A Painter Quietly Changing the Culture

For sacred Catholic art to survive, it must be more than insipid images, more even than 19th-century realism.

You see a knife drawn across the throat of the priest. Blood drips down the front of his white vestments. Vested for Mass, he holds the Blessed Sacrament and three white roses and five red roses. Purity and martyrdom. Satan VA! (Satan, Go!) frames his head and the halo surrounding it.

Abducted by Islamists while saying Mass only a few years ago at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy, France, Fr. Jacques Hamel was made to kneel in front of the altar. The Islamists cut his throat.

The image is arresting and comes from the hand of artist Neilson Carlin, whose studio/atelier stands in a former mushroom factory in Kennett Square, an hour south of Philadelphia.  

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What does an artist look like? Not like Carlin, who more resembles a boxer or a New York method actor circa 1956. He says his nose was never broken, “it’s just Italian.” He speaks in a rat-a-tat-tat matter-of-fact way about how he got into fine art. He wanted to draw comic books. He wanted to be Walt Simonson, who worked on Thor, or Jack Kirby, who did the Fantastic Four.

Who inspires him besides comic book artists? Italian artists of the Baroque period like Guido Reni, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, and Giovanni Tiepolo. Carlin says Barbieri’s “‛Samson Seized by the Philistines’” reminds me of every comic book action panel that I loved growing up; huge figures twisting and contorted, the way everything is cropped, all the energy in it, the color. The first time I saw it, I recognized it in every comic book I read growing up.”

Carlin went to art school, the degree he now considers almost a total waste of time and money. Art schools had gone off the rails by then. He took a degree in illustration. His education began to take root when he finagled a job at the Franklin Mint, the marketer of collectibles, plates, statues, coins, and much else. He started at the bottom, cutting and pasting images for Franklin Mint advertising, and ended up doing years of illustrating.

However, his education didn’t take off until he discovered a teacher, the painter and illustrator Michael Aviano, who taught out of his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where Carlin would train one or two times per week for years. Carlin says the illustrators never went off the rails like much of the art world because they didn’t stare at their navels but had to communicate a message under contract for money.

Carlin first came to my attention when I saw an image of St. Gianna Molla wearing her doctor’s white jacket, holding a baby, surrounded by children, with babies flying into the air into the arms of the Blessed Mother. I asked on Facebook if anyone knew the artist and a few clicks later met this great artist.

The Gianna Molla image is one of Carlin’s enormous paintings for Cardinal Raymond Burke’s Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a hill outside La Crosse, Wisconsin. Four massive paintings—Gianna Molla, Bl. Miguel Pro, St. Peregrine, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux—in this remarkable sacred edifice were Carlin’s very first Church commissions. Before that, Carlin mainly painted still lifes and landscapes and sold them in galleries.

Baptized but not raised Catholic, Carlin came to the faith in his twenties, and besides illustrating and painting for galleries, he longed to follow his heart into sacred art. But unfortunately, there is not much of a market for that in the gallery world. But in one of God’s charming ways, Carlin went to a party one night in 2007 and saw a man he had met 15 years before. Anthony Visco, a painter and sculptor of sacred art, had been hired to direct all the art for Cardinal Burke’s shrine. An email later, Visco hired Carlin to paint two massive images and then four.

Since that time, Carlin has decorated many churches around the country. And he was commissioned to paint the image of the Holy Family for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015.

What strikes you in Carlin’s work is how visually and emotionally arresting it is. It is even shocking—the knife across the throat of Fr. Hamel; the hatchet in the head of St. Peter Martyr; St. Lucy crying blood, her eyes fixed in red roses, surrounded by the bones of a lamb; a clearly starving Maximilian Kolbe at Auschwitz; Fr. Truong Buu Diep’s severed head raised above his body with the image of the Communist Hammer and Sickle, almost religious symbols framing his head. Even the Communist star sits atop Diep’s head. Diep gazes intently right into your soul.

Carlin says for sacred Catholic art to survive, it must be more than insipid images, more even than 19th-century realism. There must be something creative about it and not mere copying from something staged. Carlin says he does not work endlessly from live models but works from drawings and imagination, like Tiepolo on his back painting sacred ceilings. 

He explains that what motivates him is not the perfectly staged photograph-from-life reproduction. What he finds interesting is something one shade removed from copying reality. He says if he has a model or a photo, he finds himself slavishly copying. This does not inspire him.

About the brutal nature of some of his images, Carlin says we go to church and see the suffering Christ on the Cross; so, in his work he wants to show how the saints endured for the faith just like Christ. He does not find the knife at the bloody throat or the decapitated head or St. Lucy’s eyes to be shocking. Without these real things, you take something away from what the saint endured. The image could be very sweet but more in the realm of holy cards. This is not to say that Carlin is a snob. He isn’t. He appreciates that even guys like Bob Ross and Thomas Kinkade could make careers in painting.

Carlin says he will be happy if he is known for three paintings at the end of his life: the starving Kolbe, the bloodied Hamel, and the decapitated Diep. Even now, as you read this, Carlin is working away in a former mushroom factory, quietly changing the culture.

[Photo Credit: Supplied by author]

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