Dennis McNally S.J.: Jesuit Spirit in the Arts, 40th Anniversary Exhibition
November 2016 – February 2017
There has always been this desire to make a world.
When I was younger, I would often arrange furniture in my folks house. I was the oldest and I also cleaned up pretty good so I got away with it most of the time. I remember moving paintings, inventing plants (trees in the living room), refinishing a piano, or convincing my Mom to let me paint a room.
My folks were really tolerant. They must have loved me lots to let me get away with reconfiguring their world so often and so completely.
In the Society of Jesus, whenever I would try such completely invigorating interior reconstruction, I would meet with strong and sometimes virulent opposition. Eventually, I realized that it is a discipline that I must learn. I must love others enough that they can make my living environment less organized or less aesthetically pleasing than I would like. I takes a lot from me still to keep my hands to myself, to leave a chair where someone else wants it, right in the middle of a walkway, or to leave papers all over the furniture in the living room. But the discipline is an act of love for the brothers and for God.
I feel the cross in keeping my compulsion for order under control.
However, the need has slipped into my artwork. At first, my painting became larger and larger, with shaped canvases. Later the larger things became minimal sculpture in that there were many panels which had lines dividing the separate parts. Then there were the folding paintings (diptychs, triptychs, polyptychs, and those paintings divided so that they could fit into a small truck).
Eventually I got into doing wire sculptures. A couple of large wire Christus sculptures did seep into my portfolio. These figures with eyes and muscles were hung on crosses, bigger than life size. At St. Pius X in Tucson the crucifix won lots of praise. It lived for a while in the backyard of a family. Later it found its home in a Patagonia homestead where the owners would offer retreats.
Another edition of that cross was made by students at Notre Dame Academy in NYC on retreat at Linwood on the Hudson, near Rhinebeck, NY. The girls built the body and added ribbons at Mass. It hung at the school for years.
Another was made by me and some of my SJU students. It won a prize and hung at the Old First Reformed Church in Philadelphia for Holy Week. Ribbons and messages from the homeless men who nightly slept as guests in the Church basement decorated it. On Good Friday it was laid in front of the altar for the Burial Service of the Lord. Afterwards, it hung on a wall at St. Joseph’s University for one night, the night of the national vigils when the Gulf War began in Saudi Arabia. There were ribbons hung on it and it looked glorious but it was stolen before it had been up for twenty-four hours.
So my desire to decorate became localized in moveable sculpture and sculptural paintings and banners. Once, for a ten month period, I had some paintings, eleven pieces in twenty-two canvases, hanging in an organized installation at the Rev. Michael Smith SJ Chapel at St. Joseph’s University. I felt like I had really arrived for those ten months. My work, praising the Lord, won lots of admirers who said the works helped them to pray. It was a very good thing and I felt both appreciated and like I had used my gifts to make “something beautiful for God” following a suggestion of Mother Theresa of Calcutta.
About Dennis McNally
New York born and bred, this painter has three degrees from New York schools and one from Weston Jesuit School of Theology. He studied for a year in Italy, an experience that has infused his work with Renaissance influences. His Jesuit training in the Spiritual Exercises puts the use of imagination in the attempt to connect with God at the very center of his prayer life; that, too, shows in his work. The theme of what God must think of the way we conduct our lives is often given great consideration in the images that come about from his own interior struggles with how this or that tragedy could possibly have been perpetrated. The paintings are a way to pray. With God’s grace they will help others to pray.
Dennis is currently Professor of Art at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. You can see his university profile here.