Desires That Pierce Our Hearts

An artist in NYC shares some reflections on her experience of creating.

There is a hurdle that I think all artists experience, regardless of discipline.

One of the most daunting aspects of making art is the big challenge of giving flesh to your initial vision. Many if not most artists are idealistic, and the strong vision for a work exists in a perfected form in the mind before it exists anywhere else. Even a weak vision seems to know what it’s about; the artist might know the feeling they’re going after even if they haven’t quite put their finger on the intricacies of the idea. In contrast, the reality of our physical world is complicated and feels full of imperfections — the slight bend in a length of wood that rebels against the perfect calculations of a construction project, or words that fall so short of what wants to be expressed.

Art involves the unity of the vision, which inherently does not exist with form, and the material, which inherently does. It’s a unity that’s kind of incredible if you think about it. No small miracle. Yet at the same time, the union will always be a little off; there will always be some discrepancy between the two. Giving perfect flesh to an idealized vision is impossible. And yet it’s what artists aim to do, despite it never failing to be unfeasible.

As a side note, I think our longing to make a perfect union of vision and form points to something deeply human within us, as body-soul unities ourselves. Artists have this longing particularly strong, which is what makes them artists, but also makes the job painful.

I never had the desire to make religious art. For me, it embodies this struggle to incarnate vision to the nth degree. First of all, you are putting an image to something so personal to every individual who will view it, often irrespective of religiosity. But the great — greatest — impossibility lies in painting Jesus, who is God in human form — Truth, Beauty, and Goodness; these perfected ideals, embodied and present in our physical world. It is the task of painting the face of God. Incarnation is Divine work. What an assignment, and even more so if one is a perfectionistic, idealizational artist.

I recently finished making two paintings for the sanctuary of St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village in New York City. I received the commission truly by providence, and it is not something I would have had the guts to take on unless I had been asked to do it. I put off painting the face of Jesus for ages, and even then began with endless research, scanning the way countless painters had chosen to portray the Son of God, looking for common markers to pinpoint, features that would make a face look like Him.

But I realized in time that a) a methodology was not the way. This wasn’t something I could be so rational about. And b) it couldn’t be done—portrayal was still an impossibility. But the way forward was through painting toward Him, in a way that was excavational, searching layer by layer with my brush.

But what was I painting toward, exactly? How does that pan out practically if you are still dealing in the concrete world of paint, objects portrayed in space, and light hitting form?

Luigi Giussani’s constant life advice is to “follow your desire,” desire defined in the best and truest sense of the word — what our hearts long for. We long for infinite Goodness, Truth, and Beauty embodied. This is what fully corresponds to our body-soul natures and meets us in who we are ontologically.

It struck me one day that this was the way to break through, to simply paint towards my desire — to lean into relishing the paint, the ecstasy of light illuminating fabric folds, the awe generated by the genius of anatomy, and every small part of a facial expression that, layer upon layer, evoked the human-fully-alive.

I think that when we embark on an honest search for the desires that pierce our hearts instead of leaning idly back into preconceived notions, the face of God will start to emerge. And we will start to know him more truly, more.

Lucy, New York City, NY