By Carla Morris
Inspiration sometimes comes through the humblest means. For iconographer Kelly Latimore ’09, it came by way of a few words spoken around a campfire. The result—a painting entitled Refugees: La Sagrada Familia—now graces the cover of a new book, A Stranger and You Welcomed Me, by Pope Francis.
“The head editor of Orbis Books saw the image on Twitter, of all places,” says Latimore, “and reached out to me soon after, to ask permission to use it for the pope’s book.”
Dangerous Journey Then and Now
It was nearly two years ago when Latimore used acrylic and gold leaf on basswood to capture a refugee family on the move in a modern re-imagining of the holy family’s flight to Egypt.
“Without going into great detail, much of the inspiration for the image came about while sitting around a campfire,” says Latimore. There, he listened as a young man told about his journey to the U.S.
“His stories about his journey through the desert and the reasons he was in the United States—[his stories] about the fear and pain he carried, yet also all his hope—impacted me deeply.”
“Deep” describes the impact of Refugees: La Sagrada Familia too. Writers and bloggers have used it to illustrate ideas like creed in action, love, the plight of children and protection for the refugee whose homeland resembles “the mouth of a shark and the barrel of a gun.”
Print and digital publications continue to feature it on their pages and websites. Social media users including death penalty opponent and author of Dead Man Walking Sister Helen Prejean continue to share it widely. Representatives from Orbis Books say it is their most requested piece of artwork.
“The icons I want to paint are the kind of images that will create dialogue and inspire us to ask questions within ourselves and to our neighbors,” says Latimore.
With Refugees: La Sagrada Familia, he has succeeded.
Relevant Dialogue, Gripping Gospel
Just as traditional icons inspired reflection in their times, Latimore finds inspiration in the people, stories and images that surround him now.
“Kelly’s iconography displays the peculiar richness of the gospel,” says Assistant Professor of Theology Ben Wayman, Andrews Chair of Christian Unity at Greenville University where Latimore studied art and religion.
“In his gripping image of a modern-day immigrant family, he reminds us that the holy family once sought refuge in Egypt to escape the raging violence of Herod,” says Wayman. “Kelly’s art is an invitation to all Christians to become modern-day Egyptians who welcome strangers, and in so doing, welcome Jesus into our country, communities and lives.”
Art Guides Our Journey
Latimore counts several undergraduate experiences at G.U. as particularly influential in his development as an artist. He recalls studies that immersed him in subjects he loved and professors who helped him see the artistic process as a form of habit and practice.
A class trip to St. Meinrad’s Monastery presented him with a profound gift in one “striking moment” of inspiration. He recalls attending early morning prayers in the archabbey and watching the morning light flow through the stained glass windows to “awaken” the images.
“It helped me see how art has an important role as a guide and placeholder for the communities’ practices and thought,” he says.
Later, as part of The Common Friars, a monastic farming community in Ohio, Latimore attempted his first icon, “Christ: Consider the Lilies.” Mounted on wood from the barn, it hung in the living room where the group prayed every morning. There, it silently guided devotional thought.
“It had presence,” recalls Latimore.
Value Tradition, Value the Present
As an art form, iconography is deeply rooted in tradition. Tradition gives context to the process and the emerging beauty.
“Iconographers start by tracing over the icons of those masters who painted before them,” Latimore explains. “When I started painting icons I followed the traditional forms. I tried representing the icons exactly how they had been depicted for thousands of years.”
In time, however, he began drawing and painting outside the traditional lines and interpretations to capture “the saints among us” whom artists had not depicted.
Lessons from his college days resurfaced and helped him apply iconography to the present. He practiced disciplines that helped him set “self” aside and found that by listening carefully and looking beyond personal biases, inherited traditions and favorite ideas, he saw people with names, faces and stories who warranted attention.
“They have something to teach us about what we know, about who God is, the world we live in and who are our neighbors,” he says. “This is the real work of being human and of iconography and art: being more present. The people at GU helped me learn that.”
To view more of Kelly Latimore’s work, visit his online gallery.
Foundation of Christian Doctrines Class Trip to St. Meinrad’s
Receiving Little Gifts
The Shape of Grace – Professor Heilmer’s Sculpture Featured in National Sculpture Society Journal
Calling: A Hymnwriter’s Story
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