Two years ago, my sister and her art professor husband Jim spent three weeks touring France to study Romanesque art and architecture. Visiting the great churches of Conque, Vezelay, Moissac, and Autun, they soaked up the simple and majestic beauty of Catholic carvings a millennium old.
Skilled as a potter and painter, Craft teaches art at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida. With an MFA from Clemson University, for twenty five years he’s been teaching college students art history and heading up the studio art department as well as serving as professor of sculpture and ceramics.
Over the years he has brought together his talent as a potter and a painter to first pioneer and then perfect a unique art form of painted figurative ceramics.
As an Evangelical Christian, Craft had always been interested in melding his faith and art.
“I’m intrigued by the Biblical images of God as a master potter who takes the crude clay of the earth and shapes it, then fires it to become a fragile, but useful vessel,” he says. “Adam was made from the clay of the earth, and it’s a good picture of God’s work with us.”
Once Craft and his wife entered the full communion of the Catholic Church his art took on a whole new dimension.
“Suddenly I found myself in a close communion with all these great Catholic artists! Michelangelo, Carravagio, Bernini, Della Robia and more,” he said.
“I’d studied them before, but now I had a deeper connection with their lives and work. The Catholic faith is incarnational, so my own understanding of art took on a new sacramental depth.”
Having decided to build our new parish church in a Romanesque style, we commissioned Craft to produce the artwork to fill the tympanum arches over the three West doors, and the door to the lower church.
Since the church was being built during the Year of Mercy, we asked him to produce a central relief carving with muted glaze colors, portraying the Merciful Lord in glory. This was to be flanked by the story of the woman taken in adultery and the reconciliation of the prodigal son.
Craft’s work is unique because he carves in clay, then cuts the whole work into carefully planned pieces. Because each piece is 1 ½ inches thick, the carved pieces go through a very slow, three day, bisque firing to 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit.
For the second firing, the face of each piece is dipped in a stain and sponged clean, leaving a dark, iron brown in the recesses. Craft adds color in the third firing, vitreous under glazes, thinned and painted like watercolor.
For the final firing, each piece is lightly misted with a semi-gloss glaze then fired to stoneware temperature, which is 2,200 degrees.
“Because clay shrinks as it dries and is fired, this is a very time consuming and difficult process,” Craft says. “I had to calculate and make the work 9.25 percent larger to start with, and closely monitor the drying time and firings to prevent warping and cracks.”
Once the pieces were complete, Craft packed them up and traveled to South Carolina to oversee their installation.
While he was working, the children from our parish school had the opportunity to learn about the ceramic process, meet the artist and watch as the pieces were fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Craft’s work illustrates some important principles for modern Catholic art.
The theory of Catholic iconography is based in the fact that God’s Son in human form became the “icon” or image of God. As Pope St John Paul II states in his 1999 letter to artists, “if the Son of God had come into the world of visible realities—his humanity building a bridge between the visible and the invisible— then, by analogy, a representation of the mystery could be used, within the logic of signs, as a sensory evocation of the mystery. The icon is venerated not for its own sake, but points beyond to the subject which it represents.”
If this is the case, for art to be Catholic it cannot be completely abstract. While it needn’t be crudely photographic, it must have an iconic quality. In other words, it must represent the visible world in such a way that it points beyond what is seen to be the transcendental quality of goodness, truth and beauty.
From the beginning Christian iconography has done this by portraying recognizable saints and scenes that point beyond themselves.
This is difficult to do well. One is likely to fall into the traps of super realism, sentimentality or kitsch. Some contemporary sacred artists produce works that are traditional and technically proficient but pedestrian and uninspired. Meanwhile, in attempting to portray a sacred quality, other artists produce work that comes across as disturbing or “spooky.”
The stone carving of the Romanesque period has the quality of all great Christian art: created before the humanist heroism of Renaissance art, it is timeless in its simple humanity. It is down to earth while conveying a genuine spirituality. It is art with a heart.
Having studied the carvings in France, Craft resisted the inclination to simply copy them. Instead his art is influenced by the millennium old masterpieces, yet it is contemporary and accessible. Craft explains, “The ceramic tympanum art is Romanesque, but it’s our Romanesque.”
This illustrates another principle of Catholic art and architecture. It should be within the stream of the great tradition. Without slavishly copying the art from past ages, it also does not overturn the tradition with radical modernism for its own sake.
Pope Benedict XVI’s principle of the “hermeneutic of continuity” is that the tradition is neither destroyed nor calcified, but that it is renewed from within.
Jim Craft’s artwork at the new Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville is already being admired by all who visit the church. It connects the present with the Catholic past, and sets a high standard and direction for authentically Catholic art in the future.