Sarah Crow received her BFA in painting and minor in creative writing from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 2013, and an MFA in painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 2016. She currently lives and works in Chicago where she has also taught as a part-time lecturer at SAIC in the Painting and Drawing Department. Sarah entered the Catholic Church in 2017 and seeks to use her talents to serve Mother Church. You can learn more about her work here.
You can join Sarah Crow for a monthly life drawing session on the third Saturday of the month.
Can you talk about how you came to work as an artist, and how you came to be a Catholic? We can start with whichever of those things you would prefer talk about first- but both journeys are important.
I remember being a five-year-old clutching a crayon, knowing that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. However, I went off track in my youth and came back to art almost accidentally, when I was in community college. I took art electives, and I remember in my life-drawing class, I was working on this charcoal drawing of the model and getting so frustrated, breaking down into tears and leaving the classroom. Then I pulled myself together, came back and realized: This was the hardest thing that I had ever done, and it was the most rewarding thing. And I was hooked back into art.
I came to Chicago in 2014 to get my MFA in painting, and my studio was across the street from the Art Institute of Chicago. So whenever I had painting questions, in addition to [going to] very talented advisors, I would just go in the museum and ask: how did that artist figure out that foot or what's the underpainting color in this image?
The museum was such an essential resource for me because I was formed in my training to draw from the art historical practices, most especially the early and the Northern Renaissance painters. Actually some my first deep experiences of art when I began my training were also with these early Renaissance artists. When I was an undergraduate at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, I had access to New York and to the museums of that city. I remember weeping in front of van Eyck’s Madonna in the Frick in New York City.
I was in love with that kind of work, which all had its roots, of course, in Catholicism, in the western tradition. But I was engaging with it on a technical and on a formal, aesthetic level, not deeply into the actual stories and the context of the works.
So that's where I was in my MFA, doing work connected by and influenced by these early works, spending time in the museum, surrounded by sacred art, listening to choral Masses in my studio, studying altarpieces. And then I was introduced to the Catholic faith in 2016, through a friend who invited me to the Tenebrae Service, Spy Wednesday of Holy Week at St. John Cantius. I was blown away by what I experienced: the context of sacred art, the convergence of all of the senses and all of the arts, with the music and the chanting, in the beautiful architectural space, with the visual arts and then with the dance of the liturgy. It was completely mysterious to me, but I could enter in through the beauty and elegance of it. Not me and a painting on a white wall in a museum, but in context, in concert, in community, and then oriented beyond me – towards God.
That showed me what these individual works – the music and the painting and the sculpture that I was in love with – were connected with, and what they were intended for. Rather than setting them in this artificial, purely formal isolation, I understood that this was a living tradition. I was deeply moved by that; I was on my knees in tears.
I want to talk about St. Gregory’s Hall, but I would like to keep this question in the back of mind as we do that: The aesthetic experience of beauty compared to the Tenebrae liturgy – what is the connection between the two? Because it’s a large part of how St. Gregory’s Hall is approaching its outreach, which is centered on Catholic culture.
But first, you are an artist-in-residence here at St. Gregory's Hall. What are some of the things you will be doing here as part of that effort?
It’s still a little flexible, as we see the parish’s needs and interests. One thing that will be constant will be to give tours of all three churches at Mary, Mother of God. So, I'll be learning about the history, architecture, and sacred art of St. Gregory, St. Ita, and St. Thomas of Canterbury, and then giving tours connecting the three locations of the parish.
I will also offer classes, but whether they will be semester-long, week-long, or weekend classes is yet to be seen. For those workshops, I am interested in teaching some art historical practices, like Baroque painting or Northern Renaissance techniques.
I just offered my first event here: a life-drawing session, where I had a professional costumed model in beautiful drapery, and a group of artists including parishioners made drawings from life. It was wonderful to do art together and we are going to offer this monthly on third Saturdays from 2-4pm.
Of course, my discipline is painting. That’s one piece of the whole picture of the liturgical arts, but it is very enriching to do art and to develop skills while rooting that in the context of our faith and deepening our faith through it. As a practicing artist, it takes a lot of focus, and it can be very innately contemplative. “Yes, I am working on the eye-hand coordination, but I'm paying attention to the subject, paying attention the cross or to the saint or whatever the devotion is.” It is my intention to cultivate a contemplative atmosphere and possibly a devotional emphasis for each workshop I offer. For example, in one week we will have our life-drawing model dress and pose as St. Francis meditating, to create drawings from.
Attention, I think is one of the underappreciated things for art as an element in our prayer life. I believe it is Simone Weil who talks about attention as being a core part of prayer. It seems like art is one of the few ways that people still have of focusing their attention on something and becoming used to that idea.
Yeah, I do believe that prayer is attention, giving our full attention to something. I think that answers the question you have in the background, but I’d like to unpack it a little bit more. Art is contemplative, both in making and in looking. And it rewards as much as you give to it, if it is quality. So you can spend a moment, you can spend hours, or you can spend years, living with or returning to a beautiful work of art, and it will continue to give back as much as you let it. The way that I am formed or made, aesthetic experiences are spiritual experiences.
And I know that's the case for many people who are artists or art appreciators, whether or not they're religious. It becomes an entry point; it was for me. To be immersed in beauty is to be immersed in God. As a woman of faith, I know that beauty is an attribute of God, that He Himself is the source and end of all beauty. So it's theologically true, but it's experientially true as well. I do believe that art, that beauty, points beyond itself. It's not an end in itself. It's not necessarily going to serve an immediately practical function, but it serves that spiritual need.
Can you expand on that, how beauty can draw people closer to God? What demands does a beautiful liturgy or church make of people that are different from seeing an altar piece on a museum – not on an altar?
So the first part of that is: How does it help us grow in relationship? I recently worked on a reconstruction, or a master copy, of the Calling of Saint Matthew. It’s a reproduction of the one that's in San Luigi in Rome. Caravaggio did the cycle of the life of Saint Matthew. He portrayed this moment in the Gospel where Jesus calls the tax collector to come and follow him. But he portrayed it in such a way that it embeds all of this beautiful symbolism and theological meaning, and the group of people who Jesus is calling is not just Matthew, but it's him and his friends. You identify with the response of the people to the call, and so you can say: How am I responding? Each of these faces becomes a study in more or less openness to this call. Those figures are clothed in the artist’s period-contemporary garments. So it's like here, this is you in your familiar costume, your familiar environment. Here comes Jesus and Saint Peter in biblical garb interrupting this and inviting the whole group. How are you going to respond?
That’s just a bit of the meaning that's in the painting. I spent a year basically studying and then reproducing this image and had people in my studio who aren't necessarily historically grounded, who aren't artists, but would encounter that.
If I open that door for them, just explaining some of the symbolism or pointing out some of the things or asking them about what they think is going on, then they enter into the dynamic that the artist set up, which I'm reproducing for them, which is an encounter with Christ, this confrontation: Are you going to follow me?
This is hundreds and hundreds of years later, a master copy in Chicago. And people have wept in front of this painting because of this encounter. This is one image! The gospel and the sacred tradition of Mother Church is communicated through art and through these images. I have experienced and have witnessed other people coming into deeper relationship with the Gospel, where it hits them in a way that it wouldn't simply by reading it, or simply by hearing it spoken. It opens up through art and enters deeply into the heart. So it's extremely powerful in terms of the edification of the mind and the heart in relationship to the Gospel.
You cannot quantify how powerful it is in that way. I also feel like it's this kind of secret tactic because we can be intellectually guarded or closed. We have may our preconceptions. I certainly had tremendous false perceptions and would have resisted if someone had come and started sharing Catholic theology when I was in my art studio. But beauty just slipped under my radar, because it touched my heart, affected my senses in a way that: Okay, I'm on my knees and I am awestruck, and I can't deny that with an intellectual argument.
Whatever happens at St. Gregory’s Hall is going to be rooted and grounded in the charity of Christ. This is connected to the church, where we have the blessed Sacrament. Whether people are Catholic, practicing Catholic or not, the art education that happens here will be the context of the Church; it exists and flourishes in the context of our faith.
My hope is that for those who are already believers, it becomes a means to deepen their faith and encounter with God who is beauty. And for those who are not believers or not practicing, I have no doubt based on my experiences as a witness to beauty and as an art educator that it will really help open the door into that relationship, for that seeking of the restless heart that wants to rest in God.