Dressed in the long black robe of his Benedictine order, Brother Nathan Cochran stands before his class at Saint Vincent College, looking like he could have stepped out of a previous century. That impression dissolves when he walks over to a computer and projects a contemporary dance interpretation of a 17th-century opera onto a screen.
"I like to play this clip because it shows art and the classics have value for every age," he tells the young audience of non-art majors.
The sentiment encapsulates his outlook on teaching and the passion with which he approaches his many other responsibilities. Foremost among those currently is the Fourth Nationwide Juried Catholic Arts Exhibition, a unique competition that he inaugurated in 2001.
For the first time, the juror who selected the exhibition's works will lecture at the Latrobe college. As Brother Nathan's music and art class ends, he offers the students five points on their final grade if they attend.
"I really want you guys to go to that," he says.
His fervency springs from youthful experiences that enlarged his own world. Born in 1957 in Marion, Ohio, he and his brother Blaine grew up in a house his parents built on his grandfather's farm 17 miles away in Morrow County. "I thought I had a perfect childhood," he says.
He formed close ties with children from the neighborhood -- a designation that in the rural county "equals a mile stretch of road" -- and exhibited alongside them in 4H.
"Music was important in the church and in the community and in the schools," Brother Nathan says, and music was the first art that entranced him. The area was settled by German immigrants, an ethnic heritage he shares with Scottish, Austrian and Irish ancestry.
School and family trips to Columbus, Ohio, museums and performances expanded his cultural appreciation. One of his first visual art memories is of a life-size painting of a resurrected Christ in the Columbus Museum of Art.
"I still remember that painting and how struck I was. It hung in a museum, dramatically lit in a dramatic space. It's exotic for a little kid. We had a nice house, but it wasn't like that."
He entered Bowling Green State University as a music-voice major but "quickly realized how hard musicians had to work, how disciplined they had to be and how talented they had to be." As he considered careers, he began thinking of a vocation, and he left music after his sophomore year to enter the seminary at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus.
"I don't regret it. I got an excellent education. What I learned, I'm not really a father figure." He wasn't going to become a priest.
"A priest guides and protects and leads and teaches and preaches. A brother is more of an equal who walks on the journey with you. When I'm asked about the difference between a monk and priest or brother, I say I'm like a male nun. People kind of get it then."
He began looking at religious orders and found Saint Vincent. "I felt I could make a contribution here and that there was something special here that I really loved."
He was 25 years old when he entered the novitiate in 1982. Novices are assigned some special task when they arrive and because Brother Nathan was a calligrapher he took on calligraphy projects, such as making Christmas cards for the monks. "Calligraphy and monks go together like hand and glove," he says drolly.
In 1983, he took the first of the three simple vows, which precede solemn vows. Novices are typically given a job then, and he went to the monastery abbot and asked to be the caretaker for the art collection. He was named curator of the college art collection, but that was less impressive than it sounds. "I was basically given the key to the art storage room and that was it."
The college had discontinued its art department and arranged for students to take art classes at Seton Hill University in Greensburg.
The collection's status improved in 1986 when the development office came up with the idea of trying to reconnect with the royal family of King Ludwig I of Bavaria on the 200th anniversary of his birth. King Ludwig had given the monastery its art collection, and plans were made to feature it during a campus event. A rarely used space that "looked like Lucille Ball's living room after it's gone through a hurricane" was given a makeover. The paintings had to look their best, so they were examined and restored.
After the event, "people liked the room so much they asked if the paintings could stay. I said 'Sure!' and I had my permanent collection galleries," Brother Nathan says with a quiet smile.
The combined monastery and college art collections number more than 4,000 works in a variety of media. "I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say we have the most pervasive collection of European 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century art in Western Pennsylvania," he says.
Although the college wasn't offering art classes, Brother Nathan received permission to attend the University of Pittsburgh part time to work on a master's degree in fine arts. He'd completed a few classes when Saint Vincent officials asked him to become registrar. He withdrew from Pitt to accept that position and held it for 12 years.
Fortunes turned in 1998 when college administrators decided to reopen the art department -- comprising art, music and studio arts classes -- and Brother Nathan was tapped to teach. He found an accelerated program at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, where he could complete his master's degree in a year. That included a summer term in Venice (with side trips to Florence and Rome), where he researched his thesis topic, the iconography of Venetian churches. He began teaching immediately afterward and grew the department to a size that led to its division into art and music.
Brother Nathan appears to enjoy teaching as much for the opportunity to challenge orthodoxy as to open young minds to critical thought and the vastness of possibility. During a class two weeks ago, he addressed ornamentation in music: "Handel expected singers to make the melodies their own and add their ornamentation." Then he brought the lesson up to date by discussing Whitney Houston's version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
"Singers want to put their mark on it. I call it the Whitney Houstonization of music. She's probably the most famous for her performance at the Super Bowl ... Whitney Houston is continuing a long tradition, and she did it successfully."
Every now and then in class, he reveals a little more about himself. "I have a special fondness for Marie Antoinette," he says as he continues in the 18th century. He describes how she was sent as a 14-year-old to France from her home in Austria, separated from her servants and dogs, stripped and dressed in French clothes. He says she drew on inner strength when she realized her husband, King Louis XVI, wasn't up to the task of running the country.
Contrarian and champion, seeker and teacher, Brother Nathan takes a broad and deep look at the history of culture. As such, he's a perfect fit to the philosophy of college founder Archabbot Boniface Wimmer, who more than a century and a half ago equated the importance of art classes with those of science and religion.
"First [we will teach our students] what is necessary, then what is useful, and finally, that which is beautiful and will add to their refinement," Archabbot Wimmer said.
Dean of studies Alice Kaylor, who has known Brother Nathan since he finished his novice year and has been his reporting supervisor much of the time, says "he's truly a Renaissance man."
She recognized his "passion and love of art" and supported him in his pursuance of an advanced degree although that meant giving up a very competent registrar.
"He is a wonderful teacher of art history, has done an exceptional job in our gallery, and he has not disappointed me. He is an exceptional person. He's also worked as director of the study abroad program and been faculty moderator of the student newspaper. ... He's humble. He's persevering. And he is really always willing to take on any assignment or task anyone asks him to do."
In addition to being curator of the art collection and instructor in fine arts, Brother Nathan is the director of Saint Vincent Gallery, department of visual arts chair and artistic director of the concert series.
Possibly the most wide-reaching of those positions is gallery director, exemplified in the Catholic Arts Exhibition that is in this fourth iteration. A goal of his is to educate people, particularly parish priests, about contemporary artists who create original sacred art. "If your idea of religious art is to order something from a catalog, then your church won't be very inspirational."
To that end, the competition is bearing fruit. When St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Carnegie wanted to commission eight new works, the parish contacted Brother Nathan for suggestions on artists. Half of the Carnegie commissions are completed and installed, comprising two paintings by Eric Armusik and Janet McKenzie (who is represented by two paintings in the current Catholic Arts Exhibition); and two relief sculptures by Anna Koh Varilla and Jeffrey H. Varilla. Four statues are still in the developmental stage.
Also, an elderly man who had a near-death experience in a hospital came to Brother Nathan for the name of an artist who might paint the visions he saw. The man and artist have since met to discuss the commission.
While he emphasizes that the college's mission is not to be a museum, Brother Nathan allows, "We have an art collection that's the size of a small museum."
With a gleam in his eye, he imagines for a moment what he could do.
"We could have 17th, 18th and 19th century galleries, an American gallery, and a temporary exhibition area ..."
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925. First Published November 11, 2012 5:00 AM