We have our preconceptions:
- Saints are serene, eyes cast downward, hands folded in prayer.
- Saints flash joyful smiles while reaching out to help the poor and needy.
- Saints stand bravely against the enemies of the Gospel, praying as the bullets or the machete or the poison claims their bodies, releasing their spirits to enter into perfect union with God.
But a new exhibit by Canadian artist Owen Swain tells a different story.
Swain’s Saints, Sung and Unsung, 39+1 Portraits portrays ordinary people—people who are deeply loved by God, and who are truly saints although they don’t fit the stereotype of the smiling, praying, serving and suffering saint. The facial portraits, each of which is 8” square, are created in acrylics and are mounted together on two panels; in all, the completed work measures eight feet by four feet.
The work was commissioned by a young Basilian priest, Chris Valka, CSB. Father Valka, who had served in chaplaincy work for years, sought a work of art which would help the viewer to ask the right questions about God. This particular piece, Father Valka explained,
“…is undoubtedly challenging as it reminds us that only God knows the heart of a person. At times it is easy to see holiness reflected in a person; but it can also be very difficult, especially if they are very different than our idea. In the end, scriptures remind us over and over that God’s view and understanding is not nearly as limited as our own. In fact, scripture reminds us that God is always challenging us to see beyond our own definitions and ideas at any given time about God, others and ourselves.”
The artist, Owen Swain, explained his intention in creating the work:
“When Fr. Chris Valka invited me to create a work of art, he did so with the broad idea that ‘[he has]always believed, and the Synod on the New Evangelization reaffirmed, that art and beauty are powerful tools of evangelization. For young people especially, they are looking for a faith that invites them to experience rather than just speak to them with words.’
I presented him with the idea of unseen or unrecognized saints, people seen not as their fellow humans may see them but as God “already” knows them. To me, this immediately meant showing a larger number of people, a cross section of souls, at once or as one.
Swain has hidden two surprises within the work: one which he believes people will discover, although not on the first look; and another which is more subtle and which may come to the viewer only after discovering the first surprise.
Saints, Sung and Unsung, 39+1 Portraits currently hangs at the Freed-Orman Center at Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario. Next month it will be transported to its permanent location at St. Basil’s Roman Catholic parish, at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, Ontario.
Owen Swain with his work, Saints, Sung and Unsung