By Nicolette Paglioni
WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington is showcasing Benedictine Father Stephen Reid’s artwork in an exhibit that opened Feb. 15 and will close soon.
The small, quiet gallery located in the shrine’s Memorial Hall includes 14 wood carvings and two large oil paintings; while most pieces have no date listed, it is believed that Father Reid created most of his art between the 1950s and 1980s.
Born in 1912 to Methodist parents in the Shenandoah Mountains, Father Reid led an obscure early life. He attended the University of Virginia, possibly in the early 1930s, where he may have studied literature and French.
After moving to Washington for reasons unknown, he received instruction from a priest at Nativity Catholic Church. He then became a Catholic and shortly after joined St. Anselm’s Abbey. There, he took the name Stephen in 1941 and was ordained a priest in 1945. No one knows for sure what led to his conversion and entrance into St. Anselm’s, but Abbot James Wiseman, his contemporary, believes that the centrality of the liturgy, the Benedictine emphasis on service, and the close-knit community of Catholic men “striving to serve God,” might have attracted Father Reid to monastic life.
During his time at St. Anselm’s Abbey, Father Reid had many roles. He taught French, English and religion. He helped students use the typesetter to print their publications. He even founded the Priory Players theater troupe, and directed, costumed, and built the sets for their annual productions.
He became well known at St. Anselm’s for his artwork, which now adorns the halls of both the abbey and the Church of the Good Shepherd in Glen Burnie, Maryland, where he served as a parish priest for over a decade.
The sculptures and paintings on display at the national shrine have drawn attention for their abstract form and simple — but not simplistic — design. Contrary to the familiar, detailed elegance of most Catholic sculpture, Father Reid seeks to accentuate, not his own talent, but the subjects of his sculptures using attenuated figures and flowing woods. Similarly, Father Reid wanted to avoid rendering the saints of his paintings as objects rather than subjects.
Father Reid hoped to “disrupt habitual responses” to religious art with his unique style, according to Bruce Nixon, author of “A Communion of Saints: The Art of Fr. Stephen Reid, OSB.”
Today, his art serves to “disrupt” our busy lives by taking us by the nose to the heart of prayer with subtle grace.
According to the curator at the national shrine, Geraldine Rohling, one statue in particular has attracted many visitors — often more than once — to the gallery. Father Reid’s “Madonna and Child of the Woods” was discarded by the artist, and found 20 years later in the woods outside of the abbey. Now, with its prominent place at the front of the gallery, the piece has attracted a “phenomenal” amount of prayerful viewers.
Alongside his statues, Father Reid’s carved crucifixes have sparked significant interest for their apparent weightlessness; rather than sagging beneath the weight of the cross, Father Reid’s figures of Christ instead seem to hold up the cross by themselves, as Nixon notes. Their faces are largely disinterested in the agony of crucifixion, and their wounds, so often graphically rendered in most religious art, appear almost invisible.
Continuing his theme of humble simplicity, Father Reid’s paintings utilize large, rounded features and vibrant colors to tell the stories of the saints, of Jesus and of the church without distracting the viewer with obvious displays of the artist’s talent.
Indeed, the gallery as a whole seems to evoke a sense of prayer and thought that has nothing to do with Father Reid’s ability at all.
“St. Benedict is a name that means service,” said Abbot Wiseman. “Father Reid served people … by inspiring them and giving them a sense of heaven through his art.”
Father Reid’s art exhibit is on display in Memorial Hall North, on the crypt level of the national shrine, until June 19, and catalogs of his work are available in the bookstore.