nearby lymph nodes. I had four kids, ages 11 to 3. My primary goal was to stay alive long enough to see them raised.
Finishing an art project seemed almost frivolous in the circumstances. I was especially disinterested in one that dealt with the horrific events leading up to the Crucifixion. That year was a late Easter, too, so by the time Holy Week arrived, I had a rough version finished, which I delivered in book form. (In some ways, I prefer it to the final Stations, for its very rawness.)
Veronica, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Rochester, NY. And before you correct me, I’m perfectly aware that Veronica is medieval fan-fic, but I think it points to a very human need to ameliorate suffering.
I drew in my hospital bed, from my couch, during the hours of chemotherapy. I wouldn’t have told you I was engaged or enthused in the least. When I was well enough, I arranged a massive photoshoot and took reference photos. The final drawings were finished the following year. They weren’t my best work, I thought, but at least they were done.
And yet, and yet… they’ve been in use for two decades since. And every Holy Week, I get a note from a parishioner telling me how much they appreciate them. I’ve certainly gotten more meaningful mail about them than about any other work of art I’ve ever done.
This year, St. Thomas’—like the rest of Christendom—is shuttered, its people observing the rites from afar. I’m not sure how I’m going to approach Good Friday in a season already penitential in the extreme, but there’s something to be said for routine, ritual, habit and movement. That goes for painting as much as for faith. 
May God bless you this weekend with a radical new way of seeing things, in Jesus’ name, amen.

A Good Friday reflection

It turned out to be much more work than I imagined, but it has proven to be an enduring tradition.

Carrying the Cross, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Twenty years ago, a member of my church approached me with an apparently-simple request: could I write and illustrate a Stations of the Cross for our Sunday school students? While we used a liturgy similar to Catholics, our belief system was very much Protestant.
Catholic Stations take the form of artwork hanging in or near the nave. They are generally in the form of bas-relief. My mother’s family is Catholic (although we were not) so I’d had plenty of time to contemplate the Stations growing up.
Gambling, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
The Stations grew from the tradition of pilgrims walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. This dates from the time of Byzantium. During the late Middle Ages, Franciscans built a series of outdoor shrines across Europe so that common people could also experience this meditation. By the 17th century, stations were being built within churches. They were a popular printed devotional; Albrecht Dürer’s Great Passion and Little Passion are the Stations in book form.
Eventually, Catholic Stations evolved into the fourteen scenes that are used by Catholics today. They include scenes that aren’t Biblical; rather, they are an imagining of that bitter, difficult walk to Calvary. In my naivete, I figured I’d just ‘correct’ them to make them more Biblically accurate. That was about as feasible as making a few quick adjustments to the Book of Kells for the modern reader.
The Crucifixion, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
No, a rewrite was in order. With the Gospels in one hand and a children’s book about the Holy Land in the other, I set out to make a new set of Stations.
And then disaster struck. I was diagnosed with a big, fat, robust bowel cancer. I spent the following year being radiated, poisoned and cut apart. Concentration was difficult. I sketched out the bones of the project, wrote the text and assembled my sketches into a first iteration. That was all I could do.
Piercing his side, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
In all, it took two years for me to finish the Stations. The church hung the pictures in the nave during Holy Week. I moved along to an evangelical church, and ultimately to Maine.
It gives me great joy that, this many years later, they still hang the paintings every year. Each year I get tagged in a photo from one old friend or another, with a note saying, “your stations are up.” There are children in those illustrations who have now graduated from college. Many of my older models have died, but others continue to worship in that same church. I still get a kick out of looking at the pictures and remembering them.
Stations hanging in the nave of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Rochester.
If you’re in Rochester, you can see the Stations today, at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, 2000 Highland Avenue. If you want to read them this Good Friday, the opening pages are here. Just hit the “newer post” button at the bottom of the page to continue. And have a blessed Easter weekend!

Welcome back to the Flower City

I’ll be teaching at Highland Park this afternoon. A break in the rain is a fine welcome-home.

Spring at Highland Park, Carol L. Douglas
Even though I’ve taught at Highland Park in Rochester countless times, I still needed to pace through it to determine the best place for my class. It’s chock-full of specimen plants. When they bloom depends on many factors besides the calendar date, as the organizers of the Lilac Festival know. This year, they were dead to rights. The festival (which closed this weekend) and the lilacs lined up perfectly.
Lilacs, like all mauve or blue flowers, make a difficult focal point for a painting. They recede just when they’re asked to take center stage, so they need architecture to support them. This the park doesn’t offer. Its lilacs are planted en masse, in a sloping forest, designed to overwhelm the wanderer with sight and smell.
Lilacs are beautiful, but they need an architectural foil to compensate for their color. (Painting by Carol L. Douglas.)
I looped through all my favorite haunts: the pinetum, the rhododendrons and azaleas, around the reservoir. With each turn, I remembered prior classes—Gwendolyn arriving from hospital in her robe, Sam eating a huge fried turkey leg among the flowers, Teressa wailing in frustration and then nailing a perfect drawing. Highland Park was the center of my teaching practice for many years.
The park was started on a twenty-acre parcel given to the city by George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry of Mount Hope Nurseries. It came with restrictions, but also with the gift of plantings from what was then a world-class nursery. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsteddidn’t want the gig because the site didn’t include a natural water feature, but he relented when Seneca and Genesee Valley Parks were thrown in.
Highland Park Pinetum, Carol L. Douglas
What Highland Park does have is glacial topography. It sits atop Pinnacle Hill, a terminal moraine in an otherwise flat landscape. Olmsted used this to create the illusion of wilderness in this most urban of parks.
The Lake Plain on which Rochester is located is sopping wet during the best of years, and the city has been breaking rainfall records all spring. Plants are enormous and healthy. The result is a jungle-like shagginess. I was reminded that much of my gardening work in the so-called Flower City involved hacking back plants to keep them in some kind of control.
I stopped to see the gardens at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, which I designed and planted (with much help, of course) back in the day. The gardeners-in-chief, Michael and Kathy Walczak, were hard at work replanting canna lily tubers. I then drove by my old house, and was pleased to see my plantings looking well.
Redbud blossoms, Carol L. Douglas
Gardens are cooperative art. Once you hand them over, you’ve ceded control.
There’s a break in the rain forecast for today, and Rochester’s normally heavy skies are expected to clear. I’ll be teaching this afternoon at my favorite spring spot of all, the path along the Poet’s Garden where the peonies meet the magnolias. It’s a fine welcome-home from my former town.

Stations of the Cross (1 of 5)

This week I am running a series of Stations of the Cross. They were completed during a deadly year, one in which I was being treated for an advanced cancer. For this reason—and because I was traversing new territory for myself—they’re uneven. But their power comes from the underlying story.

The language is simple, meant to be accessible to a child.

The originals are owned by St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, 2000 Highland Avenue, Rochester NY 14618, and are traditionally displayed during Holy Week.

The night Jesus was arrested.
On the night Jesus was arrested, he was brought to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest. Caiaphas and his council were looking for a reason to put Jesus to death.
Caiaphas was afraid of Jesus. He did not want to give Jesus a fair trial. He told his council, “It is better for you to have one man die than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
“Are you the Messiah?” Caiaphas asked Jesus.
“You have said so,” Jesus answered.
“Why do we need witnesses?” Caiaphas asked the council. “You heard him! What is your verdict?”
“Death!” the council responded.
They spat in Jesus’ face, hit him and insulted him.
The priests brought Jesus to Pilate.
The members of the council took Jesus to the Roman governor, Pilate. They were careful to stop at the gates of Pilate’s palace. They did not want to go into a place where people were hurt. If they did, they would no longer be clean and they could not eat their Passover meal.
“Take him yourself and judge him by your laws,” said Pilate. But the council could not have Jesus crucified, which is what they wanted.
The high priests carefully followed the law that God gave them. But they used the law to get what they wanted, not what God wanted. We choose how we use our gifts from God—whether for good or evil, to help others or to help just ourselves.

Pilate enthroned.

Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

“My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If it were, my followers would be fighting to save me.”
Jesus did not wear a golden crown or command armies. He wore a crown of thorns and knew his power was in God.
When we follow Christ, our power comes from God and no one can see our riches.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

The Way of the Cross

Carrying the Cross, from St. Thomas’ Stations of the Cross, now up for Lent.
A friend who is a parishioner at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Rochester sent me this clipping from their parish newsletter:
The Way of the Cross (also known as Stations of the Cross) is a traditional devotion during the season of Lent, particularly on Fridays. Originally, pilgrims to Jerusalem would walk the path of Jesus from his arrest to his crucifixion and burial, pausing at significant locations along the way. At a later date, fourteen “stations” were often erected in parish churches, so that all could join in this spiritual pilgrimage.
The Curtain of the Temple was Rent,  from St. Thomas’ Stations of the Cross, now up for Lent.
St. Thomas’ is fortunate to have sixteen original Stations of the Cross by noted local artist Carol Douglas. While some of the traditional stations are based on pious legend, Carol’s renderings closely follow the scriptural account of our Lord’s passion.
A booklet with prayers and readings for each of the stations is available in the church. You are invited to come at your convenience to walk the Way of the Cross this Lent.

Veronica, from St. Thomas’ Stations of the Cross, now up for Lent.
Thank you for your kind words about a project that was dear to my heart.
These Stations are up only during Lent. For more information, call St. Thomas’ at 585-442-3544 or email the parish administrator.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

America’s favorite folk art form

Nativity crèche at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester, NY. This follows the German custom of not placing the Christ Child in place until Christmas. I confess to secretly plotting for years with my friend Judie to steal this and resurrect it on our Town Triangle on a Friday night, in the belief that nobody could call to complain until after sundown on Saturday. But my respect for the crèche’s creator, Al Bullwinkle, always stays my hand.
Every November the United States schedules a ruckus over removing religious symbols from our public spaces. Despite that, the Nativity crèche remains our favorite folk art form, at least now that those plywood cutouts of gardener’s butts are passé.
St. Francis instituting the crèche at Greccio, painted by Giotto sometime around 1300.
St. Francis of Assisi is generally credited with creating the first Nativity scene. It was 1223, and he was attempting to center Christmas on the worship of Christ rather than on materialism and gift giving. It was a Living Nativity, and he staged it in a cave. Not only did he not make much headway against crass commercialism, the next year the Church recorded the first fight over who got to play the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Metropolitan Museum has a magnificent 18th century Neapolitan crèche set, which changes every year as they add new pieces.
The first sculpted Italian terra cotta Nativity sets were created shortly after that, probably because they couldn’t talk back. As crèches were scaled down to fit in homes, their construction shifted to include wood, wax, and plaster. Like other icons, many were forms of tow and wire with beautifully-sculpted faces and hands, dressed in lovely silk clothing. The custom reached its zenith in 18th century Naples. The Metropolitan Museum has an outstanding collection of these crèche figures.
Today there are plastic Fontanini sets from Italy, plaster crèches from Bavaria, Kraków szopka from Poland, carved-wood sets from South America, paper nativities—in short the crèche tradition has as many variations as the world has cultures.  Nobody loves them more than Americans, where we translate the Holy Family into Peanuts™ characters and turn nativity sets into collectibles that we then bid up into dazzling prices in our other art form, the marketplace.
Polish nativity set, or Kraków szopka. I have a beautiful polychrome nativity set, one made of pressed clay by my kids, and a mismatched plaster set made by my sister and brother and me in Sunday school almost fifty years ago. All are equally precious to me.
I live in a place whose town triangle in December is graced not by a crèche, but by a sewer-pipe menorah. Nativity crèches have great currency even here. I get great joy from peeking at them through lighted windows this time of year.
The blessings of the season be with you!

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

A Child Walks With Jesus

This morning, I was in the sanctuary at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church when I realized with surprise that the Stations of the Cross are on display—well, they would be, since they were made for Lent. (I don’t attend a Lenten-observing church anymore, and the calendar gets away from me.)

(If you would like to walk the Way of the Cross, it is done each Friday at 5:30 PM. The address is 2000 Highland Avenue, Rochester. Their full Lenten schedule is here.)
I made these Stations during my own personal annus horribilis, a year in which I was being treated for colorectal cancer. The quality is—looking back—uneven. No surprise there, since there were many days I could barely lift a pencil.
I was surprised to realize that they are also no longer on the internet in any form, so I dug deep into my archives and found copies of the illustrations and the original text, which I have reproduced here:
The idea of the Stations of the Cross originated in pilgrimages to Jerusalem, in the form of was later called the Via Dolorosa or “Way of Suffering”. This was an effort to understand in some small way the suffering of Christ by following him on the route of his conviction and execution.

 Gaudenzio Ferrari, Statue of Jesus climbs the Praetorian Steps, Polychrome wood, ca. 1510 Italy, Sacro Monte di Varallo (VC), Chapel XXXII

Of course, most devout Christians never get to Jerusalem. Attempts to replicate the Via Dolorosa experience for the rest of us appeared as early as the 5th century. Eventually these took the form of connected shrines, bas relief carvings on indoor or outdoor church walls, or woodcuts in bound books.
 Albrecht Dürer (1471 -1528), ‘The Large Passion: The Crucifixion’, Germany, About 1498
For both the points on the Via Dolorosa and the images disseminated throughout Europe, the term “Stations” was in use after about the 15th century.
By the 16th century, out-of-door Stations of the Cross were a regular sight on the approaches to many large churches—most commonly with seven settings, but ranging up to 30.

by Adam Kraft (1490) in Nuremberg
In 1731, Pope Clement XII fixed the number of stations at the modern 14. These are:

  1. Jesus is condemned to death
  2. Jesus accepts the cross
  3. Jesus falls the first time
  4. Jesus meets His Mother
  5. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross
  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
  7. Jesus falls the second time
  8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
  9. Jesus falls the third time
  10. Jesus is stripped of His garments
  11. Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross
  12. Jesus dies on the cross
  13. Jesus’ body is removed from the cross (Deposition or Lamentation)
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense.
The problem for we literalist Protestants is that Stations 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9  have no clear basis in the Bible.
So how does an evangelical proceed when asked to make Stations of the Cross for an Episcopal church? The Episcopal Church frequently hearkens back to what it calls its three-legged stool, which is in itself a recapitulation of Richard Hooker’s hierarchical ranking of doctrine:
  1. “What Scripture doth plainly deliver.”
  2. That which may be concluded “by force of reason.”
  3. That which “the church by her ecclesiastical authority” thinks and defines as true.
No room there for Veronica, no matter how lovely the story is.
Ironically, I could have just waited for the Catholics. In 2007, Pope Benedict approved a new set of Stations for Catholics, called the Scriptural Way of the Cross. Those Stations are:
  1. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane,
  2. Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested,
  3. Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin,
  4. Jesus is denied by Peter,
  5. Jesus is judged by Pilate,
  6. Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns,
  7. Jesus takes up His cross,
  8. Jesus is helped by Simon to carry His cross,
  9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem,
  10. Jesus is crucified,
  11. Jesus promises His kingdom to the repentant thief,
  12. Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other,
  13. Jesus dies on the cross,
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb.
One thing—the originals are the property of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, but the right of reproduction resides with me, the artist. And that I share freely with the world. Go ahead and share them with anyone who might enjoy it.