Today Matt Nelson sits down with Canadian artist Tianna Williams to discuss her work, as well as the methods and inspiration behind her paintings of the faces of Mary and the Saints.
Could you begin by telling us about your upbringing? Were you raised Catholic?
My father is a Catholic evangelist and musician. My mother, a graphic designer by trade (who also has a beautiful voice and sang backup), managed much of the ministry behind-the-scenes. From my youngest years, my parents led our family in faith and prayer. Some of my earliest memories include learning how to clap to a worship song my dad wrote—one two three, four five—and running around in the back of the church while the adults around me raised their hands and voices in praise. When I was a bit older, my dad regularly brought my sisters and I to daily Mass before school. We tried to pray as a family every night after supper and we shared many conversations about the culture and our Catholic faith.
Did you always have an affinity for drawing and painting?
I come from a family of artists. Both of my grandmothers were painters and my maternal grandmother was exceptionally talented with oil paints. My great-grandfather on my dad’s side played trumpet in a big band. Both my parents are, of course, natural artists, not only in music but in the visual arts as well. So, you could say I didn’t have a choice in the matter!
Growing up, I always had some art project in the works. Quiet afternoons would often find me doodling with colored pencils and pastels, or my fingers sticky with glue as I assembled a diorama to give to my teacher. As a teenager, I tried my hand at songwriting, sewing, photography, and even a bit of woodwork. I was always looking for ways to make things beautiful.
Tell us about your work.
I began a career in graphic design at just sixteen years old under the tutelage of my mother. (To this day I still send her screenshots when I need an opinion I can trust!) For a while, I left behind the world of traditional art. However, little did I know that the broad skill set that I would develop over the next decade would someday help me launch my own ministry.
Soon after I was married, I tentatively dipped my brush into paint again—and just like that, I was hooked. A few months later, I painted an image of a very pregnant Mary to announce to my husband that we were expecting our first baby. However, it wasn’t until I painted John Paul II the following December that I had my first inkling that this might be something I was called to do more seriously.
A year later, I had a modest collection of paintings. I decided that I would try selling a few prints at a Catholic conference held annually nearby. In typical Mallett form, I went all out—I had a logo, website, business cards, matching table cloths, the whole deal. My simple paintings were well received, and tiSpark was born.
Who has most inspired you as an artist?
As an oil painter, my grandmother’s work remains a great inspiration, not only for its technical quality, but for the sheer fact that she painted literally thousands of pieces while raising five children and helping my grandfather run a cattle farm. After she passed away, I received two small landscape studies of hers. They are so precious to me.
There are many other artists whose work has challenged and excited me over the years. Among these, Lane Brown stands out; his whimsical style and use of color is absolutely enchanting. Without being asked, he took the time to teach a marginally talented teen a few tips and undoubtedly changed the course of my vocation as an artist.
But, not to sound cliché, if I had to pick one person who has influenced me most profoundly, who inspires me most deeply as an artist to this day, it is my mom. I would not be where I am today without her encouragement and—let’s be honest—frank but constructive criticism. (Thanks, Ma.)
Which pieces of artwork have had the greatest impact on you?
A copy of Bouguereau’s painting Innocence hung in our dining room for many years. I remember gazing at it, trying to absorb every detail in the fabric—in their hands, in Mary’s tender face. I admired its serenity and decided that if I ever became a painter, I should like to create something just as beautiful. I am not one to set the bar too low, apparently.
How often do you paint? Do you always wait for inspiration before beginning? Tell us about your creative process.
If I could, I would paint every morning after I’ve brewed a fresh cup of coffee and spent some time in prayer. The demands of motherhood and business often prevent this, but I try to paint as often as I can, whenever I have a few hours free.
Inspiration comes in various forms, but one thing is consistent—I never sit down to paint unless I have a digital image for reference. See, although I’ve never been particularly good at drawing, and my concept sketches are shockingly abysmal, my ten years as a graphic designer—especially working with ministries like Captivenia and Arcãtheos—gave me a unique and incredibly useful skill: the ability to create composite digital images from a variety of sources.
It begins with the name of a saint—either one that someone has commissioned or one that God has placed upon my heart. I start to learn about them; I dig up photographs if they are a modern saint, old paintings if they are not. I read their biography—or a novel, if there is one. Most of all, I ask for their intercession, that they may journey with me through the process.
Eventually, a picture begins to form in my heart—what they should look like, what they should be wearing and holding. I am always interested in creating something new—a unique take that the Church hasn’t seen yet.
From there, I take photographs—usually with myself as the model if the saint is a woman, my husband or brothers if the saint is a man. I gather various stock photos for their face, the background, and other details. Then I put it all together in Photoshop. I tweak until I have an image that I not only really like but which I feel captures the spirit of that saint.
And then begins the process of recreating it with oil paint. This can take weeks or months depending on the size and complexity of the painting. This is where the image truly comes alive, for there is nothing quite as beautiful as the colors and texture of an original painting.
What role does art and creativity have in the Church’s mission to evangelize?
I wish I could say that I have some great insight that drives my art—but the simple truth is that I love beauty and I love my Catholic faith, and this seems to be the way that God is calling me to serve both. I don’t know how God uses art to win souls back to himself—except that in a world that scoffs at goodness and rejects truth, beauty seems to be the best tool left at our disposal. And so, I have adopted Word on Fire’s philosophy of leading with beauty, trusting that God will take it from there.
I am keenly aware of how lacking the Church has been in recent decades at presenting the faith through art, how slow she’s been to take advantage of the marvelous tools available to us. Sometimes I wonder if God intentionally stunted my drawing abilities precisely so I would be forced to wed my very modern skillset with a traditional medium. Because the Church already had a Bouguereau. Now God is doing something new—and he’s calling unexpected artists like myself to do it.