Since I was a little kid, I had a religious bent. Even now I still long for that union of thought and feeling and certainty the mystic knows but cannot relate to us.
When I was a teenager, the religious inclination was fired by all kinds of influences, including my love of history and art. When I turned 17, as a member of the Episcopal Church, I was also brought into the conflict of the time about women in the priesthood. I wanted to be one of the first. Our pastor was not having it.
I expressed my love of God and tradition by painting a tryptic for the youth chapel at the church. It was inspired by Limbourg Brothers’ manuscripts and also works by Mathias Grunwald. I had visions of how it would look. I finished the center panel, the crucifixion, but the baptism of Christ on the left and the combination of the resurrection/transfiguration on the right were never finished. I broke with the church and I really never returned. The reasons are complex but ultimately it was about the whole “women in the priesthood” thing.
A few years ago I returned to Ohio for my youngest sister’s wedding. It was at the church. I noticed my painting was standing against the wall in the undercroft. I found out the painting has caused quite a schism in the parish. Apparently, our particular flavor of Episcopalianism didn’t go in for the Catholic spectacle of blood, pain, and suffering. Many people wanted to get rid of it. The current pastor didn’t feel right about discarding it, so it stood in the undercroft, suffering in silence.
The pastor heard I was there and almost pled with me to take it with me and I considered cutting it down so I could (it was 8-foot by 4-foot). I imagine the painting ended up discarded or maybe someone bought it in a church white elephant sale and took it home to frighten children.
At one point, I visited old Mr. Tompkin. He was an artist himself and made some of the art for the chapel, including using transparent paints to make “stained glass” windows. He did a magnificent “Saint Dunstan,” for whom our little chapel was dedicated.
Mr. Tompkin used to also play the flute for us while I painted and my “boyfriend” at the time did woodwork for the chapel. I put that in quotes because Tony was 24 years older than I was. I had just turned 18 and he was there when I didn’t have anyone. He attended my high-school graduation when my step-father picked a fight with my mother, also similarly distracted by her infidelities, so he wouldn’t have to go. To say I had daddy issues was an understatement.
Funny, Mr. Tompkin didn’t recognize me and started to tell me about the giant fight the church had about the painting and “this young woman who painted it.” I burnt bridges, for sure, when I left. I interrupted him and said, “Mr. Tomkin, that was me. That girl was me.” He blinked a few times and changed the subject.
Tony, I doubt you are still alive, but I love you and you informed so many of my thoughts and tastes for decades. I hope you find it in your heart to forgive me for the heartache I gave you.
Tony took these photos of me working in the chapel and though the scans aren’t the best, you can see, sacred subjects have been with me for a long, long time.