On a mission from God: Catholic Art. An Interview Daniel Paul Mitsui

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Daniel Paul Mitsui

This month, we’re starting a new series on Catholic Art, Artistry, Artisan. Kicking off is a young artist. He has a very unique style and has just recently published his second coloring book.

The Cathwalker: Please introduce yourself. Who are you?

Daniel Paul Mitsui: My name is Daniel Paul Mitsui. I was born in Georgia, USA, in 1982 and raised in Illinois. I have lived most of my life in or near Chicago. I am a Roman Catholic layman, married since 2008 to my wife Michelle, who is a classical singer and choir director. We have four children: sons Benedict and Victor, daughters Alma and Lux. I support my family through my work as an artist; ink drawings based on medieval religious art are my specialty.

The Cathwalker: What is the place of Catholic Religion in your life, what is your relationship with the Catholic Church and how was this relationhip built?

I am a convert in the sense that I was not baptized, and did not regularly attend Mass, until I was an adult. However, I did not really convert from anything; I was never an unbeliever, a Protestant or an adherent of a different religion. From my earliest memories, I always had faith and thought of myself as a Catholic. I do not have a natural explanation for why that was so.

I resisted my religious impulse during my young adulthood, but eventually had to admit to myself that I could not remain indifferent; I contacted a priest (I was attending Dartmouth College at the time) and went through the RCIA program at the student center. I was baptized and confirmed, and received my first communion, at the Easter Vigil in 2004, shortly before graduation.

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The Cathwalker: How did you discover and develop your artistic potential?

I have always drawn very detailed pictures, even as a young child. My fascination with anything resembling medieval art began also in childhood: I loved Lego castles, heraldry, and picture books resembling illuminated manuscripts. At the age of fourteen, I first encountered reproductions of the Lindisfarne Gospels. These made an especially strong impression.

I dabbled in other artistic idioms during those years when I received most of my formal training: I drew, painted and made prints based on the Surrealist art of Max Ernst, and for several years I considered a career as a comic strip artist or film animator. But at the age of 22, having been baptized into the Catholic Church and embracing its practice, I was ready to return to my artistic roots as well.

The art called Gothic is to my mind the most perfect religious art, and it is the basis of my own work. Suger of St. Denis (an early patron and theorist of Gothic art), Hugh of St. Victor and Hildegard of Bingen are major intellectual influences; their ideas are derived largely from Dionysius and Augustine.

Gothic art, in its presentation of time, space and light, reflects traditional metaphysical ideas; this is why it does not employ linear perspective, cast shadows or blank space. It rather attempts to show the world from a heavenly outlook. Another of its most important characteristics is symbolism; its artists believed, in the words of Honor of Autun, that every creature is a shadow of truth and life. The events of the Old Testament, animals and plants, celestial bodies, even numbers are full of mystical significance and teach about the Holy Gospel.

I favor 14th and 15th century works of art for visual inspiration: millefleur tapestries, the oil paintings of Jan van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch, the engravings of Martin Schongauer. My favorite illuminated manuscripts include the Sherborne Missal and the Wenceslas Bible, and the works of Jean Pucelle and of Jacquemart de Hesdin. I admire blockbooks, and the printed Books of Hours produced by the partnership of Simon Vostre and Philippe Pigouchet.

I have learned much from William Morris and Eyvind Earle, later artists who understood aspects of Gothic art very well. The scholarship of the art historian Emile Mâle has been invaluable to me. I also have a strong interest in Northumbro-Irish art; in Japanese woodblock prints; and in Persian miniature painting and ornamental calligraphy.

The Cathwalker: How do you work?

My preference is to draw in pigment-based inks, on calfskin vellum. My usual tools for this are metal-tipped dip pens, paintbrushes and a knife. I work both in black and white and in color. Sometimes I add illuminated details with gold and palladium leaf.

I have several drawings in progress at a time, at different stages of completion. I usually carry one on my person, along with a small art kit, so I am used to drawing in different places and in minutes of spare time.

I do a good amount of research before beginning a drawing, but I do not belabor questions of composition; the answers come to me quickly. I prefer not to make rough drafts, but to start work right away; I think this makes for a more lively drawing. In recent years, I have been designing typefaces and patterns for damasks, carpets, tiles and architectural ornaments; these I trace into other compositions.

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The Cathwalker: Should your artistry be considered „Catholic Art“?

Yes, because I am participating in a tradition. The Catholic religion is traditional. It contends that the Apostles received a definite Revelation; their witness was preserved in a law of worship that establishes the law of belief. This idea affects every aspect of Catholic life, including art. The conviction of Catholic artists, at least through the Middle Ages, was that they were preserving something ancient; this was expressed at the Second Council of Nicea: The composition of religious imagery is not the painter’s invention, but is approved by the law and tradition of the Catholic Church. The tradition does not belong to the painter; the art alone is his. True arrangement and disposition belong to the holy fathers who established it.

Of course, there is development in Catholic art over time. St. Vincent of Lerins says that authentic development of tradition is like the growth of a body; it looks different in maturity than in infancy, but it has all the same parts. When I draw a scene from the Gospels, I study depictions of the same scene in the work of ancient and medieval Catholic artists. I look for compositions that endure, and perpetuate them. Whenever the art historical record is missing or confused, I look to liturgical and patristic sources for guidance.

In the art called Gothic, the traditions are vigorously presented, and the theological and liturgical order is obvious. Yet Gothic art does not look like anything that came before it; it is both creative and faithful. It is astonishing how quickly its makers mastered new technologies and new media, how boldy they developed its traditions, how quickly their influence spread among the Catholic nations. I do not think of Gothic as a mere historic style characteristic of a certain time and place; rather, I think of it as the best example of an art made according to Catholic principles  that are always and everywhere true.

The Cathwalker: What are the main goals you’d like to achieve in your work?

My long-term ambition is to draw an iconographic summary of the major events of the Creation and Fall, the Gospels, the lives of the Apostles and the Apocalypse (and including, by association, the prophecies and prefigurements of the Old Testament). This would be realized as color drawings on calfskin, prepared in such a way that letterpress prints could be made of them as well. I might complete this in ten years.

For this, I have a list of forty projects, some of them single drawings, other comprising a dozen or more. As an example, the ninth project is the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. When I undertake this drawing, I want every detail significant: the composition determined by tradition and scripture; the patristic commentaries on the event given visual expression; the associated events like the creation of Adam, the temptation of Eve and the miracle of Gideon’s fleece included; the place and the time (day, month, season, age of the world) indicated by plants and animals and the position of the heavenly bodies; the traditional bestiary symbolism woven into fabric patterns; the figures of Mary and Gabriel consistent in their appearance, clothing and halos with the other projects.

To prepare myself for this ambitious undertaking, I plan to refine my technical skills where necessary, to read or reread many relevant books (including the Bible, liturgical texts, art historical studies and medieval commentaries), and to study many important works of medieval art.

In the course of my research, I expect to collect enough information to write an iconographic manual that explains in detail the pictures and their symbolism. I hope that this will instruct and inspire other artists.

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The Cathalker: What would you recommend young people?

I would advise an aspiring artist to choose his medium wisely. The question to ask is not: What kind of art do I admire and want to imitate?  but rather: What am I particularly capable of doing, and which medium allows me to use that to the best advantage? I would advise him to spend time making art five or six days a week, even if he is working another job. If he is especially interested in making religious art, I would advise him to be prepared to do his own research, a lot of it.

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www.danielmitsui.com

The Mysteries of the Rosary: An Adult Coloring Book
Ave Maria Press
ISBN: 978-1-59471-584-6
The Saints: An Adult Coloring Book
Ave Maria Press
ISBN: 978-1-59471-724-6