In Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood, tucked next to her childhood home, is a one-car garage where Michael Shelby Edwards’ work and faith intertwine.
Inside the converted art studio, painting supplies and finished artworks keep company with a 1950s lawn Nativity scene and a wooden chest covered with prayer cards, candles and family photos. Texts on art, world religions, philosophy and Catholicism fill a bookcase.
For much of this year, a 3-foot-by-4-foot oil painting of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by Pacific Northwest wilderness and with the Christ Child in her lap, slowly took shape on one wall of what has become a sacred space for Edwards.
“What goes on inside of the studio is just a very obvious and direct extension of my prayer life,” she said.
It wasn’t always this way. The 32-year-old Seattle native and her four siblings were raised in a mixed-faith home — their father Catholic, their mother a Protestant. All five children were baptized Catholic and attended St. Therese School in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood.
Edwards drew closer to Catholicism through her next-door neighbor, Debbie Guenther, who had “a fervent, ardent practice of the faith” and became like a second mother to Edwards. Guenther took her to weekday Mass and confession, taught her to pray the rosary and helped her develop a devotion to Mary.
But Guenther died suddenly when Edwards was 16. The teen lost her positive mentor as many negative influences came into her life. She started drinking, doing drugs and developing an interest in the occult. As soon as she was confirmed, “I was out of there,” Edwards said of the Catholic Church.
After graduating from Seattle Preparatory School, Edwards went to the University of Washington, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in painting and drawing in 2005, along with a top department prize for painting. That was despite increasing issues with her drinking.
“I really think that the drinking was a symptom of the soul sickness I was in,” Edwards said. “Painting and drawing was the one bright spot in my life where it was about truth.”
After graduation, Edwards continued her self-described partying ways. Outwardly she seemed to be doing fine, working on portraiture, singing in a blues band and busing tables. But inside, she had hit “spiritual bottom.”
Edwards realized she needed help and entered a 12-step recovery program on Dec. 5, 2005. The next day, she “turned to God.” Soon afterward, she decided to move to Philadelphia for graduate school; she earned her master’s degree in painting and drawing from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2008. She stayed on in the city for two more years, working and progressing spiritually from New Age philosophy to evangelical Christianity.
After reconnecting to Jesus Christ through her 12-step recovery program, Edwards began regularly evangelizing to addicts about the Jesus who had saved her from her demons. Still, something felt lacking faithwise. As she explored different beliefs, “the more orthodox it was, the more Catholic it was, the more weight it had, the more real it was,” she said.
Edwards remembers the exact moment she decided to come back to the church. It was midnight on a Tuesday, her 28th birthday, and she was at a Philadelphia diner with a friend. Sitting nearby was Father Jim Drucker, a local priest and radio disc jockey. The two struck up a conversation. After Edwards told him her story and asked lots of questions, Father Drucker invited her to come back to Catholicism.
And so, in the diner parking lot, in the middle of the night, Edwards made her first confession in a long time. That Sunday, Easter Sunday, she went back to Mass.
“I consider myself really blessed that, for some reason, between God and the devil, I felt things so strongly that I just couldn’t last very long without turning to the truth and turning to Christ,” Edwards said.
Michael Edwards at work in her Mount Baker studio. Photo: Stephen Brashear
Art as religious act
After moving back to Seattle, Edwards set up her studio at her parents’ home and started teaching art. She has attended Mass at the University of Washington’s Newman Center and Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle since her return.
But it did take several years of grappling to reconcile her vocation as an artist with her Catholic faith. The transition is apparent in some of her work, which moves from darker Grimms’ fairy tale ink drawings, through studies of human sexuality and the physical form, into some of her first overtly religious pieces.
The art world can be resistant to religion, said Renee Foulks, one of Edwards’ Philadelphia professors and friends. “You are looked at as someone who is an enemy. You’re looked at as an anti-intellectual.”
Edwards wasn’t vocal about her faith in the arts community, but by 2012, she could “really see my vocation starting to come through in my art.” Others apparently saw the same thing. That year, the curator of an exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts described Edwards as “devoutly Catholic” in her artist bio.
Now, Edwards says that her best answer to the question “What is art?” is that it’s “a religious act, an act of faith.”
“Art, I think, is a very universal, very natural, intrinsic, religious expression,” she said. “The more I allow my work in art to be seamlessly connected with my work in prayer, I feel that I’m becoming more and more and more honest about who I am.”
That doesn’t mean Edwards considers herself a “church artist.” As her friend Dominican Father Raphael Mary Salzillo put it, “The difference between Michael and the art that’s meant to be hung up in a church is like the difference between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.”
“Tolkien hated allegory and Lewis slathered it on,” Father Salzillo explained. “What comes through in Michael’s work comes through in a different way, in a way that is less direct, less obvious, but is in some ways more profound.”
“She can look at a work of art and recognize the truth and the error in it,” he said. “It’s unusual to have a gifted artist who is trained in contemporary art — which is often very anti-Christian — and has the kind of depth of spirituality to speak and give voice to the Gospel through this medium.”
Foulks, too, said Edwards’ works aren’t “necessarily classical representations of the theme,” but “they’re very personal interpretations of her love for Mary and her love of Jesus.”
Edwards’ "The Madonna of Humility" sits amidst a Pacific Northwest wilderness, the Christ Child in her lap, angels at her feet, and a waterfall cascading from her veil. Photo: Courtesy Michael Edwards
Edwards’ religious path led this year to painting The Madonna of Humility, her first large-scale religious work. Aaron Stockton, an Amazon software development engineer, commissioned it after hearing Edwards talk about her passion for art with religious themes. It will hang in the entryway of his Central District home.
During a March session in her studio, Edwards had a heater on to ward off the Seattle dampness that slowed the drying process of her oil paints. With a Rock Star energy drink and coffee nearby and early music playing in the background, Edwards clutched four brushes and a paint rag in her left hand and another brush in her right as she worked on the Madonna bit by bit.
Throughout her conception of and work on the piece she had to keep discerning between her own subconscious thoughts and what God might be trying to tell her about the painting.
“My studio can be my battlefield,” she said. “It’s not really about, ‘What do I feel like I want to do?’ It’s, ‘What does God want me to do with it and what am I called to do?’”
Edwards is an extrovert who says it can be hard to lock herself away in her studio to focus on work. Some days with the Madonna, all she could get herself to do was sit down and pray the rosary, journal and pray some more. Other days, she’d come into the studio and be half a decade into the rosary when inspiration would guide her to the canvas.
“I really do have to get into a sacred space to be able to conceive,” she said. That’s where the idea for a Madonna of Humility came from, emerging in a sketch she worked on while at eucharistic adoration.
A few months later, back at Edwards’ studio, iced tea had replaced coffee and a garage window was open to the warmer late spring weather. The faces of the Madonna and Child were becoming more complex and layered, the details of the wild Pacific Northwest background now visible, and lustrous warmth saturating the entire work.
Stockton said he especially appreciates that the piece is the type of artwork that “grows with you.”
“If you approach them again and again and soak in the details, they grow in richness,” he said.
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When Edwards says of the Madonna, “I just want it to be a part of me pointing to God,” she could be talking about any of her artwork today.
That’s because she considers the sometimes “dark and secular” art world to be a mission field. “Everything I do is for God, whether I’m at a cathedral or in a commercial gallery,” she said.
While she doesn’t directly evangelize to her art students or subjects, conversations about faith and religion often creep into sessions in her studio. One of her students, Lon-Marie Walton, has had many deep religious conversations with Edwards despite not being religious.
“I think art is quite a spiritual undertaking,” Walton said. “And what Michael has chosen to do with that is to look at the world through her experience and her faith and try and interpret truthfully what she sees.”
Edwards said of her nonreligious students, “I can see that when they are painting and drawing, that’s the closest thing to prayer and contemplation that they’re experiencing in their life. And I trust that encouraging people in this direction is really encouraging them to cast out into the creation and find out what’s there.”
Edwards always knew she had a vocation to be an artist. Now it’s also about sharing Christ through her art. “There’s this really joyful and delicious sense that my life in the arts really makes sense now that I’m a Catholic.”
Interested in seeing Michael Edwards’ art firsthand? Some of her work will be exhibited Dec. 5 at Rogers & Ryan, 605 Eastlake Ave. E., Seattle.
Northwest Catholic - Dec. 2014
Anna Weaver is the multimedia, online and social media editor for Northwest Catholic. She also writes for the magazine and website.