Faith, Art, and Bob Dylan: A Portrait for Christmas by Michael Ford

A Catholic painter from northern England, noted for his distinctive Christmas card designs, is making a name for himself in the United States through his innovative use of Christian digital artwork.

Mike Torevell, 66, sees his computerised creations as visio divina, a form of spiritual meditation using art as a focus for contemplation.

While it took Mike a few years of trial and error to reach the point where he felt comfortable with the style and atmosphere of his work, he has since received commissions, as well as warm plaudits, from churches, chaplains, and communities in America.

The Church of the Holy Eucharist, Tabernacle, New Jersey, commissioned five Christmas and Easter banners for a striking display behind its altar; then the Marianist Family Retreat Center, at Cape May Point, New Jersey, requested seven banners. Mike went on to produce the cover art for missals and music books for the Oregon Catholic Press, and created an interpretation of “The Road to Emmaus” for the ministry formation programs of the Catholic Health Association of the USA. His work has also featured in publications for the Upper Room, Nashville; the Ascension Press, Milwaukee; and “Give Us This Day” at Collegeville, Minnesota.

“I use a painting software program such as Paintshop Pro, which contains various digital painting techniques with brushes, pens, and pencils,” he reveals. “There are paint palettes as well as media and artistic effects for applying colors, shapes, and lines to a blank digital canvas, using a laser mouse or my own finger on the touch screen. The software allows me to paint, draw, shape, and manipulate colors and lines, until I achieve what appears to work.”

Always sensitive to the interplay of light and dark, Mike has fashioned traditional Advent and Christmas scenes from the Gospels, in a contemporary painting style, to “convey a sense of new creation, wonder, and joy that the Christian faith brings to the world we live in.” His hope is that the viewer will be drawn into his paintings personally, whether looking alone or with a group.

One December day, more than a decade ago, Mike’s wife, Susan, became exasperated after failing to find many Christmas cards with an explicitly Christian message in her local town. So she suggested that Mike could easily create designs with a Christian theme which would be an improvement on what was available commercially. He’s been producing cards ever since, largely inspired by the work of Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), the Italian-Jewish painter noted for portraits with a surreal elongation of faces and necks, and the Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee (1879–1940), known for his explorations of color theory.

The son of a draughtsman and a health care worker, Mike has been painting since early childhood. He grew up with a twin brother, David, and older sister, Susan, who both became teachers. Mike and his wife—who both fell victim to the coronavirus this summer but have now fully recovered—are active members of their local Catholic church, St Bede’s in Clayton-le-Woods, Lancashire, where Mike is a eucharistic minister and Susan a reader and member of the justice and peace group. The couple, who have been married for over 40 years, have two children, Rachel and Gareth, and three grandchildren, Sophie, Luke, and Hayley.

“It is wonderful to be part of their education and development,” Mike told me. “There is no doubt that all children have an innate creativity, whether in art, music, or storytelling. It taps into a natural desire to express feelings about themselves and their world. As Pablo Picasso said: ‘Every child is an artist.’ It’s so clear from my experience with our own children and now grandchildren that, from finger paintings and coloring books to daubs and scribbles, artistic expression is a vital part of every child’s growth and development.”

When Mike and Susan became parents, they thought deeply about how best to bring up their children, feeling they had a responsibility to convey to them their beliefs on how to live a good life. “In Catholic marriage, both husband and wife take an oath to bring up children in the Catholic faith. We believed there was no other philosophy, code, or ideology that came close to Christianity in how best to live one’s life and how best to treat others with whom we share this world—in other words, to live for the common good. Christianity works. In passing on this faith to our children, in the hope they will pass it on to their children, we continue to explore, understand, and nurture our own faith more fully.

“When I look back, growing up in a Catholic family and in a Catholic school, going to Mass on Sunday, and being an altar boy, was just a normal part of routine family life. Not until I moved away to university did I, like many others, start to ask why I should continue to practice. It had to compete with a busy schedule of independent living, studying, and social life. For me it led to lengthy, periodic lapses but it was always there in the background. Underpinning everything was the Catholic faith. I feel like my life has always been, and continues to be, blessed.”

An artwork can take between two weeks and three months, depending on the dimensions or complexity of the composition. One of Mike’s major projects was an oil canvas of the Empty Tomb for Liverpool Hope University, an Anglican-Roman Catholic foundation in England, as well as portraits for three of its halls of residence—the subjects were John Henry Newman, Mother Teresa, and Charles Wesley. Mike has a particular gift for painting animals, especially horses; his “Zebra at the Waterhole” once won a public online vote.

Though Mike had some knowledge of religious art from his schooldays, he found the confidence to specialize in spiritual painting after visiting local churches for inspiration, such as Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. Holiday locations also proved influential. “Our preferred destinations have always been European cities with their wealth of art, such as Rome, Venice, Florence, Madrid, Barcelona, Fatima, Lisbon, and Dubrovnik. The artwork on display in the major religious buildings, from the Renaissance to the contemporary period, seldom fail to inspire feelings that great art has a transcendent quality and a connection to the Divine. These experiences have been a major influence in helping me create my own paintings.” His favourite sculpture is Michelangelo’s Pietà, the only piece the Italian artist felt worthy enough to sign.

Mike says he was heartened by Pope John Paul the Second’s Letter to Artists in which he wrote: “Overseeing the mysterious laws governing the universe, the divine breath of the Creator Spirit reaches out to human genius and stirs its creative power. He touches it with a kind of inner illumination which brings together the sense of the good and the beautiful.” 

Throughout his own educational formation, Mike was drawn, perhaps unusually, to both art and science. Before becoming a manager in Britain’s National Health Service, he studied physics and astrophysics at the University of London. He believes there is a profound connection between the sciences and the arts in their search for, and revelation of, truth. Through their work, both artists and scientists allow people to explore, experience, and understand more perceptively relationships between themselves, the world, and the Creator, he says. “The geniuses in those fields do this in a revelatory, transcendent way. Through illumination and beauty, their works touch the minds and souls of others.”

Leonardo da Vinci, Mike explains, was a master of both art and science, while Albert Einstein once declared: “The greatest scientists are artists as well.” Mike also cites Einstein: “The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science.”

The British artist relishes both modern and classical music, though since the age of 13 the songs of Bob Dylan have won such a place in his heart that he describes them as “lifelong companions.” The lyrics of “Tangled Up in Blue,” which Dylan wrote in 1974, encapsulate the effect Dylan’s output has made:

And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you.

One of the most influential singer-songwriters of his time, Minnesota-born Dylan is best known for ballads that chronicle social and political issues. The Jewish-born musician became a born-again Christian in the late 1970s. “I associate with a widely held view that Dylan’s songs will stand the test of time, and future generations will regard him as a genius of major cultural and artistic significance, almost as we regard Shakespeare now. Only time will tell.”

The American contemplative Thomas Merton might well have agreed. When Dylan was an emerging performer, Merton (the son of artists) would dance to his songs in his hermitage in Kentucky. Art and the spiritual life are all of apiece.

Whether it’s a popular folk song, a Bach sonata, a classical sculpture, or a modern painting, Mike Torevell is convinced that art can be inspirational and spiritual, holding a transcendent, aesthetic connection with the Divine. “In the eye of the beholder,” he adds, “works of art can reflect the beauty and wonder of God.”

Michael Ford is an author and theologian in England, where he worked in BBC news and religious broadcasting for many years. His articles for TAC reflect spiritually on his life as a journalist and writer.

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