Forever in blue jeans: How a Stillwater artist brought the future-saint to life

| Christina Capecchi | November 22, 2019 | 0 Comments

An icon of Brother James Miller painted by Stillwater iconographer Nick Markell. Courtesy Cretin-Derham Hall

Nick Markell had never heard of Brother James Miller when Cretin-Derham Hall first commissioned the acclaimed artist to paint an icon of the martyr.

A combination of prayer and research went into his creative process, including a picture of the late missionary holding a lamb in Guatemala. Add to that the fact that he often wore overalls, and an image was emerging: the traditional ambiance of a religious icon with a contemporary twist, showing Brother James — titled “Hermano Santiago,” as he was known — donned in overalls with a gold numbus encircling his head and a lamb in his arms.

“It made him more accessible,” said Markell, a member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Stillwater and owner of nearby Markell Studios. “Perhaps that’s why the image has taken off a bit.”

Indeed, it has become the most widely known image of the Midwestern saint-to-be – an incredible outcome for a month-long effort painting with acrylic wash and gold leaf in his apartment while the sun set, incense filled the air and Gregorian chant played.

Markel focused on Brother James’ prominent eyebrows and eyes. “I tried to capture an essence of that,” he said.

As he painted, the father contemplated the message behind the martyr. “He represented for me an every-day saint. There’s a certain status about being martyred, but this is possible for the every-day person. A lot of the icons I might do over the years are saints that seem out of reach – the great saints of history. But then you have an example of a recent saint who walked the streets with us but their faith was strong and then died for it.”

Meanwhile, the lamb remains a reflection of Brother James’ gentle, attentive outreach, embracing each child as Jesus, the Good Shepherd, did.

The positive response to the icon continues to delight Markell. “There’s very touching, as an iconographer. I’m very grateful to have been involved.”

He’s also thankful to share his passion with others through workshops. His next local one will be held at his church, St. Mary’s, in February 2020. Learn more about Nick Markell’s work at Markellstudios.com.

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