7/6/2017 12:55:00 PM WATCH: Calligrapher says sacred art needs freshening
Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel Portland calligrapher and artist Chuck Lehman holds his piece on St. Maximilian Kolbe, who gave himself up to die in place of another prisoner at Auschwitz. People are hungry for meaningful sacred art, Lehman says.
A veteran Catholic calligrapher from Portland is calling on his peers to breathe new life into sacred art.
“There is nothing fresh coming along, there is no expression, no communication, no appreciation of this world of sacred dogma and morals and sacred Scripture,” says Chuck Lehman, who attends Mass every day at St. Mary Cathedral in Portland. “Sacred art has to be freshened up as we go.”
Lehman, 79, has practiced and taught calligraphy and painting through five decades, since studying at Reed College with the famous Lloyd Reynolds. Resident in a land of local produce and microbrews, Lehman says a key to artistic vibrancy for local churches is to embrace local artists.
“These are home grown things rather than out of Chicago or New York,” he says, holding up his simple images paired with calligraphed Scripture passages. Long before the internet meme, he says, Christianity understood that pairing pictures with brief texts is “possibly the best way to address the human spirit.”
Art, Lehman says, “is one of the most overlooked evangelical tools.”
A collection of Lehman’s works has been touring the nation for five years as part of a project sponsored by the organization Christians in the Visual Arts. Already this year, his pieces have been viewed in Michigan, Florida and Arkansas.
Paula Hamilton, who directs the Portland-based Sanctuary for Sacred Arts, calls Lehman a Portland treasure. “He is a talented artist and calligrapher, but he is also a teacher — of nuns, artists and calligraphers as well as prisoners — a book binder and publisher, and a person steeped in social justice issues,” Hamilton says.
His pieces tend to have hard-edged black lines but soft-edged color that spills gently out of the borders. That, he says, is a sign that nothing is perfect, that an artist only hopes to express what he or she loves.
Lehman as of late has a special fascination with Christian martyrs. He has created images of St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Agatha and Archbishop Oscar Romero. Hanging in Portland’s Church of Korean Martyrs is his depiction of Korean Christians lashed to stakes for burning.
Among his favorite martyrs is St. Maximilian Kolbe, who at Auschwitz gave himself up to starvation and lethal injection in place of a family man.
Modern martyrs compel Lehman. He saw Archbishop Alexander Sample wearing a pin with the Arabic letter N and discovered that it’s a sign of solidarity. ISIS troops painted the letter on the houses of Middle Eastern Christians as a warning that they must renounce their belief in Jesus or be killed. Lehman created an image of the letter, rustic and dripping as if with fear, roughness and blood.
“How can we ignore them?” Lehman says of martyrs. “We can have pretty artwork and psalms floating around as prayers, but these guys shed blood.”
Lehman, a father of four and married to wife Erma for 56 years, says people are hungry for good sacred art that both expresses invisible realities but is rooted in modern life. He volunteered to teach a course in calligraphy at Maryville, an elder community, and says he will speak for free anywhere, including prisons.
Also free for the asking is a complete set of stations of the cross Lehman painted. He says his Southwest Portland studio is open to visitors. He’ll even make coffee.