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Starting Point

Mystery of color, light


I have been looking out at the world for more than 70 years. I began looking out in the Canadian city of St. John, New Brunswick, a moody place of pine greens and sea grays, of brown and ochre houses on steep streets that run down to the harbor and the bay. The black Bay of Fundy is always rumbling in the background. The pale sun filters through permeating fog. The forlorn horn. The calling sea birds. The people scurrying about in woolen clothes, living their no-frills lives. It is a brooding-artist place of penetrating beauty. It is the place where I learned to look out and see.

My first attempt at painting was with watercolors. It was a water world, where two rivers ran together before passing over the falls to enter the sea. It was a place of lakes and rain and snow, where the wet glistening land reflected the sky and all objects in dark tones, where the bright sun on the white snow created silhouettes too deep to see into. Where the blue sea mists over the green land softened all edges and the scene was never still. The color flowed over the lines and revealed the ever-changing nature of the image I could never contain. The more I looked the more I realized that there is more out there than I can see.

St. John was also the place where I learned to look in and see out. I was formed in the womb of my Irish mother and bred in the bone of Irish culture. My spiritual life was nurtured on 16th-century Catholicism filtered through Redemptorist theology. It was a world of black and white, of good and bad, of saints and sinners, of the need for redemption. It was a space in the glow of stained glass apostles and candlelit altars, gold cups and white hosts, with the sounds of Gregorian chant and Latin prayers and rhythmic litanies. It was a place of symbols, the stuff of painting and of hidden beauty. Beyond those candles, beyond that altar, above that tabernacle was the mystery of reality. “I will go unto the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth.” My first uniform was a cassock and surplice, and the years of my young life were indeed joy-filled and soaked in the sacred.

I turned to gouache, an opaque medium, and set out to paint symbols. But symbols are not reality, and reality is not an abstraction. Abstract painting allows the artist to avoid contact with the real. When a fish is turned into a sign it loses its life as a fish. The crucifixion is an event central to faith, a reflection of the mystery of suffering and the divinity of forgiveness. A painting of the crucifixion is a convention, unless by one like Matthias Grunewold who could see in. I have been painting for 70 years and I know that to paint a picture one must be able to see out and see in.

I have walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. I have walked with Teilhard de Chardin on the road to Peking. I know that the sacred is within as well as without. I have traveled with Giotto who believed in everything and with Picasso who believed in nothing, and I know that one paints what one sees. I see reality as a mystery of color and form and light. The world is a sanctuary and beyond those colors, forms and light is the reality of God.

St. John is long ago and far away, and the world is hard-edged now. But God is still here. Now my hope is in love, not judgment, the faith of my youth is more profound, and in my studio there is always a work in progress on the easel. Every painting is a kind of sacrament, a visible sign of the invisible world. At its lowest level, it is decoration, at its highest level it is contemplation, a form of prayer. I have lived a lifetime of painting, a lifetime of grace and I say only one prayer: Deo gratias.

Laurence McLaughlin is a retired Catholic priest, now married, living, writing and painting in Long Beach, Calif. His e-mail address is marylar200@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2000