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Creating religious art in contemporary times

“Madonna of the Roses” is one of Robert Puschautz’s favorite paintings he has done. The artist views painting as inherently religious, saying that even his non-religious paintings all have an element of faith.
Photo Courtesy of Robert Puschautz

A lady in black with a child on her lap welcomes anyone entering Saint John Paul II Campus Ministry’s chapel. It is “Madonna of the Roses,” a painting of Mary with Jesus in her arms. Many things may come to the visitor’s mind when first encountering this scene, perhaps having traveled to some church in Europe or maybe that someone paid a lot of money to bring the artwork to Tyler, but the fact is that Madonna and her child are East Texan. 

Robert Puschautz, a Chicagoan artist who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting and Art Education in 2013 and 2010 respectively, and who now calls Tyler his home, is the author of “Madonna of the Roses,” the artwork of which he is the proudest of.

“I have a fondness for the Madonna of the Roses in particular because that was the first original painting that I did for a church. I had some major difficulties with that painting,” Puschautz said.

The child Jesus, the rocks and the roses all required Puschautz’s detailed attention. He worked from live models to give shape to each element. Moving in and out from his workplace at the Catholic Chancellery in Tyler with all the equipment to find the right models, the Tyler Rose Garden and the Children’s Park became a second studio for him. 

In this piece everything has an element of symbolism. In a video of the series “Theology on Canvas,” by St. Philip Institute, Puschautz described each of the elements of this artwork. The bush with roses behind Mary, the woman in black, was taken from an Old Testament’s reference to Mary. The baby Jesus’ clothes are meant to bring to mind his humble birth and the clothes that would wrap him after his death. The tree in the background refers to the resurrection of Christ. For Puschautz, a certain degree of knowledge about Theology is a fundamental tool to create deep and meaningful elements within the canvas in religious art.

Robert Puschautz was first inspired by the art inside of the churches he grew up around. Puschautz’s work can be found in cathedrals around Tyler, such as the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception.
Photo Courtesy of Robert Puschautz

“I think it it’s one of those paintings that I look at it, and I kind of wonder, you know, it doesn’t even feel like I did it, you know, because it just, it took so long, but I do think that there was there’s some really beautiful parts of that painting that I’m always very happy with,” Puschautz said.

Born and raised into a Catholic family, Puschautz’ first contact with art was the churches hidden among the streets of Chicago.

“It kind of immersed me in the kind of bigger questions of life, not from a kind of didactic way of teaching, but just kind of immersing someone in salvation history,” Puschautz said.

Puschautz’s home parish from childhood was St. John  

Berchmans Catholic Church. Its stained glass extending along the church caused a great impression in the young mind of the future artist. One particular example brought by Puschautz was a window portraying Noah’s ark and people drowning in the flood.

“Even as a little kid, you’re looking at this stuff, like, you know, 5, 6, 7-year-old and being like, ‘Why did God let everyone die?’ And then on the other side was, kind of mirroring each other, the New Covenant of Jesus and the Last Supper, and then his ascension into Heaven. So, there was, you know, something going on there where there was the Old Covenant and the New Covenant price established with Christ,” Puschautz said.

Puschautz divides his attention between painting and creating art for Catholic churches, teaching and helping other artists thrive. He is an art fellow for the Stabat Mater Foundation, a Catholic nonprofit organization created in 2008 aimed to help artists by providing a living wage that allows them to create art without the need to be dealing with financial stress.

“It initially just started as some people just praying for artists because they realized that that was a need, that artists were kind of at the forefront of the culture and they just needed prayers,” Puschautz said. “A couple of years ago, they decided to create a nonprofit and to start moving in a direction that was much more practical as well as continuing to pray for artists.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, arts and design occupations are projected to have a growth of 2% from 2021 to 2031, which is slower than the average. 

TJC offers an associate degree in arts, and students are aware of the work situation for artists after graduation. 

“There’s no website, you can go to like, Indeed, and look up art student jobs. There’s nothing like that, really. So, you have to do a lot of networking and that, especially for some art students who aren’t like maybe socially adept, like I’m kind of socially awkward sometimes. I have a hard time contacting people. It’s a lot of networking and a lot of putting yourself out there, which is really scary for some people,” Sadie Haverlock, TJC sophomore, said. 

Nonetheless, as Puschautz, students like Haverlock think it is worth it.

“I would much rather be doing something I love the rest of my life than anything else,” Haverlock said.

Stabat Mater fellow artists also hold the role of educating people about sacred art. They host workshops and now they have a marriage ministry. The foundation is also organizing summer camps for children to teach them Classical Art.

Stabat Mater is within the Diocese of Tyler but not funded by it.

Puschautz, having had experience teaching art before coming to Tyler, in recent years has designed an art program that he uses to teach his current student, Rachel Swasso. The program is based on the training he has received based on 19th Century French academy. The student learns from doing master copies, learning first to draw from them and then to paint. Then the student moves on to casts or plaster models of masterpieces.  

“It’s a very gradual process. It’s kind of painstaking, but I think once you go through it, you have the confidence to be able to draw or paint anything,” Puschautz said.

The art education curriculum Puschautz designed takes about three years to complete. Programs like this, Puschautz said, are not very common in the U.S.

“The closest thing to it is the, there’s a classical painting school called the Florence Academy of Art. It was set up as this private studio and the curriculum is very closely based on that. Now, I’ve made some adjustments for sure,” Puschautz said.

Puschautz’s work has not always been focused on religious art. His portfolio, which can be found at robertpuschautz.weebly.com, has a number of artworks with different art techniques and topics, although Puschautz said each piece has an element of his faith in it.

“A lot of the landscape painters were very deeply religious, they saw the landscape as a way to convey the glory of God and also, to imbue it with deeper meaning like that the creation itself was God’s handiwork,” Puschautz said.

Puschautz likes painting and admiring landscapes on canvas. He interprets them in the light of his faith. One example he gave are “these kind of like straggly branches, or broken down trees that are getting light,” for Puschautz suggests “a reflection on man’s broken nature, that can only be redeemed by the grace of God.”

In Tyler, Puschautz’s work can be found in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Saint John Paul II Campus Ministry, and in the Catholic Chancellery, both in Saint Joseph’s chapel and along the building. He also has artwork pieces in some retreat centers in Houston and printouts in Utah and California. He has recently finished a decorative painting project in Killeen, Texas.

Puschautz currently teaches in his art studio at the Catholic Chancellery of the Diocese of Tyler. Although he has limited space, students interested in classes can email him at robert@stabatmater.org.

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