Peter Westmore: Can you tell me about yourself?
Tommy Canning: I grew up in the village in Lanockshire, just outside Glasgow. I was born in 1969, but my father died when I was just four, leaving my mother to raise five boys. Our upbringing was hard, as our mother had to work, but we were happy. The boys in the family had a passion for football [soccer] and drawing.
As a young boy, I grew up with cartoons, Star Wars, science fiction and fantasy. My brothers were talented at drawing, and I copied them. I wanted to be a creative artist, and was interested in superhero comics, as a means of communicating powerfully with others, and probably as an escape from the difficulties of the world.
I was artistically gifted and enjoyed literature, but couldn’t do mathematics. My passion for drawing led me to become an illustrator. After leaving school, I set up my own studio, and was published by a leading book publisher in Scotland.
Did your family come from Ireland originally?
Yes, my grandfather came from County Donegal. We grew up in an environment where there were strong religious divisions. Scotland was intensely anti-Catholic, as a consequence of the Reformation, with both the Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church shaping the religious character of the country and although those sentiments are not as strong today, they remain, even in a country where these sentiments have weakened. Catholics in Scotland are a minority.
Were there Catholic schools in Scotland?
Yes. I am a product of Catholic primary and secondary schools. But in the 1980s, there was almost no religious formation in secondary schools which was a characteristic of the religious crisis of the times. The Catholic faith I was taught was little more than social compassion and environmentalism. Like other young people, I was culturally Catholic, but had no understanding of what the Church believed, or why.
What influences helped you get through this religious crisis?
Part of it came from my family which was staunchly Catholic. But there was a compartmentalisation of religion which was what you did on Sundays, while the rest of the week was secular. I was a nominal Catholic.
What brought you back to the Catholic faith?
For me, the turning point came when my mother took me for a holiday to Rome when I was 19. It came at a time when I was experiencing deep dissatisfaction, and restlessness, with my life, of asking the big question: What am I doing here? There was a pervasive sense of fear about the future, and the imminence of nuclear war.
When I was in Rome, I had extraordinary experiences. Artistically, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s had an immense influence on me. I was stunned by the power of the paintings of Raphael and Michelangelo. Relics and other sacred objects had a profound effect on me. The grace of Confirmation was starting to take effect.
I realised that my faith was always there, but it needed a spark ... and that was it. I thought to myself, if such beauty can be found in a church, what must heaven be like? I was suddenly aware of what I had been deprived of, as I was exposed to the catechetical truth of the faith, through art.
What happened then?
I wanted to go into illustration, and I had work to do. With a new interest in my faith, I discovered contemporary revelation, particularly the Divine Mercy apparitions given to St Faustina Kowalska, and Padre Pio. I was also influenced by the message of Garabandal in the 1960s [where four visionaries saw Our Lady]. The fact that the Mother of God could have appeared on earth during my lifetime made my own faith come alive.
This occurred at the same time the secular world completely rejected the existence of the supernatural. It was also a time when many in the Church itself faced a crisis of belief.
I came to see that the gifts I had to paint and illustrate should be used to spread the truth of the faith. I was particularly inspired by the request which Jesus made to St Faustina, to have a painting made of him. So indirectly, I received the call which Jesus gave to St Faustina.
Your paintings are very contemporary … why?
My artistic works are the result of my own artistic development, and my own background as an illustrator. I have tried to wed the contemporary with the traditional. What I do in my painting is to convey orthodox Catholic beliefs in an appealing way, as was done in the film, The Passion of the Christ. I am very conscious of the fact that I am trying to speak to and engage with the contemporary world.
Recent popes, including Paul VI and Blessed John Paul II, specifically called for the development of new religious art, and the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, called for bishops to establish academies of sacred art. This has yet to be done!
Do you paint for yourself, or for others?
Both. My paintings express my own views, but they have a deeper meaning when they also speak to others. The commissions I have received reflect the need for new works of religious art, conveying Christian themes in a contemporary way.
What do you think of modernism in art, and postmodern art?
The modern art movement had the desire to destroy beauty. Thomas Aquinas said that the beautiful is that which, being seen, pleases. Beauty, of its nature, gives delight. Beauty is objectively present, it is not relative.
Traditional sacred art is clear, and it transforms and inspires, just as great art has always done. St Augustine once said, “Unity is the form of all beauty.” I want to inspire people through beauty, and that beauty is based on physical reality. Jesus Christ came and took human form so that he could lead us to the truth.
What do you think is the future of art?
I am convinced that the best is still to come. There is a rediscovery of representational art and a reaction against abstraction. Abstract art will pass away. There will be a renaissance, a rebirth of art, and a rediscovery of beauty and of traditional forms. There are bright spots in the world of art, and grace is all around us.
To see examples of Tommy Canning’s work, go to his web site. If you would like to commission a painting for your church, retreat house or home, email him on tommyartist42 @gmail. com
Tommy Canning is a contemporary classical artist who was in Australia late in 2013. Peter Westmore interviewed him for AD2000 at the Divine Mercy office in Camberwell, Victoria.