I remember the first time I met Fr. Frank Sabatté. It was my junior year at the School Of Visual Arts and I was participating in a group show with two other artists. Me (the photographer) and two painters. The one thing we three had in common was that our work “explored the complexities of the erotic.” So imagine my surprise when a man walked up to me and announced he’s a priest. I found myself struggling to articulate that I was exploring the notion of sexual attraction. Fr. Frank listened with consideration, and before he left we exchanged cards. I thought for sure that was that.
A few weeks later I received an e-mail from Fr. Frank, a Paulist priest, inviting me to a group discussion on art and spirituality. To say I was apprehensive about this invitation is putting it mildly. I mean, in all honestly, I just didn’t see myself being that involved with a church. Don’t get me wrong. I was raised Catholic and though I’m not from a family who went to church every Sunday, I did make my first holy communion. In addition, as an adult there have been moments where I’ve felt I’ve needed to go to mass as a way to find peace from the chaos in my life. But this was taking it to a new level. This wasn’t about me being anonymous at church, which is what I’ve often preferred. This was meeting people in a church setting and having a dialogue. I don’t recall how many polite excuses I made for not attending the discussions, and though I was hesitant I was also curious. After all, if priests were making an effort to engage the community in dialogue I felt compelled to keep an open mind.
Art and faith
Looking back, I realize it took nearly three years before I agreed to submit a proposal to include work in a group art show at Fr. Frank’s parish, St. Paul the Apostle in New York City. The theme of the show was “Naked Measures” and my weak moment came when I discovered the work would be shown inside the church. I revel in the idea of displaying art in alternative spaces. I’d recently edited a series of mine entitled “But If Not For Him,” which chronicles the declining health of one of my best friends. In short, as a teenager Johnny was a gay male prostitute. By the time he was in his early 20s he’d quit the streets though he had another battle to fight. Addiction. My series begins after he’d stopped using. As the images progress however we find him back on the heavy narcotics, nearly homeless, and HIV positive.
Again this year I submitted a proposal to St. Paul’s for its group show entitled “Rumble Above the Clouds” (currently on view). In considering what “rumble” meant to me I decided to photograph friends of mine who, in one way or another, have all had to face addiction. This recent project entitled “Episodes” includes photographs of friends who have overcome their situation, which is something I’m very proud of.
For me, having images like this hanging in a church where mass is held and prayers are whispered is like redemption. In a strange way I feel like my photographs have found a moment of peace. As an example, Johnny’s images were hanging next to the confessionals, which I felt added a layer of complexity because Johnny would never make any apologies for who he is. Nor should he have to. I know the struggles he’s faced, the hate he’s endured, and the isolation he’s felt. Despite everything he’s kind, compassionate, caring, beautiful, and able to love. Somehow I think that that can be defined as faith. Faith in knowing that you’re important, that you count for something.
I think it’s important to mention that I’ve recently become a member of Openings, which is an artists’ collective organized by Fr. Frank that meets once a month to discuss our work. Even though the collective is connected to the church there’s never been a religious agenda. I respect the fact that no views are, or have ever been, forced upon me and other members. We simply engage in thoughtful discussion about the work we create, and when it’s time to leave I always feel like my mind’s racing with excitement. That’s inspiration coming from a positive space that leads me to consider the idea of spirituality.
As I once mentioned to Fr. Frank, I think art and spirituality are inseparable. There’s this thing inside me that I feel I need to express. I can’t articulate it with words; I only know that I feel compelled to create something. That need along with the idea for the execution of that feeling comes from some place that’s indefinable. I’d like to think of that undefined place as a spiritual place. A place that exists to inspire me to break down stereotypes and to have someone who has never met me emotionally connect with my work. That’s powerful and I’m pleased that St. Paul the Apostle is pioneering an age old tradition of believing in artists and allowing them to use the church as a platform to express their ideas.