California's Missions Accomplished

Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

Father Jerome Tupa is not a missionary, but he understands the urgency of a mission. As a Benedictine monk at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., he belongs to a Catholic order that emphasizes prayer and work within a religious community. During an artistic pilgrimage to all of California's 21 missions, he began to appreciate the work of his long-ago fellow traveler, Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan who launched the building of these churches, starting in 1769.

He doesn't compare his work to Serra's, except to say that "everything"--including art--"can be the work of a monk."

"To me, art is one of the great ways to experience mystery and to experience spirituality," says Tupa, 58. "It is how one celebrates life."

The oil paintings and watercolor studies he made of the missions over a period of a year are on view in "An Uncommon Mission: Father Jerome Tupa Paints the California Missions," which opens Saturday at the Los Angeles Central Library. Photographs of the missions by Terry Ruscin will also be on display.

The idea for the project originated with Mervyn's department store and its parent company, Target Corp., headquartered in Minneapolis. With 5% of its federally taxable income pegged for social and educational projects aimed at families and children--Mervyn's has been contributing to the preservation of the California missions and to creating curricula about them for the state's fourth-graders. To extend the project to a wider audience, in 1997, John Pellegrene, then executive vice president for marketing at Target, approached Father Tupa about painting the missions.

Tupa, whose day job is teaching French at St. John's University, a school run by his order, had never done such an extensive, on-site series before.

He mulled the idea over for several days, then said yes.

"From the point of view of art, I needed to make some major changes," he explains. "I'd reached an end to what I was doing, and this opened up a big door." At the time he had been working in an abstract, conceptual manner--orbs, triangles and other shapes onto which he had inscribed age-old Christian words and symbols.

Tupa's interest in art predates his monastic vows. As a college student, he attended art classes at the University of North Dakota and Mayville State Teachers College in North Dakota. In his early 20s, he found himself in a quandary. "I was trying to figure out a way to spend my life," he says. "The church offered a whole idea of prayer, something more selfless, and that was attractive to me. And then I visited St. John's Abbey and felt, 'This is family.' All of a sudden it was a fit, and I've been here ever since."

Later, he finished a bachelor's degree in French at St. John's, then spent seven years at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, to get a doctorate in French literature. It was in France that he took up painting seriously. His work has been shown in small galleries (in Santa Monica, for instance, at David Jacobs Fine Art) and occasionally in museums. It's personal work, he explains, encouraged by the order, though not formally associated with it. "Our community is very interested in the relationship between art and society and religion," he says.

For the California mission project, he took off two months after the 1997 spring semester. Accompanied by a fellow Benedictine, he drove to California, arriving on the northern end of the string of missions, in Sonoma. "I remember so clearly that it was a beautiful day," he recalls. After driving around town, he found what he thought looked like a mission church and stopped to draw and paint it for several hours. But the banality of the place put him in a grim mood. "I was thinking, 21 of these," he says. "If they're all like this, I'm going to be stark raving mad!" During a break, he took a stroll and came upon "this beautiful square with wonderful trees," he says. "As I started looking across the square, here was the mission!" He had been painting the wrong church.

"When I saw the real mission [San Francisco Solano], it was wonderful adobe, fascinating, and allowed me to use my imagination."

Next stop was San Rafael, and so he went, down the coast, following El Camino Real, all the way to San Diego, where Serra founded the first mission. "What a wonderful way to see California--from Carmel near the sea to the [inland] ones, San Juan Bautista and La Purisima."

In each place, he started by walking around the mission--church, outbuildings and gardens--to "get a lay of the land." After finding the angles most interesting to him, he executed a series of sketches and watercolors. Over the two months of travel, each place presented a different challenge. At San Rafael, for example, "they were doing some construction, and the view that I needed was kitty-corner, so I was standing almost in the middle of the street trying to paint, while behind me were trucks hauling dirt and they were building this building."

When he came back to his abbey, armed with more than 120 watercolors and sketches, he began his work on canvas. Over the next year, he labored over the oil paintings, in no particular order. While the watercolors were renderings of what Tupa saw during his visits, the paintings became what he saw in his mind's eye as he reflected on each place in the calm of his studio, a loft space in a converted carpenter's shop.

"Some people prefer the watercolors because that's what they expect to see," says Holly Witchey, who was an associate curator at the San Diego Museum of Art when she took on the independent project of curating the traveling show of Tupa's works. "I like the watercolors, they're interesting as travel documents, but the paintings are much more compelling."

In the paintings, Tupa cut loose, using heightened colors and distorted angles, adding or shifting architectural detail to create visual effects, as well as to express his feelings. For example, San Gabriel Arcangel, just east of Los Angeles, is in reality a stark white box. In the painting "A Golden Entry," Tupa concentrates on the mission's front door, working gold leaf under gold paint, making the door a patch of luminous color.

The gold has a traditional symbolism, Tupa points out. In Christian painting it was used "to show something which is not earthly." In the Greek Orthodox Church, for example, the icons are painted on gold-leaf backgrounds. "When you are standing in the presence of an icon, you are transported to an eternal presence," Tupa says. "I wanted to put that feeling into a modern piece, the sense of eternity."

In other cases, he restructured things to suit his imagination. In "A Celebration," the church at Santa Barbara is seen from an arcade that doesn't exist. It is also the only painting that includes human figures, stylized Indians, according to Tupa. He's aware of the dark side of the missions' history, the oppression of native populations. Still, he says, that's not the whole story--he believes that the mission system also protected the Indians against some forms of colonial exploitation. The figures are included in the Mission Santa Barbara painting " because I had been reading about the Chumash when I did the work."

All the paintings are large. "Cloister and Bell Tower" shows San Diego de Alcala on a 7-by-9-foot canvas. "There's something very exciting about having a large canvas in front of you," Tupa says. "I love a challenge and a large painting offers 10 times the challenge. It's also very gestural, I can work with my whole body with a canvas this size."

In a few cases, Tupa has joined two or three canvases. In "A Spiritual Melody: Triptych," for example, the church of San Juan Bautista is depicted on the left panel, with the bell tower on two panels, one atop the other, on the right. "It allowed me to bring the church up close," the artist explains.

The California mission series was finished the summer of 1998, and the artworks have been touring Southern California since then, in shows in San Diego, Santa Barbara and Fresno. After the Central Library exhibition, the works will be sold, says Tupa, to benefit his order. But the project has proved a turning point in his career.

"Since that project, I'm moving more and more out of teaching," he says. "I finished another series following the same idea, the pilgrimage idea, called 'The Road to Rome,' and did all kinds of images throughout Italy." That yielded 200 sketches, 70 watercolors and 34 oil paintings. This year he is beginning something equally ambitious.

"This summer I'm doing the next part of this, from Paris to Compostela [in Spain]," says Tupa, referring to a famous Christian pilgrimage of the Middle Ages, a journey that is still undertaken by the faithful today.

Tupa continues to find inspiration in his California pilgrimage. "I really fell in love with those missions and the work that people had done there," he says. "And the missionaries themselves--the energy those men gave to bring something they believed so strongly in."

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"AN UNCOMMON MISSION: Father Jerome Tupa Paints the California Missions," Getty Gallery, Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. 5th St., downtown L.A. Dates: June 16-Nov. 25. Open Mondays-Thursdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sundays, 1-5 p.m. Admission: Free. Phone: (213) 228-7000.

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