“The visual arts should be like a buffet for the hungry soul.”
Charlie Mize and I sat down for coffee one bright autumn morning in Marin County, California, perhaps the most secular place in the USA, other than Manhattan. Yet here was a Catholic artist, a nature photographer with a fascinating body of work.
Just to be difficult and to get the conversation rolling, I popped him with Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem, “Pied Beauty.”
“You and Hopkins seem to be after the same thing, how could that be?” I asked “Hopkins was a Jesuit priest in Ireland in the early 20th century, and you’re a Marin County layman in 2017, but look at the convergence!”
“Who’s Hopkins?” replied Charlie.
So I rearranged our coffee cups and laid the poem on the table:
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
“What do you mean, faith moments?” I asked.“Hopkins sees everything,” said Charlie, “he gets the faith moments, even the colors of the trout skin. He took time to admire and praise God for the beauty around him. A fish just out of water looks like a highly polished piece of jewelry.”
“OK, it’s better to look than to talk, so here’s an image I call ‘Fresh,’” said Charlie.
“We’ve got to zero in on little details of the environment. My spirit jumps when I see something extraordinary. Photographs convey the jump in my spirit so I can share it with others. 10,000 other images get discarded because they don’t convey this jump adequately.
“I took ‘Fresh’ on the Waterfall Trail, in the hills above Ignacio, California, where a small creek feeds a larger waterfall. It was the first sunny day after a heavy rainfall, rain which brought relief after four years of drought. It was rushing, oozing life, leaping, gurgling down the hillside, bursting with clear refreshing power, renewing vibrancy and enthusiasm, bringing life wherever it flowed. It gave me a good spring in my step, and made me think of the miraculous catch of fishes, because even after drought and destitution, have faith and abundance will return.”
Feeling a bit startled, plus more than a bit clueless – why don’t I perceive mini-creeks in such a profound way?—I copied down Charlie’s words as fast as I could:
“The visual arts should be like a buffet for the hungry soul. When the soul is nourished, the faith wakes up and comes alive. When faith is alive, there is hope, and when you have hope, then the possibilities are endless.”
“If the eyes are a conduit to the soul, it is understandable why a visual artist is an integral part of God’s overall plan.”
“Now check out ‘Morning Gems,’ continued Charlie.
“‘Morning Gems’ was a beacon of light and hope in a desolate dark place. As I walked up an old dirt road by my home, I saw a glimmering radiant element in the darkness. As I got closer, I found a freshly fallen Madrone leaf with many bright colors and light, looking more like a well-crafted piece of jewelry than a fallen leaf. Even in the covered and shady spot, rays of bright sunlight managed to pierce their way through many layers of the thick wet canopy of oak trees and illuminate these droplets magnifying the rays in many directions at once. God works this way.”
“And here is another example, ‘The Path’:
“Viewers are drawn into this image by the inviting path that twists and turns through a terrain which is back-lit by the promise of something much, much better than the trail underfoot. . . . Faith allows us to take the next step with confidence, so we get to find out what lies around the bend.”
“Another faith moment occurred when I took ‘Sunrise Over San Pablo Bay’:
“One cannot plan on a great sunrise. There is nothing more spectacular and promising than witnessing the start of a new day. Some days, the sunrise is more subtle and quiet, others, she greets us with unfurling colors dotted with cotton ball clouds. It is as though the breath and light of God is providing nourishment to our souls. In the foreground is a slice of the shoreline and a dock leading the eye towards the sunrise. The viewer can start to have faith lifted with the hope that today’s journeys will be filled with God’s handiwork and guidance. Through faith, we have a new day to rejoice and be glad.”
I asked how he could see what the rest of us miss?
“I’m attracted to the particular. Jesus looked at the world in the particular. He interacted with particular human beings but each interaction had ultimate meaning. Seeing the particular creates a gravitational pull to one thing. We rush from A to Z, but the real interest is the space between A and B, where the things to see are most fascinating and meaningful. This space gives hope. The space between A and B is where we find faith moments.”
“Faith moments resonate. Like the Church they helps us perceive the hidden reality, not just the surface. The Eucharist invites us to see beyond the five senses. In a different way, seeing what’s really there in nature gets us to look beyond.”
I asked him about the technical side, thinking of the difference between his photographs and my snapshots.
“I’m not a follower of any particular school of photography. Some of my favorite places, other than right here, are in New Mexico: Bandolier National Monument, Las Vegas, Silver Trail of Santa Fe, Road to Chimayo, Madrid. But 90 percent of my work is local. The Northern California light is best between November and March. Afternoon light becomes more subtle, with longer shadows, dawn light becomes more horizontal, and the dramatic low sun angle exaggerates shapes. A rock three feet tall can look like El Capitan in Yosemite. In the early AM and late PM, there are about 1.5 hours of golden light. As a photographer, I don’t get bogged down in mechanics or work much on Photoshop, just take it as I see it, and capture the faith moments.”
“What are Catholic artists called to do today?” I wondered.
Charlie took a sip of his now-cold coffee and became philosophical: “All over the world, people of all faiths and beliefs marvel at religious art and architecture. For centuries, Catholic artists produced works that are still visited today by secular art lovers, art students, and tourists, even if the visitors don’t understand the Faith that produced the beauty that attracts them so powerfully. Meanwhile, many actual Catholic churches have shrinking congregations. The secular world runs amuck using tech tools and media, while the faithful sit back and pray. Catholic artists need to step up to the plate and really flip things around, using our skills to give visual form to Catholic ideas and feelings, so we can help reveal God’s glory.”
To feast more deeply at Charlie Mize’s buffet, visit www.charlesmizestudio.com.