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Catholic Vancouver Jan. 1, 2018

Artist's visit to Disney Studios set God's plan in motion

By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Chris Kielesinski in his Surrey home studio. Behind him are drawings of St. Pope John Paul II and St. Teresa of Kolkata. (Photos by Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

This is the fourth article in a seven-part series on sacred art.

SURREY—“Kielesinski! Are you drawing? To the office!” The words echo through the hallways of high school memories for artist Chris Kielesinski.

Yet those marching orders to the principal’s office turned out to be the start of his career as a multi-talented artist and founder of the Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild. Kielesinski, now in his 60s, has illustrated several children’s books, sold religious paintings, created cartoons and caricatures of famous figures, built foam sculptures, designed costumes, and much more.

Discovering a talent

Kielesinski remembers sitting in class, doodling, when a friend challenged him to draw their teacher. “So, I’m drawing the teacher, and all of a sudden, I feel this looming,” said Kielesinski.

But to his surprise, instead of another trip to the principal’s office: “The teacher goes: ‘Kielesinski, are you draw—That’s me! Can I have that?’”

Word got out that the teenage student was talented with caricatures. Soon other teachers were pulling Kielesinski aside asking for drawings, and his work made it into the school yearbook. That recognition gave the teen the boost he needed. Kielesinski sold his first piece of art, a religious painting, at age 17.

“I was very fortunate. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Kielesinski told The B.C. Catholic at his home studio in south Surrey.

“When I was going to junior high, I had an art teacher who doted over me. It wasn’t just: ‘You’re good.’ He showed me how to expand my art, and when he saw something I was interested in, he found books. That’s what really got me going.”

The support buoyed Kielesinski’s confidence and interest in his craft. He began collecting books, and now has a library of art literature filling one room in his Surrey home. In his library, like the rest of his home, all bare walls and flat surfaces are filled with drawings, paintings, paper cut-outs, and cartoons. Other corners house boxes of costumes or foam sculptures.

The books have been extremely helpful; Kielesinski was never formally trained at art school.

The makings of an artist

After high school, Kielesinski dreamed of going to an art academy and specializing in drawing.

“In the last 10 years, there’s been this resurgence of the academy way of drawing. Art is a craft. When I was going to school, this is what I was craving, but there was nothing here. I used to ask teachers, instructors, where I could go, but they couldn’t give me an answer,” he said.

Art school was expensive, so Kielesinski signed up for some courses at Douglas and Kwantlen colleges instead. “I took graphics, because at that time, if you wanted to make a living, you would take graphics.”

He then took courses at Emily Carr and workshops from local artists like Nick Bantock (best known for the Griffin and Sabine Trilogy). He even travelled to Disney studios with a portfolio to see where it would take him.

“I went through a picket line! Of course, it’s the year they’re protesting foreign artists taking their work, and here I am with my portfolio going straight through a picket line!”

He got an interview and was excited to learn animation from the pros. “I remember being in the Disney studios, thinking: ‘Disney! This is what I’ve always wanted! I’ve got books on Disney, I’ve always wanted to do this.’ But there was this rock in my gut. I’m going: ‘I don’t belong here.’”

Kielesinski realized although the opportunity was appealing, he didn’t like Los Angeles and couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Taking it as a sign, he returned to Canada, and continued taking courses on animation, or drawing, or graphics.

“Everything I do, I try to leave it to God,” he said. “I really believe God guides you. He brings the right people in your life and you move in that direction and he fills those needs. The rest is left up to you. You have to practise and work hard.”

Work hard, play hard

More opportunities came up for Kielesinski, including a 10-year job as a chief illustrator for a Christian publishing house. There, he sometimes worked 13-hour days illustrating books about missionaries in Russia or children who accidentally scanned themselves into a computer and found themselves on an adventure inside the Bible.

Kielesinski has illustrated several books and posters about the Bible for children.

“I used to donate a lot of the books to Cloverdale Catholic school. They wore the books out! Kids just loved it,” said Kielesinski, who also worked in youth ministry at Precious Blood, St. Joseph’s, Langley, and Our Lady of Good Counsel for about 15 years.

“I knew the kids, the kids knew me, so I got invited to schools to talk about the books and lead some workshops,” he said. “The Good Lord always puts me in with the kids, what’s why I did cartoons in my 40s.”

Kielesinski is currently working on a series of cartoons about a fictional priest and his quirky parishioners. He said the key to life is a healthy sense of humor. “You need to be able to laugh at yourself. The world is too serious!”

When his home was broken into two years ago, Kielesinski was home at the time and confronted the man. He was even able to sketch a cartoon of the man’s face. “I drew his picture, gave it to the cops, and they caught him,” he laughed.

Some of Kielesinki's cartoons, in progress.

The makings of an arts guild

It was while walking through the art classroom at Holy Cross Regional Secondary, where he’d been invited to give a workshop, that Kielesinski first had the idea to start an arts guild for Catholics.

“I thought to myself: ‘We are so rich with tradition and culture. How come we’re not teaching this to the kids?’ That started to stimulate me,” he said.

“You need to have trained teachers, but there aren’t trained teachers. That’s what got me going. I thought: ‘What if we have a guild?’”

In the late 1990s, he connected with religious artist Mikal Janek, iconographer Frank Turner, and retired engineer Tom Walker and the team started talking about creating a guild to raise awareness and interest in sacred art in Vancouver.

Kielesinski, Turner, and others wrote a constitution at Westminster Abbey. They held their first meeting in 2002. “From there, it just took off!” The guild now has 80 members, including 14 sacred artists.

What is sacred?

This cartoonist doesn’t joke around when it comes to creating art for the Church. “We were losing people because they didn’t like the fact that we were really conservative about things.”

The guild had to judge the work that came in when they realized some people, like an artist who had painted a “blue jean Jesus,” had very different ideas about sacred art.

“It has to be respectful. It has to tug at the heart … It could be contemporary, too, as long as it stays to Scripture. It has to teach you,” said the artist.

Kielesinski works on a painting of the Virgin with child.

“You’re not there to express yourself. You’re there to bring your gifts to the altar and you’re there as a tool to spread the word. You want to express yourself? That’s why you have your own studio. When you do something for the Church, you’re there to help evangelize.”

Kielesinski is working on a series of watercolour posters featuring Biblical figures, such as Noah and Jonah, hoping to get them into classrooms and other places to teach children.

“There are Scripture notations” so no one can look at the poster and think of something besides that Biblical figure. “Artists have to humble themselves and say 'I’m bringing my work to the altar. This is for you, Lord. What do you want me to do?'”

See www.bccatholic.ca for more articles on local sacred artists.