Catholic Vancouver Jan. 22, 2018

Church ‘embraces art of the time’: calligrapher

By Agnieszka Ruck

John Suter smiles from his tiny studio in Port Coquitlam. A selection of his hand-drawn Celtic designs are seen on the table behind him. (Photos by Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

This is the seventh and final article in a series on sacred art.

PORT COQUITLAM—A Port Coquitlam artist is proving handwritten manuscripts of the Scriptures in intricate lettering and detail are not a thing of the past.

Calligrapher John Suter has recently handwritten and illuminated all 150 Psalms in styles spanning the entire history of Western writing. They fill six volumes.

“In the history of our Church and our faith, art always played a very important part,” Suter said in his tiny, cluttered studio. “The Church never said: ‘Gothic is our art’, or ‘Romanesque is our art,’ or ‘modern is our art.’ It has always embraced the art of the time.”

His Psalms bring to life writing styles as old as fourth-century Uncial and as new as Art Nouveau.

Building his craft

The Swiss-born Suter has always had an artistic streak. He took his first art lesson when he was 17 years old and later took up an apprenticeship as an enamel sign maker. “The signs are very durable. I’ve been back and seen signs I did when I was a young man!”

After he moved to Canada, Suter built a career in store planning, displays, interiors, and equipment, moving up to oversee entire shopping malls. But he never left his creative talents behind. In his spare time, he painted, carved wooden rocking horses, and sculpted a crucifix for a church in Saskatoon.

He and his wife lived on the prairies for 37 years before she had a stroke that sent them moving to the west coast. She died 12 years ago, leaving Suter to live with one of their three children in Port Coquitlam. His studio is a quiet shed in the backyard. He said it’s perfectly secluded, but regrettably too small to carve wood in.

Suter’s artistic inspirations now come from the stories of calligraphers past, especially of monks who created their own paints, brushes, and calfskin canvases. He has pored over original books from the 10th to 14th centuries and was particularly moved by full-page illuminations, including one of Mary greeting Elizabeth, done by a European monk on a page the size of a paperback.

“In the background was a meadow. In the meadow was a little creek. In the creek, there was a swan. There was a note inside the book: ‘he painted the swan with one hair,’” said Suter.

“It’s hand work. Could you do that on a computer? I don’t think so.”

Suter's illumination of Psalm 147 features an ancient writing style and King David playing a harp.

His masterpiece

The 87-year-old calligrapher spent about 40 hours a week on each of the 150 Psalms, taking a total of three years to complete the series. He worked in complete silence, without any music or radio to distract him.

“My idea was I would take the whole history of Western writing, from the Roman period on to the modern age,” he said. “I looked at the Psalm and thought about what it means to me. How I could interpret it, what period style I would use, what I would do with it.” 

Though he repeats some writing styles throughout his six volumes, each Psalm is unique. On one page, endless lines, Celtic lettering, and a drawing of David playing the harp fill the space, while the next leaf features flowy Art Nouveau (a modern writing style with roots in the 1890s) in bright, bold colours.

Suter researched each writing style, then used his imagination to depict ancient chariots and warriors, lions, snakes, eagles, and other animals, flowers, vines, and crosses to bring out the distinct message of each passage.

Suter drew inspiration from a flowery pattern when he illuminated Psalm 138.

“The decorations are whatever inspires me, patterns, or fabrics, and then of course I adapt them,” Suter said. “You have to stick with the style of the period. I would not do Gothic writing with modern illumination.”

An illumination is simply an image that accompanies the writing, Suter explained. “It comes from the Latin,” and means “to enlighten, or to put light into it.”

His philosophy

Most of Suter’s works are displayed in private homes, though a select few have made it into churches. Among them, an illumination of a cross and the four evangelists hangs above the baptismal fountain at Our Lady of Assumption Parish in Port Coquitlam.

(A Christmas card Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, sent out to staff, supporters, friends, and family in 2012 also boasts Suter’s design.)

The works are labours of love, not income, said Suter. “I found that churches don’t want to pay.”

He’s now working on a series of Celtic designs. 

After illuminating all 150 Psalms, a project that took Suter three years, he's taken up creating Celtic designs.

Suter prays while working on every piece. “You need prayer in your work. If you don’t pray in your art, you are like a priest who preaches the Gospel but doesn’t live it.”

For this artist and retired store planner, what makes religious art unique is that it serves a higher purpose. “I have trouble with the statement ‘art for art’s sake,’” he said in his small, crowded studio. “If art has no purpose other than to be there by itself, it is a god.”

Suter, a member of the Catholic Epiphany Sacred Arts Guild, serves one God, and it’s not art.

“The purpose of art, at least for us as sacred artists, is to help proclaim the Gospel; to help people with their faith journey. It can be many different period styles, as history has proven, whether it be Celtic or Gothic.”

Read more articles about sacred artists from The B.C. Catholic.

Suter drew inspiration from the Canadian prairies, where he lived for 37 years, when he created this illumination of Psalm 65.
These Celtic designs are among Suter's latest creations.