In late November 2016, Cedar Rapids’ The Gazette printed a story about a muralist and his Brown Mary, Black Jesus. In fact, that was the headline hook. Now what you need to know is that I am a voracious consumer of historic and contemporary sacred and secular art and it’s my business to know what and who is emerging in terms of trends, techniques and thought in liturgical, spiritual and sacred works. And so, this Brown Mary, Black Jesus headline stood out notably from my daily dashboards. Big time.
I absolutely knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I needed to speak with the reported muralist Michael Stenerson of Iowa City. But when I searched him up, I discovered that he is and was primarily a photographer with commercial and editorial leanings who is emerging more as a painter of large and bold abstracts. Stenerson has also completed four or five public art projects, colorful designs on city park benches that he gets frustrated over because paint doesn’t seep all the way in between the railings and he dislikes the somewhat unfinished product and the ungainly physicality of it.
He’s committed to art and has to balance it (like most artists) between the night job, the side gig, the pursuit of art, and the search for some semblance of happiness. I asked him how the art market was in Iowa City and he shared that the area is primarily a college town. A 2008 flood left the area with no working art museum and only a smattering of art and crafty art, possibly some photography, and limited exhibition opportunities largely left to anchor organizations such as the local hospital.
So Stenerson did what any artist does, he made art where art could be made. Graffiti works in a number of murals in a bar and beer garden started with one wall and then expanded to more. A friend of a friend happened to be the head guy in charge of the area’s Catholic Worker and asked Stenerson if he’d be interested in amping up an old garage. With this prospective commission, Stenerson had much leeway for a religious themed piece, even though the genre was a departure from his usual subject matter and his exposure to the organization was limited.
Stenerson knew he wanted to render something in the realm of stained glass effect and he had the Virgin Guadalupe in mind as source material. Praying hands, metallic colors, reflective, visible, and breaking chains were all in the mix. While he was working on Mary’s cape, face and hands, he had to tape sections, paint, wait to dry, fade away with two or three colors and do it all over again. The challenge of doing all of this while he worked a night job was significant. Stenerson would work in the afternoon, against the clock, before Daylight Savings Time closed in. He wanted an original Mary, but original Marys take time and it’s getting cold and he has to get to work.
Stenerson is no stranger to process. He holds a BFA from the University of Minnesota with concentrations in paint and photography. He attended Catholic school from kindergarten to grade six in Duluth, Minnesota. And he enlisted friends Tony Carter, an Iowa transplant living in New York City, and Kenny Morgan, of Iowa City to assist in the large mural project. Stenerson set about painting his Brown Mary, and Carter did a Black Jesus inspired by the Bible story of the shipwrecking of Paul and Paul’s water immersions.
I asked Stenerson straight out if he or his friends intended to bring racial undertones to the work, if he was expressing some particular point of view or was trying to bring attention to some type of cause or diversity effort to the area. Whether he was referencing a historical Mary, whether race placed in religion. I mean, I wanted to know what he MEANT. When the Little Village picked up the story, they included a quote about area immigrants, so naturally I thought there was possibly a connection to the Catholic Worker mission and the visual inclusion.
“We want everyone to know that immigrants and refugees are welcome here,” Emily Sinnwell, a nurse practitioner and co-founder of the Catholic Worker House, said in a press release. “We are a safe house and sanctuary where the poor come first.”
Stenerson’s a seemingly relatable guy. I asked him what three things would revolutionize his life today and he answered: 1. Financial freedom, a benefactor, and the ability to be free to create with creative outlet; 2. Artist collaboration, being surrounded by more like-minded artists; and 3. The ability to travel and paint and be inspired by more outside influences.
But race, he asks me? No. He explains, the graffiti street artist is limited by spray paint’s availability in very limited palettes. There simply isn’t a lot of variety. And with all the white clouds surrounding Mary, with the theme that she is watching and waiting and ever-present, it seemed natural to give her skin tone as an offset, as beauty.
Stenerson shared that he did have some private conversations with friends about why the story might have pitched or characterized in the way it was and when I asked him if he had received a lot of public inquiry either good or bad, he said no. It is a little odd, he said, truly and simply a matter of the color range of available paint. If it gets the work or the organization more visibility or attention, then that can’t be bad and he’d do it again.
The Art Evangelist is a full-service liturgical art advisory working to implement art and artists in sacred spaces and public places. 941.875.5190