Sydney Catholic school students embraced a vivid theme inspired by St Francis of Assisi’s words at the 2016 Clancy Prize for Religious Art.
The exhibition is held at Australian Catholic University’s McGlade Gallery in Strathfield and captures the artistic talent of students in Years 7 to 12 within the Sydney Archdiocese.
This year’s theme, a quote for St Francis of Assisi inspired many collaborative and nature-themed works. “Be praised my Lord for the gift of life; for changing dusk and dawn; for touch and scent and song.”
Students collected their prizes at the opening night event on March 11. The awards’ first prize is named in honour of Cardinal Edward Clancy, second for exhibition co-founder Brian Jordon, and third for one of the prize judges Monsignor Tony Doherty.
St Mary’s Cathedral College Year 12 graduate Peter Liras, 18, took out the $2,000 Clancy Prize with his work What You Can’t Touch. The image, about 2.5 metres wide, was made up of thousands of individual fingerprints in black watercolour paint and charcoal smudges and reminiscent of clouds. Peter was both thrilled and surprised to receive the award.
“Being a religious exhibition, it connects to the theme just in the fact that early man would imagine that the heavens were built upon the clouds,” he said. “At at least one point in our lives we would have lay down on the grass and looked up, extended our arms to try and touch them but they were always out of reach.
“I wanted to do something with finger painting, and through the clouds that was how I found my connection. All of it is water colour with a smudge of charcoal, just little details, touch ups and adjustments. It was a very tedious and mundane process but the end result is really lovely.
“Because it is fingerprints it’s kind of like looking at a pixelated photo. If you stand back the image sort of compresses and a lot more of the details come out in that way.”
De La Salle Senior College Cronulla graduate Chris Koustabardis received the Brian Jordan Award for colourful painting The Market. The work was inspired by the work of socialist artist Renato Guttuso who was a case study for his written HSC Visual Arts exam and also fit well with the Franciscan theme.
“I noticed similarities between the two, how the canticle of St Francis was praising God and all of his creations and I thought that really epitomised this work. It’s really expressing God’s creation – not just the food and the flowers or the animals, but also the market itself as the creation of a place where people can experience culture.”
“I thought it was a really good theme. You could do so many things.”
Chris’ work also references art history including Caravaggio, Rembrandt’s hanging meat and Van Gough’s Sunflowers.
A second De La Salle graduate Brittany Livingstone won one of three ACU School of Education Awards for her landscape painting Lloyd’s Giornata. It was first sketched during a school pilgrimage to Italy in early 2015. Brittany completed the sketch of the same scene at both sunset and sunrise, experiencing the change of dusk and dawn referenced in the St Francis quote that was the theme for the exhibition.
“We went to San Gimignano and I was overwhelmed by the landscape – it was really beautiful,” she said. “The whole aspect of nature and capturing the morning light is present in the work.”
A collaborative work by a group of 17 Year 10 art students from Trinity Catholic College Auburn won the Executive Director’s Award of $1,000 to the school.
The Gift of Creation features sculpted figures of St Francis, humans and animals made from wire, cloth and stone-like materials.
“We were trying to show St Francis of Assisi together with people representing us and how we look up to him,” said Year 10 student Emily Dinh.
“We mostly used scrap material to represent the people who were mostly poor. We thought that they don’t have to be rich to be holy.”
Emily named kindness, holiness and equality between people and animals as the qualities that best represent the patron saint of animals, merchants and ecology.
“I thought the theme was quite good, quite creative, so we had to think hard about it and do a lot of research to find out what would represent St Francis of Assisi best. We put ourselves into it – we’re looking up to him.”
Other collaborative works that were awarded prizes included Within Our College Garden, painted by Domremy College Five Dock Year 7 students, and The Gift of Life by De La Salle College Ashfield Year 8 students.
Year 9 student Dean Betsos, 14, said the group used Google slides to brainstorm the content for six panels which represented St Francis’ words. The tiles were painted with bright colours and fired with a clear glaze.
“We found images that represented each part of the quote,” Dean said. “My favourite element is the one with the sunset because it has the colours that pop out and show warmth. All together it took about a month to create.”
The judges’ perspective
Judges including McGlade Gallery coordinator Lachlan Warner and art historian Rosemary Crumlin, a Sister of Mercy, were impressed with the quality of the works, including Peter Liras’ winning entry.
“The critical question, the first question, with art is ‘What can you see?’ not with your brain, with your heart,” Sr Crumlin said. “When I judge I walk around and hope that some painting will jump off the wall and say to me, like that one did, ‘Choose me’.
“Once you move away from it you keep on wanting to go back. That is why it won. It’s able to speak in a way that doesn’t have a closed meaning. It’s not a copy. It’s very risky. It’s like an open door.”
Of the Executive directors Prize winners, she said: “It’s a beautiful piece of sculpture. The figure in the centre is carved out of stone. What is important about the collaborative works is that people, a whole class, came together. They would have talked to each other about it and exchanged opinions about it. They look as though they had a bit of fun.”
Sr Crumlin described Brittany’s painting of a rolling Italian hillside as beautiful. “It’s what you’d see, except what the artist has done is to simplify the forms so it’s more real than real,” she said.
Fellow De La Salle graduate Chris’ work was also seen as clever. “It’s a clever painting because if you walked into a market you would walk into something deep, and he’s managed to get all of the detail in because he’s squashed up the space,” Sr Crumlin said. “It’s very observant.”
Lachlan Warner said he looked for how artworks were fabricated and the materials used when judging.
“The great thing is there are so many different ways of approaching materiality in the work,” he said. “The one we gave the Executive Director’s Award to is really simple. It uses simple cloth, and wrapping it around the figures makes a beautiful statement about the simplicity of Assisi and his followers. Hebel is a cheap building material which carves really well – and they’ve used it to give a sense of skin quality in the figure of what I interpreted as St Francis.”
Mr Warner said the joyousness of the theme made for many interesting works. “A lot of religious imagery is necessarily for want of a better word sad, and there is something incredibly joyous, flexible and open about St Francis’ saying,” he said. “It can be interpreted 101 different ways but all of them are, I think, enriching and very visual. When you talk of dawn and dusk – there’s visual straight away. It makes for that kind of openness of expression.
“I’m always very pleasantly surprised in the unwrapping. It’s daunting because sometimes you think how do we get this on the wall and make it look its best. That’s very tricky with so many artworks. There’s a lot involved in giving every piece its moment.”
The 2017 Clancy Prize theme will be a quote from Pope Francis: “A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just.”
Art for change
Sydney Catholic Schools donated $1500 to the school and artworks painted by students in Ranong were sold for $25 during the Clancy Prize awards ceremony to continue the fundraising efforts.
Coordinator of the ACU Thai Burma refugee program Maya Cranitch said 90 per cent of refugee children who live in the border town, where fish and coal factories and poverty are the norm, don’t attend school past the age of 12.
She delivered art supplied to the school in December, and students drew what they saw around them for the project.
“They don’t have an art program as such,” she said. “I had a meeting with the teachers and said let them go and draw what’s in their environment – boats or the houses they live in – to give a sense of the atmosphere of the world they live in. They produced these beautiful pieces of work.”
ACU’s Diploma in Liberal Studies program began in Ranong in 2009. It is taught in partnership with Canada’s York University through a combination of online and face-to-face lessons, and gives bright young refugees access to internationally recognised qualifications in higher education.