Northshore artist behind look of kids’ saint series
The saints come to life on Katherine Borgatti’s canvases with such photographic precision, viewers might be tempted to talk to them.
But when Borgatti was asked to illustrate Liguori Publications’ “Saints and Me!” children’s book series, the Mandeville artist set aside her trusty pastels and pulled out a rainbow of magic markers to create more child-friendly portraits of the church’s holy role models.
“I wanted them to look like the saints, but I wanted them to look approachable,” said Borgatti, a Catholic convert who began working on the 18-volume series with author Barbara Yoffie in 2012.
“Sometimes the saints in children’s Bibles are so realistic looking, children are afraid to look at them,” Borgatti said. “I was shooting for a cartoon-type look, yet I was hoping people would recognize who the saint was. I wanted it to be colorful and happy – something kids would want to pick up and look at.”
Parade of saints
The series, which targets ages 4 to 9, consists of three theme-based collections of softbound, easy-to-read books.
Two of the three sets of books were published in 2013: “Saints of North America,” which covers the lives of Kateri Tekakwitha, Juan Diego, Rose Philippine Duchesne, André Bessette, Damien of Molokai and Elizabeth Ann Seton; and “Saints of Christmas,” with volumes on Mary and Joseph, Nicholas of Myra, Francis of Assisi, Martin de Porres, Gianna Beretta Molla and Lucy.
The third and final collection, entitled “Saints of Families,” is rolling out this summer, with books on Thérèse of Lisieux and Anthony of Padua already available, and ones on Gerard Majella, John Bosco, Joachim and Ann, and Thomas More expected soon.
“For me it’s like a spiritual experience – you have to connect to saints before you can really draw anything,” said Borgatti, who meticulously prepares for her drawings by poring over online images of the saints and immersing herself in biographical and autobiographical materials. Borgatti also researches each saint’s culture and surroundings – from his native landscape and architecture, to his clothing and home furnishings.
“At first I drew St. Kateri with teepees in the background, but then I learned that people in her (Mohawk) tribe lived in longhouses,” Borgatti said. “I had to tear up my drawing and start over.”
Although Borgatti knew a little something about the majority of her subjects, she said she was completely unfamiliar with St. Thomas More before working on the illustrations for his book.
“He was a lawyer and a family man. He went to prison because he wouldn’t bow down to the king,” Borgatti said, recalling how it bothered her when she sat down to draw St. Thomas More’s jailer, King Henry VIII. Sticking to her mission of not showing the saints’ sufferings in graphic detail, Borgatti drew the Englishman’s prison cell from the perspective of someone looking into the space rather than from the prisoner’s point of view. Similarly, in the book profiling St. Lucy, Borgatti chose not to include the traditional depiction of the saint holding her eyeballs on a platter.
“You think of kids reading these before they go to bed,” she said. “I don’t like depressing stuff.”
Borgatti created 11 full-color illustrations for each saintly volume, using her time in the Our Lady of the Lake School carpool line to pre-sketch scenes in pencil and retiring to her home studio to fill them in with vibrant color. The artist, who used professional illustration markers for the series, developed a special technique to meet her publisher’s three-week-per-saint deadline. After finding that applying marker color manually was too time-consuming and taking a toll on her hand, Borgatti emptied the various shades of marker ink into cups and applied the pigment with a paintbrush.
“You get the look of a watercolor, but more saturated,” she said of the effect.
At her editors’ request, Borgatti also created a 96-page activity book to accompany each six-book collection featuring coloring pages, dot-to-dots, word scrambles and mazes.
In another bit of fun, the artist began hiding a tiny animal in the background of her saintly illustrations. For example, sharp-eyed youngsters will spy a turtle lurking behind St. Anthony of Padua and a mouse keeping company with St. Martin de Porres.
“Sometimes the animal is behind a vase or on a windowsill – I try to put them in different places for the kids to find them,” Borgatti said, revealing another animal-related inside joke.
“I used my dog Bailey in (the book on) St. Therese because I wanted to include a big, fluffy dog,” she said.
Whole family converted
Born in Metairie and raised in River Ridge, Borgatti has been a parishioner of Our Lady of the Lake for 14 years with her husband, Mike, and three children: Matthew, 14; Annamarie, 12; and John, 9.
The Northshore High and LSU Dental School graduate said she was a mostly non-observant Protestant until her mother was transformed by a trip to Medjugorje when Borgatti was 16. Borgatti and six other family members – both of her parents, a brother and three uncles – became Catholic. The artist completed the RCIA program in her then-parish of St. Margaret Mary in Slidell in 1989.
“My mom went to Medjugorje out of curiosity and came back a changed person,” she said. “Now I can’t imagine being anything other than Catholic.”
Borgatti’s partnership with Liguori, a Catholic publishing house in Missouri, also has spiritual links. Two years ago, during the Dec. 8 Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Borgatti was praying for the Blessed Mother’s intercession on how her religious art might help the church. Later that day, after listening to Catholic radio, she contacted Liguori about the possibility of submitting her art for publication.
“Liguori emailed me back and said they were just starting this new series on the saints, and it just kind of blossomed from there,” Borgatti said.
Her more formal works include luminous pastels of St. John Bosco and St. Padre Pio, both gifted to Our Lady of the Lake; and a touching study of the face of the crucified Christ.
Also a published author
Secular examples of Borgatti’s art can be seen at Hammond’s Children’s Museum – in a lively mural of animals playing jazz instruments – and inside Our Lady of the Lake’s pre-kindergarten building. Borgatti also found time to write and illustrate a 2010 children’s book, “Shermit’s Adventure to Sprinkle Island.”
While her work on the saints’ books is behind her, Borgatti said her faith will continue to inspire her art, with upcoming subjects possibly including the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Infant Jesus of Prague.
“Working on the series has been a blessing,” said Borgatti, recalling how she was moved to tears upon learning of St. Damien’s willingness to serve lepers banished to a remote Hawaiian village.
“Sometimes when I go to pray to the saints I don’t know who to pray to,” she said. “I like them all!”
To learn more about the “Saints and Me!” series, visit www.liguori.org.