A riveting image

As we prepared for MOCRA’s encore presentation of the exhibition Good Friday, we discussed whether there was one image from the many strong works in the exhibition that could represent the show (in 2009, our printed announcements featured thumbnail images of about 20 different works).

Good Friday 2009 exhibition invitation
announcement for 2009 showing of “Good Friday” at MOCRA.

Then, in early January, a cataclysmic event made the choice obvious.

Sr. Helen David Brancato, IHM. Crucifixion – Haiti, 1997. Acrylic and collage on wood. MOCRA collection. Photo by Jeffrey Vaughn.

The work we selected is titled, Crucifixion – Haiti. It was created by Sr. Helen David Brancato, a member of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Congregation located near Philadelphia. The work was included in an exhibition titled Jesus 2000, which was based on a contest sponsored by the National Catholic Reporter that sought to highlight contemporary images of Jesus. The work later entered MOCRA’s collection and is shown frequently.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Sr. Helen. I found out that she has long been an advocate of using the arts for social justice. From 1990 to 2004, Sr. Helen directed an art center in one of Philadelphia’s  poorest neighborhoods. Sr. Helen said that her approach to the art center was based on the philosophy of Dorothy Day, who believed that people are just as hungry for the arts as they are for bread. The center became a safe refuge for creativity for children.

Since 2004, Sr. Helen has been teaching drawing and painting at Villanova University. One of her courses, titled “Art as an Agent of Change,” took 9 to 15 art students into the inner city to work with children through the arts. In recent years, Sr. Helen’s students have been a creative lifeline for students at one of those grade schools, as that school had to let go of its art teacher for budgetary reasons.

In 1989 she traveled with a Pax Christi group to Haiti for two weeks and met with villagers throughout Haiti. She told me that the Haiti trip changed her life. She did a series of 45 to 50 paintings based on that trip. In 1997 Sr. Helen painted Crucifixion—Haiti as a response to a news photograph she saw of a Haitian woman who had just learned that her family members were among the 400 victims who drowned in a ferry boat sinking in Haiti.

We’ve been struck by the frequency with which similar images of a woman fallen to the ground, arms outstretched in a paroxysm of grief, have appeared in media reports on the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

photo by Damon Winter/The New York Times
photo by Damon Winter/The New York Times

While the work was made by Sr. Helen in 1997, it remains resonant today as it reflects the grief, suffering, and perseverance of the Haitian people in the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake. We are pleased to be able to share it with MOCRA’s audiences, and hope that it will, in its own way, inspire a compassionate and generous response to the needs of the people of Haiti.

— Terrence Dempsey, SJ, Director