Editors Note: We have here Catholic Arts Today at its finest: a conversation between a significant young Catholic composer of sacred music and a significant young Catholic painter of sacred art. A feast for the mind and an inspiration (we hope) to the next generation of Catholic artists. The painting by Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs above, St. Hugh of Lincoln, has never been published before.
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs is a painter with a rising profile in the world of sacred art. But not content to promote only her own work, Gwyneth recently launched a new Catholic Artists Directory, featuring a carefully curated selection of Catholic creatives in the sacred music and visual arts world. This new Catholic Artists Directory has two big purposes: First, pastors, church committees, Catholic schools and institutions, and private patrons of the arts now have a one-stop forum to find artists of the highest caliber to adorn their churches, chapels and homes. Second, the Catholic Artists Directors provides an online home for artists and art-lovers to network and discover and learn from each other’s work.
Sacred Music Composer and Kent State Professor Mark Nowakowski recently sat down with the artist Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs, founder of the Catholics Artists Directory, to discuss her new initiative and her work.
Mark Nowakowski: Why did you start this new Catholic artist directory?
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs: When I began doing sacred art full-time this year I realized that there was a need for both patrons and sacred artists. Patrons needed a single place where they could find a curated selection of professional sacred artists and many talented artists needed exposure. I’d like artists to exert their time and talent making art rather than planning marketing strategies. It has been a pleasure to be able to help raise the profile of Catholic artists today who are reviving traditional techniques.
Mark Nowakowski: So your own experience seems to mirror my own as a composer: One must become a businessman and entrepreneur and voracious networker to find way to even start to get one’s art out into the general public. I can’t help but feel that God has called and equipped a veritable small army of talent, and that this army of Beauty is just waiting for fertile soil (and appropriate support) to start a new Renaissance. What is your experience surveying and now representing the broader field of Catholic art, music, architecture, and related disciplines?
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs: Yes! There is a small army of talent that is standing at the ready. It is really exciting to get to know my other comrades-at-arms and the patrons who are helping us. I used to think that patrons were, for the most part, older, affluent, and part of a disappearing population of individuals with good taste. It has been a happy surprise that new patrons are coming forward who are in their thirties. They are not particularly affluent, but are willing to sacrifice in the name of beauty.
Mark Nowakowski: I think your own art is truly wonderful. What were the most beneficial as well as challenging aspects to developing your craft and establishing your professional career?
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs: For me the great key was experiencing sublime works of art in person: Michelangelo’s Medici Tombs in Florence, the Van der Weyden diptych at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the portrait of Luis de Gongora by Velazquez at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, among others. My skill also underwent extraordinary transformation each time I was able to see a master artist demonstrate the execution of a particular technique.
When I was five, a local watercolor artist taught me to “let the water do the work” when painting flowers; when I was a teenager, a life-drawing instructor took the charcoal from my hand and merged all the different shadow regions of my fragmented sketch into one unified form; as an adult, Paul Ingbretson solved a problem I had struggled with for a decade by observing that I needed to mix a bit more linseed oil into my whites “until the mixture was like a heavy cream.”
The most challenging part of growing as an artist has been gaining access to masterpieces and master artists. Sensors and over-zealous guards in museums tend to keep visitors too far back from the canvas to truly observe strokes and paint quality. While there are some masters working today, I haven’t found anyone truly conversant in Baroque technique. So, one must cobble together what one can learn from old paintings with what one can learn from contemporary masters.
Another challenge is the sense of inadequacy. As a mid-career artist, one always feels that there is more to learn before one is really qualified to accept commissions, but I now realize that it is by accepting commission that I am able to grow most quickly. Each commission is just a bit out of my comfort zone. Each commission requires me to study art history, to learn more about a particular technique or the archival nature of the materials involved, and to perform technically better than the time before.
Mark Nowakowski: In a society where there is endemic poverty, where there is suffering, where there are major social issues such as abortion and the defense of marriage to tackle, how do we justify taking money for the arts? How do we convince others of the importance of patronage? I have my own answer, but I’d love to hear your own perspective.
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs: I live in St. Louis, a city with profound economic problems. I often meditate on the poor children that grow up in run-down neighborhoods, crumbling school buildings, and are culturally nourished exclusively by online treacle.
If only they knew that in the center of one particularly depressed area, the beautiful church of St. Francis de Sales run by the Institute of Christ the King welcomes both rich and poor and provides a respite from the oppression of daily life. As long as we are in this world, we are going to suffer from economic, physical, or emotional problems. A beautiful church or a moving work of art allows us to perceive our sufferings in the light of eternity and gives us the strength to go on.
Beautiful art is a gift especially for the poor but it is the responsibility of the rich to fund the art and to demand the highest standards from the artist.
Mark Nowakowski: What is leading to this new potential renaissance in Catholic art?
Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs: Perhaps one of the paradoxes of our times is that the darker the crisis in the Church and the world, the more brightly the beauty of Tradition shines and attracts. This paradox was strikingly illustrated on the final weekend of October this year, when the conclusion of the Amazon Synod coincided with the 8th annual Populus Summorum Pontificum pilgrimage. More and more people, especially young people, realize that the only way out of the dead-end of modern life is Tradition, including the traditional arts that are fostered by and at the service of divine worship.
I think that the very severity of the crisis–what several commentators have called the Passion of the Mystical Body–is helping people to distinguish orthodoxy from heterodoxy, holiness from worldliness, beauty from ugliness, and excellence from dross.
After sixty years of detente with the world, a renewed polarization is emerging. There is a renewed militancy in the Church Militant, even if only among a fragment of the baptized. These souls know that they can’t trust the bishops or the pope to teach them the Faith or to fund genuine sacred art; they must learn the Faith from old books and from the small but growing ranks of traditional priests, and they must themselves become discriminating patrons–because the worship of God demands the greatest artistic treasures we can offer to His majesty.
Similarly, young people know that they can’t expect a real formation in the arts in the conventional art schools or university art departments, including the nominally Catholic ones; they know that the mainstream art world, the mainstream media, and mainstream academia are ideologically perverse and technically ignorant. So, they are seeking out genuine artistic formation outside of the old structures.
In the midst of what Dietrich von Hildebrand called “the devastated vineyard,” even as those who should be tending the vineyard continue to devastate her, there are new shoots on the old grapevines.
To see more of Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs work, visit https://gwyneththompsonbriggs.com/. To explore the emerging generation of Catholic painters and other sacred artists visit CatholicArtistsDirectory.com.
Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a composer and scholar whose musical works have been premiered globally by the Kronos Quartet, the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Silesian Quartet, and other luminaries, while his 2017 Naxos debut album “Blood, Forgotten” earned critical praise in Gramophone magazine. His writings are regularly published in CatholicArtsToday, Sound on Sound, CDN, and OnePeterFive.