Anthony Santella: Curating Dorothy Day

We wondered as we wandered into the Sheen Center gallery in Manhattan how an art exhibit based on Dorothy Day’s vision of social justice came to be.

So Catholic Arts Today spoke (via email) with the curator, the New York-based artist Anthony Santella, whose brother Dennis Santella is also a New York Catholic artist.

The Sheen Center gallery is small. An hour of contemplation, or a half an hour if you have to hurry back to work, will give you ample time to take in an art break.

One of the highlights of the exhibit was the exquisite embroidered portrait by Father Frank Sabbate of one of the girl-child victims of the Cambodian genocide. Another was the simple driftwood shrine to Dorothy Day constructed of wood gathered from the Staten Island beach she once called home. Inside, gallery visitors dropped notes to and about Dorothy Day. 

The deliberately stream-of-consciousness essay that follows is a pieced together from 6 to 8 email exchanges with Santella, with his permission, to give insight not only into the exhibit but the artist-as-curator. 

The Sheen Center gallery gets visitors. We went on a Wednesday afternoon and several young men were already there, gazing.

Curating Dorothy Day by Anthony Santella

I am glad to hear there were people there, it’s always a fear that nobody will show up except at the opening (which was happily really well attended).

Opening Reception at the Sheen Center Gallery, December 16, 2017

The piece of mine in the show, Promise Keeping Machine II, is funny on a couple fronts.  Including yourself in a show you curate is common in the alternative art venue scene, but a little more contentious the higher you get on the gallery food chain. In a Catholic context, refusing to include my own work was basically a pride thing:  to prove I was taking this exhibit really seriously.  Then I came by chance across a quote from Dorothy Day in The Catholic Worker in 1973:

“I walked a bit and made a little garden in a glass dish of mosses and tiny plants. C. S. Lewis in his autobiography Surprised by Joy describes just such a tiny garden. ‘Beauty will save the world,’ Dostoyevsky wrote.” Day said, “Actually I was trying as I began writing about my little terrarium, to comfort myself, because of the horror of our times, these times of savagery, lies, greed.”

“Promise Keeping Machine II”, by Anthony Santella and Imo Nse Imeh, “Ghosts in the Forest” (from the series”Chibok Girls”).

I felt like I had to include one of my Promise Keeping Machines the moment I read the quote.  I remember reading that line of Lewis’ and making gardens of moss myself as a kid. The impulse to create a tiny protected world in the face of brutality was precisely the urge out of which my own work emerged.  The art came out of a project in 2015 in which I forced myself to create a finished drawing every day for the entire year. It was a kind of ritual that I clung to while very slowly accepting that my wife was not coming back, and was never even to going to acknowledge my existence enough to say so.

A lot of spider-like reliquaries and terrarium forms came out of those drawings, some of them heavily armed. I am a bit of a nerd: There was some hypnotizing resonance between my situation, which I found almost impossible to believe while living through it, and the science fiction scenario of massive robots protecting the last plants on earth against an unknown menace.

Too much about me again.

The show is dedicated to my aunt by marriage, who died this fall after a long battle with cancer. She grew up on the Lower East Side and lived a couple miles from where Day’s cabin was on Staten Island. I visited the site with my aunt and uncle probably 15 years ago, more for the beachcombing than for its connection to Day. I  returned to collect the wood for the Dorothy Day shrine while visiting my aunt in hospice care.

With the shrine, I’ve just been glad that people have actually brought things and left notes.  It’s nice to see that people got into it and seemed to find it moving.

Curating the show comes primarily out of my association with the Dorothy Day Guild, which was founded in 2005 to promote the cause of Dorothy Day’s canonization.  Almost two years ago I talked about the idea of an art exhibit offhandedly with Geoff Gneush, an artist on the board of the Guild. I started to toy with the idea of juxtaposing works, initially by artists I knew that had some connection to Day’s philosophy, with relevant excerpts from her writings. People seemed enthusiastic about the idea from those initial tests, so I worked up a proposal that was ultimately accepted by the Sheen Center. I wanted the show to reflect the diversity of Day’s thought and The Catholic Worker movement’s practice: not just an outsider art thing, nor just mainstream looking artists. I wanted everything on an equal footing hopefully coming together in a unified way.

I collected a body of work that I felt visually hung together, while including a bit of everything from prisoner made art, to work by homeless and mentally ill artists, to mainstream artists doing work that directly addressed issues of violence and injustice. To these, I added themes of nature and agriculture which were really central to Day’s thinking (though often downplayed).  These nature themes get downplayed for the same reason I think Gandhi’s  embrace of similar ideas has also been downplayed. Each of these pieces I paired with a quote, trying to create a dialogue between the art and Dorothy Day’s words. Martha Hennessy (Dorothy Day’s granddaughter) recommended a couple additional artists and put me in touch with Amanda Daloisio the current editor of The Catholic Worker. Daloisio gave me a dozen or so names and contacts for artists whose work had appeared in the paper.

That The Catholic Worker has spent 80-odd years locked into the woodcut print-like illustration style of late 19th century William Morris style arts-and-crafts movement socialism is something I just love about the paper.  One of the biggest efforts of the project was chasing down The Catholic Worker artists, for many of whom I only had postal addresses. It was great however getting to visit several of the New York-based ones and talk to others. Their art contributed hugely to the look of the show.

Father Frank Sabbatte’s work is also extraordinary. I think there’s a lot of great work in the show, but Father Frank Sabbaté does particularly amazing work. He’s a Paulist father, I work with him on Openings, a Paulist outreach to visual artists.  He’s also by coincidence now the gallery director at the Sheen, though the show was planned before he took the job. NYC is a small town.

The piece by Frank Sabbate I included highlights the two considerations I tried to keep in mind in all the work I included: the aesthetic and the conceptual.  Cambodia 1975 #137 is one of the child victims of the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields. (View it here.) It’s quite beautiful; the pointillist technique Fr. Frank uses in creating his random embroidery portraits is visually and technically stunning.  There is also a deep pathos to this striking depiction of a beautiful child in a horrifying context. This is one of a series of portraits Fr. Frank has done blowing up and colorizing the black-and-white photos that the Khmer Rouge used to document their victims before executing them.  It captures what Dorothy Day’s legacy means to me: her faith-informed personalism, her insistence on putting a human face on dehumanized victims, and the rejection always and everywhere of instrumental violence.

Imo Imeh is another amazing artist in this show. His Chibok Girls mixed media works also comment on the brutal and ugly in a graceful way.  The kidnapping of those schoolgirls by the Boko Haram was, and still is, an inconceivable tragedy. There is also something haunting about how the outpouring of (fairly cheap I suppose) concern online didn’t seem in the end to amount to much.  That futility seems a poignant contrast to Day and the Worker’s insistence on living out the care you claim to have. I was really happy to be able to include a reminder of them in the show.

From the start, I was asked if I was going to include work by dead artists that are associated with The Catholic Worker. I reluctantly chose to stick to contemporary work, though I was pleased that one of the artists, June Hildebrand, had studied with Fritz Eichenberg, the illustrator who did several iconic images for The Catholic Worker. It’s not the first time I’ve curated, but it is the most logistically complex show I’ve ever done, somewhat taking over my non-day-job life for the past six months.

I do think of myself as a Catholic artist: first and foremost because I am Catholic, both by culture and personal belief and practice. I am, for what it’s worth, something of a Dorothy Day Catholic: dogmatically orthodox, personally and politically anti-establishment. That’s enough. I don’t think there’s a need for faith to be always visually obvious in the work.That said, my work definitely draws on the visual vocabulary of Catholic ritual art, particularly, in my figurative work, in the static grace you see in statues of saints (at least at their best) and on reliquary and monstrance forms.

A lot of my work draws on other ritual woodworking traditions as well, Japanese, African, Native American, but in all the work that I do, I see something Catholic in the focus on incarnating emotional and spiritual struggles in objects that for me at least blur the line between ‘sculpture’ in the modern sense and personal ritual objects. I have also occasionally done straight (and not so straight) devotional pieces.

What do I mean by saying I’m ‘dogmatically orthodox’ and ‘anti-establishment’? I fear I may have sounded too grand, a hazard of being in Artspeak mode. I’m definitely not a theologian, nor an activist.  Dogmatically orthodox to me means that you accept, that the Church is right. More importantly you fully intend to live out these truths to the best of your ability. It’s all really real, not just a nice idea, or just a part of your culture, or a fruit salad of good stuff and silly archaicism for you to pick at.

Politically, ‘anti-establishment’ means I dislike both Democrat and Republican platforms almost equally for their shared devotion to militarism, consumerism, and individualism, under slightly different brands. Culturally, it means that I’m not coming from a stereotypical American highbrow Catholic culture, where everything intellectual comes back to Thomas Aquinas and everything in visual culture since the Renaissance is just the slow decay of Western Civilization.  I’m a computer scientist by training and middle-class NYC area Italian American by background.  That kind of rarefied cultural allegiance is not something that seems natural to me, more like being a dogmatic Star Trek fan, than being a Catholic. Anyway, that’s more than enough about me.

I see Day as being both very pro-life (which she clearly was in her mature life) and pro-marriage. I see her devotion to these as well as her devotion to the Mass and prayer as the foundation of a virtuous and practical radicalism: a radicalism that sees a just society as being more important and more effective, than mere law to the protection of the unborn.  (Full disclosure: I’m the volunteer that runs the Guild for her canonization’s website and social media).

Dorothy Day wrote very affectingly in her biography about how hard it was losing her lover and the father of her child. Her letters to him for years after their breakup suggest just how heroically she wanted the commitment of real marriage with him and how reluctantly she gave the idea up. I put an excerpt from one of her letters to him in the show wall text.  It’s definitely something that I’ve thought about a lot in dealing with my own experience of being outright abandoned in what I fully (and delusionally, though the Newark Tribunal has yet to render final judgment) believed was a marriage in the real sense.

The mess is very much the point. It’s not that the mess is good, but that holiness is in doing the best to live by a higher standard in the filth in which you find yourself. Claiming that you can fix the mess by thinking the right way, that right thinking will make it will all go away, is a dangerous lie that leads among other things to the idolatrous belief in the value of partisan politics.

Wait, am I going to be quoted on this? The last time I talked to a reporter I was quoted in print as considering a tree my childhood best friend.

Like all artists, I say I’ve talked about myself too much and then do it more.

More To Explore