Friday, April 13, 2012

Eagles Do Not Flock-You Find Them One At A Time!!

Father Edward Michael Catich was an eagle in every sense of the word. He had a sharp eye and whit, a dedication to his faith and service to God. He was a priest, artist, and scholar. During the last year of his life on earth, I was fortunate to be enrolled in his studio art program at St. Ambrose University. Father Catich took me under his wing. Not only was he my teacher, but he was also my priest and my friend at a time when I desperately needed both.

In 1976 after graduating from Mt. St. Clare College with an Associate of Arts degree I was awarded a significant scholarship to St. Ambrose to study calligraphy and studio art with Father Catich. I was afraid to start the program in the fall, so I sought permission to delay my scholarship and moved to New York City to be a mother's helper for a family.

In addition to working for a family, I had also decided I wanted to study with Paul Freeman from the Society of Scribes. I had only three lessons with Paul, who was wonderfully kind, when he asked me quietly, "What the hell are you doing in New York, so far away from your family, when you live 45 minutes away from the old man of the brush, Catich?" His wife was there with us that day-they were so nice to me. She served us tea and cookies. The three of us talked at length about my fears of "not making the grade." Paul convinced me to return to Iowa and pick up my scholarship. It was not until I had known Father Catich for about 4 months that he told me he had received a concerned call from Paul the year before about a young Iowa red-head who was lost in New York and coming home soon to study with him. I was very touched.

When I arrived at St. Ambrose in May of 1978 to meet Father and discuss school, he looked at my calligraphy work and told me it was midwest nothing, but that we could fix that in time, and not to worry. He told me I would need some books to study over the summer and he would get them for me. He proceeded to one of the back/side walls of his large studio and started to climb the metal shelving and pull down some books from the top. I was terrified the entire shelf was going to come down on him!  He handed me The Trajan Inscription in Rome, The Origin of the Serif, and Reed, Pen & Brush Alphabets. I explained that I did not have any money to pay him for the books right then.  He said, "Not to worry, we will just make a record." He walked to the studio door and wrote my name, the book titles, and the amount on the door. He told me I could pay him when I had the money.  Father told me to go home and study and practice, and he would see me in the fall.

It was not until after his death, when I was helping to clean the studio and to catalog all of his books, that I discovered that these very same shelves were bolted to the cement walls of the studio!

Father Catich was an amazing artist. He could draw letters and buildings upside down to stun both the lecture hall audience and the students he was trying to teach in the classroom. But he was always first, and foremost, a priest. His deep faith and belief that Christ should always be kept amongst us in our hearts was never more present that in his depictions of Christ in "everyday dress" which caused him great difficulties with the powers that be in the Catholic Church.

Below is a quote from the River Cities Reader, 2004:

From the Catich Digital Archives
"For instance, at the same time his iconic image of a black Christ on the knee of a Latina Mary was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Time magazine was reporting on Catich’s notoriety as an anti-traditionalist. Catich was quoted as saying, “We must fashion a Christ who will be no stranger to our time. ... I do not think it vulgar to suggest we give Christ a shave and a haircut.” The Vatican was less than enthralled with Catich’s crusade to portray “Christ in a T-shirt” and issued him a monitum – a warning from the Pope." 

Father Catich was able to translate the stories of the Bible into everyday language. This interpretation of the Biblical stories helped us to see how they related to our own stories in present day, and how those stories could help us to be better daughters, sons, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends to those around us.

Father also believed that understanding the Bible within the context of present day events would help us to be better artists and craftspersons as well. He is quoted as saying, "I suggest, therefore, that a basic principle of religious art is that we must express religious truths in contemporary terms...Christ should be portrayed as a member of our household and our city, a person of our land and our language." He expected us to not only be able to make letters with some skill, but to be able to represent our world around us, interpreting the Biblical narrative with modern day visual vocabulary, using pencil, watercolor brush, and pen.

At the time of his death he had been planning another trip to Europe for the Summer of 1979.  He was taking his "3 girls" with  him, Maureen Long, Amy Nielsen, and me, to help with the creating of glass for a stained glass window in Cologne and also to make more rubbings of the Trajan Inscription in Rome. He was convinced that the pollution was eroding the inscription even more than when he had made his second set of rubbings in preparation for the cast he made for Donnelley Publishing in the 1960's. (click on the previous phrase to see the cast) He also wanted each of us to have our own rubbing of the inscription.

Father Catich's Leica
The last day I saw him, Maundy Thursday, 1979, we had class in the morning and then I was to leave to return to my hometown, Clinton, to pick up my husband and travel to a conference in Kansas with him on Easter weekend.  I kept forgetting items at the school-my negative notebook in the darkroom, my watercolor board in the studio. I ended up going back to the college 4 or more times that day. Each time I had wonderful long conversations with Father. He kept trying to give me money to pay for our plane tickets to Europe-we were getting them from my travel agent in Clinton. That day he also gave me his Leica camera. He wanted me to practice on my trip that weekend as he had asked me to be the official photographer for our journey to Rome. We talked about faith issues that day, about my family, and my hopes for teaching someday. The last moments I saw him he was standing next to John Schmits in his first floor office, talking, while John painted.

Returning from the trip to Kansas we arrived in Ames, Iowa at a relative's home to hear the phone ringing. It was for me. In the days before cell phones were common, we had been out of touch for the entire weekend. My mother was calling to inform me that Father had been found dead in his studio on Saturday morning by his apprentice, and our good friend. Paul Herrera. The next few days were a blur. The immense grief that we all felt was overpowering as we prepared ourselves for the funeral. The vigil in the chapel at St. Ambrose and the funeral the next day were difficult and exhausting for us all. At each step of the way we were reminded that Father Catich was our teacher, but he was first a priest and a servant of Christ and the church.

Over the years I have tried to understand why my time with Father Catich, this relatively short period of time in my life, changed me so profoundly. It has only been in the last few years that I realized it was due to the transformative nature of prayer in our lives. Father reminded me often of the need for prayer in my life. For me, making art work, either calligraphy pieces, watercolors, or artist's books,  are a form of prayer. I feel compelled to tell my faith story in the objects I create and to share the process of making, which are my prayers, with those whom I come in contact with on the journey.

Maureen Long and Paul Herrera, 1979 St. Ambrose
Recently I have been able to reconnect with  my good friend from those days, Paul Herrera. He has started a website, Catfish Art Group, and is completing work on a biography of Father Catich. As Father's apprentice at the time of his death, and the person who found him in his studio, Paul is the only person who can tell this incredible story of Father Catich's life, his faith, and his dedication to his creative soul.

Paul is also starting a lecture series about Father and is coming to Deep River in late May to give this lecture as part of the Art on the Lawn Lecture Series leading up to the show this September. He has also promised to help me cut down some of my huge pieces of slate and give me a few stone cutting lessons while he is visiting us. Paul is also giving a workshop for the Calligraphy Society of Ottawa the first weekend in June.

Father Catich died 33 years ago, April 14. In some ways he is more alive to me now than he has ever been. As I work in my studio making letters, preparing stone for cutting, and making artist's books, I am reminded of his dedication to prayer as a central portion of both his spiritual and creative life. He admonished us all in his last will and testament about prayer, using the words of Tennyson:

"I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within Himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of..."
Pray for my Soul!

With each breath I take, with each stroke I make, I continue to pray for his soul, with grace and thanksgiving, that he touched my life so completely. Each day in my studio when I sit in his chair (given to me after his death) and look at his photo above my table, I am reminded that God's power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

We need only open our hearts and our minds to God each and every day, and with the grace of God, all will be well, and all will be well, and with the peace of God, all will be well.

To learn more about Father Catich, please check out the Catich Digital Archives, St. Ambrose University, Davenport, Iowa.

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