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The Catholic liturgy is the only play wherein symbols actually become the things they symbolize. It sets the (unobtainable) ideal for dramatic art, indeed for all true art, which is art that aspires to be incarnational. Catholic artists thus possess a special vocation, both within the Church and among other artists, because of their intimacy with the True Presence of Christ. But, at least in America, the wider culture has little tolerance for art that is unabashedly Catholic, leaving Catholic artists with fewer resources, a smaller audience, and fewer opportunities for fellowship and collaboration with like-minded artists. There is an urgent need for new grassroots institutions in the Church that feed the soul through the creation and enjoyment of art.

One such endeavor is Arthouse2B, a Catholic artist collective and ministry founded in 2020 by Erin K. McAtee and Claire Kretzschmar as an answer to the pandemic’s devastation of the arts. This collective platforms New York artists whose work wouldn’t otherwise be seen by fellow Catholics. These events—museum tours, curated exhibitions and performances, community meals, makers markets, and even a Mass for Artists—provide a necessary space for Catholic artists to collaborate, nourishing their faith and honing their craft in community. 

The collective’s emphasis on collaboration across media was displayed in the June performance of Ruah: Breath of Life at Harlem’s Church of the Annunciation. Directed by McAtee, Ruah juxtaposed three different performances: First, Fr. Joseph Michael Fino, C.F.R., gave a reading of original poetry; second, Kretzschmar danced to St. Hildegard von Bingen’s “O ignis Spiritus paracliti,” played by harpist Christa Dalmazio; and third, James and Karina Majewski performed a one-act play they had written, meditating on the moment “the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth: and breathed into his face the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). Each performance was staged alongside three unique textile works by McAtee. 

The poems of Fr. Joseph Michael, who serves as chaplain to the Arthouse2B community, are meditations on vocation, virginity, and the intimacy of the Eucharist. Standing adjacent to Erin’s In Persona Christi (2023), an abstract depiction of a vestment stained by Christ’s bloody embrace, his poem “Choices” was fitting: “On the back of my white door / A high hook. / Two habits are hanging there / Desiring a body / I think of You.” After the performance, Fr. Joseph spoke to me about the vulnerability of reading such personal work, especially in front of people he shepherds: “Reading poems is more like you’re proposing of yourself to people who may or may not want to hear it, and the benefit of entering these friendships is that they brought this out of me, and they asked me to share. I didn’t have this conviction.”

Claire Kretzschmar, a ballet dancer and former soloist with the New York City Ballet, was staged with McAtee’s Fiat Mihi, a wall-sized tulle tapestry depicting the blood stains of Christ’s burial shroud. During her dance, Kretzschmar entwined herself in the tapestry, its material familiar as that of a ballerina’s tutu, and spun and leapt, as if into the imprinted wounds. But before she began her dance, she waited in stillness for a prompting of the Spirit. “I was indeed waiting, like in the silence of a prayer, for the Holy Spirit to inspire my movement,” she told me. “I intentionally structured the dance to include improvisation, so in the moments of silence—particularly in the beginning—I let God fill me up with ideas for the movements, and I then poured out what God had given to me.” Dalmazio’s harp performance accompanied her movements. To prepare their performance, Kretzschmar and Dalmazio studied McAtee’s installation together and selected the chant they felt best evoked its meaning. The process, of course, centered prayer. “We both focused on prayer to the Holy Spirit to breathe through us in order to bring the beauty of this music to unite with Erin's artwork,” said Dalmazio.

James and Karina Majewski’s one-act play incorporated McAtee’s painting Theotokos, which depicts the mother of Jesus as an almost primordial silhouette on a large bedsheet. The play begins with the recognition that the presence of God can be frightening. “A ghost,” says James. “A ghoul,” says Karina. “A specter.” “A spirit.” “An icon.” “An idol.” Soliloquies spin off from the initial dialogue, and it’s often unclear (intentionally) whether the characters are speaking to themselves, each other, God, or the void. The core theme, however, is the fraught relationship between divine and human creativity. “I was fascinated by the relationship between artistry and idolatry,” James told me. “Someone had to make the golden calf—and yet God calls us to cooperate in His act of creation.”

In the most striking scene of the play, James and Karina produce violent exhalations, as if recapitulating God’s breathing into us. As a married couple, their chemistry on stage is sacramental—fittingly, given the Edenic context. “Even though I am primarily the writer and he is primarily the director,” said Karina, “our process is very collaborative, enmeshed, intertwined—because of our two-become-one-ness. We depend on one another, and trust one another, in a way unlike other professional relationships.”

To an extent, all artistic collaboration is sacramental, even echoing the generative unity of matrimony. Shared vision cannot be achieved without a mutual abandonment of self. This is true also of the ideal relationship between artist and audience: The spectator’s subjectivity participates with the artist’s objective work in co-creating the experience of the art.

It was only fitting, then, that after the show, performers and attendees communed over monastic beers in the courtyard behind the church. What began as largely individual experiences of the performances ended in fellowship, a deepening of the bonds of community, in a kind of recapitulation of the liturgy’s interplay of private and corporate. It is my hope that many more such collectives will spring up, following Arthouse2B’s lead.

Cindy Hernandez Mathis is a decorative arts historian and writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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Image by Kimberly Reid via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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