Guatemala's Tensions Energize Jesuit Artist's Creativity

Article excerpt

NEAR GUATEMALA CITY * It was about 15 minutes into the conversation when Jesuit Fr Dennis Leder, in describing his art, explained so much more.

Always on his mind, he said, especially when he is constructing a piece of architectural sculpture, is the tension between chaos and harmony. That's descriptive, one could argue, of the human condition in general. Our lives might often seem to be about making sense of chaos. But some places present the problem in more stark terms than others, and Guatemala, where we spoke, is one of those. It is a place of remarkable physical beauty and natural harmony; at the same time, few places anywhere match it for the sheer amount of oppression and killing that has occurred in its recent history.

Some lives, too, embrace that tension to a much greater degree than others, and Leder has placed himself amid such tension during years ministering in a refugee camp and along what he sees as the "parallel tracks" of life as a priest and as an artist.

The 67-year-old Leder, who has lived in Guatemala since 1991, is director of the Central American Institute of Spirituality, an idyllic spot on the outskirts of the capital, Guatemala City, illustrative of the harmonic qualities of the country. The center, founded some 20 years ago as a center for spirituality and growth, conducts intensive workshops that run from late January to early June exploring those topics with an emphasis on the psychological, spiritual and historic aspects.

The programs, said Leder, draw participants from throughout Central and South America and beyond. The center also conducts workshops on human rights with young people, as well as programs for women and men and indigenous people.

Amid the structures for retreats and workshops is Leder's studio, a high-ceilinged structure with light pouring through windows at the tops of the walls and through transparent panels in the roof. Last June, when this writer visited, a large painting, a design of circle segments interrupted by angled lines and the sharp delineations of rectangles, hung on one wall, on another, a cardboard model of a sculpture that would ultimately be rendered in steel--more circle parts and lines. "I don't consider myself adept at color," he says. Adept or not, the colors in the displayed painting are bold and contrasting from one figure to the next. "I am more interested in things that begin and end and start again."

His career as artist is one of those things. He was a young Jesuit in 1982 when he sold a piece of sculpture, a cardboard predecessor to the later work that would almost all be made of metal, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But that start at the top was quickly interrupted when, in Christmas 1983, he joined one of the earliest trips to Nicaragua put together by Witness for Peace. The following year he made another trip south, to El Salvador and Nicaragua, with his longtime friend and fellow Jesuit, Fr. Dan Berrigan, poet and peace activist.

In recalling that time, Leder mentions as an aside, "We didn't come to Guatemala. It's true. I think Guatemala has been a country forgotten, and the violence has been terrible here."

His entry into Guatemala, save for a brief stint in 1985 to study language, would come later. Following his trip with Berrigan, Leder decided that being in Central America "was something I wanted to do."

His way back was through the Jesuit Refugee Service. Following language study, he arrived in Honduras for what was to be a temporary assignment as the only priest in a camp of 8,000 Salvadorans, most of them refugees from the province of Morazan. The province had been a hotbed of fighting during that country's civil war (1979-92) and site of the El Mozote Massacre, in which government troops killed some 900 people in 1981. Leder remained in the camp until it closed in 1990, as the war was winding down.

He accompanied the people back to their province and stayed for some months before making his way to Guatemala in 1991. …