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An artist’s conversion experience

Artist Fred Villanueva’s Catholic faith has matured in tandem with his art as evidenced in the five sacred paintings included in the current “Portrait of Faith: John Paul II in Life and Art” exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art through June 16.

Villanueva, an artist from Dallas who had lived for many years in New York City, was commissioned in November 2012 by the Archdiocese of New Orleans to create a painting that included Pope John Paul II, St. Louis Cathedral and saints and religious with a connection to New Orleans. 

The finished oil and acrylic work on canvas, “Pope John Paul II with Saints Venerated in New Orleans” measures 10-by-16 feet and features Pope John Paul II’s visit to New Orleans in 1987, with his papal crest, the crest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, St. Katharine Drexel, Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, St. Rose Duchesne, St. Frances Cabrini, Venerable Henriette Delille and Venerable Cornelia Connelly.

One hundred prints of this work were reproduced into a poster for sale during the exhibit.

Saintly subject matter

Another of his mixed media oil and acrylic works, “Pope Benedict Canonizing New Saints,” includes Pope Benedict and the people who were canonized or in the process (as is the case of Pope John Paul II, who is now Blessed) while he was pope. The Virgin of Guadalupe and St. Juan Diego play prominently in this painting, a nod to his Mexican heritage.

Villanueva considers his “Pope Benedict XVI at Prayer with the Holy Theologians” (Texas version), a representation of maturity in his art. It is a more contemporary version of a mural he had painted and displayed in 2008 at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. Pope emeritus Benedict viewed the piece during his visit to the U.S.

In the exhibit, Villanueva also has two works featuring the Blessed Mother. While neither features Pope John Paul II, the pope’s devotion to the Blessed Mother makes the paintings relevant to the exhibit, he said.

Madonna painting
The “Madonna and Child,” he said, is his earliest sacred painting, a shift in his work that began in 2002. 

“It was the first piece that was a spiritual to me,” he said. “It was the first time a Madonna made its way into my work. The creation of sacred art began a deeper conversion (of faith) for me. I was a cultural Catholic but not practicing.”

His “MMMMM” painting has five Marian images.

“A lot of paintings are exploratory and experimental,” Villanueva said. “I experiment with palettes. When I started doing sacred images, the colors took on meaning,” such as the blue in the Marian images.

As the JPII exhibit was coming together, Scott Peck who is guest curator for the exhibit and co-director and curator at the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas where most of the 200 objects in the exhibit derived, invited Villanueva to exhibit other works. Peck was familiar with Villanueva’s painting of Pope emeritus Benedict and had Villanueva exhibit works at the Dallas museum last year.

“I wanted some color in the exhibit,” Peck said. “In his work, he had used images of John Paul II, and it all fit. ... I think he is a great artist.”

Villanueva said his works didn’t start off including sacred images. At age 14, his talent was first nurtured by monks at the Cistercian Preparatory School in Irving, Texas. His senior year, he attended B.T. Washington High School for Visual and Performing Arts in Dallas and then the San Francisco Art Institute and the Parsons School of Design in New York, continually earning awards for his art. 

By 1994, he was an artist living in New York, influenced early on by the contemporary art scene and 1980s neo-expressionist works. While exploring theological themes such as early Judeo-Christianity and religious experiences in art, he gained a deeper understanding of his identity as a Catholic artist.

Love for St. Augustine
After discovering St. Augustine, Villanueva said he began searching for more meaningful representation in his art. Trips throughout Europe exposed him to masters, and a visit to the Sistine Chapel made clear the connection between the Holy See and the creation of art through art patronage. 

But it was the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 that had a pivotal impact on his faith and work. He was blocks away at his Tribeca studio when the planes crashed. Not knowing what was going on, he grabbed a rosary and prayed a decade, asking for Mary’s intercession. 

A year later, sacred objects began appearing in his art. His previously generic, gestural abstraction work now “belonged to something much larger than the self expression.”  

At first a cathartic offering to God after 9/11, Villanueva said “the expression of this spirituality comes from a much more primal source... the need for a primal spirituality to guide me through my life and work.”

The JPII exhibit at NOMA allows Villanueva’s sacred work to fulfill its purpose and for him to fulfill his vocation as a Catholic artist. He hopes school children will visit and learning about painting and the value of an art education.

“Over 25 years of learning and making art and learning about art history shepherded my understanding of Catholic, Christian faith,” he said.

Villanueva sees himself evolving as an artist and does printmaking, graphic design and metal sculpture. He is about to embark on a painting of women from the Old Testament and wants to do a mural of the next elected pope.

“I think there is a great deal of self-knowledge and personal growth because of my creation of sacred images,” he said. “I like the idea that it fulfills a didactic function ... communicating certain meaning instead of vague, metaphysical, abstract concepts.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion

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