Thursday, November 24, 2016

Michael O'Brien's Toronto Art Exhibit and Talk: The Vocation of a Christian Artist

A photo of Michael O'Brien during his talk at the chapel at Regis College.
Michael O'Brien giving his talk in the chapel at Regis College

Recently I had the privilege of meeting Canadian Catholic artist and author, Michael O'Brien, at his art exhibit and talk at Regis College, the Jesuit School of Theology at the University of Toronto.

It was a much anticipated event on my part as I am not only familiar with his artwork, but even more so with his writings on culture and fantasy.

Although I have corresponded with O'Brien over the years, part of which included expressing my gratitude for his writings, it was only up until last week that I was able to extend my gratitude in person: what a gratifying feeling that was.

Born in 1948, O'Brien is the author of twenty-eight books, several of which have been published in fourteen languages, and widely reviewed in both North America and Europe. His articles on faith and culture have appeared in several international journals such as: Communio, Catholic World Report, Catholic Dossier, Inside the Vatican, The Chesterton Review, and Our Sunday Visitor. He was also the editor of Nazareth Journal, a Catholic family magazine.

O'Brien has given hundreds of talks at universities and churches throughout the world. His interviews and articles have been translated for foreign language journals: Croatian, French, Spanish, Italian, and Polish.

As a professional artist since 1970, O'Brien has had more than forty exhibits across North America. Exclusively painting religious imagery since 1976, O'Brien's talents have not gone unnoticed. Over the years he has been commissioned to produce many works: the painting of the martrydom of Saint Thomas Becket by the Thomas Becket Fund, the American Catholic law firm in Washington, D.C. that fights for religious liberty; a series of four paintings for the novitiate chapel for the Companions of the Cross, a Catholic religious Order in Canada; and a host of other works for churches, monasteries, universities, communities and private collectors in Canada, the U.S.A., England, Germany, Italy, Australia, and Africa.

O'Brien is the recipient of many awards: the Canadian Christian Writing Award, from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada: First Place, for Eclipse of the Sun, awarded 1999; the Andrija Buvina Award from the Church in Croatia, for accomplishments in Faith and Culture, awarded 2005; The Servant of the Word Award, from the Archdiocese of Denver, Colorado, awarded 2006; The Archbishop Adam Exner Award for Catholic Excellence in Public Life, from the Catholic Civil Rights League, Canada, awarded 2012; Logos Book Award, “Best 2012 Book—Fiction” for The Father’s Tale, from the Logos Bookstore Association, U.S.A., awarded 2013; and the Catholic Culture Award, from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, awarded 2014.

Michael also teaches art history at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, a Catholic college in Barry's Bay, Ontario. He currently resides near Combermere, Ontario where he and his wife Sheila have six children and ten grandchildren.

My initial discovery of Michael O'Brien from his writings on culture and fantasy

I first came to know of Michael O'Brien through his writings on the Harry Potter occult controversy. Back in January'2002 a Franciscan friar handed me a print-out of an article from of Father Gabriele Amorth's warning on the dangers of Harry Potter. I took the warning seriously and endeavoured, together with the friar, to research it further. It wasn't long before I arrived at LifeSiteNew's, Harry Potter Problem: Whirlwind of Controversy page where I bookmarked and printed out several articles, including those from Michael O'Brien.

What resulted from that research—which eventually led me to the reading of O'Brien's book, Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culturewas an awareness campaign disseminating information on the dangers of Harry Potter, that a few years later became a blog post entitled, The Dangers of Harry Potter: The Occult Controversy.

To get a sense of the depth of O'Brien's contribution to Christian culture, consider visiting his web site,, and in particular the two sidebar links, Writings on Fantasy, and Writings on Culture. Both have an impressive list of articles that are sure to satisfy any reader in search of the truth, knowledge, and understanding. is the perfect, one-stop location to be brought up to speed for those who were never aware of the many controversial cultural issues that had infiltrated into Canadian mainstream society. Some prime examples that you may want to consider are: Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture, the Twilight vampire series, The Golden Compass, and Pan's Labyrinth.

As to some of O'Brien's fairly recent writings on culture, I found his article, Euthanasia: from war crime to act of compassion, to be most intriguing. Those who have an appreciation for history will find it to be a thought provoking read that truly speaks of that most valuable lesson to be learned from history, quoted perfectly in Winston Churchill's 1948 speech to the House of Commons, in which he paraphrased George Santayana (The Life of Reason, 1905), "Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it."

His most recent article posted on his web site, Reflections on the Church, is a friendly reminder to "keep the faith" regardless of the current condition of the Church, particularly in North America and Western Europe. The last sentence of the article says it all, "Take heart. Trust in the Lord, especially when there seems to be little or no grounds for trust.

I could not do justice to O'Brien's contributions to Christian culture without mentioning his newsletters. Many times his newsletters were exactly what I needed: a faith strengthening read of a Catholic witness whose love for Jesus permeated every aspect of his personal and professional life.

Most worthy of note is O'Brien's second instalment, dated September 25, 2003. It is a treasure trove for all Catholic artists, writers, and those involved in other creative endeavours. What I found particularly impressive and encouraging was his uncompromising fidelity to Jesus in his work, in a Canadian landscape that became increasingly secular over time, shunning Christianity in art and writings in the process. Perhaps it appropriate that I include a few excerpts:
A few thoughts on the new evangelization, and what it asks of us:
We live in a society that is almost completely dominated by death. The Holy Father [Saint Pope John Paul II] refers to modern western civilization as a "culture of death." He means by this more than abortion or the growing trend to euthanasia. Most families in the developed nations, including most Catholic families, feel pressured to eliminate children from their lives, one way or another. At the root of the culture of death is fear. St. Francis of Assisi called fear and discouragement a 'demon.'
'Perfect love casts out fear,' Jesus says. How do we grow in love? How do we cast out fear?
 ...To create always costs something in terms of human investment, labor, and sacrifice. To create a human life and to nurture it to maturity costs everything we have to give. So too, genuine culture costs. Sometimes it costs everything we have to give. And often the price entails our perseverance in the creation of words of Truth and Love in the face of all opposition and apparent failure.
...How, then, to be fruitful in a time such as ours? 
I have no quick strategies to offer you. 'Success' or 'failure' is entirely God's affair. Your and my responsibility is faithfulness to our 'talents' regardless of the cost. My secret is this: Abandon yourself with full confidence to Jesus, live the totality of the Catholic faith without compromise, and he will do the rest. Pray, work hard, pray, and don't give up...
...If creators of Christian culture hope to produce work that will bear good fruit, we must draw our life from the true source—our living Savior. He is real. He is present. But all to often we reduce him to an abstraction, giving him intellectual assent, but not our hearts.
This dichotomy, so endemic to the modern age, has negative consequences. The solution is simple. I repeat: Abandon yourself with full confidence to Jesus, live the totality of the Catholic faith without compromise, and he will do the rest.
Over the years I have printed out many of his newsletters and articles, and placed them into a folder that is over one inch thick and growing. Some of what was included in the aforementioned newsletter was reiterated during O'Brien's talk. 

The vocation of a Christian artist

Travelling from suburbia, I made sure to leave well in advance of the 7:00pm talk. Taking one of my trusted routes proved to be a very wise decision as I arrived at approximately 5:30pm, affording me the opportunity to pray in a quiet atmosphere at Saint Basil's Cathedral, just one block north of Regis College.

A photo of the interior of St. Basil's Cathedral in Toronto
St. Basil's Cathedral, Toronto
Built in 1856, St. Basil’s Cathedral is the founding church of the Congregation of St. Basil in Toronto. It is an enormous and beautiful structure on a vast property that serves a large congregation and certainly accommodates many visitors.

I have attended Mass and received the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) at this cathedral many times; spending time there again was familiar territory. That same evening, before O'Brien's talk, I recited two sets of the Rosary mysteries (Sorrowful and Glorious) with the special intentions that God and Our Lady would protect Michael O'Brien, all those attending the event, and grant an abundance of graces and blessings for a successful night.

With about a half an hour to spare, I made my way to Regis College and viewed O'Brien's art exhibit; a small collection of selected paintings that he commented on during the latter part of his talk.

The talk, whose theme was The Vocation of an Artist, began promptly at 7:00pm and surprisingly, O'Brien apologized for having to abandon his planned talk due to his flu, which was barely detectable except for a handful of coughs. It did not seem to deter him in the least, as he was quite energetic, enthusiastic, and attentive to the task at hand. Perhaps it was God's way of telling him that He wanted O'Brien to speak from the heart, which is exactly what he said he would do, adding, "All I can give you is what I really am, what Sheila [his wife] and I, really are."

Only as the talk progressed did I come to understand God's wisdom in directing Michael to speak from the heart. Michael informed the audience that Sheila was in the back room praying for him which, as he further explained, is what she always does during his talks, no matter where his talks take him throughout the world. That fact alone spotlighted how important Sheila's role has been in Michael's career; a role whose significance became crystal clear to the audience later in the talk.

This complimented the comment made by the young priest, assigned to introduce O'Brien that night, who expressed something to the effect that, he no longer thought of the artwork and writings as coming from just Michael O'Brien, but rather from both Michael and Sheila O'Brien.

John Bentley Mays

The talk was given in honour of the late John Bentley Mays, an award-winning Toronto writer on contemporary architecture and visual art, and the author of several books, who O'Brien characterized as a probing and honest intellect, untainted by any ideological agenda; a man searching in the "deep waters," yearning to find something, to find some meaning hidden in art.

A portrait of John Bentley Mays by Gertrude Kearns.
A portrait of John Bentley Mays by Gertrude
From United States of Being 2005:
The John Bentley Mays Portraits.
Originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, Mays's career path led him to emigrate to Canada, where he eventually became an art critic in Toronto for four decades; and is considered to be one of Canada’s great observers, interpreters and explainers of art and architecture. Mays had passed away earlier this year as a result of a fatal heart attack on September 16.

O'Brien read and referred to Mays's book, Power in the Blood: Land, Memory and a Southern Family, which he described as the book that truly revealed who he was.

O'Brien went on to state that what the reader encounters in Mays's reminiscence is a, "Thoroughly modern man and a very great intellect, very cultured, urban, going back to his roots as a Southerner, seeking to know who he really was." 

He elaborated further by stating that this "Moving book is a long meditation of a person in late-middle age going back to where he came from, with new eyes, to see it for the first time."

Mays traced his family tree going back many generations to the early colonial days in Virginia; the author's eye is a reflection of his looking deeper into his personal history, in an attempt to find himself, to know a little better who he really is.

Mays did this through the eyes of an artist, who O'Brien went on to further describe:
A highly developed intellect, a highly articulate man, a master of words. He was a gifted writer who wrote not as an exercise in self obsession. As his reflections move through time and perception, what emerges is a poetic sense of the heart of the man's view of the world. His poetic sense is not easily come by, primarily it is something that is instinctive and very intimately connected to the sense of wonder; a wonder for the limitless phenomena of reality.
The Christian artist's responsibility to respect the sense of wonder

Segueing into a deeper reflection of wonder, O'Brien quoted Plato who said, "Philosophy is born of wonder," to which he added, " So too is art, so too is love." 

He went on to explain that when one falls in love with another, there is a sense of awe of the other being, a sense of silence emerges; a silence, a holy silence of attention before the mystery of the being of another. That other being could be the face of child or a landscape that evokes thoughts of the transcendent reality or the truth of the gospel; it can be practically anything that is true, beautiful, and good.

A painting of Jesus by Michael O'Brien entitled Ecce Homo
 Michael O'Brien's Ecce Homo
For the artist there is an immense responsibility, especially a Christian artist, to respect his sense of wonder, not only in his own creative processes, but in those who will gaze upon his work, who listen to his music or read his writings. He must respect the dignity not only of his subject matter, and himself as an artist, but also the dignity of the viewer.

O'Brien went on to point out that today's electronic culture does not lead us to wonder, but rather to an experience of thrills, that becomes addictive requiring increased dosages to achieve the same "high"; a consolation for living at an inhuman pace that is killing us. 

He challenged the audience to look at the symptoms, the fruits of contemporary society: are our children our greatest treasure; how often do we experience reverence; what is the condition of our cultural forms; does it lead us to wonder or does it keep "packin on more thrills."

Man is capable of wonder and growing in love. O'Brien explained that in a culture, born of love, seeking truth, and reverencing being, it is only art that flows from those springs in human nature, which transcends all races, time, and history, that will awaken the souls of those that find nourishment in it. 

O'Brien asks where shall such art be born? For a Christian or anyone living in the right order of natural law—whether or not he knows our Lord Jesus—seeking the truth, yearning for the good and beautiful, a kind of natural grace occurs. For the Christian artist, a sanctifying grace is possible. A grace to see farther and deeper and to come to a condition of reverence and to see reflected in nature, especially human nature, that what is glorious and beautiful because it is a reflection of He who is truth and beautiful, He who made us in His own image and likeness. 

Michael's conversion, meeting his wife, and the clarity of his vocation

At about the mid-way point of the talk, O'Brien took us back to the moment when his conversion became more profound, and how creative works begin to spring forth in his life, that eventually led him to the meeting of his wife; a meeting of great importance for him personally and professionally.

It was shortly after his conversion that O'Brien decided that he would venture out into the Gatineau hills (just north of Ottawa), to write a few paragraphs about nature. He came across a scene, a sapling about three feet tall growing from a heap of broken stones. Life had sprung up from where one would least expect it.

It was a scene whose significance was about to be revealed to him. As he set out to write about nature—which he never ended up doing—Michael's profound conversion was taking place. He described it as a time when, "The more he looked, the more amazing things appeared around eyes were beginning to see deeper and farther than they had before..." O'Brien shared that little did he know that the sapling growing out of those rocks was to be a living metaphor of his own life; the beginning of a new life from what had previously been sterile ground.

It was at this point, in the early days of his vocation, that O'Brien began to draw; a time in which he experienced an inpouring of grace that illuminated his soul that resulted in the production of many drawings. Within a year, through divine providence, he had his first art exhibit in Ottawa in 1971. It proved to be quite a successful exhibit with three-quarters of the drawings sold.

The proceeds from that exhibit afforded him the opportunity to travel to British Columbia, where he came to a village that a friend was working at. It was at this village that he met his wife, which he married a few years later. He had abandoned all thoughts of becoming an artist, and set out to take on the responsibilities of married life.

A few months into the marriage, when Michael and Sheila were expecting their first child, Sheila had approached Michael and candidly stated, "Michael, you are an artist." As I watched and listened to Michael sharing this, I could not help but think that God was calling him back to his vocation through Sheila's insistence and certitude. 

This was confirmed a minute or two later. Michael shared that he sort of "shrugged off" the title of being an artist, and was set on meeting the responsibilities of a having a family. Sheila countered by stating, "God has given you a gift. God does not give gifts to leave them abandoned." That day was the return of Michael to his vocation as an artist.

Since that day in 1975, to present, O'Brien stressed the importance of his wife's unfailing support through some very long hard years. He went on to further state, "To be a Christian artist in these times is not an easy task."

A place we all could live

A painting by Michael O'Brien depicting a small Canadian town in winter.
Michael O'Brien's painting: A Place We All could Live

During the second half of the talk, O'Brien displayed selected paintings in a slide show, and explained the meaning and inspiration behind each one.

The above painting, one of two that depicts a typical small Canadian town in winter, drew my attention and has since, become of one my favourite paintings. 

As to why Michael painted it, he explained that one day Sheila remarked how nice it would be to live in a small town where the church was the spiritual and physical center of the town, and the children were everyones' joy and treasure. In response to this, he set out to paint such a scene for his wife. 

Personally, I totally agree with Michael and Sheila, it would be great to live in such is a place. Concluding his comments on this painting, O'Brien asked the audience, "Does such a place still exist?" 

The gift to create and to know it is a gift from above

A photo portrait of Michael O'Brien.
Michael O'Brien
Among the many things O'Brien shared with the audience was how blessed he has been considering that he was the individual least likely to succeed in his vocation. He was also blessed to see his radical poverty and then to be open, through grace, to receive many gifts. Among them was the gift to create and to know it was given from above and not his possession to do with as he willed.

Ever since my discovery of Michael O'Brien many years ago, I have always understood, and even more so from my attendance at the art exhibit and talk, that he is a deeply spiritual man; a man who has taken to heart Fra Angelico's advice to artists, "To paint the things of Christ, one must live with Christ."

What I discovered at his talk, that particularly impressed me, was O'Brien's pursuit to understand the meaning of his vocation. It wasn't just about developing the artistic skills, deep within was a desire to understand the meaning of it all. In addition to reading about other artists, one source of information that helped him to acquire the understanding, was Saint Pope John Paul II's Letter to Artists, in which he read the following paragraph:
Human beings, in a certain sense, are unknown to themselves. Jesus Christ not only reveals God, but “fully reveals man to man”. In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. All believers are called to bear witness to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to Saint Paul, “awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God” (Rom 8:19), is redeemed. The creation awaits the revelation of the children of God also through art and in art. (14)
O'Brien talked a great deal about the vocation of an artist through the narrative of his life and that of other artists, who like him, have been faithful to their talents regardless of the cost.

Reflecting back on the talk, I can not help but think of how he has lived the recommendations from the second instalment of his newsletters: he has been faithful to his God given talents, and abandoned himself to Jesus with full confidence; he has lived the totality of the Catholic faith without compromise; and prayed, worked hard, and never gave up.

What Michael O'Brien has wonderfully and passionately communicated regarding his vocation as an artist and author, is that it involves prayer, hard work, faith, and perseverance. It certainly was a very pleasant feeling to know that his career has been quite successful, one that has included the opportunity to give talks throughout Canada and the world. Where would we be without them?

It was a privilege to be in attendance at his art exhibit and talk, and an honour to have finally met Michael O'Brien; a man who I greatly admire and who earned my respect many years ago.

Thank God for Michael and Sheila O'Brien, for their past and continued contributions to the restoration of Christian culture.

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