Tuesday, June 12, 2012

ARTIST OF THE WEEK: EMBROIDERER FATHER FRANK SABATTÉ

FR. CUNNINGHAM, 2010

FACE OF THE MAGDALENE, 2009
The link between creativity and transcendence has driven Shirt of Flame since its inception. I love the little community that's grown up around the frequent featuring of painters, musicians, writers, poets, and I'mon fire with the idea of inviting even more folks to join the discussion.

To that end, recently, the idea came to start running a weekly interview with an "artist" (which as we know covers a WIDE range) of some kind. We'll see how it goes.

Thus, I introduce Fr. Frank Sabatté, a Paulist Fathers priest and a random stitch portrait embroiderer (!) who heads up an arts collective in NYC called Openings the very purpose of which is to explore, and form a community around, the theme of creativity and transcendence.

Whether he knows it or not, I already consider him a kind of unofficial mentor. Fr. Frank graciously allowed me to contact him via phone last week. Here's part of our conversation:


"Why don’t you tell us where you’re from?

I grew up in California, San Jose. I started out at UCLA and taught at Cathedral High School in downtown L.A. I got to know the Paulist Fathers at the Newman Center at UCLA. I was really moved by them.

The Paulist Fathers are known for their media outreach, right?

Yes. Back in the 50’s we did a ground-breaking TV series called Insight. It was really ahead of its time, done by Elwood Kaiser, he went on to make Romero. We’re involved in a website, young adult ministry, “Busted Halo,” that’s been very successful. We’ve never done anything with visual art, though. And the Paulist Fathers asked me to start something in New York six years ago.

Okay, so you were living in L.A.

Well, no, actually I joined the Paulists, I taught in L.A. then I joined the Paulist Fathers, went through the novitiate and joined the seminary, was ordained in 1980, and I’ve been assigned all over the place. Connecticut, was involved in peer formation, leadership formation, came back to California, was at Berkeley for five years, was at UC San Diego. Then I was in Tucson but we were withdrawing from some of our foundations. That was when the Paulist Fathers asked me if I’d go to NY and start something for artists. I’d already told them the last place I’d want to go is New York, so when they came up with this thing, I was so shocked…

You’re a California boy! Let me back up for a second. Cause I feel like there's a connection. My big thing is…the beating heart of Christ…this is it! This is our life, our passion, and this deep connection between our holy longing and our desire to connect which obviously has found its focus in you through art. So I just wanted to ask you…did you always want to become a priest? Or how did that…

Yes. In my generation, every boy, every Catholic boy at some point wanted to be a priest. And of course a lot of times you had the parents nudging them, or nudging one of them, that way. That was something I’d imagined as a kid, but I thought, “Well, I’m just not good enough, not holy enough. Not for me.” So I gave up the idea and went to high school and college. And then I got to know the Paulists at UCLA and what struck me about them was how human they were. I remember when I first met them, I was watching a game with them, and one of them swore and I just thought, "Oh I never heard a priest swear before. These guys are for me!"

Exactly!

They were real. And they were incredible preachers, just amazing preachers. Then I got to know one priest in particular, Fr. Ken McGuire. He became my spiritual director and since then we’ve become friends. He had an amazingly brilliant mind. We formed a community, a bunch of us. We had work days, we had retreats, we had projects. And I gradually realized that my humanity was not in the way of being a priest. In fact, it’s better if you’re human.

Yeah, that’s the prerequisite…I feel this is so much at the heart of the whole kind of misunderstanding about religion. That it IS our humanity. It’s not that you have to square yourself away and then you’re qualified. It’s the other way around…not that we ever get squared away. And this goes to the whole idea of what you’re trying to do—to bring community together…Also you said, “Every boy of my generation”…what generation is that?

Well, I’m 60. So I went through the old church. The changes started to happen, Vatican II, when I was in high school. It was still the time when to have a son in the family become a priest was an honor. I was an only child and my parents were very good around my decision. I think my father never touched the ground again and my mother was, “Well, if that’s what you want to do, that’s great.” Really, they were both very supportive. The culture has shifted a bit since then…

MY FATHER, 2010
So you have this arts collective in NY called Openings. Why don’t you tell us a bit about how that came to be and how that works.

That was really interesting. Like I said, I was in Tucson and I said, "Where I don’t want to go is NYC". I should say our mother church is in New York; we were founded in New York and our house here, our largest house, has about twenty priests, mostly elderly.

Now wait, why did you not want to go to New York?

Well I hated New York! I didn’t like the idea of living in New York at all! I’m a Californian.

Too closed in.

Oh all that. People…So the really weird thing is that normally for this kind of special assignment, the administration would never have come up with something like this. Usually, I would have had to fight for something like this. Instead, they said, "Why don’t you go to NY and try to get something together with artists?" And I was just shocked! But I did. I went to New York. They didn’t tell me what I had to do, what they expected me to do.

First thing I did, I met with a young artist here, a parishioner, a convert to Catholicism who wanted to start something for artists. So we met, and we kind of brainstormed. And the other thing I started to do which for me, as a devout introvert, was a challenge, was to go out and visit artists. Particularly go to the open studios at all the major schools here. In the last six years, I think I’ve gone to 400-plus young adult open studios. I would just go, and I would chat, and I would meet them…


Would you wear your collar?

No, and I’ll get back to that in a second. So I met people and we formed a team, we got about four people together, and we started a discussion group in the parish. I knew most artists would not darken the door of a parish event. Now that gets back to what I learned. Nearly all the artists I met, and these are young adults in MFA programs, these are the best and the brightest, are really nervous about the institutional church. I would say of all the ones I’ve met who’ve identified themselves as Catholic, with the exception of maybe two or three, we’re talking dozens and dozens, they all talk about themselves as being former Catholics.

Ohhhh….

Not angry, but kinda like, “That’s what I used to do, and now I don’t do that.” So anyway, I really made the focus the visit to these artists. And I deliberately did not wear a collar because I believe that what a priest wears is not for him but for the people he serves. If I was in another situation…but here, I dress like art people in New York. In fact, Father  Isaac Hecker, who was our founder, said a Paulist should dress like a gentleman of the time…I also practiced how I met them. First I tried going in and introducing myself as Fr. Frank Sabatté…and I learned some things. My intention at the beginning was more or less, “I’ve got to get this program going.” I was a big program builder. So I’d meet people and in the back of my mind was “I can get this person involved in my program.” Well, I had this experience with a young artist. We were talking, and in the back of my mind I was thinking “Maybe I could get her to join my group.” And after I left, it hit me like a thunderbolt. I thought “She knew that I had an agenda. She knew that my program was what mattered.” So I dropped it. I said from now on the program doesn’t matter; what matters is the person standing in front of me.

Mmmmm. Very good…

So what I do now, I meet them and I say, “Tell me about your work.” I don’t ask, “What does it mean?” I say, “What’s pulling you? What’s sparking inside of you? What’s nudging you?” And then we get to talking. And then I introduce myself. I say, "My name is Frank. I’m an artist and a Catholic priest. And then the conversation can continue.

We can talk. And almost all the time, I’ve almost always been warmly received. I was told by a couple of grad students one time that they’d never had a Catholic priest come to them and ask them about their work and be able to talk about it and take an interest in it. And a lot of this is edgy, it’s avant garde, it’s contemporary…but we could have a conversation. I’d do a follow-up e-mail and then I’d go visit again. And eventually I started to create a network. We continued with our team, we brainstormed, I said, “What do you guys want to do?”


And who’s on the team?

At that time, there was myself, there was one young artist, another young artist who’s a very fine web designer, a young woman who was actually a dancer, another artist who was a computer scientist and a brilliant sculptor.

And you’d meet in the church.

Yeah, we’d meet in the church. Tuesday nights we had this discussion group where we’d get together, at its peak around twelve people, and we’d have a topic…

Such as?

Anything they wanted. Something pertinent to artists: what gets in the way of your creativity, what about the business of art… Sometimes at the end of the discussion I’d say, “What does this have to do with transcendence or spirituality or anything like that?” But I’d play it by year. That group went up and down and then it died. I was expecting  that. But when it did, it had built up quite a network. AND we had had three very successful exhibits in St. Paul the Apostle church.

The first event the team planned was an event in the church in 2006. It was with eight artists. St. Paul the Apostle is the third largest church in Manhattan. It’s like a cathedral; it’s huge and it has all these side chapels. So we put the art in the side chapels…the first reception maybe fifty people showed up and it went very well. The second reception the following year we had sixteen artists. Then we did it again and we had twenty-four artists. Last year we had twenty-four artists in the exhibit. It was the first time we did a call to artists. Before, we’d done it by invitation. And we had 800 people at the reception. And they were almost all young artists, hipster types, there were also parishioners, there were Catholics, there were ex-Catholics, there were Hindus, there were Buddhists. And they all hung out. We had a fantastic reception. There were hors d’oeuvres, served by waiters, we had wine and soda and it was a huge success. We were mentioned as a weekly choice by the Village Voice. So that really took off. This year—it takes a year to plan these exhibits—this one coming up is in September. We put out a call to artists and we got seventy-three entries. This year out of that we picked thirty-seven.

And who’s we?

Myself and the team. The team has evolved. We now have six people on the team. Two of them are graduates of Hunter College, one is graduate of the School of Visual Arts, one is a young emerging artist, one is a computer scientist, one’s a web designer.

And how many, if any of them, are Catholic, just out of curiosity?

As far as I know, there are…I think…four or five…actually maybe all of them. I never ask people what their religion is. One of the themes of Openings as it’s evolved…this is something I’ve really been following the Spirit on. I never know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next.  This is, if you want to have an analogy, it’d be like the Church going into dialogue with the atheists and the Jews and the Muslims about Vatican II. We had initiated these dialogues that had happened all over the world. And the purpose of these dialogues was not to convert people. The purpose of the dialogues was to have a conversation. The root of the word conversation is conversion. And in a conversation, which is different from proselytizing, is in a conversation both of us may change. The Spirit will change both of us.

Beautiful…mmm-hmmm…

Yeah, and that is really what Openings is about. Some of the older guys will say, “How many have you gotten back into the Church?” And I’ll say, “Well, I’m not sure about that”…some have. One young guy…ended up having his baby baptized, and that led to a discussion about faith. That’s one thing I should say about these artists: there’s tremendous spiritual hunger. I said to them at one of the meetings, “I think the reason you’re here is because of our mission statement: ‘Artists exploring the connection between creativity and transcendence.’ If this were just another collective, then what would be the point?” And they all agreed.

BATHSHEBA, 2011
Yeah. Everybody seems to be able to get on board with transcendence. And creativity. So I love that. And it’s kind of the same thing you were talking about the young woman who knew you had an agenda. And if the agenda is to convert, it never works.

Yes, and the Scripture I really love for that, that’s kind of our backdrop, is the Samaritan woman, the woman at the well. [John 4:1-42] I am thoroughly convinced that Jesus wanted a cup of water. And she was the only one who had it. In other words, he asked her for something only she had. It wasn’t a trick to get her to join his prayer group. He was sincere. She has something he needed and he had something she needed. It was a real conversation. I’m sure Jesus was changed as much in that exchange as she was. That’s the kind of analogy, or the symbol I like to use for Openings. It’s the woman at the well. These artists…we’ve had many times during these exhibits when people come up and say ‘I can’t believe you’re letting us in the church.’ And my response is ‘We want you here because you have something to teach us.’

You know, I just did a whole series, verse by verse, on the woman at the well, the Gospel of John, for Magnificat. I really tried to get inside…and I talked about this: the conversation takes place….how all real transformation…they saw each other. One of the things…in a way it’s a kind of paradigm for the healing for this wound between men and women. They’re both honest with each other. Conversation isn’t I’m right and you’re wrong. It’s Oh wow, that’s beautiful. And look, this is something that’s happened to me, to change the way I see things, and check it out!

If I say to these artists, teach me something, you’re on to something, that has an effect. What the effect will be, the outcome…I mean the Church in its first century was a failure. It can’t be measured by Did people show up at Mass? But I just know from the e-mails and from the reactions that something’s going on. The Spirit is working…

Something’s afoot. The very fact that 800 people gathered together, of all stripes, and looked at art, and had a blast. That’s it! It doesn’t get any better…

Yeah, people got there at 6:30 and at 9:30 we had to kick them out! They were hanging out!...One of the great scenes a couple of years ago, I was walking around the reception, and I walked around between the space between the old sanctuary and the center altar, and there was this group of about nine or ten hipsters, just sitting around, drinking wine, talking, and I thought Oh my God, that’s it. That’s what it’s all about.

Exactly. I’m thinking of Dorothy Day who has that great quote about how it all started with people just sitting there talking….

That you’re an artist yourself also equips you to make the connection with other artists, which segues into my next question. I know you paint and sculpt, too, but I’d love for you to tell us about the embroidery.

For years I didn’t have a real focus to my art or body of work. But about ten years ago, I went on sabbatical and through some major life changes. I was in Los Angeles with a friend of mine and we went to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and inside I saw the tapestries by John Nava. And I was stunned. You’ve been there, I assume…

Oh yes [maniacal laughter]. I was down there for Reconciliation the other morning…

The tapestries are of saints. You probably know the story. He went around Los Angeles, he got a casting agent, he cast…for the ancient saints who we don’t know what they looked like, he cast all these regular people from L.A., multiple races and ethnic groups, to pose as the saints. And I’m walking through, and here’s this image of Mary Magdalene, this 16-year-old girl with her head bowed down, her hands folded, and these incredible eyes. I was stunned. And I said, I’ve got to do something like this. I don’t know how, but I’m going to do something like this. I said I don’t want to do tapestry, you know, a loom…so I did some research, and discovered a form of Chinese embroidery, developed in the ‘20’s, which was a break from the old traditional methods. Basically they layered stitches in a random pattern and did a lot of portraiture.

Using a sewing machine, right?

No, no, no, by hand. All by hand. It’s painstaking. That’s random-stitch embroidery. Then, I discovered free motion embroidery, which is the way people do embellishments on clothing, so if you have flowers or designs or so forth, I have a machine that has an adjustable stitch…I thought I can combine the two…so I started, I got a machine and started on the zig zag and created the image I wanted and drew it on canvas and put it in the hoop…

So you work from a photograph, right?

Yes. I trace it and then I have to go back in draw it free-hand. I draw it on canvas, and then I use different colored…I experimented, this is an ongoing process…I basically layer the stitches, I’ll start with a base layer, then I’ll put in red, I’ll put in blues, I’ll put in greens, and it’s…using a little color theory, where juxtaposing two primaries gives you a secondary, and I control the laying on of the stitches, so that some show through, some don’t, and I developed this process, and I’m been doing it, I think I’m getting better at it….the downside is I’ve never done any self-promotion. I was in a couple of art groups in San Diego and Ohio, but never really pursued it, cause I didn’t have a body of work. Well now I have this body of work, and I’m kind of at the place now where I’m trying to look into places where it can be shown.

I did some faces, the old priests I lived with. Then I got interested in how can I transition from…I didn’t want to just do “religious” art, so I segued into…the Bathshebas are kind of way out there…into the secular world. It’s like breaking through the kind of narrow religious art. “Cambodia, 1975,” is a young girl, maybe thirteen, fourteen, based on a photograph taken by the Khmer Rouge. They used to photograph their victims before they tortured and killed them. And I did…in fact, I’m looking at her now. She kind of looks through you…

And again, it seems to me, that IS religious art. Anything that is deeply human and that embodies paradox, the light and the dark…

What most compels me about Openings is…the tension between the solitude…as an artist, especially as a writer, you really do need a zone of solitude, a contemplative space, literally and figuratively, within which to work. You need it like you need water or air. And at the same time you desperately need and want community. I’ve done pretty well with the solitude, but for me, what’s suffered, or what I’ve had a lack of, is community. So this is so exciting, to bridge this gap…between solitude and community. Between heaven and earth. To have a conversation"...

I know this is longish but Fr. Frank had so much to say I couldn't resist. I think this dovetails nicely with recent posts on jewelry designer Hilary Beane and pool skater Josh "Skreech" Sandoval"...

THE ADULTEROUS WOMAN,  2007 (detail)
ANNUNCIATION, 2011 (detail)
ST. THERESE OF LISIEUX

11 comments:

  1. "'What's sparking inside of you?' And then we get to talking."
    Exactly. Beautiful.

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  2. Very fascinating interview. From stem to stern, my interest did not flag! Always edifying to hear an artist discuss the making of art -- whether it be actor, painter, poet, embroiderer!

    Seeing the picture of the young girl, and then learning that she was a victim of Khmer Rouge atrocities -- that was a kick in the stomach. But the victims of history's villainies do need to be remembered, and we should all be grateful for Fr Frank's loving anamnesis.

    This reader never notices the length of an interview when the subject is an artist discussing "process"! I'm guessing that many of your readers hunger for, and are delighted by, that kind of discussion! (as do I ...)

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  3. Grrrrr...now I am longing to do something creative! This article catapulted me into prayer this morning; it evoked that sense of passion and purpose in me that sometimes seems to float away ... made me realise that every dream we carry and long to express is creativity at work.

    I would ove to learn more about the link between creativity and worshipping God, and look foward to future articles, intertviews and discussions.

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  4. Absolutely fascinating. I agree with Dylan -- the discussion of process is wonderful.

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  5. What I would love to hear more about is how Father Frank's Faith Perspective opens him to creativity, beauty, and transcendence. Most "artists" think priests are closed to that way of being because of their Church doctrines and dogmas. I think such "closedness" happens when Faith degenerates into an ideology instead of a live relationship with Mystery.

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  6. Dear Heather,

    a] I love this series and the idea of "little community."

    b] Reading this edition in the series makes inspires and makes me insanely envious not only of the nyc collective but the vision and approach (the heart) of Fr. Frank.

    Lord, grant me enough change to have that kind of heart and enough of your Spirit to overcome my inertia and apprehension(s)

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  7. The link between creativity and transcendence, and the artist's gift to visualize human yearning for God, informs a short article by Michael Kimmelman on Caravaggio's Madonna di Loreto in the June 14 edition of the New York Times (Arts Section, p.1). Kimmelman does not mention a sacramental world view, but that's what he describes, and it is worth a read.

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  8. Thank you for this, Heather. I agree with others' comments, I could barely blink it was so engaging.

    You have such wonderfully warm gifts of encouragement and hospitality that invite your readers into relationship not only with you but also with God, the church, your neighborhood, your friends... I rarely comment on blogs, but I just feel compelled to thank you for writing so honestly about life and art and beauty (both here and in the book Shirt of Flame, which I've halfway finished), and for sharing these stories of artists in a way that inspires this recovering alcoholic/ blocked singer/songwriter to join your little community here. I may not comment often, but I'll be listening. Thanks for the inspiration.

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  9. Hi people, I'm so glad you all are as enthralled with Fr. Sabatte and his embroidery as I am!...

    Nice piece, Diane: here's the link, folks: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/06/14/arts/design/14postcards.html?ref=michaelkimmelman.

    Michele, bless you. Do you know Brenda Ueland's classic If You Want to Write? It's the best book I know if you're feeling blocked/discouraged/painfully self-conscious etc.

    Please know how much I treasure every comment, whether or not I'm able to respond...

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  10. I am blown away by his St. Therese.

    Thank you for this interview, Heather. I look forward to the others.

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  11. Wow! I really like his work. Every one of them, especially the women from the Bible and St Therese, too.

    Mike Demers

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I WELCOME your comments!!!