About the book
When most of us consider life in the priesthood, a cloistered, removed existence comes to mind. But Gaston Petit belies the stereotype.
A widely travelled Dominican priest, Petit has earned an international reputation for his art, achieving renown in painting, stained glass, church design, silkscreen and wood block prints, sculpture and mural installation, with works in major museums and collections throughout the world. While he has been stationed in Japan since 1966, Petit retains strong Canadian roots, spending half the year on the north shore of his beloved St. Lawrence, and half the year in Tokyo. Petit seamlessly combines East and West, exploring the artistic and spiritual traditions in both.
This is a fascinating portrait of an artist, a traveller, a seeker. Interviewer Linda Ghan takes Petit from his rural beginnings in Shawinigan to his peripatetic existence today, and we come to know a man whose grand curiosity brings joy and beauty into the world. Colour reproductions highlight some of Petit’s rich and varied oeuvre.
About the author
Originally from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Linda Ghan was an accomplished author of fiction, drama and journalism. Her first novel, A Gift of Sky, had two editions in Canada as well as publication in translation in Japan. Her children’s story, Muhla, The Fair One, was commissioned and performed by Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop and published by Nuage Editions. Ghan moved to Japan in 1996 and published many articles for Japanese dailies and the non-fiction book Gaston Petit: The Kimono and the Cross, before returning to fiction with Sosi.
ART: NOSTALGIA FOR GOD
When you design for a church—a mural, stained glass windows, a tabernacle—you are thinking of a religious site. In that sense, the work is religious. Do you consider your other work, paintings and prints, for instance, as religious?
You are not the first to ask this question. In 1981, my superior was visiting in my studio. I was working on L'oreille au guet, "The Listening Ear." He watched me work, and finally he asked,—with some amusement, actually: "When are you going to do religious paintings?" I could have answered, I suppose, in philosophical terms. This—he is a trained philosophical scholar, after all—he would have understood quite easily. Alex von Jawlesky, for example, defines art as nostalgia for God.
Art is nostalgia for God?
The search, the creation, is a way to go back to God, the Alpha, to reach God, the Omega. As both an artist and as a man, I have a nostalgia for home, a craving. God can never be defined or narrowed down to any fixed notion or point: this nostalgia becomes the push, the motor, which compels the artist—the artist in me—to work, to work, and work again, never able to achieve the defining image which contains all the others. Only God contains all. An impossible search, after all. It is not possible to appreciate and understand all of God's riches, or to understand the Mystery or the Finality. No religion can. Each religion depends on the culture out of which it was born.
But you didn¹t say this to him.
No. I went directly to the point: the painting we were standing in front of. "Observe well," I said, "the elements of this canvas." Then I sent him home: I sat down and a few hours later, I handed him a treatise. In the first place, in full centre, we see a dog sitting in a square, ostensibly empty. Just white space. The dog is framed, "separated" from his surroundings, but whether or not the square is "empty" is, as we say in Japan, a matter of interpretation. In fact, it is not empty, but free of obstruction, and the dog seems very attentive to what is happening outside his space. He is listening. And waiting for the burst of song from the white bird perched on the doorway which frames the square in which he sits. Those familiar with the iconography would understand that the bird symbolizes the Spirit which blows when and where it wants. According to a Dominican legend, Saint Jeanne d'Aza, while she was awaiting the birth of the child who became St. Dominique, saw, in a kind of daydream, a dog emerge from her breast carrying a flaming torch in his mouth. In medieval times, with a certain play on words, the Dominicans were called "Domini Canis," dogs of God. You laugh. You are surprised that we can make jokes about ourselves? Really, the expression is not new. It is found in St. Bernard's writings as long ago as the 10th century.
I'm not laughing at. I'm impressed by the sense of humour. So what does he hear, this bearded dog sitting in the middle of his square?
Human conversation. The conversation of women. Woman, medieval or contemporary, the pious and the profane, have a need to talk, to be listened to. We have both the medieval pious women and the prostitute in this painting. In Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Les Demoiselles were, as we know, the "girls," the prostitutes on the street of Avignon in Barcelona. The dog is listening to the world, to these women outside his circle, remembering his master's injunction "to be in this world and not of this world," always attentive to the mystery expressed at the beginning of time and often symbolized by the humble apple. Actually, the apple in the painting, dangled by one of the pious women, is for me the most striking part of the canvas. The apple swings like a pendulum, like a measure, in front of shadow figures, oriental silhouettes who are behind shoji, opalescent paper windows.
Meaning that the mystery addresses itself equally to the Orient which is still largely unaware of the mystery of salvation. So these shadow figures dance, unaware, separated from the reality of salvation by this thin paper. Another symbol. Illusion's mask. How does one tear down this mask of illusion, open the doors which bring salvation? Are my paintings religious? I would say so, but each work lives differently depending on the viewer. It is for you to tell me.
“Gaston Petit is many things, but conventional is not one of them. A Dominican priest who, far from being cloistered, has wandered the globe with an almost compulsive hunger... ”>>
— Annabel Wright The Daily Yomiuri
“Gaston Petit is a Quebec artist who has produced hundreds of paintings, lithographs and art objects. So why have many culture minded Quebecers never heard of him? One... ”>>
— Victor Swoboda The Montreal Gazette
“Art. Cross. Japan. Quebec. Saskatchewan. Priesthood. Creativing writing. If you entered these key words into an INternet search engine, it might come up with the names Father... ”>>
— Paul Matthew St. Pierre The B.C. Catholic