He did not know where home was, but once he got there, he knew it was where he was supposed to be.
Twenty years ago, when in his mid-twenties, David Clayton, now a leading iconographer and western naturalist painter who recently became Thomas More College’s Artist-In-Residence, was a “frustrated artist” searching for the answers to life’s toughest questions. During that period of his life, he began to reflect on his life’s purpose and examine the answers that various religions, including Islam, had to offer. He had many preconceived notions about Christians—they were “pathetic” and Christianity was emasculating. Fortunately, however, David met several people, including Catholic priests, who understood his quest and demonstrated by example that his prejudices were wrong.
Eventually, David told a friend that he was investigating Christianity. This friend, who would ultimately sponsor David into the Church, directed him to the church that would forever change his life, the London Oratory.
“He didn’t even tell me that the church was Catholic, but he did say a couple of times, ‘Make sure you go at 11 o’clock.’ What he was directing me to was the High Latin Mass, what is still perhaps the most beautiful liturgy I’ve ever seen,” David recalled.
“The beauty drew me in. It gave me a sense of the mystical,” he added.
David recalled being moved by the choir’s style in singing the music of Palestrina, an Italian Renaissance composer, as well as smelling and seeing the incense in the shafts of sunlight radiating through the church’s stained glass windows.
“Not only could I smell the air, but it seemed I could almost touch it,” he said. “I remember thinking that it sounded like the voices of angels. The singing seemed to fill the atmosphere, like the incense. I remember thinking that all my senses were being drawn into the event.”
Not only were his senses of smell and hearing being triggered, but his sense of sight was as well. He looked upwards and saw paintings – of angels – on the ceiling of the church.
David was moved by the obvious seriousness of those taking part in the Mass. This communicated its importance to him. He noticed also how the congregation knelt and bowed together.
“That communicated their faith to me,” David remembered. “It was body language telling me they believed in what they were doing. I think that in this way faith can be contagious.”
Even though he knew so little about the Mass he had just attended, so much had been communicated to him at a deep, intuitive level.
“I knew, even though I had no clue what was going on, that when the host was held aloft, that this was the most important point,” David said. “It was in Latin. I didn’t understand a word of it.”
David eventually converted in 1993, at the age of 31.
He decided that he wanted to paint works of art that could affect others in the way that his experience at the London Oratory had affected him through its beauty. He realized that it is not simply a matter of what one paints, but how one paints that determines the style or form of the painting. But it wasn’t easy to learn how to do this.
“I realized there was no textbook that explained this (and there was) no school which taught artists to distinguish between what is Catholic tradition and what isn’t,” he said.
He began to think about the training that such a school would provide. He described his vision first in “The Way of Beauty”, an article published in 2003 by Second Spring: An International Journal of Faith and Culture, now the flagship journal of Thomas More College.
For David, beauty is “like its sisters, truth and goodness, an objective quality. It is a quality in a thing that calls us to God. It calls us first to itself and then beyond, with an invitation to go to him. If we heed that call we respond with love to that beauty and open ourselves up to its ultimate source, the inspiration of the artist, God.”
Artists, then, must learn that good art reflects an objective standard of truth and beauty. Artists must also be educated in beauty so that it is a quality that will be present in their work. In addition, artists should know sacred geometry so their works embody traditional ideas of proportion and harmony.
David also points out that artists have a responsibility to serve mankind spiritually and socially through artwork that “inspires the hearts of those who see it to a deeper love for the Creator and his Creation.” Therefore, artists must study nature—God’s creation—and understand man’s position within it. According to David, artists must pass on the best of past knowledge and experience. For example, in drawing inspiration from the Old Masters, artists would look to transmit elements of style with an understanding of why they painted what they did.
“We must go back and reunite our art with the past,” David said. “Once we understand the past … we connect it with the needs of the present dictate.”
David now had the theory formulated. He just needed to put it into action. He soon was introduced to people who would help make his vision a reality. David met Stratford Caldecott, editor of Second Spring, as well as Aidan Hart, an iconographer and a portrait painter who ran an atelier, a traditional teaching workshop, in Florence. Both agreed to teach him.
After reading his article in Second Spring, the Maryvale Institute, a Catholic college in Birmingham, England, approached David to design a course in art theory and history from a Catholic perspective. The course, titled “Art Inspiration and Beauty from a Catholic Perspective” is, to his knowledge, unlike any other art course offered in the world.
It was through Stratford that David met Thomas More College President Dr. Jeff Nelson. The two men had similar visions. Clayton wanted to teach art, and Nelson wanted to establish an art program at the College.
“From the moment I met David, I was touched on a spiritual and professional level,” Dr. Nelson said. “His conversion story, and how he fell in love with the Church through the sacred nature of the liturgy and the beauty of Catholic art and music, was truly an inspiration to me. I was so moved by his vision to establish an art school that trains artists to create timeless sacred art. Clearly, we shared a desire to work for Catholic renewal in our age.”
Dr. Nelson invited David to become the College’s first Artist-In-Residence. This winter, the Thomas More College witnessed Clayton’s official arrival from Great Britain to launch the Way of Beauty Art Program.
This program is designed to develop a new generation of Catholic artists and to reinvigorate in both the Catholic and secular cultures an appreciation of sacred art and its role in developing human spirituality.
As part of the Way of Beauty Art Program, David will provide aspiring artists with practical art skills, the talent to apprehend beauty, and the ability to open up to inspiration from God. The College hopes this program will encourage aspiring artists to enroll in its four-year undergraduate program so they can receive the formation in the Catholic liberal arts tradition necessary for the production of sacred art.
Through internships and other direct experiences, David will inspire young people to incorporate perennial Catholic art principles in the wide range of traditional and emerging media. Therefore, the program will provide one more way that Thomas More College graduates can contribute positively to the renewal of culture.
In addition to a series of courses he will teach as part of the College’s core curriculum, David will establish an art studio on campus where our students and artists can receive one-on-one mentorship in areas such as naturalistic art, iconography, abstract art and art theory. The Way of Beauty Art Program will also include a series of public lectures throughout the country that will renew in the general public an appreciation of the fundamental principles of great Catholic art, its role in cultural formation, and how Gothic art and architecture reveals divine natural order.
Through the Way of Beauty Art Program, David will be showing others how God is present in art, so that his pupils can draw divine inspiration from their Creator, much as he did several years ago.
To learn more about David’s background and the importance of producing sacred art in our age, you may view this interview with a local television program in Long Beach, California.