A Day “Formed in Beauty”

CAG Program

On Sunday, November 4, 2018 the Catholic Art Guild hosted its second annual conference “bringing together the world’s leading artists, architects, and scholars to rediscover the power of beauty in the modern world.” I had the pleasure of attending this event in Chicago, the theme of which was “Formed in Beauty.”

Kathleen Carr, President & Founder of the Catholic Art Guild, says this year’s theme was partially based on a personal experience when she changed parishes from a modernist “fan shaped” church to a beautiful Gothic church.

I found the classical church building did more to bring me to reverence and prayer. The beauty of the Gothic church inspired a sense of awe but I found it also gave me a sense of peace.

Appropriately, the conference started with an awe-inspiring liturgy. Like last year, the day began with a Choral Latin High Mass at St. John Cantius Church. There really is no better way to kick off a conference on beauty than this. The church is breathtaking, reminding me of churches you would see in Europe. If that weren’t enough to elevate one’s senses, there was also a choir and orchestra. Latin Mass is quite different than what I’m used to, but unlike last year, this year I was prepared. I sat back and watched the Mass unfold. At one moment as the music crescendoed throughout the room, all priests took off their hats, placed them against their chests and then put them back on. I was struck by a beautifully orchestrated dance, metaphorically of course, that appeared before my eyes. Each step was purposeful, graceful and incredibly reverent. The whole church exhibited a sense of reverence sweeping through the pews.

St. John Cantius Stained Glass

St. John Cantius

After Mass, the conference began with an afternoon of talks on art and beauty at The Drake Hotel. The first talk entitled “On Living Tradition: The Basic Good of Catholic Culture and the Spiritual Discipline of Fine Arts” was provided by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic Theologian, Liturgical Scholar and Choral Composer. Dr. Kwasniewski debunked the modern way of thinking that to pull from past artistic traditions and styles is somehow faddish. Instead, he breaks down this misconception and stresses the importance of looking to the past for inspiration, stirring up tradition and drawing upon Catholic heritage. All great artists began as apprentices and to think we need to forge ahead on a new path, disregarding our past is a prideful error. An example he gives is music, which can come alive again no matter how old it is—something I certainly experienced when at Mass earlier that morning.

Up next was Juliette Aristides, Classical Realist Artist, Author and Founder of Aristides Atelier, who spoke on “Beauty as a Portal to Meaning.” She began by discussing the importance of beauty and its aim of getting you to stop in your tracks and look. Beauty is all around us, even in daily moments like the way our creamer swirls in our coffee, but we must stop to see it. Unfortunately, there are obstacles which get in the way of us seeing beauty around us—busy lives and distractions being a common culprit. I found this to be quite ironic, as just a few hours prior I had experienced my own version of this. My husband and I had run up to our hotel room after Mass so I could grab my notebook before heading back down for lunch. I was fumbling through my bag to find it, and then double checking I had the hotel key and a pen to write with. Ready to walk out the door, my husband kept looking over my shoulder and smiling. Confused I looked behind me and there sitting on the table was a large bouquet of flowers he had gotten for our anniversary. I must have walked by them several times without even noticing. The aroma alone should have been a clue, but as I previously described, I was distracted and missed a “bouquet of beauty” staring me in the face. In the conclusion of Juliette Aristides talk, she discusses ways we can cultivate more beauty in our lives. If we look quickly, we will see the ordinary, but if we look slowly, we will see the sublime. If only I had applied this advice a few hours earlier!

The third speaker was Ethan Anthony, Principal Architect at Cram & Ferguson who discussed “The Symphony of Creation.”  He described the role an architect must play in working to bring beauty to American Catholic Churches. It’s an iterative process involved with each sketch, CAD rendering, sculpture or design, with many parties involved in the process. He described the importance of iconography and symbolism. Taking us through many photos as examples, he also touched on an unfortunate aspect of art history—iconoclasm, or the destruction of icons and images. How unfortunate to see beautiful works of art destroyed. Yet, there is hope in the architects, artists and designers who pick up the pieces, taking the bones of torn buildings and turning them into something beautiful once again.

The final talk was the keynote address by Alexander Stoddart, Sculpture in Ordinary to Her Majesty the Queen of Scotland, who spoke on “Christianity, Art and Philosophical Pessimism.” He discussed how art should move us out of this world and beyond ourselves. This thought is contradictory to modernism which he describes as focused on the world and the self. We are living during a time of great cultural tragedy, but true beauty and art can bring us to the things we can’t see and show us great virtue.

The evening ended with a wonderful dinner at the Drake Hotel and an insightful panel discussion.

Carr has a parting wish for conference attendees:

I hope conference attendees will leave inspired and also better informed about the power of beauty and it’s power to form and transform. For those who are visual artists, I hope they leave with a better understanding of why their gift of beauty really does matter.

I know I did! This is definitely an event to keep an eye out for in the future.


Disclosure: I received a limited number, press ticket as I covered this event.

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