Artist preserves sacred tradition
By Josiah Neufeld | Tuesday, October 6, 2009
The historic church in Ste Geniviève is a "witness to our ancestors' faith," says Robert Freynet. PHOTO: JOSIAH NEUFELD
STE GENEVIEVE, MBRobert Freynet receives questions eagerly, like gifts. As I inquire about the luminous saints he paints onto the walls and ceilings of Manitoba chapels or about the icons which inspire his art, the creases sharpen at the corners of his eyes; his hands begin to dance; words crowd out of his mouth.
A painter, iconographer and a historian, Freynet, 54, lives with his family in a refurbished convent in the hamlet of Ste Genevieve, a 20 minute drive from his most recent masterpiece: the vaulted ceiling of the St. Joachim Roman Catholic Church in La Broquerie.
It's an elaborate tableau illustrating the Apostles' Creed with scenes from the life of Christ.
A slight man with silvering hair and beard, Freynet describes the theology of the piece, gesturing earnestly at the bright panels overhead.
"It was only once I began to distill it into various tableaus that I discovered what a masterpiece this prayer isthe Credo. It is symmetrical architecture," he says. His language is expressive, with a soupcon of French, eager, yet restrained by precision.
"It was hard to do," he tells me, recalling long hours on a scaffold. "The paint catches in the interstices between the planks, so I had to use a special medium and a special technique."
Will paint for food
I'm surprised to learn that this rural artist has provided for a family of nine solely on earnings from his art. Over his 30-year career he has painted murals in the St. Boniface Cathedral, the St. Norbert Historic Chapel and a church in Lorette. He has also painted various historic murals, illustrated comic books about Louis Riel and La Verendrye, done portraits, designed monuments and fashioned keychains.
Ideas constantly germinate in his mind; he rounds them out and pitches them to potential customers. "I perceive a need and propose a project. I don't necessarily wait for the phone to ring, although I like it when that happens," says Freynet.
"In 1975 I took a firm resolution to become an artist. I would do nothing else but art, and I would starve before I would do anything else," he tells me. It's a vow he's never broken, though at times he came close.
"I seemed to get work to keep me going so we wouldn't sink into a black hole. It was very difficult at times, and I have to commend my wife for her courage," he says. "We prayed as a family every evening, and I think that has a lot to do with itour faith in God."
The artist as a young man
Freynet became fascinated with religious art as a child in Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan. His family attended the grand Our Lady of the Assumption Co-Cathedral. While the priest droned on, he spent hours absorbed in the elaborate paintings on the ceiling.
As a young man he resolved to become an artist. Freynet cloistered himself in a cabin in the Sandilands forest for four months with little more than paint and brushes.
"It was a personal journey of discovery where I said, 'I'm not going to emerge from this cabin without having become a painter,'" says Freynet. "I didn't even know that much about painting, but I just knew that I had to do this."
He began with a portrait of his woodstove, a rough execution that still hangs in his studio.
In 1979 Freynet was offered a scholarship from the Paris-based Agence de Cooperation Culturelle et Technique to an international art training institute in Bordeaux, France, where he studied under professional artists over a period of five years.
Near the end of his studies he married his wife, Virginia. When they returned to Ste Genevieve, expecting their first child, they found the convent was for sale. The building spoke to Freynet's love for the historic. They bought the convent and began transforming it into a house in which they could raise a family.
What was once a chapel is now a living room with its own small, vaulted choir. Its walls are peopled with Freynet's saints. When he isn't painting the walls, Freynet uses the space to pray and meditate. His son Marco uses it to practice guitar riffs.
Guardian of the past
Freynet is a zealous collector of antique art from his own Roman Catholic tradition. Next door to his home is a steepled church built in 1918. Mass is said there only on special occasions; the rest of the time it functions as a small museum.
Inside, sunlight descends from tall windows to pool on a figure of the Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception from Italy, part of the parish collection. Next to it is a ponderous plaster station of the crosspart of a 14-piece set originally cast in France about 150 years ago, by Freynet's estimation. Dusty shelves along the walls hold gold-plated censors.
In 1995 lightening struck the steeple and blew the doors off the church. If Virginia hadn't telephoned all the fire stations in the area, it would have burned to the ground, Freynet says. He shudders at the thought.
"Our ancestors had so much faith to build this kind of building; we'd never do it today. It's a witness to our ancestors' faith," he says.
Sacred art inspires Freynet in his own work. It also touches him on a deeper levela focal point for worship.
"Catholics like to express their faith through the arts...through the senses. We're physical creatures. It's not to worship images; it's to help you focus." It's like keeping a photo of a loved on in one's wallet, he explains.
"These symbols are becoming less and less common. The continuity of the Church is being lost, so it's very important work we're doing to preserve that symbolism."
He fingers the silent keys of an ancient wooden pump organ as he speaks. "You won't see this anymore. These things are disappearing from the face of the earth."