I was able to interview David Clayton, artist in residence at Thomas More College It is beautiful to see a Catholic whose vocation is fulfilled and informed by his Faith.
1. Can you talk about your upbringing and how you came to have an artist's appreciation for beauty in addition to the discipline for engineering? The impression many people have is that math and art are exclusive, either you have a talent for one or the other and that the life of an artist is undisciplined.
I was brought up in the North of England (between a place called Chester and Liverpool). Both my parents were interested in art and drawing and so we were encouraged to draw and paint as youngsters (I have two brothers and a sister). My grandfather worked as a commercial artist. The high school I went to was not strong on art, being more focussed on the traditional academic discplines, so there was very little chance to study it there, and nobody went from my high school to art school. Science is what I was good at at school, so when I went to university, I applied for science courses. I started to paint again when I was doing my masters in engineering for relaxation. I entered a competition at the college, Michigan Tech, and won the best of show award. I have never found any conflict between art and science. Regarding the lack of discipline in art: this may be so in the modern art school, but traditionally, it was a craft that required a huge amount of discipline and application using all aspects of the mind -- intuitive, rational.
2. I understand that you have a dramatic conversion from Atheism to Catholicism. Can you explain what happened. How did your family and friends react to your conversion?
It's too long and detailed to describe it fully here - even this brief version might be too long for you!. But I had a crisis of unhappiness in my late 20s and needed help. I met someone who suggested that I pray. I was so desperate that I did and things changed. I continued to pray and then lead a better life whilst I never saw huge dramatic results, it gave me the conviction that it was the basis of a happier life. The thing that motivated me to listen to the person who influenced me was that he seemed happy - he had something worth having. And also, he didn't push it on my, he quietly talked about what worked for him without appearing to proselytise. Also, he took me from where I was. He knew that I wouldn't have gone to Mass, so he started just by suggesting the I pray. That opened the door. I then did lots of reading and investigation and looked at other religions, Islam interested me at the time, but Christianity was the one that seemed to be the most uncomprimising in asking me to act for the good of others -love. I wasn't sure I liked that necessarily, but i believed that it was right and that in the long run it offered, therefore, a happy life. So I became a Christian. This process took about three years. Then I started to shop around the Christian churches, talking to priests and ministers etc. I chose Catholicism for a number of reasons: I had seen some impressive people whom I respected and were Catholics; the thing that seemed to unite all the other churches, including the Orthodox, that whatever they thought about each other, they were certain that Catholicism was wrong. This made me curious, especially as the Catholics just described what they believed - ie presented the positive more than the negative. I found that for the most part the things that were said about the Catholics were usually not true, or if they were, the Catholic reasons for their beliefs were convincing. The Catholic priests were the most impressive men of the cloth. Finally, I mentioned to my friend, who had suggested that i pray several years before, that I was looking at churches to join. He said, why don't you try this one? He told me where the building was and I remember him saying two or three times: if you go, make sure you go at 11am. He had directed me to the High Mass at the London Oratory. This is still (perhaps equalled only by the Birmingham Oratory), the most beautiful liturgy I have ever seen. I arrived slightly late and wandered in the church. The choir was singing Palestrina. I had never heard polyphany before and it instantly made me think of angels. There was the smell of incense and shafts of sunlight lighting up the smoke. I t seems that all my senses were being assailed. I couldn't see where the choir was, they were hidden in the gallery, so I looked up to the ceiling and saw angels, painted on the ceiling of the church. I didn't even know it was Catholic. David my friend hadn't said anything about that. I had to find out afterwards. The Mass was in Latin (Novus Ordo) and seemed very strange, not of our time and place, but not exclusively of the past either -- more timeless. The attitude of thepeople affected me also. They all knelt, stood, bowed together and all were facing in the same direction (priest was ad orientem). All, including the priest, seemed to be addressing God. Their faith was communicated to me by body language. You sensed through this, the presence of something real. I didn't know it at the time, but that is exactly what was there that hadn't been at the other churches - the Real Presence.
This experience gave me the conviction that liturgy and beauty are vital components in drawing people to the Faith, something that some parts of the Church seem to have been forgotten.
When I converted, I think my friends thought that I was just an eccentric and that I would probably move onto another fad. My parents were pleased that I was going to church, at least, but not so keen on Catholicism. They are Methodists. I have a brother who was interested and he is now taking instruction to be received into the Church this Easter.
3. One might say that you had a second conversion, from studying engineering to devoting your life entirely to art and Christian iconography, in particular- how did that come about?
I had a careers talk from this same man who directed me to the Oratory (and became my sponsor when I was received into the Church). It was very simple. He just said: if you inherited so much money that you never had to work again for the money, how would you choose to spend your time, 9-5, 5 days a week. I said, painting. And he said, then that is what God is calling you to do (provided that what you say is not contrary to moral good). He said that you keep in mind the vision of what you want to do, and then take small practical steps in the right direction. You don't need to plan the whole thing, just take step one so that it is nearer to where you want to go, and then worry about step 2 when you have done step 1. At no point do you take foolish risks. So I started by doing drawing classes at the local art school. He said that as I go along, I will get a sense that this is what I am meant to do becaue the more I do it, the more I will want to do it. Also, he said that you will find that the next step is made apparent to you once you are ready. That is exactly what has happened. I have always had a sense of momentum and just when I felt I was stagnating, another door would open. The Iconography came about because there was a man at this local art school who took an interest in me. He painted in a medium called egg tempera. This is very difficult and as I was trying to get to grips with it, someone mentioned in passing that they knew a guy who, someone else, who used this medium. So I wrote to the name and address given to me asking if I could come and watch him paint. I got a letter back from someone else - the letter had been passed on, because I hadn't been given the right person, but he happened to know someone completely different who was an Orthodox monk and iconographer. THis man, Aidan, wrote to me and offered to teach me if I wanted to go and stay with him for the weekend. Of course, I knew nothing about icons before this - they were just what he happened to paint, but this is how I first saw them and found my teacher, who I am still in touch with, Aidan Hart.
4. What is the role of art and the artist in modern and one might even say the post- Christian West?
The role of the artist is to bring glory to God and joy to mankind. They must consider, the effect that their art will have on those who see it - will it speed them on the path to heaven or not? It is through beauty and conformity to truth that they can do this. The traditional forms of art considered very carefully both content and style in regard to this.
5. There has been a tendency to tolerate some art which is nothing more than performance blasphemy. I'm sure there are obvious examples that come to mind- how should a "free" society and the individual Christian respond to examples of blasphemy and provocation in the art world?
Isn't this the same as any situation in principle as when faced with anything wrong or blasphemous? I think this is difficult to answer. It depends how bad it is, how many people will see it. Perhaps I haven't understood the question?
6. G.K. Chesterton said that :"Life exists for the love of music or beautiful things."
Do you have any thoughts on how to teach children to love and understand what is beautiful, especially in overly media-image-saturated culture?
Using traditional methods of teaching people to appreciate beauty. These involve getting people to look intimately at God's creation - the natural world - and the art work of past masters. They should be encouraged to draw what they see. For the very young, I have recently illustrated books on the Faith for children Meet the Angels, available from TMC) in which they are colouring in line drawings of traditional style, but, one hopes, very accessible, imagery. Also the practice of geometry is invaluable in transmitting a sense of order and proportion at a deep intuitive level and something that even those who don't consider themselves artistic can do. Finally and most importantly, people must learn to pray with beautiful imagery and participate in the liturgy beautifully, especially the Mass of course. I encourage people to adopt the Eastern Christian practice of having icon corners at home and using it as a focus for their prayer at home. This links the spiritual and visual beauty.
"The Agony in the Garden" an excerpt from the colouring book "Meet the Angels".
7. What artists and iconographers do you most admire and who most influenced you?
In iconography I like the icons of my teacher, Aidan Hart. In the Western naturalistic tradition, I think Velazquez is the best painter and Bernini is the best sculptor. I think in the gothic tradition Fra Angelico is wonderful. I would put Fra Angelico forward as one whose work raises the soul to God and promotes prayer more than any other I know.
8. In a Church with so much Western art why is it that you chose to pursue an Eastern form of Sacred Art? What is it about the icon that appeals to you? What do you think the message of the Catholic icon has for the world today?
Many within the Church seems to have become detached from our artistic traditions. At least the icon is a living Christian tradition so it seemed a good starting point. The icon speaks to us directly of our heavenly destiny - when we partake of the divine nature in heaven. It is currently seen as an Eastern tradition, but for a thousand years it was as much part of the Western. the Romanesque is a Western variant on the icon and as such is valid today. western art culminating in the 17th century baroque, has focussed on portraying the potential of fallen man to go to heaven. That is why they are stylistically different. It offers hope in this world by making God present here. These are valid today. Also, Pope John Paul II's theology of the body asked for artists to address the presentation of Original Man - man before the fall -- as a model of human sexuality speaking of the gift of self. This may well become the basis of a new art, but it will be the result, just like with the icon style or the baroque style, from a dialogue between theologians, liturgists, philosophers and artists. (This dialogue was also called for by JPII in his Letter to Artists).
9. What are your hopes for the Art Program at Thomas More College and how do you see the unique role of Thomas More as a complement to your work?
It will train artists who can speak to Catholics and non-Catholics with the beauty of their work. Also I hope it will play a part in laying the groundwork for the re-establishment of a culture of beauty in the West. It will give all students, not just the artists, an education in beauty that will open their hearts to love God and man more fully and make them inspired patrons of the arts.
For more information about David Clayton and iconography please see the following links:
For an Art theory course for Catholics, distance learning, "Art Inspiration and Beauty from a Catholic Perspective": www.maryvale.ac.uk
For the work of David Clayton please go here: www://picasaweb.google.com/davidicons
Thomas More College of Liberal Arts: www.thomasmorecollege.edu
Contact me through the college or firstname.lastname@example.org
Articles about the principles that underlie the Way of Beauty, programme at Thomas More College. In journal Second Spring, (from Thomas More College)
David Clayton is an artist and teacher who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Merrimack, NH. He also teaches at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, England. He designed, along with the staff at the institute, the art-theory course: Art, Beauty and Inspiration from a Catholic Perspective. He is trained in the Byzantine iconographic style, and in Western classical naturalism, which he studied at Florence, Italy. Major commissions include: St Luigi Scrosoppi, for the London Oratory; the crucifixion at Pluscarden Monastery in Elgin, Scotland; and the Sacred Heart at Maryvale Intitute. He has also illustrated books for children. He has had numerous academic articles published about art and the culture of beauty, and has worked as a freelance journalist in the UK, writing reviews and articles for The Catholic Herald. David was received into the Church in London in 1993.