NEW YORK – As a child in the Philippines, the beauty of stained-glass windows at his local church in San Pablo, Laguna, was the most vivid memory of Sunday Mass for Michael Reyes, OFM. The colored glass depicting Christ’s life – made vibrant by the reflective sunlight – was “very much my first catechism,” says Michael. In many ways, those stained-glassed windows were also his first lesson in art. They awakened a talent that he now uses in his Franciscan ministry to evangelize and proclaim the Gospel message.
For a second consecutive year, he is hosting “Friar Art with Michael Reyes, OFM,” an online video series – broadcast on the Holy Name Province Development Office’s “Lent with the Friars” website – that is part art history-part spiritual reflection.
“People typically see paintings as pretty pictures, but in my Lenten reflections, I journey with the viewers and invite them to find deeper meaning,” said Michael, who helped launch the Friar Art series during Lent in 2020 to keep the faithful connected when the pandemic suspended in-person worship and ministries.
“Paintings are equivalent to a person’s signature. The power of images surpasses the limitations of language. My paintings challenge and inspire; they offer faith and life lessons without saying a word. With art, you can reach out to everyone, no matter their cultural and educational background or what language they speak,” said Michael, who graduated in December from the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture with a master of fine arts degree with a concentration in painting.
Michael often uses history, artistic process – techniques and colors – and backstories to connect art to a deeper spiritual meaning. For example, in his presentation on “The Great Wave” – the iconic woodblock print by Japanese artist Hokusai – he draws a parallel between the importance of each individual woodblock and every member of humankind.
“They are individual blocks, but each one plays a role in creating the picture. We are similar to the wooden blocks – individuals with different gifts and talents, but collectively the woodblock of God’s creation. Hokusai’s print illustrates how we depend on one another,” said Michael, who has lived at the St. Francis of Assisi Friary on West 31st Street since 2018, when he began his graduate studies at the art school in Greenwich Village.
Although the Development Office had been expanding its digital presence before the pandemic, efforts were accelerated when COVID-19 forced much of daily life to virtual platforms. Because of his artistic talents, creativity, and video and digital skills, the Development Office asked Michael to join the team.
“Michael is a talented and gifted friar on many levels, not only his art, but in terms of community, parish ministry, and his development work,” said David Convertino, OFM, executive director of the HNP Office of Development. “He has been a tremendous asset with the expansion of our social media footprint – particularly on the creative side with concept development, scripting, and video production – as we move toward greater digital communication and delivery of programs, especially during the pandemic.
“His meditations and reflections on his own paintings and the works of other artists have been important to our current programs and what we are planning for the future,” added David.
Development Office, Parish Projects
When the New York Studio School went fully remote last year, students were required to clear their artwork from the galleries. Fortunately, Michael was able to move his paintings to San Damiano Hall next door to the friary, where he also set up an art studio. The move was no easy task since many of his paintings are large, as big as 72˝ x 60˝.
Working near the Provincial offices provided more opportunities to use his creativity in development and parish projects. Besides the Friar Art series, he worked on other video meditations and productions, including last September’s online “Night of Stars” which raises funds for Province outreach ministries. Michael also has been serving as director of the Franciscan Store, the Province’s e-commerce site, evaluating the merchandise to create more variety and providing feedback on the design of the seasonal catalogs.
One of his responsibilities at St. Francis Parish is coordinating the church’s liturgical environment during Lent – an exercise that uses his space-design skills. “I coordinate the appropriate liturgical colors with things like the altar linens, lighting, and decorative plants to make it an inviting and peaceful space for those who come to pray. I enjoy this part of my ministry because the altar is like a giant canvas,” said Michael.
He has found other ways to evangelize through his art. Michael was the featured visual artist at a special “Mass for Artists” sponsored by ArtHouse 2B on Feb. 26 at the Sala de Francesco Gallery of the Church of the Annunciation in Harlem. The Mass was followed by an exhibit that showcased 16 of Michael’s paintings.
Although abstract and landscape paintings are part of his diverse portfolio, most of Michael’s artwork is Franciscan in subject, ranging from saints, like Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua, to Franciscan social justice issues such as immigration and poverty.
His master’s thesis exhibit, presented from Nov. 3 to 8 of last year in a curated setting in the main gallery of the New York Studio School, featured a dozen large, mixed-media paintings – using paper, metal leaves, gold leaf, and oil paints – depicting the life of St. Francis.
“The process and materials are also very Franciscan because they find beauty in the ordinary. I mix precious metal leaves with recycled paper – I used Chinese newsprint that I picked up off the street for one of my paintings – to create something beautiful and extraordinary,” explained Michael, whose recent works have included a series of paper-and-oil-on-canvas paintings titled “Storm in Pandemic” – which depict boats ravaged by storms – inspired by Pope Francis’s March 2020 Urbi et Orbi address during the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.
Social Justice Messages
Another of Michael’s dramatic works is a 36˝x 20˝gold-leaf-and-oil-on-panel called “Christ the Dreamer” – an innocent, wide-eyed migrant child gripping a barbed-wire fence so tightly that his hands are bleeding. Michael’s inspiration was the need for dialogue on U.S. immigration policies and support for DACA children.
The migrant issue also influenced his painting, “On the Margins of….” – a 40˝x 30˝ paper-metal leaves-and-oil-on-canvas of the figure of a woman and her child. “My paintings have deeper meanings and messages, sometimes not pretty, especially when they involve social justice,” said Michael.
There is a thread of irony in his artistic success. Despite drawing creative inspiration from his mother, a ceramic artist, it was never a career consideration. Then again, neither was a religious vocation. It was another profession that eventually led him to the doorstep of both.
After his family migrated from the Philippines, he studied finance and computer science at Berkeley College in New York City, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. That began a decade-long career as a senior systems analyst and a software developer for a Fortune 500 financial company.
When he was transferred to the company’s midtown offices, a block away from St. Francis Church, Michael noticed a long line of people, most of whom looked homeless, as he walked along West 31st Street. At the beginning of the line, friars were joyfully handing out sandwiches. That image of the St. Francis Breadline turned out to be his second stained-glass epiphany.
The friars’ work with the poor and their welcoming nature sparked his interest in the Franciscans and religious life. After years of attending weekday Mass, going to confession, and getting to know the friars – and seeking solace at the historic church after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — Michael joined HNP’s formation program in 2008.
“Part of me knew I was a decent painter and it was something that I enjoyed. But in my mind, I was probably going to have to leave that behind because there were specific categories of friars – and I didn’t think being an artist was one of them,” said Michael.
Then in 2009, when he was sent to the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University as part of his novitiate year, he met two Province friars who painted a very different picture of Franciscan life – David Haack, OFM, a professional artist whose commissioned works are part of private collections worldwide, and Robert Lentz, OFM, a religious icon painter renowned globally for incorporating contemporary social themes into his work.
“They opened my view of Franciscan ministry and showed me that Holy Name Province viewed art as an instrument to evangelize. I learned that art has been a major part of Province history. That’s what makes Franciscans so interesting and diverse. Some of us thrive in parish ministry, others in missionary work and outreach to the poor. Some of us are authors, professors, theologians – and artists, too,” said Michael, who professed his first vows in 2010, made his solemn profession in 2014, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2016.
“The Province is good at recognizing the different gifts and talents of friars and then encouraging us to use these gifts in ministry. I am so appreciative of the Province’s openness and I am grateful to my formators for understanding what I was capable of, and then encouraging me to pursue it,” said Michael, whose art can be found at michaelreyesofm.com.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.