For the August edition of Faithfully, we asked sacred artist Maria Muszynski, founding member of Sacred Guild of Alberta, a Lay Association in the Diocese of Calgary, to share about her journey in the sacred arts.
Why becoming a sacred artist?
I was born an artist. But why the sacred arts? I have been journeying towards this path my whole life. A journey shaped by childhood experiences, unexpected circumstances, and twists of fate.
My father was a Polish soldier who fought with the Allied army and my mother was a refugee in a displaced persons camp. After the war, by chance, they both decided to settle in Calgary. My mother converted to Catholic Christianity when she agreed to marry my father. Mother’s side of the family were Russian Orthodox and we celebrated Christmas and Easter (twice!) with the extended family. On occasion I attended the All Saints Russian Orthodox Church and feasted my eyes on the iconostasis which separated the sanctuary from the nave. From the cadence and the passion of the choral voices singing the liturgy in the loft, to the intense images that were illuminated by hundreds of candles lit by the faithful – all of these elements left an indelible impression that shaped my sensibilities and my soul.
In comparison, the Queen of Peace Polish Catholic Church - which was the church we attended - was innovative on the outside (built in 1968 and shaped like a gleaming white teepee) but bereft of warmth inside because of its plain concrete walls and lack of imagery (minimalism and constructivism was “in”). Only a framed copy of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland, resided above the altar. Over the years, as the population of Polish immigrants increased, many contributed their talents to the beautification of the church. Today the stained-glass windows, once plain, resonate with stories while the walls are warmed with carved traditional architectural features and religious imagery. It is a testament to the transformational power of art and faith.
I began my personal journey into the sacred arts when St. Mary’s University offered a Sacred Arts certificate program. The first course I took was Painting in the Western Renaissance Tradition. Other courses followed – traditional iconography, calligraphy and illumination, and even stained glass. A trip to Italy to see the glories of Rome, Florence and Ravenna was a special highlight. In 2014, I was one of 5 students to complete the requirements for the certificate in the Foundations of Sacred Art. The Sacred Arts Guild of Alberta (SAGA) was conceived by a handful of like-minded souls who wished to delve even deeper. SAGA brings in local and international specialists in illumination, iconography, calligraphy, sculpture - and in the near future Byzantine mosaic - to nourish the skills and spirits of our guild membership leading to a wonderful resurgence in the creation of sacred arts here in Alberta.
Share about other artists who inspired you
My journey has taken me through many mentors most notably iconographer Peter Murphy, David Clayton (The Way of Beauty) and the brilliant illuminator Jeb Gibbons. I am also inspired by the traditional work of Aidan Hart, and the contemporary style of Philip Davydov, among others. I am drawn both to the classical Greek/Byzantine and Romanesque style of icons, and to Marian images in particular because of my Polish heritage. Like Saint John Paul, faith in Mary kept me strong through many trials and tribulations including surviving cancer.
Sacred art is not ‘art’, it is theology, it is a way of praying and connecting with God and all His wonderful creation. I am humbled that people have expressed their admiration of what I do, but I thank the spirit of God who moves through me when I sit and begin the first line. Every stroke is meditative and reflective and prayerful. It is an act of salvation, my connection to the divine. Peter Murphy and Aidan Hart believe that a fragment of heavenly reality is revealed within the sacred image, as it is revealed in the holy Scriptures and through the blessed sacrament. It is ‘extraordinary’ in every sense of the word.
Any advice for novices in sacred art?
The best advice for beginning sacred artists is to be mindful while you are working – hold the focus and pray. Breathe. Practice your drawing skills which is key. Find a good teacher or mentor who inspires you. Learn from everyone you can and practice. The typical stereotype of the hermit monk writing icons alone in his hovel does not fit today, so find and join a community of similar-minded artists. And practice more. Do not worry about the medium you use because it is the message of the image and the intent of the artist that are more important.
Writing an icon is like praying twice. “Lord Jesus Christ, God of all, enlighten us, imbue the soul, the heart, the intellect of Your servant.” So begins the iconographer’s prayer. And is it still relevant today? In the age of Covid-19 and all its’ uncertainties and anxieties - more than ever.
For the past few years, I had entertained the idea of committing myself to more creativity and development as an artist. In part, this meant eventually publicizing my personal work through different platforms, such as Instagram. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of working and serving multiple clubs during my time as a university student. This helped sustain my creativity while I juggled student life and served as an outlet to grow my passion and perspective on what it meant to be a designer and what kind of designer I wanted to be. Still, every time it came to my own art, never mind releasing it, I felt a lot of pressure, fear, and anxiety. It always felt like things had to be perfect before I was ready.
With the recent turn of events - quarantine hitting hard and fast – I found myself (blessed) with too much time and too much energy. I had fewer excuses and more reason than ever to focus on developing my work and in turn, releasing it. Really, it came down to “if not now, then when” and a reflection upon how I had gone through so many years just thinking about it, and how so many opportunities had probably passed me by while I was just thinking.
This has led me to the process of overcoming perfectionism. Perfectionism stalled me in taking that first step long ago and still to this day is something I struggle with. It was a detriment that set back growth and prevented me from focussing on the things that matter. I can’t say that all of the work I have put out there is near perfect, but it is so much better to be striving and learning (from action), rather than sitting paralyzed on the sidelines because of anxiety or even pride.
This is not to say that striving for excellence and obedience is wrong – in fact, it is what God calls us to do. However, it is imperative to remember that there is nothing to be earned or proven, because Christ has already earned that for us on the cross and while there is so much weight, in desiring to be perfect, in reality, there is no way to be perfect on our own. We are sinners who have only been redeemed through God’s mercy and love. In realizing and accepting this, there is a new hope and relief – because when we fail, we can trust that we are allowed to fall freely and live imperfectly, and still be redeemed; we can point others to this mercy and love. Suddenly, rather than pointing to our own accomplishments, it becomes significantly more important to be pointing people to God’s abundant love… and to His perfect sacrifice on the cross. These are mostly things I realized from creating imperfect art, and more of a reason as to why I choose to release mostly Catholic art on my personal portfolio.
In addition, this experience has opened up new opportunities and avenues for me. I have experienced a different type of growth in my faith and a new excitement from the flourishing community for catholic creatives online. There is so much zeal, drive, and innovation from the young generation and it is truly inspiring and hopeful for the renewal of the Church.
Striving to share my faith in a personal and different method has also been a great way to immerse myself in prayer, to devote myself to learning more about my faith, and to share more openly with people I may never have the courage or opportunity to share with in person. It has helped develop me as a striving saint, an artist, and a designer, and allowed me to incorporate my faith into other areas of my life. I am truly blessed and grateful for my faith and the opportunity to live freely and imperfectly.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers