Any first-time visitor to St. Mary Church in Mokena will immediately notice the growing collection of sacred art, from the many statues and figurines to the holy images adorning the building. The latest addition is a series of Stations of the Cross paintings affixed along three walls of the sanctuary.
When viewing these 21’’x21’’ inch paintings, one’s eyes are immediately drawn to the suffering Christ. This focal point was the intention of the artist who painted them, Neilson Carlin.
Carlin has been a professional artist for 30 years and runs the Carlin Academy of Fine Arts in Kennett Square, PA. Although he began his art career in the secular world, falling in love and converting to Catholicism eventually led him to his sacred art mission.
“I grew up in an evangelical tradition and, despite being a baptized Catholic, didn’t practice until I met my wife, who was a cradle Catholic,” says Carlin. His romantic courtship corresponded with a courtship with the Catholic Church and culminated in marriage and conversion.
Shortly thereafter, Carlin received an opportunity that would change the entire trajectory of his career. “A colleague of mine connected me with a sacred art project for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wi.,” he recalls. “I accepted the project and created four, 11’ x 4.5’ multi-figure paintings of Catholic Saints Gianna Molla, Peregrine Laziosi, Therese of Lisieux and Blessed Father Miguel Pro. This kickstarted my sacred art career.”
Since then, Carlin calls sacred art his vocation. “The purpose of sacred art is didactic and contemplative,” he explains. “It leads us to prayer, and it is educational.” As head of his own art studio, Carlin takes the educational portion seriously, seeking to pass his knowledge and skills onto others, one of which was St. Mary Mokena’s own Father Dindo Billote.
“I sought Neil out after seeing his work online,” says Father Billote. “I decided to take a painting workshop at his art studio and flew out to Pennsylvania to learn from the master for one week. It changed my life, and I made a life-long friend. Every time I paint a picture, I ask him for advice. He is super generous!”
Carlin reciprocates, saying, “Father Dindo is so friendly and a wonderful man. As soon as he stepped into my studio, I knew it was going to be more than just a regular teacher-student relationship.”
Father Billote brought the art skills he learned from Carlin back to St. Mary Mokena, where he enjoys creating paintings for parish raffles and his own collection. When he saw Carlin’s work painting Stations of the Cross for St. Matthew’s Church in El Paso, Texas, Father Billote fell in love with the concept.
“I saw he had a big commission to do Stations of the Cross for another church,” recalled Father Billote. “I loved them and asked if we could order a set of Giclée’s, which are high-quality photographic prints of those stations printed on canvas, so we could have a set for St. Mary!”
Carlin explains that the paintings are painted in a Baroque, tenebristic style that uses lighting and shadows to steer viewers’ eyes toward Christ. “I wanted people to pick out the face of Christ in each painting, so I toned everything else down,” he says. Carlin adds that his other option was to paint Renaissance-style stations with more figures but felt that this would have overcrowded the image and detracted from the focus, which is Christ.
In the future, Father Billote is hinting at an even grander St. Mary project for Carlin—an original 6’x8’ painting of the Annunciation for the parish narthex. Although it’s not yet official and details are pending, he is excited about the prospect of expanding St. Mary Church’s sacred art repertoire.
“Sacred art brings souls closer to heaven because it is inspiring and undertaken by a sacred artist imbued with the Holy Spirit,” says Father Billote. “Great sacred art moves you to the sacred realm, into the space where God is better understood and contemplated!”
Carlin agrees. “I am always honored and humbled when anything I have produced can assist my brothers and sisters in Christ in their prayer and worship,” he says. “The fact that I can make a living serving the Church is rewarding and fulfilling. It is my vocation. I will never go back to secular work. This is what I am here to do.”
You can learn more about Neil and his art studio at https://www.neilsoncarlin.com/.