Art, a Necessary Voice: An Interview With Dennis Leder
What drew you to Guatemala?
It happened in a roundabout way. In the early 1980’s, I went to Central America with the first short-term delegation of Witness for Peace. They had begun a presence on the border between Nicaragua and Honduras during the Contra offensive against Nicaragua. That visit was only for two weeks, but the political and religious atmosphere caught my attention. Six months later I made a longer trip to Central America with Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and a mutual friend and became convinced that I should spend a year or two in such a charged area. Soon after, I heard that Jesuit Refugee Service had begun operations in Central America. I asked permission to work there and was assigned to a large Salvadoran refugee camp in Honduras, very close to the war zone. I had never seen a refugee camp before, but soon I was living in one, the only priest among 8,000 families who had fled the violence in El Salvador. The camp was so well organized that the refugees themselves handled the day-to-day needs, like communal cooking and classes for the children, as well as making clothing, shoes and household items in workshops sponsored by Catholic Charities of Europe (Caritas).
Did you have any time in the camp to work on your art?
Living in the camp didn’t allow much space for personal art work, but I did eventually organize some painting and drawing classes. During my first year, I received an invitation to the opening of the 20th-century wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which had acquired a small sculpture of mine. But the invitation arrived the very day of the event, and of course I couldn’t attend. That moment consequently remains with me as a symbol of the creative tension that has accompanied my life as a priest and an artist.
Some graces come once in a lifetime, and my time there in the camp in Colomoncagua was one such grace. I was to be with J.R.S. for two years, but the longer I stayed with the refugees, the harder it was to imagine leaving them behind. So I ended up staying over four years, until the camp closed early in 1990, and I continue to feel a great love for the Salvadoran refugees from Morazán Province. The memories are still fresh.
Did your presence as a foreigner in the camp make a difference?
The refugees were always aware of their precarious situation, so they asked for the presence of international volunteers as a form of protection. Being only three kilometers from the Salvadoran border, the camp was continuously surrounded by hostile military patrols of the Honduran army. The Honduran authorities assumed the camp was being used as a resting place for guerrillas from El Salvador who wanted to visit their families, and as far as the military was concerned, the volunteers in the camp were guerrillas too.
The eventual repatriation of the refugees was to have begun on Nov. 16, 1989, but that was the very day when four Jesuits and the two laywomen were killed on the campus of the University of Central America in San Salvador. Just three months before the murders took place, one of those Jesuits, Segundo Montes, visited the camp to help the refugees plan for their return. By then I was under some pressure to return to the New York Province of the Jesuits, but Segundo suggested that I contact the Central American superior to ask that I be allowed to stay. The permission was granted. The death of Segundo was another motivation for my wanting to remain—ministering first to the repatriated Salvadoran refugees and then eventually being assigned to Guatemala.
What did your work in Guatemala initially involve?
My work in Guatemala began in an indigenous parish in the high plains. But I became increasingly aware that if I kept on with a full-time pastoral schedule, I might never reconnect with the artist in me. I remember dreaming of paint brushes locked in glass cases and waking up with a feeling that that part of my life could just disappear. So another grace intervened when the rector of a historic church in Guatemala City invited me to move there and take part in the restoration of its baroque murals and paintings, which had been damaged in an earthquake years before. Soon I also became involved with the Religious Conference of Guatemala, teaching spirituality courses in an inter-congregational formation program. After eight years, I was again blending pastoral work with art issues, and happily so. I’ve now been doing that for a decade, working with novices—mostly women—from all over Latin America. Women, in my opinion, are the ones who largely hold the church together there, serving as vital forces in church activities, both lay and religious. Sisters in various religious congregations often live in poor neighborhoods and minister in nonclerical ways as a visible presence of solidarity and concern.
Later, I was invited to live in the Jesuit community at the Rafael Landívar University. For several years I worked in the theology department, but recently I was named director of an arts program the university has begun. The project deals with dance, music, theater, cinema and the plastic arts, and is part of an effort to add a humanistic element to the students’ curriculum. The Guatemalan educational system has not generally seen culture and art as an important part of what students should know, so the arts program is part of an effort to reintroduce what Jesuit education has always been about.
How do you combine your two vocations as priest and as artist?
I’ve come to realize that my vocation as priest would never be completely integrated with my vocation as an artist. For me, they run on parallel and complementary tracks. They both contribute to a life consecrated to the search for truth, as Matisse said when commenting on his famous chapel in Vence, in southern France. For an artist, the truth is usually found through metaphor, and both artist and priest carry on their search in the presence of mystery. Being both an artist and a priest is really nothing new to church history or to the Society of Jesus. But now, at a time when religious imagery is not a dominant concern of artists, the presence of an artist-priest is something of an anomaly.
Although I began studying art 30 years ago as a painter, in time I began focusing on nonrepresentational sculpture, making architectural constructions in cardboard as models. An ironworker in Guatemala City, an older man who has become a dear friend, then fabricates the actual sculptures from the models I leave with him. Overall, I see my work as an investigation of opposites. I’m intrigued by contrasts and by the underlying order in apparent chaos. In visual terms, it’s something like an attempt to square the circle.
Is there a spiritual element in your art?
Any type of expression that puts us in touch with what it means to create something is deeply spiritual. It’s also an expression of hope, because without hope one would surely not be interested in creating. I’d say that art frees an energy in us that’s difficult to experience in other areas of life. And with hope comes celebration, which has been part of art from the beginning. The artists who were called upon to design the great churches in Rome and Latin America during the Renaissance created magnificent celebratory spaces. As a sculptor, I’m motivated by architectural issues of space.
I also see my work as linked to dance in the sense that movement, rhythms and the body are all involved. And dance was one of the earliest forms of human ritual. So art, which is another form of language, adds an important spiritual dimension to life as it investigates the mystery of being human and dares to celebrate humanity in the midst of personal and global disorder.
How has your art been affected by the political situation in Central and South America over the past decades?
About half my time in Central America has been spent in the midst of war. I’ve been close to it at times, especially at the refugee camp, and the precariousness of war and the aftermath of war inevitably affect me. I feel a deep concern for our world that suffers because of injustice, and as an artist I look for a way to make my concerns visual without necessarily describing them. The themes in my art precariousness, order and chaos, along with rhythms that are broken and reconnected are probably a response to the political situations in which I have lived. But there’s also a desire to celebrate humanity in the midst of it all and to create a type of unconventional beauty. That’s where I find a meeting between my vocations as a priest and as an artist. The only way I can proceed is to try to be authentic in terms of what interests me visually and hope that some people might see elements in my work that connect them to social and political issues.
Creating art is one of many voices necessary in the world today. It needn’t be overtly political, but it arises out of a consciousness of the world. It would be encouraging if art issues could be freed from the prejudice of being seen as a leisure activity and could be regarded instead as a complementary voice in the world.
As both priest and artist, how do you pray?
Curiously, when I’m working in my studio at the university, the experience is very much akin to prayer. It’s contemplative in its solitariness and in the attention that the work entails. There is frequently a sense of wonder and gratitude. I would say that my prayer has many of the same elements: I am content to be present and listening, rather than speaking a great deal. The sense of gratitude in both my art activity and my prayer comes from the privilege of being present to a mystery. I suspect also that I am something of a hermit, although my various activities could put that assertion to the test. But I’ve learned from my life as an artist that if I don’t make space in my life, no one is going to encourage me to do so. Thirty years as an artist have taught me to value contemplative spaces and to find them in spite of other activities. So I just keep at it.