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'An Avenue of Evangelization'

'An Avenue of Evangelization'

How One Artist Uses Her God-Given Talent

“When we take the time to really look, there is much to see,” says artist Mary Kerr, parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi University Parish in Tuscaloosa. “God has gifted us with many visual wonders.”

Kerr has spent her life capturing those “visual wonders.” As the oldest of seven children growing up in Meridian, Mississippi, she always found the time to draw and to paint. Her love of art was ever-present. After graduating from high school, Kerr’s mother encouraged her to “go to school for art.” “We didn't have a lot of money,” she remembers. “Going to college was not something I ever dreamed I would be able to do.”

Kerr’s mother suggested that her daughter get a teaching certification, but Kerr wanted nothing to do with teaching. “No, I will never teach,” she recollects telling her mother emphatically.

Ironically, in her effort to complete her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Kerr met her future husband, Gary, in a summer printmaking class at the University of Alabama. After they were married, he began his career as an art teacher: she wasn’t too far behind, obtaining her teaching certification followed by a master’s degree then a doctorate in education.

Most of her 32 years of teaching art were centered around 7th-, 8th-, and 9th-grade students. “I loved that age group,” she recalls. “I loved their enthusiasm!” The students’ excitement and desire to learn was infectious. “The fact that they wanted to learn made me enthusiastic…. I was inspired by what they did.”

One could argue that the enthusiasm of Kerr’s students derived from a young person’s readiness to “really look.” “I think art helps you see beyond utility and embrace what is seen,” she says. “A work of art enables someone to enjoy the visual aspects of something and to spend time contemplating it.”

“Art has been used since the beginning of time,” Kerr asserts, “to express human experience and aspirations for beauty.” Kerr believes an artist using their “visual language” to manipulate certain elements, such as subject matter, medium, and skill, can create a “harmony of expression” which “causes” a person to take the time to look and contemplate.

In terms of sacred art, Kerr explains: “Sacred art offers an objective representation of some aspect of faith and speaks to our senses. It offers our eyes and ears a portal for experiencing the spiritual. It illuminates the story of our faith and gives meaning. It takes us out of ourselves and into the realm of the Divine. It teaches and inspires. It leads us to prayer and contemplation. It speaks to our soul….In this way, the work becomes an avenue of evangelization.”

Kerr has created more than one avenue of evangelization at her parish. Back in 1990, Father Ray Dunmyer, then pastor of St. Francis, asked Kerr to make a Christmas card for the parish. Every year since, she has created the parish’s Christmas card with subject matter ranging from the manger scene to the Madonna and Child.

Her mark goes beyond cards, however. When the parish was in the process of building a new church, Kerr approached Father Gerald Holloway, who was the pastor at the time, about creating an oil painting on panel for the new structure. Father Holloway requested an image of the parish’s patron, St. Francis of Assisi.

Making sure to honor her belief that art can be a means of evangelization, Kerr began researching the saint. She learned as much as she could, even going so far as to make by hand a garment similar to one attributed to St. Francis for her model, fellow parishioner and lay Franciscan Harley Sullivan, to wear. Her grandson researched Italy’s native birds and animals, her husband was a stand-in model, and the parish’s deacon, Bill Remmert, made the panel and frame for the painting. Within three months, Kerr completed the larger-than-life painting for the new church’s dedication.

When the current pastor, Father Thomas Ackerman, arrived at the parish, Kerr created yet another avenue of evangelization. A non-religious, abstract piece of art was displayed at a main entrance of the church. “It bothered me that it was not a religious image,” she remembers. “It needed to be sacred art.” Father Ackerman suggested the Blessed Mother with the infant Jesus. Again, she delved into the project. She got her niece and her niece’s child to be the models and made the robe for her niece to wear. Kerr even got her brother involved. He had recently been to the Holy Land, so she used one of his photographs as inspiration for the background.

“Every painting is a new experience: a new beginning,” says Kerr. For the artist as well as the non-artist, sacred art, whether it be a painting, photograph, or piece of music, creates a so-called “new beginning.” A new beginning on our journey to love God deeper.