Praising God through art

Photo: Stephen Brashear Photo: Stephen Brashear

Teacher Darlene Selland brings the joy of Christ to her Assumption-St. Bridget students

God is never far away in Darlene Selland’s art class, whether students are drawing the face of Christ, a snowy church scene or a gumball machine.

“Praise God through art — that’s been my motto from day one,” said Selland, who is in her 36th year of teaching art at K–12 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Seattle.

When she asks eighth-graders at Assumption-St. Bridget School in Seattle to draw a portrait of their hands doing something productive that they enjoy, the results can be as varied as gripping a baseball or applying nail polish. It’s part of her effort to draw them closer to God.

“I want them to start seeing Almighty God in all the simple times of their life, not just at church,” Selland said. “He’s with us when we’re painting our fingernails or playing baseball. He’s present if we’re aware of him.”

Every year, Selland’s ASB students draw the face of Christ — the younger students in pencil, the older ones in charcoal. The seventh-graders draw a profile of Christ’s face on the cross. Although her classes are often playful, when students are drawing Christ, “there’s a reverence and respect,” Selland said.

“I bring their work home to grade it and cry at my dining room table,” touched by the love and emotion in their sketches, she added.

If they save nothing else from her classes, Selland tells her students, they should save the face of Christ. Not only will they see how their work improves from year to year, she explains, “but you will see how your love of Christ increases from year to year, because the more you love him, the better you draw him.”

Snowy Church, crayon. By Madelyn Birmingham

Finding family in Catholic school

Selland has been drawing since she was a child. Back then, it often was done surreptitiously — on the walls, under the kitchen and dining room tables, in the closet behind the hanging clothes, she explains, laughing.

She attributes her love of art to her seventh-grade teacher, Sister Mary Elizabeth, at St. Alphonsus School in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. “If we were well-behaved, she would give us an art class on Friday — it was like a reward,” Selland said.

Mary Spain Art
Christ in Crucifixion, charcoal. By Mary Spain

She remembers Sister Mary Elizabeth teaching her class how to sketch a tree, then create a colorful canopy using three tiny sponges dipped in orange, yellow and green acrylic paints. “I found it absolutely fascinating,” Selland said.

Her junior high years were tough (her father was an alcoholic who stopped drinking when she was 15), but in creating art, “I found a great release — it felt really wonderful,” Selland said.

“I loved my Catholic school, I loved my teachers and the priests and the nuns — they were my family,” Selland added. “I have a great devotion to the Catholic Church. I feel like they saved me.” It’s part of the reason she has dedicated her teaching career to Catholic schools.

After graduating from St. Alphonsus, Selland attended the all-girls Holy Angels High School (now defunct) for a year. But the school didn’t have an art program.

“I was hungry for it, something fierce,” she said. So she transferred to Ballard High School, which had a “tremendous” art program. She became friends with classmate Rory Selland, whom she married after he returned from Vietnam. Despite his Hodgkin’s disease, they were married 40 years and had five healthy sons.

Although she’s had tragic events in her life, including the murder of a niece, “I am filled with joy, and I owe it all to Almighty God,” Selland said.

The mindfulness of Christ ever-present

Selland, who has been teaching at ASB for 11 years (currently teaching grades 3–8), tries to make art a joyous experience for her students.

“God, to me, is the ultimate artist,” she said. “All you have to do is look at the colors and the textures and the highlights and the shadows of this world to realize how glorious God really is.”

Everyone has ability, she said — if students can memorize the alphabet and numbers, they can memorize artistic technique. “I don’t believe that art is a talent that God gives just a few people. We are all creative.”

She brings to the classroom a mindfulness of Christ ever-present. “I refer to God constantly,” she said. “If you talk to any of my students, they’ll probably laugh. I’m holding up their art [saying], ‘Dear God in heaven above, thank you, this student followed directions, you just made my day.’”

“I suppose there are those who think I’m a bit touched, but they love me anyway,” Selland added, laughing.

Darlene SellenThrough art, Darlene Selland teaches her students to see God everywhere in their lives. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Teaching thousands of students over 36 years (she also taught at St. Alphonsus and Our Lady of Fatima in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood) means it’s not unusual for Selland to run into former students around town. At a grocery store recently, a young man she hadn’t seen for probably 20 years gave her a big hug, told her all about his life and noted she was one of his favorite teachers. “It was the darnedest thing,” Selland said. “Sometimes you can affect someone’s life and you don’t know you did — sometimes you don’t know for years.”

Through her art classes, Selland hopes to raise her students’ awareness and understanding of the world around them and provide them an emotional outlet in life. “Whether you’re happy or you’re sad, art is a way to express your feelings and get them out on paper and release them,” she said.

But “if all they get out of being around me for eight years is I love God and I love them and I love art,” Selland said, “that is good enough for me.”

Read the Spanish version of this story.

Northwest Catholic - January/February 2020

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.
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Jean Parietti es editora local para el sitio web NWCatholic.org y destacada editora de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic. Pueden contactarle en: jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.