Visual artist Tomasz Misztal was born in 1957 to a Catholic family in Poland. The country was under Communist rule at the time. He suffered as a child from terrible asthma.
“Five years of being suffocated, until I was 7. My grandma would give me crayons and paper and I would spend hours and hours, drawing and painting.”
From the ages of 7 to 19, Misztal was an altar boy at a nearby monastery, serving Mass twice a day.
“My introduction to sacred art was with these monks, decorating the church for Christmas and Easter. The understanding of liturgy, the meanings of the colors and shapes. That’s why I’m so sensitive to sacred space. From childhood, I know how the altar works. I understand it; I feel it.”
At 19, he entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk. Professor Franciszek Duszeńko, one of Poland’s most important sculptors, became Misztal’s mentor and second father. “I’d developed severe back pain so my professor advised me to do small sculptures and drawings. Those were important years, where I learned the underlying structure.”
At the university he participated in strikes, confronted police, was sprayed with tear gas. In the midst of a political revolution, and spiritually curious, he stepped out from the Church for almost seven years.
“John Paul II became a pivot point in my artistic career when the Solidarity movement commissioned a sculpture from me. The piece is of a pair of praying hands, tied with ropes and chains that are in the process of being broken. I was not a practicing Catholic — and I was making a sculpture for a saint!”
The piece is now in the Vatican Museum.
In Warsaw to take his exams, he stayed with a Catholic couple, their five children and an adopted sixth in a two-room apartment. Their life was prayer, daily Mass. They were on the verge of poverty. And they were happy.
“That was my eye-opener. Wow, this is the Gospel. Total integrity. It was so shocking I went to confession and came back to the Church.”
After graduating, he became an adjunct professor at Gdańsk, earned his Ph.D. and worked in Portugal for a couple of years.
At the time, ground was being broken for the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Misztal was one of eight artists, out of 3,000, selected as a candidate to sculpt a figure of Christ for the altar. This would be his big break, he thought. So he moved to L.A. — but another artist was selected.
“That was a big disappointment. L.A. turned out to be a desert for me. I thought hard work was enough to be successful. You need money, an agent, sponsors, connections.”
Around 1999, he surrendered his career. He decided God would be his sponsor, his agent. “From this moment, whatever happens or doesn’t happen, I rely on him.”
In 2003, he moved to Portland, Oregon. It was there that he received a commission from Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, an “exceptional parish,” to sculpt a figure based on John, Christ’s “Beloved Disciple.”
“In a certain way the work was challenging to me. I hired a woman as a model because I wanted the piece to reflect that any of us can be Christ’s beloved disciple.”
In November 2010, the figure was blessed and installed in the niche in the south side of the church building.
Misztal also draws, paints and builds reliquaries. He approaches his work as prayer. He reads Scripture, meditates, researches, contemplates.
“In my opinion, a lot of art in the Church is terrible. Ugly. To me, it’s heartbreaking. Bad art is a form of blasphemy. For God we give the best. You don’t go cheap on art. You hire professional, high-quality artists. You don’t bring artificial flowers to God. You bring beautiful fresh flowers from the garden.”
Last year he had a liver transplant. God saw fit to “extend his leave.” So, in gratitude, Misztal decided to spend the rest of his life sculpting Christ alone. His current project is an almost 10-foot figure of the crucified Christ that will eventually be cast in bronze. An altarpiece. No commission. No one is paying him.
“I put my energy into it. It’s a leap of faith. I hope I find a home for it. Or I may not!”
The unfinished piece was exhibited in a recent gallery show. But having one piece in a church is much more important than having 10 pieces in a prestigious gallery. “Through my piece in a church people will pray to the Lord. A miracle may happen,” he said.
“I’ve seen people in tears, kneeling in front of a piece of mine. Can you imagine? That’s my reinforcement and my joy,” he added.
“We artists are like St. John the Baptist, voices crying out in the desert. We want to bring the light, the beauty, the joy. It’s up to [God]. I’m just a tool. Right now he might put this chisel, Tomasz Misztal, into the box. But there will be other times he will reach out and use it.”
Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.