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Starting in the new year, we will post, each week, four works of art from the judges’ short list not included in the Christmas JESUS at 2000 supplement.

Jesus 2000

“Jesus of the People”
Janet McKenzie
Island Pond, Vt.


“Jesus of the People,” a dark-featured figure modeled on a woman, is Sr. Wendy Beckett’s choice as the winner of the National Catholic Reporter’s worldwide art competition, Jesus 2000.

Janet McKenzie’s work was chosen from among 1,678 entries submitted by 1,004 artists from 19 countries and 6 continents. A panel of three art experts selected 10 finalists, with Beckett picking the winner.

“ ‘Jesus of the People’ simply came through me,” said McKenzie, 51, of Island Pond, Vt. “I feel as though I am only a vehicle for its existence.”

“This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus -- dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence,” Beckett wrote of the winning image.

Beckett is known around the world for her British Broadcasting Corporation art documentaries.

Michael Farrell, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, said there may be more to this dark, indigenous Jesus than meets the eye.

“When the church was overwhelmingly a Western institution, we in the West made Jesus in our likeness. But now at last Christianity has spread to the ends of the earth as the founder once prayed it would,” Farrell said.

“Much of the church’s energy, and new vocations, have moved from Europe and the United States to the Third World, so perhaps this work of art is a preview of how Christianity will flourish, and what kind of divinity it will look up to, as the next millennium unfolds.”

In second place was “Yeshua,” by Peter De Firis of Frenchtown, N.J.; in third was “The Taking of JC,” by Joseph Pisani of Fairfax, Va.; in fourth was “Study for Christ,” by Melissa Weinman of Tacoma, Wash.

“Let me emphasize that each of these works truly speaks of Jesus to our age,” Beckett wrote. She said that at various stages in the judging process five different works were her “final” choice.

McKenzie, a professional artist who lives in a 19th-century home in northeastern Vermont, said her work has always walked a “spiritual path.” In the early 1990s, however, she began to feel discomfort with the art she had been producing, mostly images of white women.

“I realized that my nephew, a mixed race African-American of 9 or 10 living in Los Angeles, would never be able to recognize himself in my work,” McKenzie said. “I determined to be more varied, to make a racially inclusive statement.” Since that time, McKenzie said she has worked with a variety of racial types.

A solo exhibit of McKenzie’s work, “Women: Voices Across Time,” will be on display in Manchester, Vt., in February and March. In 2,001 the Marian Library at the University of Dayton will host an exhibit of what McKenzie calls her most “spiritually significant” work.

An African-American Madonna and child McKenzie painted was featured in Christianity and the Arts magazine in 1998, where it caught the eye of Cardinal Francis George, who purchased it for the Chicago archdiocese. McKenzie sent it off to Chicago just a few weeks ago.

McKenzie’s commitment to inclusivity shines through “Jesus of the People,” an oil painting that took the artist approximately three weeks to complete.

“I decided I would use a female model,” McKenzie said, “to incorporate, once and for all, women, who had been so neglected and left out, into this image of Jesus.” The model was an African-American woman who lives near the artist.

The resulting image is masculine, McKenzie said, but a man whose features reflect feminine elements.

McKenzie pointed out that in her painting Jesus’ hand is near his heart. “It’s a very subtle point,” McKenzie said, “but one I knew I was making.”

The yin/yang symbol, McKenzie said, represents perfect harmony, while the feather connotes transcendent knowledge and also pays homage to Native Americans. The pink in the background, McKenzie said, is both a feminine reference as well as being the color of blood - hinting at both suffering and redemption.

Despite wearing a crown of thorns, McKenzie’s Jesus does not seem anguished. “It’s a total acceptance of his fate, and that’s what the painting is about - acceptance,” she said.

“The painting is really very simple,” McKenzie said. “I want to remind people of the importance of loving one another. I hope people are able to go to the essence of the work, which is kindness and peace.”

McKenzie said she was delighted that Beckett saw a shaft of wheat or a lance where McKenzie had intended a feather. “That’s lovely, because she had the openness to see it her own way,” McKenzie said. “It’s not important that it stays how I designed it if the art is doing its job.

“As I said, I didn’t feel I was in charge of this painting. It came through me. So I might not even be the one to ask.”

McKenzie said she grew up as an Episcopalian but does not have “a connection to one institution” at this point.

Peter DeFiris, 63, said his second place “Yeshua” is the only portrait of Jesus he’s ever done, and it grew out of his personal fascination with what biblical scholars call the “quest for the historical Jesus.”

“I’ve always been interested in the scholarship about that period - it’s been a hobby of mine for the past 30 years,” DeFiris said. The Catholic exegete John Dominic Crossan is a personal favorite.

“There were many other gospels around that were marginalized” in the early church, DeFiris said. “It’s the part not presented today that bothers me - like baseball in America. I never got to experience the so-called Negro Leagues, and now we know some of the greatest ballplayers ever played there. So at the core of all this is a search,” DeFiris said.

That hunger for lost truths led to DeFiris’ prize-winning oil painting. “In the middle of everything else I was working on, this just came out - there was no model, it just came out of my head. I guess it was the combination of everything I’ve read. I distilled it all into that face,” he said.

DeFiris said the lettering at the top of his image means “Yeshua,” the Hebrew version of Jesus’ name.

DeFiris and his wife Jennifer DeCristofaro live in Frenchtown, N.J., an artists’ enclave on the Delaware River. DeCristofaro is a well-known textile designer, responsible among other things for a line of Laura Ashley bath towels.

Though DeFiris is a full-time artist, he also drives a school bus part-time for an autistic little girl on a specially designed route. DeFiris drives the girl an hour and a half to school in the morning, then back in the afternoon.

However unusual, that assignment pales in comparison to the rest of DeFiris’ eye-popping résumé -- which includes working as a paparazzo for major New York papers in the 1970s, holding a bit part in “Beckett” alongside Anthony Quinn and Lawrence Olivier in the 1960s, and playing a small role in an experimental play on PBS produced by David Susskind around the same time.

“If I told you everything I ever did, you wouldn’t believe it,” DeFiris said.

Though DeFiris said he only goes to Mass “once in a while,” he said Catholicism remains the only religion that attracts him. “It’s the most interesting church in the world,” DeFiris said.

The Atelier Gallery in Frenchtown is currently exhibiting several of DeFiris’ river works.

Joseph Pisani modeled his third place entry, “The Taking of JC,” on a work by the Baroque master Caravaggio -- his “The Taking of Christ,” is part of the collection in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

What struck Pisani about “The Taking of Christ” was the way Caravaggio immersed Jesus in a scene from the Baroque era, lifting him out of his own time. “That must have been really daring,” Pisani said, “like me doing a painting right now of Christ being taken away by a couple of contemporary soldiers.”

“This is the first religious painting I have ever painted,” Pisani said. “I thought it might be a message to me to enter this contest.”

Pisani imitated his 16th-century mentor in another sense - where Caravaggio painted himself into his scene holding a lamp, Pisani can be seen in the far right of the frame shining a flashlight. Pisani’s wife also makes an appearance - she’s the one screaming. His daughter was the model for the soldier in the center with the glasses.

The work took Pisani about 30 days to execute, and is 30 by 40 inches in oil. He learned of the National Catholic Reporter contest as he was finishing the work.

Pisani has a distinguished background as an artist and graphic designer. He retired after 27 years in the U.S. army as director of the service’s graphic media division. In that capacity he decorated much of the interior space of the Pentagon. He also designed the command corridor for the Fifth Army headquarters in Germany at the personal invitation of Colin Powell -- earning him a mention in the general’s book My American Journey.

Pisani has also been tapped to do special design projects for both the Saudi royal family and the Saudi embassy in Washington. Today he runs his own business called Art Gallery 101 in Fairfax, Va. His own work is in several media - including paper, canvas, stone and bronze.

Pisani says he is currently working on a crucifixion scene and a “very unconventional” Last Supper featuring a group of homeless people sitting around a table in a subway station.

Like DeFiris, Pisani described himself as a Catholic who doesn’t go to Mass every Sunday; also like DeFiris, Pisani is a first generation Italian-American.

Melissa Weinman described her “Study for Christ” as depicting a Jesus who is “strong and alive,” someone who can be “tough for me in this uncertain world.”

This Jesus, like McKenzie’s “Jesus of the People,” has a very catholic visage. “His appearance is universal enough that he could be found in Tel Aviv, [Israel], Los Angeles, Milan, [Italy], Buenos Aires [Argentina], or Calcutta, [India]” Weinman, 39, said.

The work was executed in charcoal and contè crayon.

“Study for Christ” grew directly out of Weinman’s own religious experience. Growing up in a conventional Christian family, Weinman never connected with the church. In 1997, however, she was in Innsbruck, Austria, in the midst of a personal crisis. She found herself on her knees in a Catholic church, and she felt her prayers for guidance were answered.

“I don’t want to suggest that God is speaking directly to me, but it is a real dialogue,” Wienman said.

The painting seemed a natural way to explore her new relationship with Jesus. “The best way for me to know or explore something is to draw or paint that subject,” Weinman said.

The model for “Study for Christ” was a divinity student in Portland, Ore., named Matthew DuCom. “I was trying to make Jesus look like someone we would see in the present day,” Weinman said.

Weinman is a tenured associate professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., with an MFA from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her work has exhibited across the country, including a show in New York last February.

Before “Study for Christ,” Weinman spent years producing images of various saints. “I became interested in them primarily because of their attributes,” she said. An attribute is a symbolic convention that identifies a saint, usually connected to the saint’s legend. For example, eyeballs in a dish signals an image of St. Lucy, said to have been blinded and martyred during the Diocletian persecution.

“These people drew me in in a way that I didn’t expect, especially the female saints. I really sympathized with them,” Weinman said.

Currently attending an Episcopalian parish, Weinman said she once inquired about a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults course in order to enter the Catholic church but didn’t feel the time was right.

Weinman said she was delighted to hear of the positive response to her work. “Most images of Christ that we see are the very benevolent, comforting kind,” she said. “This is something different. I’m just elated that it’s as meaningful for others as it is for me.”

To order the supplement: www.natcath.com/public/artcopy.htm.

Janet McKenzie may be contacted at jmckenzie2000@hotmail.com

Reproductions of “Jesus of the People” may be ordered from Lasting Visions at 1-888-890-0005 or at www.lastingvisions.com.

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 1999