10 Questions: World Meeting of Families Artist Neilson Carlin

On the verge of unveiling his masterpiece, Chester County artist Neilson Carlin sat down to discuss his faith, his art and what it means to have his latest painting -- commissioned for the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia that Pope Francis is expected to attend -- displayed in Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

Carlin, 44, talked to from his Kennett Square, Pennsylvania studio.

The married father of three, who recently became a Kung Fu black belt, became interested in art thanks to the work of a fellow Chester County native. And, born a Protestant, Carlin became drawn to the Catholic Church because of the religious iconography and art on display.

The next few weeks will be hectic as Carlin works around the clock to put the finishing touches on his masterpiece before it’s unveiling on Sept. 1. But for Carlin, a higher power is helping drive his technical hand to complete the months-long project.

What does it mean to have the great honor of painting the Holy Family for World Meeting of Families?

As a professional it’s an honor to be chosen and to be recognized for my technical skills but, more so, as a Catholic, it’s very humbling to have the opportunity to serve the Church at large. We’re all called as Catholics to bring our gifts to the altar and that usually turns out to be someone doing something at the parish level. But, I’m being asked to bring my gifts to bear for something that will certainly be visible to the entire Catholic community.

Certainly professionally it’s a high mark. To be specially sought out and chosen, clearly I’ve been doing this long enough and to such a degree that I’m recognized as having the ability to pull this off.

On your website you reference the great artists like Michelangelo and Caravaggio, are they inspiring on this project?

From a technical standpoint, yes. For the first two months of putting the thumbnail sketches together, trying to get the idea off the ground, I was looking at the image of how the Holy Family has been represented by other artists… Really it’s more moments of quiet prayer and contemplation to take it beyond that. So, it’s not a matter of just figuring how I’m going to organize the models but how am I going to hopefully organize everything that evokes the feeling I’m trying to create with this piece.

As an icon piece it’s meant to be something for prayer and contemplation. Hopefully, if designed properly, it’s going to bring someone to a state where the piece will draw them in ... it’s a lens to the beyond. It’s a lens of someone sitting in front of it to feel a closer sense of reverence. It’s through which someone feels closer to God.

How much has the WMOF painting changed and evolved?

Quite a bit. From sketch to the finished painting it takes me a long time to get all the elements out on the canvas -- to a point where it's approaching the vision I had in my head -- and then it's a matter of finishing. Almost like dominoes falling, once this is finished then everything gets finished and polished from there.

With a piece of this type of visibility... I wanted to make sure that I was not experimenting that I was very sure of the process going into it. That I made sure I could meet the deadline and come out with a piece that I felt like I left everything out on the field.

Do you feel like there is a higher calling behind your work?

Absolutely! I had a 10-year illustration career, which was perfectly successful, I was doing work in galleries, I teach, I was doing portrait commissions but in 2007 when I got my first big commission for the Church it became a conscious decision to devote the entirety of my career to doing work for the Church. It’s something that as a Catholic, it excites me to be able to serve Church but also the imagery obviously resonates with me or I would have no interest in doing it.

With this piece and with everything else, everything done for the Church, in one way or another, it has to point back to (Jesus) Christ as being the source of our life as Catholics.

It’s a prayer in meditation for me. Obviously I’m getting a commission to do work for someone else -- to do something that they (want) -- but each piece takes up a certain amount of time of my life and it has to be something that I’m invested in because I’m going to be thinking about it in the quiet of the studio day after day, hour after hour. I’m enthusiastic for doing work for the church because they are images that I believe in.

You grew up Protestant but wound up a Catholic painter, how did that transformation happen?

There are three transcendentals: the good, the beautiful and the true. I think it was the beautiful that actually drew me to the Church before I ever became a Catholic. Because all the work that inspired me post-college when I made that shift from thinking about doing comic books to doing more fine art, it was the work that has been done for the Church that inspired me the most. The calling certainly came because I was attending mass with my wife over a 10-year period before I became a Catholic but I think there were a number of factors including the beauty of the liturgy and the artwork that really started to draw me before I made the conscious decision to join the Church.

How did you get your start in art?

It was just something I was always enthusiastic about doing. When I went to college I had every intention of being a comic book illustrator. As a younger man I wasn’t really looking at art in the fine art aspect, I wanted to be drawing for comic books. The story lines as a child certainly excited me -- the art certainly excited me.

Do you recall where you first saw a piece of art that resonated with you?

It wasn’t at a church or a museum, the first piece that moved me as a child was (Chester County’s) Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” I remember, as being either 6 or 7, seeing it and I remember asking my mother to get it, to get something -- a reproduction -- just get something that I could put in my room because it emotionally moved me to see the image.

I just happened to see it, it could have been someone else, but it just happened to be by the most famous, celebrated local artist.

How did growing up in Chester County impact your art?

Artistically having access to something like the Brandywine River Museum as a younger man was important. It’s one thing to be able to get into Philadelphia but that’s not as easy as going to the River Museum. Looking at another Wyeth, N.C. Wyeth -- the illustrator of illustrators -- that was very inspirational because the paintings were accessible in the sense that it wasn’t like going to the Philadelphia Art Museum and seeing these huge paintings, they were things that were done for books and they had a certain energy and life to them that were very exciting and reminded me of comic books.

How does your background and love of comics carry over to religious art?

It took me a long time to figure that out... I was working on a commission for seminary out in Minnesota and I was trying to get some costuming together because I doing a painting of Mother Teresa and I had one of the Spider-Man movies playing behind me... and it just kind of crossed me my mind that 'Hah! Spider-Man has nothing on Mother Teresa.' That’s what clicked though, I recognized that I set out to do costumed heroes and I ended up doing costumed heroes -- just a different type of hero.

I’ve been drawing and painting almost every single day since I can remember. The fact that it ended up that I became a Catholic and working for the Church I would still be painting regardless of what I was doing... It’s exciting to be doing paintings that I am both emotionally and spiritually invested in.

What advice would you give an inspiring artist?

The first you have to do is love it and then everything else is gravy. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, it doesn’t mean that the finances are going to be easy, ever, but if you love it -- and those who know what I’m talking about know what I’m talking about -- it makes you feel a certain bliss. Just keep doing it and eventually the world will turn.

Carlin’s World Meeting of Families masterpiece will be displayed at next year’s event. Other examples of his work hang in the Our Lady of Guadalupe in Buckingham, Pa.; Saint Rocco’s in Avondale, Pa.; and an upcoming piece for Sacred Heart Church in Royersford, Pa.

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