Painting the Pope | An Interview with Ann Kissane Engelhart | Ignatius Insight | August 30, 2011
Ann Kissane Engelhart (personal website: www.annkissaneengelhart.com) is a watercolorist based in Long Island whose paintings have been featured in the Empire State Building, St. Francis Hospital, the DeMatties Center, Brooklyn College and Wagner College and in private collections. She has won numerous awards, she has exhibited in galleries on Long Island and New York, and her illustrations have been published in a variety of magazines and periodicals.
She illustrated the children's book, Friendship With Jesus: Pope Benedict XVI talks to Children on Their First Holy Communion, which features Benedict XVI's answers to questions put to him by children in Rome; the book is edited by popular author and blogger Amy Welborn. Ann recently spoke with Ignatius Insight about her artwork, illustrating Friendship With Jesus, and meeting Pope Benedict XVI.
Ignatius Insight: How and when did you first develop an interest in art? And how did you end up choosing watercolor over, say, oil or acrylics?
Ann Kissane Engelhart: At a very early age, probably around four or five I realized that my peculiar fascination with drawing on anything I could get my hands onto (napkins, walls, my pillow!) was neither shared nor appreciated by others. Soon, I was recognized by my family and teachers for having an artistic talent. I never really considered pursuing any other career.
Ignatius Insight: What are some of the unique challenges and qualities of painting with watercolors?
Ann Kissane Engelhart: In college, as a fine arts student I primarily studied oil painting and a bit of watercolor. Though I loved oil painting, there are certain unique qualities about watercolor that seem to suit my personality and way of seeing things.
The fact that watercolor dries almost instantly, as opposed to the days and even weeks it can take for oils to dry, is very appealing to this procrastinator. But more importantly, the immediacy and living quality of the wet paint continues to fascinate me.
I began to teach art in Catholic elementary and high schools and eventually taught watercolor classes in continuing education at St. John's University. I delighted in showing my students how they had to approach the medium with the almost opposite method of oils, where highlights are the final details added to a painting. In watercolor, no white paint is used, so the highlights are actually the white of the paper. So, if for example, one wants to describe the shine on a reflective object, or the slats in a white picket fence, one must plan ahead and paint around the white spaces of paper to reveal those details. For this reason, watercolor is thought to be less forgiving than oil or acrylic painting where corrections can be made at any time.
Though watercolor is considered by many to be a difficult medium to control, its unpredictability can yield felicitous results. The effect of the incense smoke rising from the thurible in a painting in "Friendship With Jesus" is something that lends itself to the loose, wet washes of blended color that can only be achieved in watercolor.
Therefore learning to master this medium is a delicate balance of knowing when to use strict discipline and when to let go ... a metaphor for life!
Ignatius Insight: Is Friendship With Jesus your first book? What was the inspiration for the book?
I was inspired to illustrate the book after I had read in my local Catholic newspaper that Pope Benedict was going to meet and have a conversation with Roman children who had recently received their First Holy Communion. This was during the Year of the Eucharist in the first months after his election.
Though I was far from being a student of theology, I had been fascinated and inspired by the pope's homily at the inaugural mass of his pontificate where he had already begun to explore the idea of "friendship" or an encounter with Christ. I had started to read his books. Thus, the idea of a scholar, a doctoral professor giving a lesson to eight-year-old kids intrigued me. I found the transcript and watched a You Tube video of the event. Pope Benedict responded to the children's questions (which were similar to my own) with simple, yet profound answers at their level, with the encouragement of a grandfather.
I immediately had the idea that this beautiful conversation should be made known to a wider audience—perhaps in a book for children. A picture book! I decided that I could and must do this myself. Encouraged by my husband who (after my persuasion) had also begun to appreciate our new pope's writing, I started to work on some illustrations with the hope of enticing an author to edit the Holy Father's dialogue with the children.
Ignatius Insight: What was the creative process like for you and Amy Welborn?
Ann Kissane Engelhart: I had begun to read Amy Welborn's blog and had seen her fine writing in places like the daily devotional, "Living Faith" and in her books for children. I understood that like me, Pope Benedict's messages had deeply resonated with her. I took a chance by sending her a proposal and a few of the preliminary illustrations and asked if she would consider working on the project with me. To my surprise and delight, she said yes!
Amy took the responsibility of editing the text, framing it in the context of a book for children with appropriate scriptural quotes, writing a formal proposal, setting up a webpage and contacting publishers. I continued to work on the illustrations, which I would send her periodically. Although most all of our correspondence was via email, we managed to develop a real friendship and were eventually able to visit each other's homes in New York and Alabama. I consider this collaboration to be an unexpected but welcome fruit of the project, for which I am most grateful.
In the spring of 2010 Amy contacted the British publisher to the Holy See, Catholic Truth Society about publishing Friendship With Jesus. They were excited at the prospect of offering the book in anticipation of Pope Benedict's visit to Great Britain. We are very happy that Ignatius Press, who has a relationship with Catholic Truth Society, has decided to bring the book to a U.S. market.
Ignatius Insight: Did you have an opportunity to show the book to the Holy Father?
Ann Kissane Engelhart: At Easter of 2009 my family took a trip to Italy to visit my daughter who was studying in Rome for a semester. We were blessed to be able to sit in the "prima fila" section at the Holy Father's General Audience on Easter Wednesday, where we presented him with a mock up version of the pre-published book.
Amy had suggested that I make a separate print of one of the paintings that corresponded with a question a child had asked the pope about his own First Holy Communion. The illustration showed him as a child in front the church in the Bavarian village of Aschau am Inn where he actually had received the sacrament. I had created the imaginary scene from a variety of sources that I had researched on the internet. When he saw the image, he gasped in recognition of himself as a young boy. He appeared to be amused and delighted that someone had taken on this project. He expressed his admiration and thanks for the work and gave us his blessing.
My husband and I were struck with his humility and warmth and his manner of giving undivided attention and respect to each person he greeted. This was an extraordinary opportunity which I will always treasure.
Ignatius Insight: Are you working on any other books? Any plans to illustrate other books about the pope or Catholic themes?
I have since illustrated a children's picture book about composting, called The Dirt Maker, by Linda Krisch, and am working with another author on a book about a child's garden.
Amy and I are just finishing up another project for Catholic Truth Society based on the Holy Father's talk to British school children in Twickenham, England, which he gave while on his Apostolic trip there last fall. In the address he encouraged the children to become the saints of the twenty-first century, indicating how following Christ will ensure an adventurous life of true happiness and joy. We are very happy with the way the book has developed.
In addition, Amy and I have many ideas for future projects we hope will come to fruition. These new ventures have been a labor of love and have deepened my own spiritual life. Hopefully they will touch children and their families as they grow in their faith together.
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• Excerpts from books by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
• Articles about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI