GREEN BAY — A life-long interest in drawing led Nathan Brandner, 31, to the artistic genre of classical painting. Brandner, a member of St. Matthew Parish in Allouez, now incorporates facets of his faith into his paintings to create sacred art.
One of his first oil paintings, “St. Francis’ Stigmata,” was selected as a finalist in the inaugural “Sacred Art Competition” sponsored by the Catholic Art Institute. The 2020 contest featured more than 350 submissions.
“I had always wanted to create sacred work,” Brandner told The Compass. “Even growing up, I had a children’s Bible with these images in it, and I think something connected me back to that. Those images helped support the faith and make it more real.”
A 2008 graduate of Green Bay’s Southwest High School, Brandner attended the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in drawing and painting. While attending UWSP, he worked at the Newman Center, setting up for events.
Brandner said his art education at UWSP did not allow him to explore classical art, so he spent the summer after graduation in Florence, Italy, learning classical painting. “I have been drawing as long as I can recall. I really fell in love with painting when I was in Florence,” he said.
“It was in Florence where I learned these classical (painting) techniques,” he said. “For me, it was also like a little bit of a pilgrimage, too. There were so many beautiful churches and so much of this beautiful sacred art everywhere. That sort of inspired me.”
When he returned to Wisconsin, Brandner enrolled at the now-closed Fine Art Academy in Denmark. “It was a four-year program, two years drawing and two years painting,” he said. “I spent about two and one-half years there working on drawing and learning concepts to create professional work and sort of learning the language of art.”
In 2017, Brandner became a member of the Catholic Art Institute (CAI). “I joined looking for a community of artists in order to get sacred art out into the world,” he said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
According to its website, catholicartinstitute.org, the CAI’s mission is to “equip artists to use their gifts for the glory of God through community-building, networking and educational events, opportunities for professional development and the spiritual support of the holy sacrifice of the Mass and weekly prayers offered for their intentions.”
Through the institute, Brandner said he attended conferences and learned about the sacred art contest.
“I had done other religious-themed paintings, but for this competition, I just pushed myself to make something that I thought could be seen in a church or sacred space or used for worship,” he said. Brandner submitted two oil paintings, “St. Francis’ Stigmata” and a painting of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica.
The COVID-19 pandemic turned out to be the push Brandner needed to focus on his sacred art, he said. As a full-time artist for the past three years, “I needed to pay the bills and didn’t think sacred art had much of a market.”
“However, since the pandemic hit, I had more time to myself to focus on creating what I wanted to create and that was sacred art,” said Brandner. “There have been a lot of horrors that have happened through the whole (pandemic), but there is beauty to be found and one was that it gave me time to create this art that has definitely been on my heart for a long time.”
His painting of St. Francis was inspired by a photograph of his brother walking through the woods. “The painting (of his brother) didn’t work out, but I was hooked on this idea of St. Francis,” he said. “I started doing research on St. Francis. I loved the images I found, I loved that passionate gaze towards heaven. And the stigmata (marks that correspond to the crucifixion wounds on Jesus’ body) has always been a real mystery to wrap my head around. So I thought showing that moment would be a good challenge.” It took him about one month to paint the image, he said.
Creating sacred art not only reflects faith as his foundation, said Brandner, it also glorifies God.
“I wasn’t just creating a painting to make a nice picture,” he said. “I wanted something that would bring glory to God and be able to sort of transcend my finitude here on earth.
“Growing up Catholic was such an integral part (of his life). Part of me wants to give back to that faith, sort of like extend it into a future that would hopefully outlast me,” he said. “I’m trying to make something that’s bigger than myself.”
While sacred art allows Brandner to put his faith into a visual form, he said that helping to teach high school religious education at St. Matthew Parish gives him “a good opportunity to talk about my faith and my art as I try to help build their faith.”
Brandner’s dream is to create commissioned pieces of sacred art for churches. He said he believes that “every nook and cranny” of a church should “try to bring glory to God.”
“Then to see some of these modern churches with just blank walls, it kind of breaks my heart,” he said. “A lot of churches these days just lack that ‘awe.’ When you walk into them, you want to be walking into something that is as close to the kingdom of God as possible. So bare walls and lackluster art in churches really grind my gears.”
To view images from Brandner’s artwork or to learn more, visit nathanbrandner.com.