Fr. Iain MacLellan, O.S.B., takes inspiration for the drawings on his annual Christmas cards from many sources: religious readings, monastic life, and even women's fashions of the 1920s.
"Inspiration comes from everyday life, and from my own meditations and ideas," says Fr. Iain, director of the Alva de Mars Megan Chapel Art Center. "Ideas come, and I take notes. I take color notes. I close my eyes to remember the basic structure of faces I see."
He once found the face of Joseph while waiting for his morning coffee. He saw a student in the Coffee Shop and said, "That's my Joseph," he recalls. Mary was inspired by another student, whose face conveyed a sweetness he associated with the Holy Mother.
It has been more than 20 years since Fr. Iain started creating his distinctive Christmas drawings for cards to be sent by college President Jonathan DeFelice, O.S.B. He later was commissioned to produce a card for the Saint Anselm Abbey, as well.
Starting Nov. 10, the watercolor drawings and other religious works by Fr. Iain will be on exhibit at the Chapel Art Center. The exhibition of about 27 works, including illustrations for books by Br. Andrew Thornton, O.S.B., and Fr. John Fortin, O.S.B., will run through Dec. 10.
The exhibition comes at a time when Fr. Iain is considering a new form for his Christmas art. The drawings, which he calls studies, have led to final compositions that he plans to render as two oil paintings, perhaps as early as next year. Those paintings will also become Christmas cards.
"It is time for something new," he says. "I have been working with these loose watercolors for a very long time."
For Fr. Iain, his Christmas drawings and other religious works have been an opportunity to express monastic life and spirituality in art. In "Rest on the Flight," Fr. Iain's favorite of the collection, Mary's skirt is part of a rock, which represents both the altar on which the Christ child is offered to the world, and the altar in the Abbey Church. The drawing also expresses the monastic notion of flight from the world. "We are contemplative," he says. "There is a gentleness and timelessness to our life."
The art also reflects Fr. Iain's own sensibilities and experiences. The 1920s women's clothing designs of Paul Poiret, for instance, which he saw in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, serve as models for Mary's robes.
Fr. Iain works every day on the drawings, year round, sketching with a black crayon or charcoal pencil. He creates six, seven or more models before achieving the final drawings that he paints with watercolors. He has worked to develop a unique iconography in his creations, bringing new visual ideas to the drawings every year, including elements of nature, the position of Mary's feet, and the showing of the figures' hands.
The new visual language also includes color. Blue and red are historically associated with artistic renderings of Christ and his Holy Mother because the pigments were once so costly. Today, Fr. Iain adds a tinge of violet to the traditional blue in Mary's robes, creating a hue that "may stir a forgotten sadness," he says. The reds he creates have hints of orange and pink.
Because the drawings are studies, there is an unfinished quality to the works. Hands remain transparent and lightly defined. The robes of Mary and Joseph meld into one another. A rock on which Mary stands or a pillar against which she leans is all but invisible.
"I don't want them overly defined," he says. "They are musings. They'll never be exact."
He likens his work to poetry and, as with a poem, a few lines can convey many ideas. Fr. Iain sees his minimal drawing style and delicate colors evoking the mysteries of the divine, and of the
human imagination. "We don't know exactly what the nativity scene looks like," he says. "It's a mystery. We imagine what that night was like."
"The Holy Family in a Mystical Landscape" earned Fr. Iain a thank you note from Pope Benedict XVI. After creating the card in 2007, he visited the Vatican and participated in a general audience with the Pope. Later, the pontiff passed by in a procession and Fr. Iain handed the card to an aide.
That painting sets the Holy Family against a deep blue background. The Christ child holds a pear that Fr. Iain says symbolizes creation and future suffering. As in all his drawings, every line, color and even space has meaning.
"I want to take traditional iconography that people are familiar with throughout the history of art and create something new," he says, "something familiar to us, something unique."