The Spirituality of Art

By Michael Austin

If you think of art-making as a hobby or pastime rather than a serious pursuit, and if you view the consumption of art as a leisurely diversion rather than a vital life experience, Fr. Michael Flecky, SJ, would like you to reconsider. He would like you to consider that art-making can be a spiritual activity, an important part of ministry, a form of service, and a means of building compassion in the world, as it is for him.

A professor of photography at Creighton University, Fr. Flecky is sharing some of his work in the one-person show, “Spirited Space: Figure and Form,” a fall 2019 exhibit at Creighton University Gallery. The show features large-format prints (some are nearly life-size) of both Anasazi cliff dwellings and the interior of the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University, as well as subjective-abstract shadow images of human forms printed from scanned negatives.

“Perhaps the biggest challenge we have today is the suggestion that life is not worth living,” Fr. Flecky says. “When you think about the suicide rate, and shootings, and refugees at the border, you’re tempted to think about society in degradation, and that we don’t have a reason to live anymore.”

Simply looking at artwork is not the solution to our most pressing crises, but Fr. Flecky says the power of art should never be underestimated, and the way each person experiences art is as personal as a fingerprint.

The same goes for making art in the first place. Father Flecky, who is marking his 40th year at Creighton in 2020 (one as campus minister and the past 39 as a professor), has tirelessly encouraged his students to pay attention to the smallest visual details, of both nature and life itself. That awareness builds connections.

“He’s very conscious of his surroundings, and I think that reflects in his work,” says Brandon McKenna, a former student of Fr. Flecky who is now a professional photographer in Omaha. “When he’s out hiking, he’s looking for things on the ground that most people don’t even pay attention to. They’ll just walk past them. But he picks them up and works with them and gets beautiful images out of them.”

The ability to turn something small, seemingly insignificant, and overlooked into a thing of beauty speaks to the power of art, according to Fr. Flecky. Such a creation could be the catalyst that finally allows someone to be filled with relief, or perhaps even hope or courage. Art shows us that we are not alone, that other people experience some of the same things we do.

“I think making art is a form of service that is necessary, more necessary than a lot of other things in our society,” he says.

Father Flecky turns 73 this November. He grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the eldest of 10 children, and graduated from Creighton Prep. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and letters, as well as his MA in English, from Saint Louis University; his M.Div. from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California; and his MFA in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology. But his introduction to photography, during his novitiate in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1960s, happened by chance.

“After we took our first vows in the novitiate, we had a two-week vacation, and I found it hard to kind of sit on my hands,” he recalls. “I was thinking I’d be a high school teacher and maybe it’d be good to learn photography to make visual aids, or somehow accent my teaching.”

There was a small darkroom at the novitiate, stocked with military surplus photography paper, likely from World War II, and a Kodak Retina 35mm camera. Father George Winzenburg, SJ, who was a year ahead of Fr. Flecky in Jesuit studies, taught him the basics.

“George still likes to remind me that he was the one who got me hooked and started in the first place, for which I’m grateful,” Fr. Flecky says.

In 2015, Fr. Greg O’Meara, SJ, rector of the Creighton Jesuit Community, nominated Fr. Flecky for honorary induction into Alpha Sigma Nu (the Jesuit honor society). In his citation, he wrote the following:

“By sharing Mike’s vantage point, we are given the privilege of seeing our lives laden with the profound beauty of everything: from rocks, leaves, and flowers to sand dunes and buildings perceived as fractured and refracted— concrete and steel in dynamic tension—a world breaking apart and crumbling, while new worlds rise and take shape and form. Though he may not put it this way, by looking through Mike’s eyes, we can begin to understand that God continues to take delight in creation, to look at this world and see it as very good.”

This idea of combining art and faith or religion can confuse some people, or even scare them, but Fr. Flecky insists that art and spirituality need not be mutually exclusive.

“You can think of art as being something secular, kind of material, a little vainglorious, egotistical,” he says. “The fact that it could be the work of God, it could be incarnation, it could be the coming of God’s creation into the world, and it could be redemptive in some way, that’s kind of scary. It’s powerful.”

Look at Fr. Flecky’s photographs and you will see that power. You might even change the way you think about art.

If you think of art-making as a hobby or pastime rather than a serious pursuit, and if you view the consumption of art as a leisurely diversion rather than a vital life experience, Fr. Michael Flecky, SJ, would like you to reconsider. He would like you to consider that art-making can be a spiritual activity, an important part of ministry, a form of service, and a means of building compassion in the world, as it is for him.

A professor of photography at Creighton University, Fr. Flecky is sharing some of his work in the one-person show, “Spirited Space: Figure and Form,” a fall 2019 exhibit at Creighton University Gallery. The show features large-format prints (some are nearly life-size) of both Anasazi cliff dwellings and the interior of the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University, as well as subjective-abstract shadow images of human forms printed from scanned negatives.

“Perhaps the biggest challenge we have today is the suggestion that life is not worth living,” Fr. Flecky says. “When you think about the suicide rate, and shootings, and refugees at the border, you’re tempted to think about society in degradation, and that we don’t have a reason to live anymore.”

Simply looking at artwork is not the solution to our most pressing crises, but Fr. Flecky says the power of art should never be underestimated, and the way each person experiences art is as personal as a fingerprint.

The same goes for making art in the first place. Father Flecky, who is marking his 40th year at Creighton in 2020 (one as campus minister and the past 39 as a professor), has tirelessly encouraged his students to pay attention to the smallest visual details, of both nature and life itself. That awareness builds connections.

“He’s very conscious of his surroundings, and I think that reflects in his work,” says Brandon McKenna, a former student of Fr. Flecky who is now a professional photographer in Omaha. “When he’s out hiking, he’s looking for things on the ground that most people don’t even pay attention to. They’ll just walk past them. But he picks them up and works with them and gets beautiful images out of them.”

The ability to turn something small, seemingly insignificant, and overlooked into a thing of beauty speaks to the power of art, according to Fr. Flecky. Such a creation could be the catalyst that finally allows someone to be filled with relief, or perhaps even hope or courage. Art shows us that we are not alone, that other people experience some of the same things we do.

“I think making art is a form of service that is necessary, more necessary than a lot of other things in our society,” he says.

Father Flecky turns 73 this November. He grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the eldest of 10 children, and graduated from Creighton Prep. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and letters, as well as his MA in English, from Saint Louis University; his M.Div. from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California; and his MFA in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology. But his introduction to photography, during his novitiate in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1960s, happened by chance.

“After we took our first vows in the novitiate, we had a two-week vacation, and I found it hard to kind of sit on my hands,” he recalls. “I was thinking I’d be a high school teacher and maybe it’d be good to learn photography to make visual aids, or somehow accent my teaching.”

There was a small darkroom at the novitiate, stocked with military surplus photography paper, likely from World War II, and a Kodak Retina 35mm camera. Father George Winzenburg, SJ, who was a year ahead of Fr. Flecky in Jesuit studies, taught him the basics.

“George still likes to remind me that he was the one who got me hooked and started in the first place, for which I’m grateful,” Fr. Flecky says.

In 2015, Fr. Greg O’Meara, SJ, rector of the Creighton Jesuit Community, nominated Fr. Flecky for honorary induction into Alpha Sigma Nu (the Jesuit honor society). In his citation, he wrote the following:

“By sharing Mike’s vantage point, we are given the privilege of seeing our lives laden with the profound beauty of everything: from rocks, leaves, and flowers to sand dunes and buildings perceived as fractured and refracted— concrete and steel in dynamic tension—a world breaking apart and crumbling, while new worlds rise and take shape and form. Though he may not put it this way, by looking through Mike’s eyes, we can begin to understand that God continues to take delight in creation, to look at this world and see it as very good.”

This idea of combining art and faith or religion can confuse some people, or even scare them, but Fr. Flecky insists that art and spirituality need not be mutually exclusive.

“You can think of art as being something secular, kind of material, a little vainglorious, egotistical,” he says. “The fact that it could be the work of God, it could be incarnation, it could be the coming of God’s creation into the world, and it could be redemptive in some way, that’s kind of scary. It’s powerful.”

Look at Fr. Flecky’s photographs and you will see that power. You might even change the way you think about art.

Return to Jesuits Fall/Winter 2019 Index

The Gift of Time
Destinations of Faith
Spirituality



Publications

Jesuits Fall Winter 2019

Jesuits Summer 2019

Jesuits Spring 2019





Jesuit Retreat House on Lake Winnebago
Located 80 miles north of Milwaukee, the Jesuit Retreat House on Lake Winnebago welcomes men and women of all faiths to its silent preached and directed retreats.