Catholic artists combine creativity and faith to glorify God

This month Pope Benedict XVI welcomed the painters, sculptors, goldsmiths and other artists to the Vatican who had contributed to Lo Splendore della Carità; La Bellezza della Verità (“The Splendor of Charity; the Beauty of Truth”), an exhibit honoring the pontiff on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Pope Benedict told artists that the world needed beauty, which is “capable of awakening admiration, wonder and true joy in men’s hearts.”

Throughout the centuries, artists have strived to convey the truths of the Catholic faith in sacred art, and that tradition is very much alive today.

‘Glimmer of heaven’

Katie Schmid ( recently completed a 14-piece Stations of the Cross series and two other paintings for the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at Purdue University in Indiana. She has begun work on a painting of Mexican martyr Toribio Romo for Ss. Peter & Paul Church in Wilmington, Calif., a predominantly Latino community near Los Angeles.

“The walls of so many of our churches are aching for beauty,” she said. “Beautiful sacred art helps us to pray and gives us a slight glimmer of heaven.”

Schmid grew up in a pious Catholic home in the Midwest. Her parents had an interest in the arts and, recognizing her talents, encouraged her to paint. Schmid’s mother also gave her a copy of “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” (Harper San Francisco, $22.99) when she was very young, and the 27-year-old has been painting the saints and other sacred images ever since.

“My faith is my main inspiration for my work,” she said. “I try to take the spiritual and nontangible and make it physical.”

Schmid has a studio in Orange, just south of Los Angeles. Her preferred medium is oil on wood. She has had no trouble finding commissions since she launched her career, selling her art to churches, religious institutions and private collectors. One of her paintings can even be found in the papal apartments in the Vatican.

In preparing to depict a saint, she researches her subject thoroughly and prays for guidance. Her favorite subjects include Blessed John Paul II. Referencing his 1999 Letter to Artists, she said, “Blessed John Paul was a great lover of the arts and gave great encouragement to artists.”

In an effort to help share the teachings of Pope John Paul, she contributed some of her paintings of him, which were auctioned off at a fundraising dinner in support of John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego.

Schmid characterizes her work as traditional and representational and finds it “hard to connect” with many abstract forms of 20th-century sacred art. While attending art school she was pleased to discover many other young artists shared her perspective and were interested in creating traditional sacred art.

“Our society has a need for beauty, truth and goodness,” she said. “It’s exciting to see where God is leading me and many other artists to realize this need.” 

Sculpting heroes

In 1995, Dave Hanson was living in Sacramento, Calif., and working as a guard and counselor at Folsom State Prison. On the news he heard the sad story of a mother who was sent to prison for beating to death her 6-year-old son. Hanson was a part-time artist and wanted to respond to the crime in a positive way, so he created a statue of an angel in the child’s honor that was placed in the garden of his local Catholic parish. He titled his first religious-themed sculpture “Angels Sleeping.”

A Padre Pio bust by Hanson. Photo courtesy of Dave Hanson

“I guess it was my own special way of combatting child abuse,” he said.

Hanson, 71, retired from the prison system a decade ago and has since devoted himself full time to sculpture. He divides his time between Tampa, Fla. and northern California and creates his art from resin, fiberglass, concrete, gypsum and pewter. He donates his statues to Catholic churches, schools and other institutions. His most recent creation, a bust of Padre Pio, he gave to the Padre Pio Academy in Ohio.

“There are many negative influences in the world,” Hanson said. “People need heroes. They need to see images of people like Padre Pio whom they can admire.”

Hanson grew up in St. Joseph, Mo. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17, which brought him to California. When he left the service, he decided to make Sacramento his home. He went to work in the prison system, “a place where you can do a lot of good.”

He began working as a sculptor 30 years ago, first creating images of political leaders he found inspirational. After “Angels Sleeping,” he moved on to more angels and to saints. Today, most of his work is religious; he’s working on a series of images to portray the mysteries of the Rosary.

A friend recently saw his Padre Pio image and paid him a great compliment: “You’ve captured the soul of Padre Pio.”

Hanson appreciates the encouragement, but he is careful not to let it lead to vanity. “I regularly remind myself what I’m doing is for the greater glory of God,” he said. 

A Marian mission

Jean Ryan of San Diego was selling shoes in 2002 when she had a falling out with the company’s management and quit. Two days later, she saw an image of the Blessed Mother and believed she heard Mary give her a clear command: “Put me out there.”

Marian image
A Marian image from Madonna Arts. Photo courtesy of Jean Ryan

After months of research, she launched Madonna Arts (, which offers enhanced, traditional images of Mary.

“For the first time in my career, I had a sense of purpose and peace,” the 57-year-old said. “It is my mission to help people connect to Mary, who, in turn, will bring them to her son.”

The images are by the Italian masters, both Renaissance and pre-Renaissance. Ryan takes an original, public domain work and then goes through a 22-step process embellishing it. Steps include adding a gold background and incorporating images of the Rosary. The end product is a paper image on a custom wood panel. She hopes the image inspires devotion in the buyer and will be passed on, generation to generation.

“I have no children of my own; this is my way of creating my own legacy,” she said.

In her nine years of selling Madonna images, Ryan has seen many examples of how they inspire devotion and change lives. One young woman, for example, bought an image of Our Lady of Good Remedy for her parents. Her normally stoic father was reduced to tears when he saw it, sharing how he used to pray before this particular image of Mary when he was a boy living in a small Mexican village.

Ryan sells her art at Catholic conferences and outdoor festivals. Future plans include establishing a Marian center in the San Diego area so she can help even more people come to know and love their heavenly mother. But for now, she’s content bringing Mary to the public one image at a time.

“I love Mary, and she loves me,” she said. “I want to help others come to love her, too.”

Jim Graves writes from California.