Student Stories

Reflections in Celebration of the Canonization of Blessed Mother Teresa

By: JP Shortall

August 31, 2016

During the upcoming week there will be a series of events in Rome celebrating the canonization of Blessed Mother Teresa on Sunday, September 4. Masses, prayers, vigils, exhibitions, and a musical will be devoted to the Albanian religious sister who established the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata, India in 1950.

The International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP) at the Center for Social Concerns has worked with the Missionaries of Charity since 2001. Each summer ISSLP students participate in eight-week immersions that focus on Catholic social tradition, social analysis, and the corporal works of mercy.

Students who participate in the ISSLP are required to do either a final paper or art project in which they reflect on their experience. The painting below was the final project of Steven Fisher, ’16 and is offered here in celebration of Blessed Mother Teresa’s canonization.

 

Madonna and Child: Kolkata, India 

Steven Fisher (2014) 

Burlap, oils, paper, gold leaf

Artist Statement

The painting Madonna and Child: Kolkata, India serves as a disclosure of my experience and a mode of expression of my spiritual growth during the summer in Kolkata, India with the Missionaries of Charity. More than personal reflection, however, Madonna and Child: Kolkata, India conveys the beauty of the Divine and Mother in Christian tradition within the cultural context of West Bengal. The representation emerged from the witness of the poor, the Missionaries of Charity, fellow volunteers, and the legacy of Blessed Mother Teresa.     

To portray the Virgin Mary as an ethnically Bengali woman constitutes a deliberate choice to deviate from dominant Western representations of Mary that picture her with a Caucasian complexion and traditional veil. Her sari, constructed from collected tickets from Kolkata public bus stops, envelops her silent posture in motion and texture. I did not paint Mary with the intention to force an emotional response. With  Mughal art in mind—particularly the work of Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gill—I tried to create a portrait that is not expressive of Mary’s feelings, but instead communicates the virtues of compassion, fortitude, and love. Mary’s nose is pierced and a bangle further creates a Bengali identity that contributes to the diverse portrayals of Mary in art history. To forge a sacred image within a particular culture allows me to communicate a broader understanding of Mary that brings together a faith tradition, local experience, and theology. The result is a picture that reclaims the diversity of Mary’s image as a source of vitality.

To serve with the Missionaries of Charity in the Mother House, at Daya Dan, and at Nirmal Hriday as an artist helped me craft an understanding of myself, my vocation, and my mission to share in the work of Christ. In the city of Kolkata, stopping ay a Pauline Bookstore, I came across a battered blue booklet labeled “To Artists,” written by St. John Paul II in 1999. It was only 15 rupees. I bought and started reading it during Adoration. It was a letter, the Saint explained, to inform the artist that, in “giving aesthetic form to ideas conceived in the mind,” the artist gains “a new dimension and an exceptional mode of expression for his spiritual growth.” Through her work, the artist speaks with others and enables them to know their inner life as they contribute to beauty. I thought, as I read these words, “That is why I draw and paint.”

With that spirit I continued to draw for the residence homes and paint for the Missionaries of Charity. During that time I articulated the vision for Madonna and Child: Kolkata, India, enabling a reflective process during its creation. The double portrait is the spirituality written in images and color. Soaking the terrain of the burlap canvas with ochre, vermillion, and umber oils evoked the sensory diversity of Kolkata; cementing the crinkled bus tickets refreshed the daily trip to Nirmal Hriday; and crowning Mary and Christ with gold leaf reflected the transition from the ordinary to the sacred, the ability to discern a dimension of Christ in the everyday. And it is in that spirit that I hope the space around this piece will become a place of prayer and beauty.