Saint Vincent art center hosts retrospective of monk’s sacred artwork

Feb. 2—In his artwork, the Rev. Vincent de Paul Crosby is inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, which championed handicrafts and natural elements in response to the mass-production push of the Industrial Revolution.

Still, he’s not above using a computer in the creation of his designs.

A member of the Saint Vincent monastic community since 1967, Crosby will present “Clothed in Glory,” a retrospective of his work in the Verostko Center for the Arts at Saint Vincent College.

The exhibit includes vestments, wall hangings, sculptures and digital works, along with images of Crosby’s designs for renovations of sacred spaces, including Saint Vincent’s Archabbey Basilica and Crypt, its monastic refectory and the Mary, Mother of Mercy Mausoleum Chapel, as well as the Suzanne Pohland Paterno Catholic Center Chapel at Penn State University.

Archabbot Martin de Porres Bartel will make remarks at 4:30 p.m., followed by a brief performance by the Saint Vincent College Singers. Refreshments will be served, and reservations are not required.

“This show has been a long time coming,” said Andrew Julo, director and curator of the Verostko Center. “Father Vincent’s work has been exhibited on campus a number of times, but he showed interest in having something that felt more cumulative.

“I liked that, because I’m a firm believer in recognizing the great creative work that is being done at this place.”

Leading designer

As one of the foremost designers of religious ritual garments working today, Crosby, 78, has completed commissions for Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist churches throughout the United States, Canada and Europe, in addition to advising congregations and monasteries on the design of their liturgical spaces.

As a novice, he learned basic sewing skills as an assistant to the Archabbey’s tailor.

“It was only to help the tailor during the first year of my novitiate. I didn’t have any intention of going into a career that required sewing,” Crosby said.

He went on to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and a master of fine arts degree from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His first interest was in sculpture.

As an undergraduate, his professors were “not too supportive of my working with religious subject matter,” he said. At Catholic University, he found a mentor in a fabric artist whose work employed religious themes.

Returning to Saint Vincent, he was assigned to assist the archabbot with the liturgies.

“It became clear to him, as somebody who was taking care of the various objects used in the liturgy, the real need for vestments,” Julo said. “He set out to create things at the archabbot’s behest that would serve the community in this particular way.”

Each of the priest’s garments has meaning in the Christian tradition, Crosby said.

“My conviction is that vestments are real garments, they’re not costumes. When you wear a costume, you’re trying to convince someone you’re someone other than who you are,” he said. “With vestments, it’s different. They speak about who you are.”

The colors of the garments also have meaning, Julo said.

“Previous generations would have been very aware of what those colors signified,” Julo said. “In the liturgical calendar, dates are assigned a color, or sometimes multiple colors.”

Ironically, Crosby said he first pursued sculpture because he didn’t think he understood color.

“I was taught that color was a science and, if you talk to me about math and science, you’ll be getting a blank stare. It’s not my natural inclination,” he said. “I thought if I gave (fabric art) a try, I would become more comfortable with color. What I discovered is that I have an intuitive sense of color.

“In retrospect, my use of color is really my strongest point, I think,” he added. “I can put unusual colors together, colors that other people think are unusual, and tell whether they work or not. That has served me well over the years.”

Attention to detail

Though the show is very colorful, Julo said, one of the most striking pieces is a black vestment whose linear form references Arts and Crafts style.

“There are a number of things in the exhibition that pick up on that style in particular,” Julo said. “I think the Arts and Crafts idea, the impulse of making things by hand and having them be accessible to everyday people, I think those were all things that really captivated (Crosby’s) mind from a pretty early age.”

“That idea of attention to detail, a sense of design, a clarity of line, all that kind of thing, was something the Arts and Crafts movement was advocating,” Crosby said. “That has always inspired me and also resonates with our sense of monastic life, in terms of simplicity and respect for the quality of things.”

In light of that, he knows it might seem odd that he also uses a computer in some of his work.

“Some people might consider it irreverent. With icons in particular, people can be very orthodox in terms of the way they’re done,” he said. “They’re referred to as being written, not painted, and there’s traditionally a process of prayer that goes along with it.

“I understand all of those things, but I say that when the early monks and artists were making these icons, if they had access to a computer and they understood what the computer could do, they would use it to glorify God,” he said.

He said he uses the available technology, just as they did.

“They were working in their time with the skills they had. Some people say, every icon from that point on in history, has to be done the way it was done 1500 years ago,” Crosby said. “My contention is, in every age that we live, Christians need to find a way to use the things that are available to them in that moment, to glorify God.”

“They wrote the icon with their hand,” he said. “When I’m using the computer, I’m using the cursor as my fingertip to draw these things, so in a sense, I’m still writing them. I’m just using the computer to do it.”

“Clothed in Glory” runs through March 25. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays while classes are in session, and by appointment.

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Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .