When the Nationwide Juried Catholic Arts Competition was begun in 2001 by Brother Nathan Cochran at Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, he had no way of predicting what the results would be or whether it would continue. Now, in its fourth iteration and a biennial event, it is an established and important show for niche artists whose subject matter is generally outside that displayed by mainstream galleries.
The reputation of the exhibition has spread and the overall quality of submissions continues to rise. The current show comprises 35 works by 27 artists from nine states. About half of those are from Pennsylvania but art came from as far away as Georgia and Florida, Idaho and Vermont.
Iconography and traditional craft media, such as stained glass, have been well represented since the beginning, but also classically inspired oil painting and contemporary media such as photography.
In addition to inclusion in the exhibition and color reproduction of their works in a catalog, the artists are entered into a competition for prizes that range from $1,000 for first place to $250 for honorable mention. The competition is funded by an anonymous donor. The juror awards prizes.
Internationally recognized scholars have served as jurors, including architect Duncan Stroik, of the University of Notre Dame, in 2008. The initial juror was Frima Fox Hofrichter, a specialist in iconography at Pratt Institute, where Brother Nathan earned his master's in fine arts. The third competition, in 2010, was selected by BBC and PBS personality Sister Wendy Beckett.
This year's juror was John T. Spike, a specialist in Italian Renaissance and Baroque art who is on the faculty of The College of William & Mary and assistant director and chief curator of its museum.
Mr. Spike broad-mindedly chose an edited digital photograph, "The Good Samaritan" by Christopher Ruane, for first prize, and a minimalist abstracted crucifix by James Parsons Duncker ("Jesus") for third. A polished large (74-by 60-inch) rendering of "Jesus Carrying the Cross" by Matthew James Collins received second prize.
John Robert Del Monte's fluid and imaginative "San Martino and the Beggar" and Henry Wingate's serene "Madonna and Child," both of which received honorable mentions, skillfully blend traditional and contemporary aesthetics. Nicholas Parrendo shows that stained glass can be exquisite in his "Saint Nicholas." Artists embrace ethnicity, as in the Native American "Lakota Trinity" of John Giuliani, and the African-American "Pieta -- Beloved" of Janet McKenzie, as well as activist church history, as with Jordan Hainsey's "Viva Cristo Rey! Blessed Miguel Pro."
This variety and openness is exciting because it will draw imagination and passion. Another benefit of committed support is that artists will be more willing to invest time and material if they feel a venue exists for it. At the opening reception, for example, two artists said they would submit larger works next time.
For the first time, the exhibition juror lectured at Saint Vincent, a thought-provoking event that I hope continues. The catalog publication is also a plus, for the visitor and also as a resume item for artists. Perhaps future publications could include exposition of the symbolism in the works, some of which are layered, which would be informative to Catholics as well as visitors outside the faith.
What was rooted in pragmatic concerns about providing quality art choices to parishes is developing into a showplace for imagery that at times surprises as well as delights and inspires, as the best art has throughout history.
The exhibition continues through Dec. 9 in the Robert S. Carey Student Center, Saint Vincent College. Gallery hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closed Nov. 21-25. Admission is free. Information: 724-805-2197 or http:gallery.stvincent.edu.
"Craft in America: Crossroads" debuts on WQED at 9 p.m. Friday featuring a fiber artist who finds inspiration in brain function, another who draws on the liminal zone between San Diego and Tijuana, and a trio of potters steeped in the legendary Hamada-Leach tradition.
The hour flies by quickly as the program takes viewers to the artists' environments, watches over their shoulders as they create, and talks with them about what makes them tick.
The "Craft in America" series is as beautifully crafted as the work it examines, capturing the unique essence of individual artists, balancing between information and narrative to do so.
Tanya Aguiniga is a Rhode Island School of Design graduate whose sophisticated furniture design and fanciful installations, supported by an international, web-based jewelry business, are well represented. But the camera also visits her parents in their Tijuana, Mexico, home, and travels across the border as she did daily to attend elementary school near her American-born grandmother's house in San Diego. She and her father would leave Tijuana at 3:30 or 4 a.m. so that he could get to work on time. She'd arrive at her grandmother's at 5:30 "and then just wait for people to wake up."
Filmed as she creates the installation "Crossing the Line" in a Los Angeles museum, Ms. Aguiniga says one of the first things that comes to mind when considering the piece is that the line is the border and it is artificial. Her work straddles functional and non-functional, craft and fine art, the traditional and modern. "I think it's a very frontier sensibility. ... My explorations in color and texture probably come from the Mexican side of me and the more minimalist aesthetic comes from the U.S. side of me."
Next up are three Midwestern potters, Clary Illian, Jeff Oestreich and Warren MacKenzie, the latter of whom is represented in Carnegie Museum of Art collections. At different times in the 1950s and '60s, each apprenticed with the famed Bernard Leach in St. Ives, England, at the pottery established by the Brit and Japanese national treasure Shoji Hamada. Of particular interest are archival film clips from 1952 and later of both men, who taught aesthetics simultaneously with life philosophy (including a humility that fits their profession as potters and not ceramists).
The East-West coming together of Hamada and Leach exemplified a "new sense of what the human race could evolve into ... how everybody gains when we're open to The Other," says Gail Kendall, potter and professor emeritus, University of Nebraska.
Finally, Berkeley resident Lia Cook shares the path that took her from a year in Sweden to learn traditional weaving to a residency at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine where she worked with Greg Siegle, associate professor of psychiatry. They observed people looking at her large-scale weavings of human faces and mapped, on a computer, brain response to that stimuli.
The artwork resultant from that residency was exhibited at the Society for Contemporary Craft, Strip District, where Ms. Cook and Mr. Siegle spoke in 2011. The society traveled the exhibition to three locations, including the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, which appears in the program.
"What I've been impressed with is the similarities between art and science," Mr. Siegle said of the project. "Both are creative efforts. Where the artist goes in to answer a question using one medium, the scientist goes in using a different tool box. The processes unfold similarly. You plan, you analyze or, in this case, create, you step back, look at what you've done, modify, and go do it again, until you're happy that what you've uncovered is some essence of truth."
Three crossroads -- cross-border, cross-culture, cross-discipline -- illustrate a universal language: Art.
The series continues next fall with "Craft in America: Forge," and in December, when "Craft in America: Holiday" visits Christian, pagan, Hispanic and African-American traditions. Information: www.craftinamerica.org.
Shadyside gallery proprietor Steven Mendelson has a show of his own work, "A Chance Encounter," opening from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Schroeder Romero & Shredder gallery, 531 W. 26th St., in the Chelsea section of New York City. An "out of towners" reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 29. Mr. Mendelson describes his work as a marriage of "surrealism, dada, and my homemade brand of absurd spirituality into a melange of imagery, movement and assemblage." Chelsea was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, which flooded basement art storage rooms. Damage estimates are still coming in but recovery work has been swift to return this economically important art district to function.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.