Canadian Author McKenzie Discusses Spirituality and Art at Annual Nouwen Lecture

Guest speaker Stephanie McKenzie with V.P. of Mission and Catholic Identity Michael W. Higgins

News Story: March 26, 2015

How do the great 19th-century post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh and lesser-known 20th-century Canadian artist Emily Carr compare, and how have they captured humanism in their artwork? Stephanie McKenzie, a Canadian professor, researcher and writer, visited Sacred Heart University recently to explore that subject matter in a talk titled “Spirituality & Art.” McKenzie was the featured 2015 Henri J.M. Nouwen Lecturer.

Born and raised in British Colombia but now a Newfoundlander, McKenzie holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Toronto, is an associate professor of English at Memorial University and is the international and national artistic director of The March Hare, Atlantic Canada’s largest literary festival. Related to her SHU talk, which was the University’s Fifth Annual Nouwen Lecture, she is also the author of Saviours in This Little Space for Now, which focuses on Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Carr (1871-1945) and their similar spiritual yearnings and frustrations with societies that did not understand them. In this poetry work, McKenzie argues that true salvation can be found in the greatest paintings and creations of our time.

Michael W. Higgins, vice president for Mission and Catholic Identity at SHU, as well as a fellow Ph.D. and Canadian, who came to Sacred Heart from New Brunswick, eloquently introduced McKenzie. By coincidence – and Higgins swears it – four of the last five Nouwen lecturers have been Canadian. To kick off the talk, Higgins asked, “What does it mean to be generally human?” and added, “Art speaks to that, as does spirituality.”

McKenzie’s appearance was highly appropriate as a Nouwen lecture highlight given that Nouwen (1932-1996), a Dutch-born Catholic priest, professor and writer, was rooted primarily in psychology, pastoral ministry, spirituality, social justice and community and heavily influenced, in part, by the work of Van Gogh. On one occasion in 1977, Nouwen said during a lecture on the great painter, “We do not want to come out of the course as people who know everything about Van Gogh but as people who caught a glimpse of the Truth.”

Though Van Gogh produced about 900 paintings and 1,100 works on paper, his first love was preaching, working first as a missionary in a mining region in Belgium. “When I was standing in the pulpit, I felt like somebody who, emerging from a dark cave underground, comes back to the friendly daylight. It is a delightful thought that in the future wherever I go, I shall preach the Gospel,” he wrote in October 1876.

But the young man was too overzealous for that area and was let go by the church. “He lost his congregation but never put the pulpit down, and he turned to painting at his brother Theo’s suggestion,” said McKenzie. His works reflected his acute sense of loss and alienation as a consequence of his exclusion from the pulpit and sense of isolation while exploring the human condition, particularly human suffering, exemplified by works like “Head of a Peasant Woman with White Cap.”

“Carr was also plagued by loneliness and isolation, separated from people with whom she might share her beliefs,” observed McKenzie. “She would join her sister, Lizzie, at a mission and begin sketching international peoples. She was broken-hearted in a lot of ways and didn’t receive the appreciation she felt she was due. Not until 1926 (when she was 55) did she start to get some.”

In 1937, Carr had a heart attack and switched gears to writing as she couldn’t make the global forays that had inspired her painting.

Drawing more parallels between Carr and Van Gogh, McKenzie cited that each suffered mental breakdowns – Carr spent 18 months in a sanitarium at one stage – both were able to create despite their suffering, and they both incorporated a sense of spirituality into their works.

“I think great art carries a property to heal, so has a palliative property,” concluded McKenzie reflecting on her research and echoing Nouwen’s viewpoint.