Looking at Katie Ward’s latest piece, viewers may not immediately see the Stations of the Cross, nor would they guess the way COVID made this painting’s creation simultaneously more burdensome and more meaningful.
The painting began as a study in the “Deposition,” the biblical image of Christ descending into the grave, but its final form depicts a female figure gazing upward from a sea of deep blue, graphite, and ash tones with gold leaf splashed diagonally across the canvas.
Unconventionally, the artist cites inspiration from both medieval iconography and modern art. For many, these two periods stand opposed, but Ward’s ability to blend them together creates a strikingly fresh appearance.
Although she has lived in Waco a relatively short time, Katie Ward has been busy in the art community. Her work has been featured in local galleries, and she teaches drawing and gold leafing classes at Cultivate7Twelve, Waco’s local cultural center and art gallery. Though the art scene here is small, Ward has found it easier to connect with fellow artists than in California where she previously lived.
“It’s easier to find ways to get art in front of people since Waco is so small,” Ward tells me, “It’s not as competitive.” She also says Waco’s art scene is growing and improving.
Against this background we discuss the pandemic and the effect it’s had on her creative processes. Accustomed to balancing her art career with homeschooling her four children, Ward thought life would change little under COVID, but, actually, the pandemic constrained her artistic work considerably. It disrupted her progress on the coming art show and pushed it back a month. Yet, Ward also strongly believes in the value of art during trying times.
“Art speaks to people during crises,” Ward says, “Beauty is important during all times of life. A pandemic can make it more of a situation where many people are experiencing the same hardship, but the lack of a pandemic does not mean a lack of hardship for individuals.”
Perhaps our trials with COVID will allow more people to look to art for meaning. That would make sense not only because the pandemic has given many people the unexpected gift of time: “Like reading literature, it takes time to sit and engage with a painting,” Ward says. But it also makes sense because in art we are able to see we are not alone in suffering. Art offers a common consolation, puts suffering in a kind of transcendent perspective. By engaging it, we discover common meaning.
Revisiting Ward’s piece, I approach it with these thoughts in mind. Despite the darkness of descending into the grave, the painting also portrays great hope with its gilded streaks of light and its subjects’ luminous skin. The title, Rent, references the Biblical imagery of the veil in the temple separating man from God, which was rent in two at the moment of Jesus’s death. Meaningfully, the painting itself is a “diptych,” an image straddled across two panels, torn asunder. Thus, even amid human darkness, the painting reveals how tearing and suffering can be a source of renewed wholeness.
While my first impression was that the figure in the painting was being pulled downward into darkness, a more careful look suggests the exact opposite. She is rather, as Ward herself suggests, being “lifted up from the darkness.” Death and the grave are so often assumed to be the gateway to nothingness, but not in this painting. They are instead revealed to be the portal to life, transfiguration, and reconciliation with the divine.