Editor's note: Ann Schmalstieg is an artist whose work we discovered when she signed on as a member of the Personalist Project some months ago. We were so moved by it—especially the way she seems to capture beauty in suffering—that we asked her to consider posting about it here. You can find more at her website.
Katie invited me to write about my artwork in a guest post some time ago, and I must admit, I was a bit hesitant. Part of the reason why I paint is because words often fall short, so writing is not my preferred mode of expression. Yet, there is value in sharing clearly defined thoughts, not only for viewers of my art, but also for other artists who are working out their own approach to creation. An aspect of my work that I do take seriously is the role of beauty, though for reasons that dramatically changed two and a half years ago. Thus, with this post, I wish to explain a little of where beauty fit in my previous approach to art, as well as the reason for its current place of importance in the work that I create today.
“Paint what you know”
In the early part of developing my thesis project for my MFA, one of the most valuable recommendations given to me by my mentor was to “paint what you know.” I would imagine some students responding to this suggestion by focusing on something they are passionate about so that it will keep their own attention long enough to dedicate a long term project. Being only in my mid 20’s, my response was more of fear, thinking “Oh no, what do I really know that is actually worth others' time in viewing my painting?”
Rather than looking inwards towards my own answers, I searched beyond what little I knew, leading me to the thoughts of Pope John Paul II and other thinkers counter to our current culture. It was an intellectual exploration in which I devised ways to convey the meaning through the human pose and with a sense of beauty. At that time, I did not have a full manifesto as to why beauty was important other than wanting the viewer to be attracted to the work, and to feel comfortable while in contemplation of its meaning. The harmony between John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and the reality of human nature made attention to a sense of beauty in expressing aspects of his thoughts seem very appropriate.
While my approach to creation in this series was primarily produced through intellectual study, the approach to my work changed significantly the night of December 14, 2010. I don’t remember if they were wearing their “covers” or if I saw their military cuts through the small window placed high on my door, but I knew, as every military spouse knows, that my world had ended even before the three uniformed men told me why they were there.
Around a week later, I was sitting in same church where Justin and I were married. I remembered not liking the words “till death do us part” even on our wedding day. Now the location of my greatest joy was the garden of my agony; experiencing the horrible reality of the current moment, anticipating the additional pain waiting in each stage of the burial process, and dreading the next day, when the ceremonial aspect was over and I would be left for what would likely be longer than 3 days.
“Surprised by Beauty”
Barely able to pay attention to anything around me, my thoughts were interrupted when the cantor began to sing the Ave Maria. “My goodness, that is beautiful” was my first thought. My second thought was a sense of disbelief that I could somehow perceive beauty when I was completely numb to the rest of the world. It was the first time since the knock on the door that my heart showed any sign of life.
In Dietrich von Hildebrand's essay entitled “Beauty in the Light of the Redemption,” (from The New Tower of Babel) visual and audible beauty are identified as transcending the natural ontology to “speak about another, higher reality – they make God known.” This strikes me as accurate considering nothing else could break through the clouds of sorrow in which I was engulfed. Hearing those words, sung with both the beauty of love and in a way sensitive to sorrow, I was drawn outside of myself for a moment of relief. Although I had encountered C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed a couple of months earlier, in which he identified sorrow as a phase of love, it was only at that moment that I understood its truth not only intellectually, but also in the deeper understanding of my heart. Recognizing the immense sorrow of our Blessed Mother being the result of her immense love, I came to understand the truth of my new reality.
“Paint what you know” revisited
Eventually returning to the studio, I still had my thesis artwork to finish. This worked out well because all of the conceptual elements were already completed, so I could just let my hands do the rest of the work. I had no idea what I would do after the series was completed, or if I could even paint anything beyond my sadness. I felt intellectually handicapped in not being able to think beyond simply missing my husband. Finding myself unable to focus as I once did on study, my work ended up becoming an expression of love in sorrow, exploring the beauty of life and the reality of our mortality. Although I did not have any answers, I did have aspects of understanding which had been solidified through my experience, and which I believe are important enough to share.
“What do I now know?”
I know I was grateful for the perspective provided through studying JPII and Dietrich von Hildebrand in the course of developing my thesis. Rather than falling into the trap of dwelling on a sense of injustice in being robbed of my husband, I know that he was a gift to this world and in my life that I was blessed with the opportunity to fully appreciate. I know the simple joy of being his wife will always be worth the pain of being his widow. I know that life is more precious than people often perceive in the many distractions of this world. I know that love from others is the only thing that truly alleviates the problem of pain. Lastly, I know that the use of beauty in the discussion of death is only appropriate if there is an eternal life.
For these reasons, I hold fast to the use of beauty in my work, even when the grief entices me to do otherwise. No matter the amount of tears, to present human life as anything less than beautiful would be a visual lie. My work reflects the moments when the world stops, the superficial colors drain from one’s sense of reality, and only the light and darkness remain to give a clear sense of form. Yet, it is through knowing the reality of darkness; that it is not a substance in itself, but a void of light, that we truly appreciate the light. Likewise, sorrow is not something in itself, something from which to heal, as if an illness is present in the body, but love in the absence of the beloved. I will accept the darkness because it makes us more aware of the light. Through my work, I hope to convey this understanding in order to reveal the need to cherish the gift of those lives with whom God has blessed us.