A few years back, following a trip to Puerto Rico, I became very interested in santos; hand carved religious figures depicting saints and other religious icons. The simplicity of the carvings and vibrant colors were so attractive to me. The contrast between these Hispanic inspired relics and the religious artifacts found in most Northeastern churches was conspicuously unashamed. Us Yankee-type Catholic’s and Christian’s safely, or repress fully, relate to dark, renaissance inspired artifacts that seem to sternly direct us to bow our heads. The santos that I saw were vibrant and happy-seeming. There would be very little head bowing invoked by these. They instead inspire joy and celebration.
On an Internet quest to learn more and hopefully purchase additional santos, I stumbled upon an artist whose work resonated with me. The artist’s name is Jan Keels, a self-taught outsider artist in New Orleans. Some of her paintings at the time depicted images of the sacred heart and various collage-like paintings with phrases from psalms and proverbs, as well as lyrics from contemporary music. Her faith and spiritual connection was evident and unapologetic, as much as it was graceful and tender. Perhaps this was the attraction for me.
I have always been interested in the religious beliefs of others. How some people are loud and proud, while others are cloaked in mystery, or embarrassment. I wonder how some have no faith or lacked a faith upbringing, they seem absolutely fine. Faith and spirituality are big parts of who I am, whether I am “not currently feeling it”, participating in bible study, searching for a church that is welcoming and supportive, teaching Sunday school, or questioning the very possibility of God. I struggle daily, with the internal conflict I have created in being Irish Catholic, while worshipping in a Reformed Church. I am sure my paternal grandmother has grown tired from the undue rolling I have caused. I tell myself my father is more understanding and at peace, one day I will find out for sure. My daughter is enrolled in a Catholic University, and at times she may not be quite sure how that happened, she has ministered sermons in the Reformed Church of her upbringing. My sons are in the "currently not feeling it phase, please let me sleep in, and/or we will politely refrain from this conversation" moment in time.
My connection to the Reformed Church might also be the real attraction I have to those brightly colored santos and the artwork of Jan Keels. While Catholic Churches have cornered the market on religious icons and figurines, the Reformed Church stays true to the Reformation in that there should be no worshipping of icons. I miss them, greatly. My grade school papers that have followed me for close to ½ a century are scattered with artistic depictions of biblical proportions. I seem to have had an obsession with blood and guts in such an unlady-like fashion. My goodness! In one picture, Judas is certainly getting his due. When I came across these a few years ago, I found a bit of humor in them, as well as a bit of gruesome disturbance. As a teacher in the 21st century, if I found similar paintings or crayon renderings, the artist would be promptly plucked out of class, suggested for neurological testing, concerned calls would be made, she would be recommended for counseling and possibly dropped into a self-contained program for the suspiciously dangerous or psychiatrically determined to be disturbed. I can’t recall what Sister Bernadette directed us to do but by the grade on the back, she was quite pleased at the outcome. Judas is hanging from a tree, and there is blood dripping all around. That might be what saved me from expulsion. I clearly did not understand that a hanging would not result in blood-oozing chaos. I only knew there should be great suffering to one that would harm Jesus. This lack of explicit teaching of suffering is implicitly the connection I have to The Reformed Church. Suffering is all around, I for one, don’t need to go out looking for it, or have it lectured at me come Sunday mornings. I want my faith supported, not lashed out with terror and fear-making.
So back to the santos and Jan Keels. I returned from my trip to Puerto Rico, which was, naturally, a mission trip that I had coordinated for the fine youth of the Reformed Church in my community. We curiously enough, worked with a leader from Catholic Charities to paint an Extended Stay Homeless Shelter, or Nursing Home for the Elderly Homeless, and spent time with the incredible people that lived there. The thing about faith is, things seem to happen for a reason and otherwise strange unrelated events, people and places interconnect. Maybe my grandmother intervened and got me serving for the Catholic Church.
Following the trip to Puerto Rico, in 2006, my search for more santos and hand-made religious-inspired art began. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans hard and the devastation was epic, and continues to be felt. My oldest son became involved with volunteer work providing camp programs for the first children that came “home” after the storm. When my santos search began, I came across the site for the gallery, Las Manos Magicas and Jan’s art stood out. The pieces that she worked on immortalized Katrina, the devastation and the hope that springs from survival is clear. It spoke of faith and beauty and “home”. I wanted to purchase a piece that would honor my son’s work there. When I first contacted this special artist, she wanted to know how I found her. We corresponded via e-mail. She extended a thank you for my son’s involvement. I purchased a symbolic piece of art. We continued to interact via e-mail a few more times and got back to our lives.
My son stayed involved and worked in New Orleans each summer that followed. When he graduated, he decided to make New Orleans his home. Two summers ago, I visited. While walking through the French Quarter at dusk, a shadow caught my eye. I was held briefly by the play of light and darkness, until I realized what it was. There is an unadorned, white marble, statue of Jesus, in a garden behind The St. Louis Cathedral on the corner of Royal Street and Orleans Street. This is known as St. Anthony's Garden. At dusk, it casts a shadow well over 50 feet long. The effect, for lack of a better word, is awesome.
From time to time over the past few years I have checked back on Jan’s work with interest in purchasing another piece. Last year, while checking, I hit an Internet snafu of sorts on her website and sent a brief e-mail to alert her. She thanked me, and wanted to know how I was. I wrote briefly about some personal going-ons, we did what any forward thinking, creative souls would do, or any old soul in the modern world for that matter, we face-book friended each other. What this meant was, my total friend count rose, I got to see her postings from time to time and when my daughter was visiting in March I got to check in with a real “local” for some suggestions.
Last month I visited New Orleans’s. I decided to break out of my typical awkwardness, reached out of my comfort zone, and shared that I would love to meet her. I also wanted to pick up a another piece of her beautiful art. A few days prior, I had been walking around the quarter snapping photos but I hadn’t posted them. The next day Jan posted photos that were strikingly similar and of the same locations. The funny thing is, they were not the ordinary, run of the mill touristy type pictures that everyone takes. They were interesting close-ups and artistically juxtaposed frames, to me it seemed a bit spiritual, for Jan, she shared it was somewhat common for her to experience what she called “parallel moments”.
Jan sells her art behind St. Anthony’s Garden, across from the white marble statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, perhaps not so much in the shadow of her faith but hopefully sheltered from the storms. She has provided much to me in this art that must flow from her soul. She is as a friend should be, open and kind, with maybe a passion for living, and appreciation for what she has post Katrina, rather than all that has been lost. And that is a great find.
It is also pretty curious to me that St. Louis was a collector of relics and “holy things”. Just saying… As my father use to say, “Keep the Faith.”