The Personalist Project

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.

Holding together

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.
Yet to bloom

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.

Comments (6)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jul 26, 2013 11:49am

Ann, you remind me of something the novelist Dawn Powell wrote to her friend and fellow-novelist, John dos Passos, when she heard that his wife had died in a car accident in which he had been seriously injured.  I don't have the exact quote, but it was something like this: "My only consolation in this terrible crisis is the thought that pain is good for the artist."

She intuited that the vocation to Beauty mysteriously calls for a self-oblation.

I think the same is true of Truth in philosophy.  Especially ethical truth passes from the mind and abstraction to the heart and reality by way of suffering.  It becomes real through suffering.  But not just any suffering—only suffering accepted for love.

Thank you for your fidelity to your great gift!


#2, Jul 26, 2013 12:09pm

Hi Ann.  I came here on Katie's recommendation over at Ricochet.  Your work is very captivating to me.  I lost my wife of 26 years to cancer in 2010, so we're both about "3 years into" the grief.  I remember talking to a widow at our church whose husband was lost suddenly, as in your case.  There's a qualitative difference in the two initially, and I notice that everyone finds their own way to cope, but grief is grief and can't be measured.  It has surprising, even frightening, depths.  I ponder my own mortality very often, and go for long walks to "converse" with my wife, by which I mean I interact with my memories of her, and consider what she would say about things in my life now.  I try to keep her memory and values alive in what remains of our family.

After she died I kept flowers on the table, at first from those people gave us, and then our own.  Karen loved simplicity and her favourite vase was a small, simple glass cylinder.  Unfortunately it was flimsy and I gripped it too firmly once, sending a long crack from top to bottom.


#3, Jul 26, 2013 12:17pm

How could I do such a thing to her favourite vase?  The water leaked out and I put it aside.  I could not bring myself to throw it out, though it is garbage now.  I still keep it on a shelf.  My daughter thinks I'm nuts.  Somehow it embodies part of my shattered feeling, that of losing something dear, of residual beauty and a scar that cannot be healed.

One more thought:  I understand what you mean about disliking the words "til death do us part".  But I'd like you to think about it differently now.  Perhaps it's an insight I gained through the "slow loss" form of grief.  Losing a spouse in the way I did affords a certain privilege I do not take for granted:  My wife and I went through the worst of the grief togather.  We talked about our vow, and kept our bond alive to her dying breath, and it loomed ever more significant.

In the end she breathed her last, and in my darkest hour I had this sustaining thought:  We fulfilled our vow.  And so did you and your husband.  Hold on to that.  You've done well.

Ann Schmalstieg

#4, Jul 27, 2013 10:22pm

Thank you so much RCraigen, for sharing your experience and your thoughts.  It is interesting how we live life not wanting to bring others down with our internal sorrow, and yet, learning of others in this situation is more valuable than I can express. I truly appreciate you sharing your experience with your wife, as well as this difficult aspect of your life these past 3 years.

Also, I am very grateful for your last two paragraphs.  It's hard to think of anything being fulfilled when one feels so incomplete.  Yet, that's part of be beauty of objective truth - it is not reliant on your feelings - it is something to hold on to.  Thank you.

Pat Achilles

#5, Jul 28, 2013 2:36pm

Ann, thank you for sharing your work - your paintings shed a beauty standing on their own, but your words fill in so much more. I'm grateful you wrote.  My deepest sympathy for your grief, and prayers for your continued strength.

(I too came here to read from Katie's post on Ricochet.)


#6, Aug 16, 2013 10:04pm

Ann, This is BEAUTIFUL!  You are such a blessing to everyone you touch.  Thak you for sharing your thoughts as well as your paintings!  Love you!

Aunt Kathy <3

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