Piercing the Mystery of art and faith: a look at visual artists in the YDS community

By Kelsey Dallas ’14 M.A.R.

With a bachelor's degree from Rhode Island School of Design under his belt, Joshua Sullivan '16 M.Div. planned to continue his study of landscape painting and pursue a Master of Fine Arts. His plans were complicated, however, by the increasing influence spirituality seemed to be having on his work. "Christianity began to appear in my art at a time when I was questioning the importance of painting at all," he said. "Around the same time, I had this crazy idea to become a pastor, though I wasn't particularly religious." 

Painting by Sullivan

"Two trees with boat and breast" 48"x38" oil on canvas 2012 | Joshua Sullivan '16 M.Div.

After reconnecting with the Lutheran Church of his childhood, Sullivan decided to apply to YDS as well as a few MFA programs. When acceptances came back in both areas, he found himself at a crossroads, but his newfound grounding in theology led him to New Haven.

As home to students with diverse vocations and faith traditions, it should come as no surprise that Yale Divinity School hosts a flourishing community of visual artists. These creators, including painters, printmakers, photographers, sculptors and filmmakers, are bridging the gap between art and faith and making surprising connections along the way.

Now well into his first semester at YDS, Sullivan continues to think about how his art will play a role in his life at seminary. "Everything with a sense of purpose and presence can be construed as art," Sullivan explained. "But most of the art being made is meaningless when it's taken out of the context it was created in…My new art practice will be being a pastor, and the chance of becoming a meaningful pastor and helping the church that is in decline is so possible." 

>View some of Joshua's work


Timothy Cahill '15 M.A.R., Religion and the Arts, ISM

Timothy Cahill comes to YDS after many years of work in the world of visual art. From serving as an art critic for The Christian Science Monitor to founding and directing a nonprofit initiative dedicated to the integration of art, culture, and humanitarian awareness, he has never stopped thinking about the influence art has on other spheres of life.

Growing up in the Catholic Church, Cahill considers Sunday mass to be his first formative aesthetic experience. "It is amazing how deep those [religious] roots go into a kind of nexus of the spiritual and the aesthetic," he said.

Cahill found YDS and the Institute of Sacred Music at a time when he felt his work with The Center for Documentary Arts called for a higher engagement with both art history and theology. He detailed his application process, saying, "When I found the description of the ISM program, it was as if I had written it for myself."

He celebrates this new chapter of his life, highlighting the importance of the divinity school environment in his search for further intersections between art and spirituality, and art and the sacred. "In a divinity school, you meet people who have a feeling for piercing this Mystery, piercing the veil," he explained. "That's not guaranteed in a secular academic community."


Jeanmarie Santopartre '16 M.Div.

Jean Santopartre describes her interest in photography as a matter of recognizing where her talents did not lie. "I couldn't paint so I picked up a camera," she said with a smile.

Santopartre enrolled at YDS after over two decades as a photojournalist in the newspaper industry and eleven more spent at Fairfield University in Bridgeport, where she also had the opportunity to teach.

Her new adventure as a seminary student came as a bit of a surprise, although she notes how exposure to Ignatian spirituality at Fairfield has been impacting her photography for years. "I started to capture the spirit of people in sacred settings," she described. "This didn't exclude everyday life. I started to see God in all things."

Though Santopartre is still uncertain where her divinity school journey will take her, she is certainly enjoying the ride. She said, "I think that I, as an artist, as a photographer, feel the energy of this place. In looking at campus and the people, I experience an incredible energy. It's really something special, a place I never thought could exist."

>View some of Jeanmarie's photography


Katie Cadigan, '14 M.Div., Berkeley, ISM

Though she comes from a family of Episcopal clergy, Katie Cadigan was never very religious. It wasn't until her twenties that she began to explore her spirituality, and even then she was much more comfortable in the realm of Buddhism and guided meditation. Instead, Cadigan came alive in the world of documentary film, finding fulfillment in tracing people's lives from moments of great despair to places of healing.

As her film repertoire grew, though, so did her interest in church. Missing the hymns of her childhood, she would sneak into the back pew on Sunday morning but be home in time to share bagels with her husband. After discovering the powerful ministry of a female rector in Los Angeles, however, Cadigan began to grow in faith in the Episcopalian church of her youth. She continued to focus on her documentaries, but dedicated ten to fifteen hours each week to serving the church.

Now a third year student, Cadigan continues to be amazed by the way the Spirit has moved in her life. "I came in knowing that I wanted to be bi-vocational," she said, adding, "I didn't want to give up film, but to be ordained meant to offer a fuller, more empowered, ministry."

Cadigan holds up the school's entrepreneurial spirit as the reason so many different types of people inhabit its campus. She thinks artists especially can appreciate the way YDS brings together an endless amount of ways to see the world. She said, "I think that an artist specializes in making connections between things that others may not naturally see. This is a place that allows that."

>View the trailer for Katie's most recent film

Date Posted: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 - 1:13pm