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Catholic Artist of the Month: Neilson Carlin

Here is the third installment in a series: Catholic Artist of the Month.  Rather than constantly kvetching about mediocre, sentimental art by Christians, I’ll be featuring artists who are doing it right.

This month, I’m delighted to present Neilson Carlin, whose Holy Family image, commissioned for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015, was recently unveiled by Archbishop Chaput.

Carlin’s work has been widely exhibited. He specializes in commissioned sacred work, and has been training art students for many years at Studio Rilievo in Kennett Square, PA.

Although he was raised Lutheran, Carlin says that when he was young that he wanted to be a priest. But it wasn’t until he was preparing for his marriage that he really considered joining the Church. Here is the conversation we had earlier this week. My questions are in bold.
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Tell us about your conversion to Catholicism.

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My parents became involved with Evangelical Christianity, and I believed a lot of stereotypes about Catholics: Mary worship, idol worship, that the Mass was nothing more than vain repetition, that it was a dry, dead, man-created religion.
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After college, I started going to Mass with my wife[-to-be], because I wanted to hang out with her.  The parish was authentic, with on-fire Christians.  There was a profound spirituality. The year before we got married, I went into RCIA, not to become a Catholic, but because we were going to raise the children Catholic. I wanted to at least get from the horse’s mouth what I was vowing to do.
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Was there any one issue that especially bothered you about the Church?
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The authority issue was the last hurdle. The parish priest was an accountant, and the deacon was a lawyer. The two of them had the right background for my personality. They would systematically, in a cool, rational fashion, answer anything about history, and send me looking to read more, never sending me off without something. They took me to the end of reason where faith begins.
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Two weeks before Easter 2000, my heart had to finally break. I had to get down on my knees and get over it, get beyond the issues I had with the Church. My head was in the Church ten years before I ever joined. I didn’t realize that the things I wanted to do as an artist had a place in the Church.
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You had established a career as an artist by this point already?
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Yes, I’ve been a professional artist since 1992. After doing nine years of commercial illustration, I recognized I had big gaps in my skill set. I was confident I had the ability to draw, with pen and ink — I had wanted to be comic book illustrator. I had oil paintings in my head, but didn’t have the technical ability, so I opted for watercolor.
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I met with a teacher in the West Side of Manhattan, Michael Aviano. I took a class, and within thirty minutes I knew this was what I was looking for. Now I teach classes based on what I learned from him.
carlin the calling of lazarus
It’s the Atelier movement, an old-school intensive curriculum that takes you through all the basics.  You come into someone’s studio and work directly under them, rather than getting that four-year degree. I spent five years with Aviano, learning painting and composition. The training made me confident I could move into other areas.
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Like what?
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Like portrait commissions, the gallery market, larger scale oil paintings. Also, in the mid-90′s, there was a shift in the illustration market. The entire commercial field took a hard turn toward the computer. But I like the smell of turpentine.
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By the end of the millennium, I had transitioned out of illustration and into gallery work and teaching. When I got some time, I would do sacred work that meant something to me. Portraits of Christ, paintings of the Eucharist.
carlin surrender at gethsemanecarlin ordinatio
A lot of your gallery pieces are not overtly religious, but they look pretty incarnational to me.  Some of your still lifes, especially, are really sensual.
carlin triplets
carlin redhead
Melon
I thought, “Hide the kids; that is one sexy melon!”
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Thank you!
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Then there is “Sacrifice,” with juicy meat and some very cruciform bones.  To my Catholic eyes, it’s obviously a Catholic painting. What was going on there?
carlin sacrifice
I’ve had great relationship with secular galleries, but I felt like I had to be in the closet with paintings.
Reconciliation of Contraries
They didn’t think there was a market for religious art. They wanted floral paintings, still lifes, and landscapes.
Blooms
I was making a living, which was better than some, but I didn’t want to end up being 65 years old and still doing this type of work. As much as I loved illustration, there were other things I wanted to do. And part of me still wanted to be a comic book artist, with full-scale, multi-figure, narrative paintings.
carlin pope saint pius x
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the Holy Family icon for the World Meeting of Families.
carlin holy family
The faces of the adults are full of apprehension and worry, but Jesus looks very determined, and His foot is off the stone, as if He can’t wait to get going.
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I was trying to convey the centrality of Christ in the family.  I don’t care for maudlin, smiling representations of the Holy Family. Joseph and Mary were real people with real concerns.  They were concerned about Him, but He was the rock. They had to look to their son for the promise of what He would do. All the elements of the painting bring you back to Him. He’s the center of the piece.
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How did you choose the models? 
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Mary and Jesus’ faces were the one thing I felt some stress over, getting it just right. Some people are saying that they look too Jewish, and some people say they look too Northern European.
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I guess that means you did something right!
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Technically, I knew I could carry it off. The Bishop was happy with the design, the architecture of the cathedral was incorporated. But I had some sleepless nights because I wanted to make sure they were presented in a way that was respectful. A student of mine does icon writing. She said to pray about it, and allow it to come forth.
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Is there a lot of pressure when you’re doing a religious painting? You don’t want to convey something spiritually misleading.
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That’s where I rely on the priest I’m working with. I haven’t been raised in the Catholic tradition. Who can follow 2,000 years of history? Once I presented a sketch of Christ the King. I had looked at all these paintings, but it didn’t click with me that the hand of blessing was always the right hand. The liturgical design coordinator had to correct me.
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When you’re doing a commission for a church, you must be thinking, “People are going to be looking straight at this for a whole hour, week after week.”
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Oh, yes. The current piece I’m working on has twenty saints in twelve individual panels, in preexisting marble niches, six on the left of the tabernacle, six on the right. It’s going to show the Communion of Saints.  I’m trying to create a porch where they’re existing.
carlin communion of saints panels
It’s a difficult design challenge. I want it so that, when someone comes up for Communion, the perspective is gauged for that. The perspective will make sense once the Host is in your mouth, so that all the saints are joining in the feast of the Lamb with you.
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For the Holy Family portrait, I wanted people to feel like, when you’re in the cathedral, they’re sitting there with you. There is a high degree of realism in the fabric and especially in the hands where they touch each other.
carlin holy family detail
But I didn’t want people to look at the figures and find them so real, you could meet them at the gas station. I’m always trying to separate the model from the painting.
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I know you’ve done a lot of portraits of saints, though, that are supposed to be recognizable. But I’ve seen saint pictures that are just slavishly accurate copies of photos, and they aren’t art, exactly. How do you handle this?
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I arrange the figures in original compositions, get them costumed, and then use a photograph [of the saint] and put that head on the model’s body, and reconfigure the lighting in my head. I get a good, solid line drawing, and then put the photo away and work from the line drawing. I don’t try to make it look like a photo.
carlin mother theresa
 If the photo is in front of me, I’m going to try to get every last thing in it, but that would anchor the piece too much in matter. If I put the photo away, that allows me to find some balance between the ideal in my head and representing what’s in the photo.
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I think the current interest in photorealism, cultivating the ability to copy everything within your visual field, has its root in a revival of 19th-century materialist philosophy. But I’m cultivating an incarnational aesthetic.  I used to think that being able to copy what was right in front of my visual field was the peak. But you get there, and you think, “What now?” A whole lot of people can be trained to do that. I’m looking for more.
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What are you looking for? 
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The Baroque period resonates with me the most: that Caravaggiesque dirt under the fingernails. He painted those figures from someone, but you don’t feel like it’s a model. It’s real, tangible, and exists in space, but it’s not slavishly copied from what’s in front of him.
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For instance, most of the art depicting Gianna Molla and Miguel Pro are straight up copies of photos. Instead, I tried to create a narrative, show them engaged, show some of their attributes.
carlin gianna molla
Do people sometimes get things out of your paintings that surprise you?
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All the time. People find things that I didn’t intend. Like any work of art, a painting isn’t journalism. It’s poetry.
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Who are you favorite artists now?
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Right now? Guercino, Guido Reni, and Tiepolo. Michelangelo, of course. Raphael, of course. They get back to my roots as a comic book illustrator. The first time I went to the Met in New York, I saw a Guercino, “Sampson Taken by the Philistines,” with that muscular back. It was loaded with figures, so much action, and oodles of figures and colors.
carlin guercino samson philistines
The first thing I thought was, “It looks like a comic book panel.”
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How about artists working right now? Who do you like?
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For secular artists, a young guy named Adam Miller, a superior draftsman who does a lot of multifigure work. His compositions are extraordinary.
Steve Huston does beautiful figure work.
Donato Giancola does top tier illustration. He’s a painter and designer extraordinaire.
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For sacred art: Anthony Visco is a sculptor from Philadelphia. He’s the whole nine yards in one bundle, a real renaissance man: architect, teacher, sculptor.
For painters, Raul Berzosa is my new superhero. He completed a ceiling I couldn’t believe. He’s such a young guy at such a high level. It’s mind boggling.
Cody Swanson is another contemporary secular artist, another powerhouse.
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Any advice for artists who would like to work for the Church?
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Make sure what’s in  your portfolio is what they will want to see! I had only a few pieces of sacred work in my portfolio, but it was enough to catch the eye of Cardinal Burke. That’s what allowed me to take it to the next level.
carlin communion of saints sketches
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A gallery of Carlin’s work, information about commissions, and more can be found at his website, NeilsonCarlin.com.
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This is the third in a series of interviews with Catholic artists. Previous installments:
Matthew S. Good
Timothy Jones
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Are you a Catholic artist, or do you know one who would be available for interview? Send me a tip at simchafisher[at]gmail[dot]com. I am especially looking for sculptors, photographers, architects, and painters who are doing non-representational work.

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