Scholar Fridays is a new weekly series on Bearings Online where we interview 2017-18 Resident Scholars at the Collegeville Institute. Our first in this series is an interview with short-term Resident Scholar Milan Spak, an artist from Kosice, Slovakia who spent several weeks in September as the Collegeville Institute’s Artist-in-Residence. His project title while at the Collegeville Institute was Lonely Cedars: Spiritual Vocation as an Art, Art as a Spiritual Vocation.
While at the Collegeville Institute previously, you made 10 new pastels of saints. Did you know that was what you would be doing before you arrived? How did this place help shape the project?
When I came here two years ago, I was taken by the atmosphere of the area. One could almost breathe the spirituality in the air. Nature and her virginal purity is one of the last traces of paradise lost. Sacred art and nature play the role of bringing us in touch with our innermost being, the abode of God.
Nature, Benedictine monks, and the “Seat of Wisdom” Romanesque Madonna in a side chapel in Saint John’s Abbey Church (a sharp contrast with the concrete church) were the objects that determined my direction of work. It is not hard to conclude why I decided to make paintings of Benedictine saints. It was simply the most appropriate work to do.
How did the people you met here or discussions you had impact your project?
People at the Collegeville Institute and monks were very kind and tried to help me as much as they could. The slow pace of prayers, the pause for silence during the Mass, prayers before seminars, all the blessings that accompany all the meetings– all these are the natural necessity for normal life (so dimmed by the secular worldview in which we live).
Discussions with Don Ottenhof, Executive Director of the Collegeville Institute, were very enriching and supportive for me. So were my interactions with other employees who were always ready to help me. It would be a sin not to mention master potter Richard Bresnahan. In him I found the embodiment of a true master.
Looking at your online portfolio, the figures in your new work seem to be barely emerging or barely imprinted on lush color surfaces. Is this about mystery? History? Theology? Something else?
Life is a mystery. To raise our hands or feet is a mystery. The morning sun, the breeze in the trees and the songs of birds are mysteries. All these are the most precious gifts and yet they are here as pointers to another world, the world of eternity where all of us are called to go, our true home, the eternal now. All these gifts are the reverberation of the higher reality, Absoluteness.
And what is theology and history if they are not talking about Mystery? Mystery of the hierarchical world, mystery of divine essence in mundane substance, mystery of theophany, mystery of alchemy, transformation, deification, theosis. In the apocryphal Gospel of St. Thomas is written: Jesus said: “Split wood, I am there. Lift up a rock, you will find me there.” Everything in nature is a sign of God — ayat as it is written in the Quran. The whole Upanishads are about this transcendence and immanence, which in traditional art is transmitted by symbols. This is what my paintings are about. This is all I wish my paintings to talk about. Touching not only the senses but through the senses touching hearts.
If you could do a studio visit to any artist throughout time in any venue, who would it be and where? What would you ask?
That is very interesting question. I am a big admirer of sacred art from different traditions. Sacred art that was in the West lost its sacredness during the Renaissance and became merely religious art and then later (as if created in an arena for competition), became a means of self-presentation, rivalry. It was not important anymore what was made but who made it. Artists became stars, celebrities, so distant from the anonymous, egoless artists of previous eras. Humble, disciplined, and self-effaced artists are very rare now.
I think it would be very beneficial to visit any medieval guild or artists in the monasteries of Greece, Russia, or the Himalayas. In fact, monasteries are the only place where the traditional conception of art is held, so far from contemporary art with its “sacred” formula— “anything goes” and the cult of ugliness in “art for art’s sake”– that replaced the medieval Consonantia et Claritas in art for God’s sake.
Last summer, I travelled in Zanskar and Laddakh and had a chance to witness the making of a sand mandala by Tibetan monks in a traditional Buddhist monastery (different from witnessing it in the West). Here the art is the form of the ritual, aiming to transmit spiritual qualities and transform the observer, who in such a case is a meditator. I remember when I first glanced at the mandala, which was only two days from completion, almost finished, I fell to my knees. I was absolutely overwhelmed and transported to another dimension. I decided to stay in the monastery and watch the monks working on the mandala until the end. Such occasions when I am as if fixed or hypnotized by works of art are very rare, but they have all the more lasting and transforming effect.
It would also be interesting to visit the studio of a Zen or Sufi calligrapher, or potter, a real master contemplative who knows — sees the truth. From the more contemporary artists I would like to meet Van Gogh or Bohuslav Reynek, or Ladislav Mednyanszky who were people with gentle souls and spiritual aspirations. It is not commonly known that Vincent Van Gogh studied to be a priest and gave away his clothes and house to the poor. Later, being expelled from the church caused him deep mental distress.
What would I ask? When someone meets a master, it is enough to be with him in Silence. His work is his speech, which is not of him actually; he is only the purified channel for the inexpressible.
Some of your early work directly engaged nature, like the icework, shadows, and land art. How does that work carry through to what you are doing now?
There are truths which can be expressed in various media. I am not opposed to working with natural objects, which are themselves beautiful, or to making an installation or photograph if it can convey the message in a better way than painting. The original function of art is to lead us to our inner chamber where we can hear the voice of our True and Divine Nature, where we can hear the Divine call to become what we really are. This is the highest purpose of art and that is what I am trying to fulfill, which is not possible without spending time in prayer, solitude, and silence.
How do you think your work going forward will be impacted by your time at the Collegeville Institute?
That is hard to predict. It depends mostly on how I will progress on my spiritual path, on how I will remember more and more who I really am, on how I will remember the real Self. When I returned home after my first residency, I did not paint for a year. I did a lot of writing and translating. But then I started to paint portraits of some very influential personalities, writers, and beautiful human beings using a technique that was new to me.
Collegeville is the open door to a place where people come to live together, work together, talk together, and share together according to the Benedictines values. Those values are necessary to convey in our writings, our books, our talks, seminars, art, and life.