Taking Stock: Back From A Great Art Conference In Chicago

I’m just back from an excellent weekend in Chicago, where I attended the Catholic Art Guild’s Annual Conference, which this year bore the theme, “Formed In Beauty”. Although it’s only the second year that the Guild has put on this conference, word has clearly started to spread among those who care about the arts, as I met people from all over the country who came to attend the conference events: clearly a very positive sign for conferences to come. In fact, I had several instances of friends from social media, none of whom live in Chicago and none of whom I had ever met in real life, coming up to me and introducing themselves by their Twitter or Instagram handle, which is always a fun experience.

While the Conference itself took place on Sunday, there were also associated events on Friday and Saturday. This included the Mozart Requiem Mass for the Feast of All Souls Day on Friday, and an in-depth drawing demonstration with live model by artist Juliette Aristides on Saturday. This also left one plenty of time to go explore the pleasures of Chicago in the Autumn, and I got to enjoy watching the sun come up over Lake Shore Drive, snapping pictures of the diverse and interesting buildings for which Chicago is world-renowned, having a very thorough beard “sculpting” at a celebrity-frequented barbershop, and enjoying food and adult beverages at several excellent restaurants.

The Conference day began with a magnificent Mass at the equally magnificent church of St. John Cantius, home of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius. If you’ve never begun your day with Mozart – in this case, one of his Missae Breves – you’ve no idea how it puts a spring in your step. We then adjourned to the Drake Hotel, one of my favorite places on the planet, for the rest of the day’s events. This included a luncheon, talks on architecture, music, painting, and sculpture by some truly brilliant practitioners of these arts, interaction opportunities with vendors, and a formal dinner, followed by a panel discussion and audience Q&A. I was privileged enough to be allowed to adopt my best Dick Cavett persona and moderate this closing event with the day’s invited speakers; I’ll post the video from the Guild’s YouTube Channel when it’s made available.

I also had the opportunity the night before the Conference to have a lengthy sit-down with one of the presenters, Alexander Stoddart, Sculptor in Ordinary to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Expect an article encapsulating our conversation to appear in The Federalist in the not-too-distant future. This is assuming that I can edit such a wide-ranging conversation, covering everything from Susan Boyle to chainsaw log carving competitions to Pointillism, down into something under 2,000 words. He’s certainly one of the most engaging interview subjects I’ve ever had the privilege to have a chat with.

My sincere thanks to Guild President Kathleen Carr, Father Joshua Caswell, and all of those involved in putting on a splendid and thought-provoking event, and for graciously allowing me to participate. Whenever the next Conference is announced, I highly recommend that you put it on your calendar and plan to make a weekend of it. You’ll be supporting the work of an organization dedicated to returning beauty, truth, and craftsmanship to the arts, and have the opportunity to meet others who genuinely care about these things, in one of the world’s great cities.

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Reminder: Ticket Deadline Approaching For “Formed In Beauty” Conference & Gala

Briefly, as it’s been rather a hectic morning at the Fortress of Solitude, I just wanted to provide a quick note to remind my readers in the Chicago area that I’ll be moderating the closing panel discussion and Q&A at the Catholic Art Guild’s Annual Conference and Gala on Sunday, November 4th. If you’re thinking of attending, or know someone who would be interested in doing so, act now. Tickets are only on sale for a few more days, and won’t be available at the door.

The day begins with an orchestral Latin Mass at the magnificent church of St. John Cantius, which is regularly voted one of the most beautiful churches in the United States. The event then moves to the equally magnificent Drake Hotel for lunch, speaker presentations, and a keynote address by Alexander Stoddart, Sculptor in Ordinary to Queen Elizabeth II. This will be followed by dinner in the magnificent Gold Coast Room at the Drake, shown below, followed by the panel discussion (I shall do my best to channel my inner Dick Cavett), and socializing.

And it goes without saying, if you spot me amidst the milling throng, please do come up and say hello!

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Cheers to You, Chicago

Good Morning, gentle reader. I’m still recovering from a slightly surprising bout of jetlag from my trip to Chicago this past weekend, and from last evening’s coverage of the Met Gala – told you so – but let’s stay on the positive this morning. I wanted to share with you just a few observations about the great time I had in the Windy City; the images illustrating today’s post are taken from my Instagram chronicle of my adventures there.

First and foremost, my sincere thanks to the Catholic Art Guild and its President Kathleen Carr, as well as to Father Joshua Caswell and everyone at St. John Cantius, both for the honor of inviting me to speak to them, as well as for welcoming me with such graciousness and warmth to their community. They do great work, and I’m deeply grateful to have contributed in a very small way to what they are trying to accomplish. The audience was clearly interested in and receptive to what I had to stay, and I ended up staying nearly an hour afterwards to chat with and answer questions from some of those who decided to stick around and wait to share some kind words with me, including some of my blog subscribers and social media friends whom I was pleasantly surprised to finally be able to meet in person. The event was recorded, and will be on YouTube at some point; I’ll share the link once it’s up.

St. John Cantius is a magnificent place, of such grandeur and historic importance to the people of Chicago that it really needs to be put on the short list to be named a Minor Basilica. It was built by poor Polish immigrants who had very little, but gave the best of what they had to glorify God, making the rest of us (or at least, me) feel humble and selfish by comparison. I had a private tour with Father Caswell the morning before my talk, and not only enjoyed hearing the stories behind the building’s construction and decoration, but during our tour we were fortunate enough to stumble upon a really spectacular practice session on the church’s magnificent pipe organ, which you can hear in this video I shot while we were looking about the place.

I had intended to make a return visit to the Art Institute while I was in town, to see a few of my old favorites in their collection, but due to time constraints as the result of a busier-than-expected social schedule, I wasn’t able to get there. What more than made up for that was the discovery of a new art museum which I had never heard of before. Loyola University of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest Catholic institutions of higher learning in the country, and much to my surprise they have a small but very interesting art museum. The Loyola University Museum of Art – or LUMA, as it is called – is just across from Chicago’s landmark Water Tower and, as one might expect from a university art space, has a main floor gallery dedicated to changing exhibitions.

However what makes LUMA truly special, in my eyes, is what the visitor finds upstairs. In a series of several rooms on the upper floor one finds dozens of beautiful paintings, sculptures, and pieces of furniture, as well as liturgical and decorative objects. Most of these objects are of the sacred art variety, and particularly focused on the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Europe and the Americas. As I observed to my host, when later recounting my visit, if this had been an art and antiques gallery, I would have wanted to purchase almost everything on display.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was to discover that a version of one of the most well-known paintings of Sassoferrato – aka, Giovanni Battista Salvi (1609-1685) – was one of the highlights of the LUMA collection. His “Madonna and Child With Cherubs” (c. 1650) is probably well known to you from Christmas cards, spiritual books, prayer cards, and the like. It’s a large, radiant work of great tenderness, that invites quiet contemplation.

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Another superb piece at LUMA is “The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” (c. 1640), attributed to another great Italian Baroque painter, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666). “Guercino”, as he is more commonly known, was a contemporary of Poussin (1594-1655), and you can clearly see in his coloring that both he and the great French Baroque painter were on the same page. I love the intimacy in this detail of the Madonna and Child from the painting, with Jesus asleep from exhaustion, and the very motherly concern on the face of the Virgin Mary, as the Holy Family heads into exile and an uncertain future.

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In a completely different vein is this 15th century Netherlandish painting of “The Way to Calvary” by a follower of the great Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), whose retrospective at The Prado two summers ago was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. It’s not the weirdest Bosch (or in this case, pseudo-Bosch) painting out there, but as you can see in this detail it has both the insightful, cruel caricatures and a few of the creepy-crawlies that one expects to find in the master’s work. This is really terrific stuff.

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There are also many Iberian works in this collection, which is not surprising for a Jesuit school. I was surprised however, to come across a sculpture by Pere Oller (before 1394-1442), one of the most important Catalan medieval sculptors. It comes from the tomb of Ferdinand I, King of Aragon, which was commissioned by his son Alfonso V for the royal pantheon at the Monastery of Poblet, located in the mountains roughly midway between the cities of Barcelona and Tarragona. The tomb itself is no longer extant, having been destroyed by Napoleon’s troops along with many other religious buildings and works of art in Catalonia, but pieces of it are scattered here and there in public and private collections. LUMA’s is one of the surviving figures of mourners from that sculptural ensemble.

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Finally, there is this magnificent carved, painted, and gilded statue of the Immaculate Conception, and as I write this, I’m kicking myself for not writing down who it is by. (Unfortunately the LUMA website doesn’t list all of their holdings, either.) She is from Spain, about life-sized, and in a remarkably good state of preservation given her age. That face is really something.

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In addition to the many paintings and sculptures on display, there are practical-luxury items such as a charming German drinking vessel in the form of a golden owl, or heavily carved Italian furniture with all kinds of interesting animal paw feet. In the same display case one can see a wrought-iron door knocker from the Middle Ages in the form of a fearsome, spiked beastie – you had to be careful when grasping that handle – alongside colorfully glazed Renaissance ceramics. You could easily and happily spend a couple of hours here, admiring all of these beautiful things. And the best part is: no crowds, and admission is free.

To end with today, I wanted to suggest a bit of long-term planning for you. On November 4th, the Catholic Art Guild will be holding their annual conference, which features talks by a number of great speakers, including the Scottish artist Alexander Stoddart, currently the Queen’s Sculptor in Ordinary. The event will take place at the Drake Hotel, which has always been a required stop-in for me when I’m in town, as you can see in these two pictures taken several decades apart. God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’m planning to be there, and I hope you’ll consider joining me for a return visit to one of America’s – and the world’s – best cities.

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