Quest for sacred beauty fuels architect’s painting
With sunlight peering in the front window of his Uptown home, preservation architect and artist David Dillard paints. He has spent the four months painting what he considers 14 of the most beautiful Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
“We have a tremendous inventory of really fabulous churches in New Orleans that were built by extremely talented craftsmen,” he said. “I attribute it to the fact that during that time (when most were built), the craftsmen were immigrants from Germany and Ireland and places where they had practiced stone work, copper work and plaster. Most cities would be proud to have one church like St. Louis Cathedral. We have many.”
Dillard’s 18-by-24 inch oil paintings – under the working title “Architecture of the Spirit” – will be displayed July 7 from 6-9 p.m. at the Art Walk and through July 31 at Jean Bragg Gallery on Julia Street. He also will produce signed and numbered prints and remarks on archival-quality paper, with 10 percent of the proceeds benefiting the churches depicted.
“What we are thinking is that somebody got married in these churches and will want to buy the print, and the churches will benefit,” Dillard said.
Dillard is a Mississippi native who has been an architect for 29 years. He has a master’s in preservation studies and, for two decades has worked on restoring multiple churches throughout the country. He has done forensic architecture – inspecting churches for termite damage, water leaks, foundation and other structural problems – for Catholic Mutual insurance and for about 10 Catholic archdiocesan parishes. He also was the lead architect in the renovation of St. Thomas Church in Pointe-a-la-Hache after Hurricane Katrina.
Painting is nothing new for Dillard. It’s a childhood hobby fostered by his mother Marilyn Dillard, an art teacher. Ronna Harris at Newcomb College and local artist Phil Sandusky at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts also influenced what he calls his abstract realism style.
“The trick is if you see a painting that has too much detail it doesn’t look real,” Dillard said. “The reason – it doesn’t leave anything up to the brain to formulate. I was taught the Gestalt method of (describing the shadows and not-so-perfect lines on his St. Louis Cathedral painting). It lets your brain think it is seeing more than it is. Your brain wants to think it is seeing a realistic picture.”
He’s painted the gamut from portraits and architectural pieces to landscapes and still life. A portrait Dillard painted of his father, Judge W.O. Dillard, hangs in the Hinds County Chancery Courthouse in Mississippi.
Art embraces faith
Dillard, who grew up Episcopalian, became disillusioned with his denomination and converted to Catholicism in 2009. He went through RCIA at Immaculate Conception in New Orleans, where he is a parishioner.
“I felt like I was doing the right thing,” he said about converting. “The Catholic Church, in my opinion, is the only true religion left. I was attracted to the whole ambiance of the religion and the history, particularly the Jesuit history.”
His inspiration to capture Catholic churches on canvas came during Mass in Holy Rosary Church on Esplanade Avenue and after taking the nine-church walk on Good Friday touring St. Stephen’s, Immaculate Conception, St. Patrick, St. Henry, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary’s Chapel, St. Mary’s Assumption, St. Louis Cathedral and St. Theresa of Avila. He said some are majestic churches and others are not, but all are part of New Orleans’ history.
“I became fascinated with church architecture, wondering how in the world they got artists to work on those churches,” Dillard said. “I began to study Catholic Church architecture.”
Our Lady of the Rosary was among five additional churches he added with St. John the Baptist, Holy Name of Jesus, St. Joseph and St. Alphonsus. Holy Rosary was the first church he painted.
“I was sitting in church and noticing this amazing architecture,” he said.
His paintings are colorful
“Color is important,” Dillard said. “I mix a lot of color and blend them to achieve the effect I want.”
For example, he captured the golds and reds he saw on St. Patrick’s altar as light beamed through the stained-glass dome and hit the murals (seen in above photo).
To start the project, he took photographs of each church, and that allowed him to determine the scale and detail of a building. Then he sketched and painted details.
Dillard has been so fascinated with the project that he is not stopping at 14 churches.
“I anticipate continuing with this and venturing out to other cities and different denominations,” Dillard said. “This has been a really fun and inspiring project for me.”
To see more, visit www.david dillard.com.