Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Portrait of the Artist

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Portrait of the Artist

Article excerpt

WHEN DUTCH-BORN ARTIST SYLVIA NICOLAS WAS working on a mosaic at a Benedictine abbey in New England more than 40 years ago, the monks insisted she finish and clean up so they could begin Holy Thursday services. "But the church isn't ready yet," she protested, "and there are four tons of stone to move."

The monks, who wanted to try out their new liturgical space, were adamant. But so was Nicolas.

As the monastic community processed out to start the Mass, they saw a shadow move in the Blessed Sacrament chapel and heard the determined scrape of a trowel, the resolute pounding of stone. Nicolas was not about to be dislodged.

One of the leading ecclesiastical artists in the United States, Nicolas is a woman of firm opinion, steely resolve, deep iconographic and theological knowledge, and generous good humor. With the genteel reserve of a museum doyenne, she can still tell a raucous good story. The daughter of Joep and Suzanne (Nys) Nicolas, both famous artists who immigrated to the U.S. in 1939 to escape the rising tide of Nazism, Sylvia has been wife, mother, grandmother, and--always--artist.

From her rambling studio barn in Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, Nicolas' artistic connections stretch around the world with commissions for statuary, stained glass, and mosaics for monasteries, churches, hospitals, government buildings, and public spaces.

While the works she creates help others to pray, she finds that for her, the work itself is prayer. "I'm terrible at concentrating on prayer as such; I'm not fluent in prayer," she says. "But for five generations, my family has been working in the arts for the church, so this has become a way of life. The work has become my prayer."

Whenever Nicolas accepts a commission, she delves deeply into the history of the person she will depict. Her favorite figures? "The Virgin, of course, and I have to admit, I developed something of a passion for [St.] Anselm," she says.

As an artist educated in New York, Paris, Rome, and her father's studio in Venlo, the Netherlands, however, she finds the clay, glass, and stone of her creations are themselves the essential teachers.

"One is always in a dialogue with the material, with what you're doing to it and with the person you are trying to depict. Of course, I have a general idea of what I am doing. But it is the happy accidents, the features of the substance that help suggest the final form," she says. …

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