Festival of Life: Making art, building culture
By Wayne Laugesen
DENVER—Therese-Marie Conklin felt called to quit her longtime work as a professional massage therapist in order to glorify God with art.
Her transition began in 2011, after Conklin read and contemplated a letter written to artists by the late Blessed John Paul II in 1999, and later words of encouragement to artists by Pope Benedict XVI. Her newfound career gained momentum and inspiration on Oct. 19, when she participated in the Festival of Life at the Denver Knights of Columbus Hall (Council 539), 1555 Grant St. in Denver.
“None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands,” begins the letter of Pope John Paul II, which also quotes Genesis 1:31: “God saw all that he had made, it was very good.”
Words of the two popes made Conklin realize that much of the world’s modern art lacked inspiration, and she wanted to do her part to make a change.
“Our culture is swerving into a demented place and that is reflected in what seems like godless, empty and hopeless expressions of art,” Conklin said.
She was among three new artists who joined six veterans of the quarterly Festival of Life, which features sculptors, painters, writers and musicians.
“We are artists with a sacramental world view,” said organizer Mark Thomason, who works as director of faith formation at Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Broomfield. “Tangibility is a very important aspect of the Catholic faith. We are taught that the word becomes flesh. Art mimics that in a way, by making the beauty of life and all of God’s creation tangible in a variety of expressive ways.”
Thomason started the Festival of Life in 2005, but discontinued it for a few years while he attended graduate school. The Oct. 19-20 festival was the first of an ongoing quarterly series.
“It’s about building a culture,” Thomason said. “When I think of Catholic art, I think of the Renaissance, or icons. But not all Catholic art has to be a classic painting, or a great cathedral. It can be almost any form of expression, which glorifies God’s creation, that is created by a faithful Catholic.”
Conklin’s decision to quit her job and start painting involved a harrowing leap of faith.
“I was having a difficult year and I was in prayer when the Lord just said ‘now.’ We’re somewhat dependent on my income, so this involved a lot of trust,” Conklin said. “My husband (a sergeant at the state’s Sterling Correctional Facility) is very supportive and he is doing his part to give this a chance.”
The couple lives two and half hours east of Denver, in the village of Haxtun, Colo. Conklin heard about the Festival of Life from her daughter’s professional colleagues at Fellowship of Catholic University Students.
“It’s a really exciting opportunity for me, as someone who is starting out in this field with no formal art education or training,” Conklin said. “It’s a chance to meet other Catholic artists, to build a community and to show my art to the public.”
Though she has no formal art training, one series of her paintings—a moving sequence of three images that depict despair and hope in a context of human trafficking—were chosen recently for display at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I showed up at the festival, as someone new to all of this,” Conklin said of the festival. “I found a community of inspirational young Catholics who are on fire for the faith. They are well versed in Catholic teachings and they want to live authentic Catholic lives through their art.”
The festival—which ran from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday—was abundant with food, music and families.
Artist Justin Jensen talked about the endless beauty, inspiration and fulfillment one obtains from living by the teachings of the Church.
Jensen, 32, grew up in an evangelical Christian family in Denver. He converted to Catholicism at age 28, after taking inspiration from the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.
“Art is central to my faith,” said Jensen, who paints with oil on canvas. “The philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas introduced to me the Catholic belief that all things have a material cause and the materials themselves have value. This is reflected in art.”
Jensen, a professional artist who teaches art at Front Range Community College and the Community College of Denver, said the Festival of Life has become a valuable means of meeting other artists who share his faith. It is, he said, the building of a community.
Thomason said he plans to continue growing the festival and he hopes Catholics from throughout the Archdiocese of Denver, and neighboring dioceses, will make a routine of attending. Conklin share’s Thomason’s optimism and has no doubt the series will succeed.
“It is really organic, authentic and faithful,” Conklin said. “I can see it getting really big, pretty fast. Once people experience the setting, they will understand how uplifting and inspirational it is.”
The next festival is scheduled during Advent, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Dec. 14 and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 15. For more information, visit the Festival of Life Facebook page: http://on.fb.me/PreN4O.