New Orleans Artist Specializes in Church Designs


IT was nearly 25 years ago and Ruth Goliwas was a young, locally trained painter and printmaker when her agent approached her with a job query: Would she be interested in providing designs for a church sanctuary?

That was a little afield for Goliwas. But she had earned a degree in fine art from the University of New Orleans and was supporting herself through her talents, however they might be deployed.

So she said yes - and soon entered the world of liturgical art and design, immersing herself for the first time in the lives of saints, communities of faith, and local clergy, whom she came to admire.

Collectively, they worked a change on Goliwas. And she brought them change too, at least ornamentally.

Today Goliwas describes herself as a person of active faith, a shift from her youth. And now her work is all over metropolitan New Orleans, found mostly in Catholic churches.

The 14-foot triangular stained glass window dominating the front of the new Mary Queen of Peace Church in Mandeville is hers; much of the art in Holy Family Church in Luling is hers, as are dozens of tabernacle designs, painted and etched glass windows, enamel murals, statuary, chairs and altars from Mandeville to Marrero - and at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Goliwas designed the papal chair used by Pope John Paul II in his 1987 Lakefront Mass; she also carved the design for bronze medallions embedded in a processional cross that preceded him to the papal altar.

She is one of about 10 artists working steadily in worship settings around New Orleans.

There is still plenty of work to go around after Hurricane Katrina, she said.

Much of her work is in stained glass, which, as a practical matter, is actually a pleasing assembly of pieces of colored glass and hand-painted pieces of clear glass that depict detailed images: faces, books, hands and the like.

But she also designs statuary to be executed by others; designs altars and furniture and baptisteries; and carves tabernacle fronts.

The work is a blend of art, design, construction know-how and hardheaded pragmatism, as when Goliwas discovered at the very last minute that, however it had looked on paper and in glass on her shop table at Goliwas Studio, the face of Christ was too dark - "didn't read right" - when set in place in the newly finished Holy Family Church in Luling.

The solution: Chop the face out of a newly installed window, race back to her Carrollton studio, paint and bake a new one - corrected for tone - and race back to Luling to get it up shortly before the archbishop's arrival and the start of dedication ceremonies.

"There's a lot of stuff people never know," she said.

If, in the tradition of liturgical art, the images of Mary, the saints and Christian symbols make the faith present to the faithful, it seems to have done the same for the artist.

Early on, "I was very nonreligious," Goliwas said. As the first liturgical commissions came in, the young artist said she offered God a trade: "If you can make this work for me, I'd love to do it. If you do, I'll devote my life to it."

But Goliwas said she got more than steady work.

Reared as an evangelical, a tradition that forswears ornamentation and ritual, Goliwas had no sense of the meaning of Catholic art she was being asked to create.

To understand what these pieces meant, she began reading accounts of the lives of the saints. She came to understand sacraments and ritual. She acquainted herself with Catholic liturgy and what it meant, how it worked and why.

"I wasn't dragged in kicking and screaming. I loved it," she said. "I found myself being seduced by something miraculous."About Original ArtPostersInspirationsInterviewsPerformance Art • FAQArt TermsContact, POB 50009, Atlanta, GA 30302