Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Joy of Painting the Pope and Saints

Ann Kissane Engelhart ( is a watercolorist based in Long Island whose paintings have been featured in the Empire State Building, St. Francis Hospital, the DeMatties Center, Brooklyn College and Wagner College and in private collections. 

She has won numerous awards, she has exhibited in galleries on Long Island and New York, and her illustrations have been published in a variety of magazines and periodicals.

She illustrated the children's book, Friendship With Jesus: Pope Benedict XVI talks to Children on Their First Holy Communion, which featured Benedict XVI's answers to questions put to him by children in Rome; the book was edited by popular author and blogger Amy Welborn. 

Ann and Amy recently collaborated again recently in the creation of Be Saints! An Invitation from Pope Benedict XVI. She recently spoke with Catholic World Report about her artwork and illustrating two books about the Holy Father.
CWR: Your first book with Amy Welborn was Friendship With Jesus: Pope Benedict XVI talks to Children on Their First Holy Communion, which featured Benedict XVI's answers to questions put to him by children in Rome. How did you and Amy decide upon the focus of this second book? What was the creative process like for you and Amy Welborn, who edited the book?
Engelhart: In both instances we were inspired to create picture books after hearing the Pope speak to young people. We felt that it was important to find a way for more children to hear these wise words of the Holy Father. 

When Pope Benedict visited England two years ago, he made a trip to St. Mary’s college in London where he met with young students. His beautiful and encouraging address was broadcast to every Catholic school throughout Great Britain. Of course when the pope speaks to the people of one country, the message is intended for the whole world. We were confident that his lesson, inviting them to be the saints of the 21st century, would resonate with all Catholic children.

The English publisher, The Catholic Truth Society, was happy to make the book available after the great success of the Pope’s visit. We are delighted that Ignatius Press/ Magnificat decided to collaborate with CTS once again, making the book available in the United States and Canada.

Amy and I have developed a friendship after working on the two books, so we informally send ideas back and forth, mostly through emails. We had a similar vision for how to communicate the Pope’s important message, so it was a joy to work together again.
CWR: You’ve produced many pieces of art for collections and public displays. What is different about creating artwork for a children’s book? Are there unique compositional challenges involved in illustrating a book? 

Engelhart: Every painting, even a simple still-life or landscape tells a story to some degree, but there is a challenge in creating a dozen or so paintings in which the elements of design, line, shape, color, texture, etc., develop in a coherent manner. They should have continuity while maintaining enough variety to keep each page transition interesting. In an independent piece, the composition is concerned with directing the eye to the focal point and creating an illusion of space. A book illustration has the added challenge of requiring room for the text and arranging the images to accommodate the centerfold, while preserving a well-balanced design. 

CWR: What is striking to you about how Pope Benedict XVI communicates with children? 

Engelhart: When Pope Benedict meets with children and young adults his energy always appears to be renewed and he seems genuinely delighted to be with them. He respects them. With the wisdom and love of a gentle grandfather, he challenges them. He doesn’t talk down to them but rather speaks to them on their level. His talks to children are so beautifully constructed that you sense he recognizes how important it is that the Pope communicate directly to young Catholics...the future saints. 

CWR: Be Saints! contains quotes from several different saints. Why did you include quotes from saints (and blesseds) in addition to the Holy Father’s remarks? Do you have a favorite saint or quote? 

Engelhart: Amy and I thought that the quotes would compliment Pope Benedict’s remarks. It would be helpful for the children to receive the wisdom of people who have been recognized as having achieved the extraordinary holiness that the Holy Father encourages. We included saints with whom they could identify, like the young Pier Giorgio Frassati, familiar people such as Mother Teresa and John Paul II, as well as great Englishmen like Blessed John Henry Newman and St. Thomas More since the setting for the Pope’s meeting was Great Britain.
One of the wonderful things about the saints is that there is a saint for everyone, in every phase of life. I have great admiration for Beato Fra Angelico, the patron of artists, for his deep faith and for the humility with which he used his renowned talent as a great painter of the Renaissance. I am always touched by the simple but profound message in Mother Theresa’s quote that is included in this book, If you have a sick or lonely person at home, be there. Maybe just to hold a hand, maybe just to give a smile, that is the greatest, the most beautiful work.

CWR: You were able to give a copy of the first book, in person, to the Pope. What about this second book? Has he seen it? 

Engelhart: As a matter of fact, I do know that he has seen it! The German journalist Peter Seewald had a copy of the book. This past spring he wrote me to let me know that he would soon be seeing Msgr. Ganswein, the private secretary of the Holy Father and would like to give him a copy of Be Saints! 

After the meeting he wrote to let me know that he gave it to Msgr. Ganswein and that he was delighted with the book and that he would certainly give it to the Pope. A few weeks later I received a beautiful letter from Pope Benedict via the Secretary of State. He said that he was grateful for our efforts to bring his words of encouragement to a wider audience of children and their families. 

CWR: Watercolor is a fascinating medium. On one hand, it is often the first type of painting experienced by children; on the other hand, it can be very difficult to master. What are the unique challenges to painting in watercolor? Why do you prefer it over, say, acrylics or oils? 

Engelhart: To be honest, it isn’t that I prefer it over oil paint, a medium that I love and I primarily worked in as an art student. Teachers and gallery owners recognized that I had an affinity for watercolor and encouraged me to concentrate my work in the medium. Eventually I began to teach watercolor classes myself. 

Many people struggle with the fact that unlike oil or acrylic painting, watercolor is unforgiving due to the difficulty in making changes or corrections. There is something exciting about working in a medium that is so unpredictable. I try to strike a balance between allowing the paint colors to blend and spread freely through the water into the cotton fibers of the paper while simultaneously attempting to control it enough to describe something accurately. 

This can be seen in the detailed painting of St. Mary’s College on the endpaper of the book and in the final painting of Pope Benedict waving to the children. In both of these, the background is loosely applied paint, which is effortlessly dropped onto a wet surface, contrasted by a carefully rendered portrait of the Pope and complex Gothic-Revival architecture. 

CWR: Do you and Amy plan on further collaborations? How can people find out more about your work? 

Engelhart: Yes, we are currently working on a Christmas-themed storybook and have plans for future projects. You can see examples of my portraits, landscapes and still-life paintings as well as my other children’s books and illustrations at my website, .