John Kohan’s calling to sacred art began early: “Sacred art has been a lifelong preoccupation, judging from the earliest sketch of mine my mother saved. It is a pencil illustration of Jesus’ parable of “The Sower and the Seed”…drawn when I was a child of six or so.” Since age six, John has worked as a foreign correspondent to Russia, settled in Cyprus, and continually collected sacred art. He now lives most of the year in the US, and owns the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection and directs the Art in the Sanctuary exhibition program at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Delaware, Ohio. He wrote about the work of Sadao Watanabe in issue 74, and agreed to let our readers interview him about life immersed in sacred art.
What advice do you have for an art lover who wishes to begin a collection but has limited funds?
Think small. One delightful discovery in my early days of art collecting was the ex librisbookplate, an original print not measuring more than 6 x 5 inches, commissioned as an owner’s label for the inside of book covers. At a cost of no more than $100 you can acquire a beautiful etching, aquatint, woodcut, or wood engraving by a “listed” artist in a variety of styles. Erotica seems to be the subject of choice for many ex libris makers, but sacred subjects often turn up on book plates coming out of the former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe. Browsing through internet and ebay ex libris listings, you might be able to find the special piece you want to begin your art collection at a price you can afford.
You collect internationally, not just from the States. Can you talk about some examples of art from other places that does things that aren’t possible in a western idiom?
When international artists translate traditional themes of Western religious art into their own culture idiom, they give us a unique opportunity to see images that have become all too familiar to us in fresh and provocative ways. The stencil prints of Japanese Graphic Artist Sadao Watanabe, described in my Image article, are excellent examples of this kind of boundary-bending art. I can think of three other pieces in my collection, which also present time-honored sacred subjects in challenging, cross-cultural ways. Nicaraguan Artist Jose Ignacio Fletes Cruz has painted a Crucifixion scene coming out of the Liberation Theology movement, where a peasant Christ hangs on the Cross, while soldiers from the National Guard of Dictator Anastasio Somoza keep watch in U.S. military-issue camouflage outfits. Aboriginal Artist Madelene Purdie depicts the Stations of the Cross in a rough-textured painting made from ochre earth pigments in the traditional abstractive figurative style of the Kitja people of Northwestern Australia. Romanian Folk Artist Constanta Rodica explores an unusual genre of Eucharistic imagery in the reversed glass icon, Mystical Winepress, where Christ is depicted squeezing grapes into a chalice from a vine growing out of his side, which entwines around a cross-shaped trellis. You can find many more examples in my on-line art collection.
How do you know when you have to have a particular piece for your collection? Is it a head knowledge? Is it just intuitive? How does that decision work?
Planning three art shows a year and updating two websites give a very specific focus to my art collecting. I tend to look for art pieces representing themes I have in mind for future exhibitions or for internet essays and on-line meditations. I also keep an eye out for new works by artists already in my collection. Sometimes a piece with a theme of interest to me will introduce me to a new artist. Sometimes I discover themes, when the same subject keeps coming up in new acquisitions from my listed artists. Head knowledge, intuition, and a lot of divine inspiration have played a part in developing my art collection. When I decided a few months back to collect images of Pieta for a Lenten exhibition at my church, I began to find them everywhere: among vintage postcards, book plates, fine art prints, paintings, wood carvings, and bronze sculptures!
Your website, SacredArtPilgrim.com, includes wonderfully thoughtful commentary and background on the pieces in your collection. What do you hope comes of all this work?
I would like to see the visual arts better represented in places where we worship, either as artworks on permanent display, commissioned by faith communities from contemporary artists, or presented in changing exhibitions in church art galleries. My two websites have given me the chance to go viral with this message, and the response from internet “visitors” has been very encouraging. I often hear from artists, art collectors, clergy, and sacred art enthusiasts who share this vision and are doing what they can to develop programs in their local faith communities. We need to know who we are and encourage one another. My websites are a small part of a growing network of sacred art support groups.
Is sacred art different from other kinds of art in ways other than its subject matter? Do you make a distinction?
There is one distinctive dimension to sacred art, which I’ve come to appreciate in organizing exhibitions for the “Art in the Sanctuary” program at my local church. It is the role sacred art can play in the liturgical life of a faith community. We hang the artwork in the space where we worship. When people go up to the altar to take communion, they pass the pieces returning to their pews and will often stop to look at a particular work. While the exhibitions are going on, the art is mentioned in sermons and becomes the subject of discussion (and debate) in organized tours. You could say, it joins in the holy conversation that goes on every time we gather together to worship.