“Gold” traces McNichols’ surprising art – and life
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.
Father William Hart McNichols painted St. Joseph with Jesus as a child in one of his betterknown religious icon works.
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.