“Gold” traces McNi­chols’ sur­pris­ing art – and life

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By John Wen­zel

Since he was 5 years old, Wil­liam Hart McNi­chols has heard a di­vine call­ing to bring light to the dark­ness.

For most of his life, the son of for­mer Colorado Gov. Stephen McNi­chols has been do­ing that by draw­ing, paint­ing and oth­er­wise chan­nel­ing his strik­ing take on Chris­tian icons into homes, churches and gal­leries around the world, in­clud­ing the Vat­i­can Mu­seum.

But the 67-year-old, openly gay Catholic priest, whom Time mag­a­zine once called “among the most fa­mous cre­ators of Chris­tian iconic im­ages in the world,” has re­peat­edly re­buffed of­fers to make a doc­u­men­tary about his work and his life, which has in­cluded au­di­ences with ev­ery­one from John F. Kennedy to Pope John Paul II. At least un­til 2012. “I didn’t want to do a film about me be­cause I thought the icons were the most in­ter­est­ing or last­ing or help­ful thing that I could give to peo­ple,” McNi­chols said over the phone this week from Al­bu­querque, where he lives and min­is­ters at St. Joseph on the Rio Grande. “And there’s a lot of ar­gu­ment and trou­ble in the church, so I didn’t want to add to that.”

McNi­chols’ pro­gres­sive ac­tivism has put him at odds with much of staid Catholi­cism over the decades. He be­came an early pi­o­neer for LGBT rights in the Catholic Church while work­ing with the AIDS Hospice team of St. Vin­cent’s Hospi­tal in Man­hat­tan from 1983 to 1990 (dur­ing which time he also man­aged to il­lus­trate 25 chil­dren’s books for Paulist Press).

Af­ter the Bos­ton Globe broke the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scan­dal in 2002, McNi­chols spoke out about the dan­ger and slan­der of cat­e­go­riz­ing gay men and gay pri­ests as pe­dophiles. This ul­ti­mately led to him leav­ing his family of 35 years, the Je­suit or­der. He re­mains a priest with the per­mis­sion of his arch­bishop.

McNi­chols has mostly lived

and worked in New Mex­ico since then, paint­ing hun­dreds of lush, somber, wide-eyed Chris­tian icons for pub­lic and pri­vate use — none of them signed. His com­mis­sions are non­stop, and he strug­gles to keep up with the re­quests.

“When I had my heart col­lapse and nearly died in 2012... that was what re­ally made me re­al­ize, ‘What haven’t I done yet?’ And I had met (di­rec­tor) Chris Summa in New York, so when he called me in De­cem­ber 2014 and said he was go­ing to film my icons whether I wanted to be in­volved or not, I thought, ‘This is pretty strong, and I trust that Chris will do it in the right way.’ “

Like McNi­chols’ paint­ings, Summa’s film of­fers a se­ries of por­traits that drip with star­tling in­ti­macy as they ex­am­ine the many lives McNi­chols has lived in (and out­side of ) his art. Filmed mostly in Colorado and con­clud­ing at Our Lady of Loreto Catholic Par­ish in Aurora, “The Boy Who Found Gold” has been mak­ing the rounds at film festivals and will be avail­able on video-on-de­mand (in­clud­ing Ama­zon and Vimeo) on Dec. 16.

Q: A lot of our read­ers have prob­a­bly seen your work and not re­al­ized it. Where are some of your pieces in Colorado?

A: St. An­thony’s Hospi­tal has one of St. An­thony feed­ing the sick. Our Lady of Loreto has an 8-foot cross hang­ing in their church. That’s prob­a­bly one of the big­gest things I’ve ever done and I poured ev­ery­thing into that. The Shrine of St. Anne in Ar­vada has one, and the Risen Christ Par­ish on Monaco Park­way has two. There’s one at the the­o­log­i­cal sem­i­nary at St. John Vian­ney.

Q: Art critic and BBC per­son­al­ity Sis­ter Wendy Beck­ett has said you have “such a gift, in a way a very costly gift, but at the same time a sanc­ti­fy­ing gift.” What do you make of that?

A: It takes a lot to go inside, close your door and just work ev­ery sin­gle night. To phys­i­cally de­vote your­self to one thing like that in­stead of go­ing out and vis­it­ing peo­ple. There’s a cost to giv­ing your life to art. I can’t be a full-time priest be­cause the icons are so im­por­tant to me. It’s hard to be­lieve in that — that my art is go­ing to help peo­ple.

Q: How does this new doc­u­men­tary il­lu­mi­nate what you do?

A: All through my life I have been in love with Chris­tian sym­bol­ism. You see them in the win­dows at churches, es­pe­cially in the cathe­dral in Den­ver (the Cathe­dral Basil­ica of the Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion). I used to look at those win­dows all the time. You’d see St. Am­brose hold­ing a bee hive, and St. Au­gus­tine with a lit­tle child and a shell. Ev­ery saint has their sym­bols. For some rea­son God gave me a de­sire to speak through art, be­cause I’m very vis­ual. The whole pur­pose of an icon is to make that be­ing present, and Chris did that by fo­cus­ing on cer­tain mes­sages he found in my work — like bring­ing hope in the midst of dark­ness, be­cause we are in a very dark time, and peo­ple are feel­ing it. I want to give them hope, and some­thing beau­ti­ful.

Pro­vided by Christo­pher Summa

Fa­ther Wil­liam Hart McNi­chols painted St. Joseph with Je­sus as a child in one of his bet­ter­known re­li­gious icon works.

Pro­vided by Christo­pher Summa

Fa­ther Wil­liam Hart McNi­chols, a renowned Chris­tian artist, poses in the desert in New Mex­ico, a state where he cur­rently works and min­is­ters af­ter liv­ing in Colorado and New York over the years.

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