For the last many years, I’ve had the great fortune of working with Christine Valters Paintner of Abbey of the Arts, a Virtual Monastery and Global Community, on a number of collaborative paintings we call the Dancing Monks Series. They range from Irish (and other) Saints, to poets and writers, visionaries, religious leaders, desert fathers and mothers, and… hmmm… that may be about it. 

I think we have collaborated on about 30 of them now! 

(You can see them all on my etsy page or by visiting this page of Abbey of the Arts)

The Dancing Monks, who twist and twirl their way across the paintings, help to lead the way for Christine’s virtual community called the Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks. Our versions are meant to be fun and joyful representations of people who are often portrayed to be kind of serious and studious characters. We’ve all looked at prayer cards– in fact I have a whole collection of them. Sometimes they look a little peaceful, but they don’t exactly ooze exuberance. That’s more what we were going for with our collaboration.

I mean, sure, we are all serious sometimes. And I imagine that if I had faced some of the situations endured by a lot of the Dancing Monks I’ve painted, I might not be smiling through the whole thing, either. 

For example, I remember saying to Christine in a facebook message when she asked me to paint one of the Desert Fathers, Abba Anthony, a few months back: 

“Can you even imagine living in a cave? Like, you know,  actually living in a cave? LOL!” 

And her writing back, “No, I don’t really even like camping!”  

And then we had a laugh. :)

So, yeah, I get that saints and monks wouldn’t always be smiling, but I love the idea that the people Christine and I have worked together on portray a lighter side to life (even if the darker side is still present in there somewhere). I love that she portrays the whole of the human experience with her work and with the work she brought out in me. More on that in a moment.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago, when I received a request for a painting of someone I have painted before: Saint Francis! 

I, probably not unlike the rest of the world who loves Saint Francis, love Saint Francis because he is always dripping in animals. I, too, want to be dripping in animals! I immediately and excitedly accepted the commission.

And apparently, people do like a smiley-looking Saint, because that’s why they contacted me– the person who commissioned Francis saw the Dancing Monk version of Saint Francis I’d painted and was attracted to the feeling of joy they got from it. What an amazing compliment! They also liked the colorfulness, as what they wanted was something painted in the style of Mexican Talavera pottery, which if you haven’t seen, is a worth a google.

At the top of this post is the painting I came up with, which includes a few things they asked to be incorporated: their beautiful dog, one or two roosters, birds, a squirrel, the town of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, and in the background on the hill, a church called Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, whose pink towers rise above El Jardín, which is a super cool garden of cylindrical trees (also worth a google!).

They also asked for the following quote to be incorporated into the painting:

La risa es el lenguaje del alma.

Laughter is the language of the soul. 

(And I just made myself laugh by typing “soup” instead of “soul!”)

These are really words to live by!

Finally, I’m going to circle back to my previous comment about how I admire the way in which Christine portrays the whole of the human experience, the way she captures the realness of Monks and Saints, those we often think of as having unattainable characteristics or who we think of as so ginormously holy that we could never be that. It's a thing I think about a lot, because it’s a characteristic I also want to portray in my own art.

The feeling I’m describing is the feeling of the extraordinary being part of the ordinary. That our everyday experiences of joy and sadness or whatever we feel is not only what makes us human, but is also what also what ultimately makes us holy, too.

I leave you with this poem by Christine and with the smile I know it will put on your face!

St. Francis at the Corner Pub

Approaching the door, you can already hear his generous laughter.

He stands on the bar upside down for a moment to get a new perspective on things,

a flash of polka-dotted boxers as his brown robe cascades over his head,

sandaled toes wiggling in the air in time with a fiddle playing in the corner.

Rain falls heavily in the deepening darkness and he orders a round of drinks 

despite his vow of poverty and the single silver coin in his pocket, multiplied by the last Guinness poured.

Nothing like a good glass of wine, he gleefully says, heavy Italian accent echoing through the room,

he holds it up to the overhead light, pausing for a moment lost in its crimson splendor, breathes deeply.

At ease among fishmongers and plumbers, widows and college students, 

and the single mother sneaking out for a moment of freedom from colic, cries, and diapers.

As the wind blows rain sideways, 

in come the animals, benvenuti to pigeons, squirrels, seagulls, crows,and the neighborhood cat balding from mange, a chorus of yowls, coos, caws, and meows arising,all huddle around him. 

No one objects to the growing menagerie, 

just glad to be dry and warm.

He clinks glasses all around, no one left out.

                                                    —Christine Valters Paintner