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Catholic Northwest Progress
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April 16, 1965     Catholic Northwest Progress
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April 16, 1965
 

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D By Ray Ruppert A1 first meeting, you might consider Father Andrew William Vachon SJ contradictory and even controversial. Consider the evidence: As  priest his heart is fixed on the eternal goal of heaven; as an arfist he loves the world around him. Vir.ually born with a paint brush in his hand, an artist larom his he chose the intellectual and /ery beginning, to enter endemic Society of Jesus; he is the second major artist in the order's hstory; the other was Father Andrea Pozzi (1642-1709). He's been educated in nuclear physics and mathematics and science, and his talk is of the DNA atom and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: as an artist, he creates from emotion and imagina- tion, cuttin away from the step-by-step proofs demanded in the laboratory. He'll be the first artist-in-residence at Gonzaga University t Spokane next fall. As a'Iesuit, he's taken a vow of poverty; this summer he'll spend tiree months painting and selling his art work among the tourists [locking to Jackson, Wyo. But nora of these are really contradictions. Father Vachon's life as a pest-artist-scientist--a life which bears the imprint of Providetce at many strange turnings--is a life with a unity that can b revealed only after a long afternoon of interesting conversatim. D Father 7achon is nearing the end of five years as chaplain t Marymomt Military Academy near Tacoma. Many of his "paintings hwe already been shipped to Gonzaga to join his painting glebe crucifixion, a tremendous work that was 17 years in the makilg. Next month, Father Vachon will head for Spokane and then t, Jackson. He is a stocky, short, gray-haired man of 55. A smile bursts across his face and his eyes glow when he speaks of art and artists. He walks quickly with a rolling limp that recalls his life- long battle against the ravages of polio. tater Polio stuck him when he was three and a half. Six months he ws ill with scarlet fever which sank into a heart valve. For a yeal, his doctor ordered him to stay in a bedroom in the family's Newton home. His belroom on the second floor of the big house had a bay window. I- could look out and see the small farm which was really not a farm but just a place on the fringe of the town at the end ofthe street. There were pigs and chickens and cats. Quickl/his nurse learned that pencil and paper would keep the 4-yeald boy quiet in his crib. He drew pictures on the paper, tit sketched what he could see from the window. His nurse be[an to bring animals into the room for him to draw. The gent fondness he developed for an understanding woman ho was Mlling to put up with chickens and pigs in a sick room still ohdous as he recalls those days. It as literally true that he could draw before he could write aid he went to art school before he went to kindergarten. His yexc of confinement over, he asked permission to go to art schml. His father was "a tremendously understanding guy." He wa., also a successful contractor who could afford to indulge a whim that would serve to keep the still ailing youngster quiet. And m, although there were no artists on either side of the family, ouug Andrew Vachon went eight miles each day to tudy unmr a Newton painter. In his words, he was "lugged" to e studio each day by his father or an older brother. (He was the youngest of 13 children). This yes the beginning of a great variety of art training. He moved from one artist to another, from one school to another. "The' sum total," he recalled, "was that unbeknownst to myself rworked out a 'system where no artist imposed a style on me.' Th, idea of the priesthood came when he was only eight. But ht  didn't decide to become a Jesuit until he was in the secon year of high school. No one in his family was a Jesuit; he had never heard of the Society. The decision came about through ore of those happenings which may have been the hand of God wtrking in his life. The highool had "jug'?--detention after school for minor | Priest-Artist's Work Is Enriched by Knowledge Of Art, Science, Theology rule infractions--and the jugmaster insisted each student bring a book on pain of having jug time lengthened. Heading for jug one afternoon the teen-aged Andrew Vachon hurried through the library, whipped a book off the shelf and went into jug. He opened the book and began reading. The book was part of the Catholic encyclopedia. He had opened it to an ex- planation of the Society of Jesus. He was fascinated by St. Ignatius. He decided that he would become a Jesuit. Even though endowed with unquestioned artistic talent, the young man had also inherited something of his father's mathe- matical ability. Math came easy. The order prepared him as a teacher of nuclear physics, mathematics and seismology. There simply was no background in the order of artists. And so for i0 years he never painted or drew. He was a scholastic at Mount St. Michael in Spokane when Gonzaga celebrated one of the many milestones in its history. As part of the celebration, the seminarian casually suggested, "I'll paint you a picture." He was asked what he would need. "About 10 bucks worth of paint." A Jesuit brother sewed together some old flour sacks which had been sized. This was the canvas. He stood an unus! bed Tacoma's Father Andrew William Vachon SJ Becomes Gonzaga's First Artist.in-Residence on its head and stretched the cloth over the springs. This was his easel. He painted St. Michael downing the devil. Again, it may have been the hand of God at work in his life. The provincial saw the painting and told the priest-to-be: "I don't think you're going to be in math anymore." He had been ticketed, as a scholastic, to teach nuclear physics at Gonzaga. But now he was assigned to prepare himself to work in the arts. During his years of theology he began what he regards as his lifetime work: the portrayal of the key thoughts of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in pen and ink drawings. The Spiritual Exerdses portray the creation of man and his purposes of His muscles constricted his lungs. He writhed in the great agony of His passion. The dying-flesh glow had given Father Vachon problems. He was about ready to paint the huge canvas when he realized he did not know the color of a de-oxidized body. But at that time, a man was brought to the Ketchikan hospital who was at the point of death from uremic poisoning. From that cir- camstanee, Father Vaehon found the correct color for the dying Christ's body. Then he had a new problem. "The crucifixion was so vividly in my mind, the painting lived and moved. I couldn't paint it as it was. It would be a thing of horror." The painting shows, in his estimation, about a fourth of the realism of the Crucifixion. And yet many people cannot bear to look at it. Because his studio was so small, Father Vachon borrowed a department store window and hung the canvas there to dry. It became a center of interest in Ketchikan. And Father Vacbon put together an informal poll of public reaction. Virtually 100 per cent of the men were "crazy about it." Truck drivers, fishermen, clerks, cops--they all saw for the first time a real, manly Christ in the throes of death. This was a Man and this was suffering they could begin to understand. The painting is now at Gonzaga at Crosby Library. Even- tually, it will be placed in a foyer at Gonzaga Prep. The huge canvas was flown from Alaska to Spokane. Some indication of its value is shown in the fact that the airlines insured it for $60,000. The Jesuit artist finances his great religious works by turning to the world around him. He sketches and he paints; his work is taken eagerly by art lovers. In Alaska he prepared and published two sketch books. He has now gathered the material for three sketch books of Americana. The first volume, covering the period from prehistory to the Revolution, is called "13 Dozen Pencils" for obvious reasons. Parked behind his residence at Marymount is a small house trailer. He has pulled the rig up and down and across America for 50,000 to 60,000 miles as he has sought out historic and typical American scenes--everything from a sod shanty on the prairie to antebellum mansions in the Deep South. Along with the sketches, he's picked up a plethora of odd information which will also go into the books. For example: He's learned that John Alden (who tried to woo in Miles Standish' stead) was not a pilgrim but a cooper brought along on the May- flower to keep the beer kegs from leaking; the pilgrims had to drink beer because water was unsafe. This summer, again, he'll be a guest artist at the Trailside Galleries on the square at Jackson, Wyo. He'll exhibit and paint through June, July and August. Three million people go through Jackson each sttmmer. Last summer he sold 43 paintings and, typically the mathematician, he noted that most license plates were from Illinois, then Maryland, Kansas. Texas, Florida and Utah in that order. But none sold in the Northwest. He attributed this cultural lag to the fact that art in the Northwest has been dominated by such men as Mark Tobey and on earth. Each picture is 17x22 inches and tukea over' 100 honrs *Ketmth Callaban "and anybody whocouldn't dt'aw." He declared of actual drawing time. it has become fashionable for the wealthy in the Northwest to Father Vachon was ordained at Weston College in Massachu- buy from these painters "even though they (the buyers) don't setts in 1942: he'd been called home by his father's illness, know what it means." Richard Cardinal Cushing, who had once been pastor in the Tobey's paintings he characterized as "a whole bunch of Vachun family's parish of Sacred Heart, preached the sermon at squiggly lines." the newly ordained Jesuit's first Mass. He declared that art schools, especially in the Northwest, Father Vachon ranged far and wide in his pursuit of art. have been dominated recently by "artists who don't teach the He found a place in New York which has become a ghetto for discipline of drawing and painting because they don't know how Jews of pure blood, unmixed with Poles or any other nationality, themselves." They were Arabic in appearance. And so Father Vachon put on Father Vaehon said that the artist must bring two things old clothes, sat in the gutter and sketched a peeple whose appear- to the canvas besides ,his paints and brushes. One is the dis- ance was that of those who lived with Christ. eiplined training in the craftsmanship of drawing and painting. But Father Vachon was a priest and there were other ways The other is that intangible quality which may be called inspire- to get experience and learn about people, tion or genius or creativity. "As a young priest I helped out in hospitals or prisons," he Fathe Vachon picked among living artists and tagged An- recalled with that quick smile. "You know, when you're young drew Wyeth, whom the priest-artist called a realist, as the you have energy. If anyone wanted a sub, I'd go. Name it; I greatest living American painter. He said he believes Salvador was there." Dali, in his serious work, is the greatest living international During these years there grew within him a vague dis- artist. content about the way most artists portrayed the Crucifixion. Father Vachon had praise for Norman Rockwell whom most "There was something wrong. None satisfied me." artists downgrade as an "illustrator." Of him, Father Vachon He made friends with doctors. He became interested in the commented, "He has fine insight into haman nature although medical cause of Christ's death. He absorbed all he could learn there's nothing of the spiritual in it." about the Shroud of Turin, the cloth which some believe bears He was asked his opinion of the modern art exhibit at the the imprint of the body of the Crucified Christ. recent Seattle Word's Fair. His reaction was quick: "I thought t The time came when he wanted to get down to the actual it was horrible. It was terrible." work of painting the Crucifixion as it was. He wangled an assign- Obviously, Father Vachon understands that each artistputs ment to Ketchikan, Alaska because he felt it would be "good and himself--his beliefs, his moods, his dreams, his beritage--onto quiet; no one can kibitz up there." canvas each time he paints. For that reason, he no longer Christ hung on the Cross from nails piercing each wrist and listens to the radio while he paints. a third nail spiking his overlapped feet to the wood. He could This ha one fortunate result, from an artistic.standpoint. He not be still. He bent his back away from the Cross in a great had television on the morning John Kennedy was killed. From the arc while His face turned skyward to gasp for air. The bands moment of the first bulletin until the word that the President was Friday, April 16, 1965 THE PROGRESS9-.. dead, Father Vachon (who dimly remembers the late President as a toddler in rompers near Boston) painted a savage abstract. Using thick oils and angry colors, he gashed the paint with his mixing knives to show a flower being crushed. On another occasion, before he banned the radio in his studio, Father Vachon was dismayed by the racial troubles in the South. He painted the profiles of a white man and a Negro, one behind the other and both blind. A New York studio refused to hang the picture because it was, in the studio's.estimation, too controversial. Next fall, Father Vachon will become the first artist-in-resi- dence at Gonzaga University. His assignment is part of tim attempt by the Jesuit university to fulfill what the university feels is an obligation irt the field of art. Another part of that program is the building of a museum-gallery.studio at a cost of about $300,000. The hope from having an artist in residence is that young people who see the actual painting and drawing in progress will be influenced to learn the discipline and hard work o[ the artist and to create. And they will learn, toe, that bitter lessen: Not every artist is going to be a success. Father Vachon is determined that he will not impose his style on any student. His great goal is to encourage creativity. "Pulling creativity out of a person is like making him bare his soul in public. An artist has to be true to himself. He cannot paint for dough or fame. And it's a truism that what he paints, how he paints, the colors he selects manifest his mental attitude." But is there any future for the artist in Arr.erica? Can a per- son make a living by being a creative artist? Yes, Father Vachon said emphatically. The standard of living is going up and people have money to spend on art. The necessity is to encourage them t0buy originals instead of buying a' copy ........ of Matisse or Renoir for $12 in a $25 frame, identical to copies on thousands of living room walls across the nation. An original might cost a little more but it will be one of a kind. And it will help develop creative artists in America. His work at Gonzaga undoubtedly will center on his pre- occupation with Creation. His scientific studies have taught him the scientific guesses about how life began. Father Vachon is curious about the idea that there is no such thing as matter, that all things are made of energy which flows from the Divine Goodness of God. Some of his work already reflects his interest in Creation. One painting is the "Divine Symphony" which shows the tiny figure of a man standing on a finger of God's hand in the con- ductor's downstroke at the opening of a symphony. Galaxies whirl into existence in the background. And so this "bug in my head;, how did creation happen?" pushes Father Vaehon'on. He is helped along by his superion in the Society of Jesus who, finding themselves with an artist on their hands, did the intellectual thing: They let him bean artist. In his words, they "leave me to produce what I want." The result is that he is, again in his words, "all over the map:" He has learned the lesson mentioned by Dorothy Canfield Fisher in her preface to "Norman Rockwell, Illustrator:" He brings to this interest in Creation the best of three fields-- art, science and theology. He is trying now to correlate thegn and paint them into a picture. He pointed out that sometimes "an artist can get away with murder" in jumping to conclusions in one electrifying flash of intuition while science plods along filting in the gaps. "Every artist learns early, or he is no artist, that he must drink out of his own cup, must cultivate his own half-acre, he. cause he can never have another." " '1 Live to Obey God's Slightest Commands' is all very fine, but often there is pride there too. What if I were to die before I am ordained? Tomorrow, on the threshold of my priestly life? This thought seems to make no sense. It really looks as if God has lavished upon me his most tender and motherly care; He has led me out of so many difficulties, and through countless acts of kindness He has brought me here to Rome. It must be for some particular purpose of His; there can be no other reason for my Master's infinite generosity. (Continued from Page 1) my own pleasure, I upset the order of Providence, I break the wonderful harmony of the universe, setting myself against God. What a wicked servant! I must make use of all creatures in so fax" as they lead me oser to God; I must shun them in so far as they estrange me m Him. This is the golden rule, the great fundamental prin- ciple to be applied in all practical cases. When they axe used according: !P the will of God no harm can come of them. I likei'to enjoy good health, and God sends md sickness. Well, blessed be this sickness! Here starts the practice of that holy indifference that made the saints what they were. Oh if I could only acquire that tranquility of soul, that peace of mind in favourable and unfavourable conditions, which would make my life swter and happier, even in the midst of troubles. Poor rich, homured or despised, poor priest of a mountain parish bishop d a vast diocese, it must be all the same to me, as long as in this way I do the will of my Master, fulfill my duty as a faithful servant and save my soul. Indeed if I were allowed a choice, I would have to prefer poverty to wealth, men's scorn to their rewards, the most obscure tasks to important positions. Suppose I should wish to take up some special course of study: my Superiors will not allow it. Very well. then no special study, but cheerfulness always. I would like to be ordained subdeacon at Easter: my Supermrs will hear,of it. Then let us wait, in the same cheerful spirit. Not one drop of the blood of Jesus can avail the rebel angels, yet theirs was me'ely a sin of thought, and their first at that. For me, who sins so frequently, all the fruits of the Passion are available, not once but time and time again. And still I keep my God waiting for me! What a miracle of mercyl And how shatneul for me! But enough, Lord--let us make an end of all this. From now onwards, with Your help, I will seek You out always, at every moment, and I will take the place of the tatleil anges in praising and blessing. You for ever and ever. How easy it would be for my God to take away all my intellectual gifts, my memory and my reason? Or confine me to my bed with sickness? So, softly: less presumption; more distrust of myself and more humility. Where are my riches, my properties, my assets? Disobedi- ence, acts of pride, negligence in my duties, insufficient control of my feelings, infinite distractions, vanity in my thoughts, words and deeds and sins galore: all these belong to me--they are my very own. And with all this to boast of I think of lording it over others, making a name for myself, exalting myself, displaying my powers. I consider myself a fine young fellow, a good seminarist, and this is far from the truth. This is the height of imprudence, of unreasonableness, for anyone who thinks himself a reasonable being. 0 my Good Lord, shall I too be sent to hell? The poor ignor- ant man to Paradise, with the infidel and the savage; and I, called with the first light of dawn, nursed in your bosom, shall I be sent to hell with the devils? I know what life in a barracks is like--I shudder at the very thought of it. What blasphemies there were in that place, and what filth! And would hell be any better? If I were to end up there, while my fellow soldiers, the poor wretches, who grew up' surrounded by evil, were sent to Paradise--no wonder I tremble at the thought! I must pity all sinners and never cease to thank my God for the kindnesses He has shown to me; I must make the most of them but take nothing for granted. I am what I am, a sinner and unstable in the extreme. But what if the iustice of God were to take precedence over His mercy? O Lord, let me suffer everything else, but not hell. Rather let me burn continually with the fire of Your holy love. Death comes to all, and yet I never think of it. Every step I take, every fleeting moment brings me nearer m death. I am full of noble dreams, of ideals of study, of work, of a life spent for Christ's glory, for the good of the Church and society. This I can hardly believe that my Jesus, who today treats me so tenderly and kindly,- may one day appear before me, His face: suffused with divine wrath, to judge me, and yet this is an article of faith and I believe it. And what a judgment that will be! The stray words during the time of silence, the rather mis- chievous expression, the affected gesture, the furtive glance, that strutting about like a professor, that carefully studied composure .... . of manner, with the well4itting cassock, the fashionable shoes, : the dainty morsel of bread--and then the shade of envy aTways in my thoughts, the castles in .the air, the wandering thoughts during my practices of piety, however short these may be,--all will be told against me. And what of my graver sins? O God, how ashamed my soul will feel! Any hangars I may have, any reputation for learning, or even the fame of being zealous and holy, what will these be worth in that ,hour? Degrees, fine theses, vain erudition, and so on, how will they be regarded? O God, grant me today a little of Your divine fight, so that I may discern my weaknesses and find some remedy for them. Open my eyes that nothing, however minute, may escape theme:, for one day all will be revealed in Your light. Lord, lighten my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death." --English language serialized (c) 1965 by Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, from fhe book JOURNAL OF A SOUL--Pape John XXIli published In April 1965, by McGraw. Htll Book Company. Dtstrlb%d by eoos in The News, inc. Next week: How Jesus founded His Church. JOURNEY OF A SOUL IS BROUGHT TO YOU THROUGH THE COURTESY OF BALLARD BLOSSOM SHOP 2001 N.W. HARI(ET ST. Seae