An Interview with David Clayton: Art as Part of Education

Dec 12, 2009 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University

Portales, New Mexico


1)    Professor Clayton, could you first tell us a bit about yourself, your education and training?

My formal education is in science. I studied Metallurgy and Science of Materials at Oxford University in England for my undergraduate and then did a Masters in Metallurgical Engineering at Michigan Technological University, Houghton, MI. My artistic training consists of some classes and a lot of individual tuition from artists (because I badgered them to comment on the work I was doing!). So most of my iconographic training has come from a series of classes with the English, Orthodox iconographer, Aidan Hart. He has given me, in addition, lots of personal advice and encouragement over the years and I owe him a great deal. I also studied portrait painting for a year at the Charles H Cecil Studios in Florence, Italy.

2)    What courses do you teach? 

At Thomas More College I teach Euclidean Geometry and a class called the Way of Beauty. This teaches the principles and practise (very important) of the quadrivium, the higher four of the traditional seven liberal arts. It is taught from a Christian perspective so it roots the disciplines of geometry, number, harmony/music, and cosmology in the liturgy, by teaching them as the patterns and harmonious relationships that point to the divine order, and reflect the patterns and rhythms of the heavenly liturgy. As well as the theory, the students learn through through the creation of beauty: we chant the Liturgy of the Hours, we construct drawings of gothic windows that reflect the proportions of musical harmony. I also offer extra curricular classes in icon painting and there is a class in fine carpentry. These are popular classes. Also included in this is the study of the artistic traditions of the Church, especially those cited by Pope Benedict as authentically liturgical, the iconographic, the gothic and the baroque ‘at its best’. We discuss also the decline of Western art since the Enlightenment and relate this to the rise in modern philosophy. It is interesting how the form, ie the style, of art can be related to the worldview of the artist that creates it.

3)    Why, in your mind, is art, architecture and beauty an important part of the curriculum?

I think that it is interesting that in his recent address to artists in Rome, the Pope referred to a via pulchritudinis – a path or way of beauty. This says it all really. Beauty is something that calls us to itself and the beyond itself to the source of all beauty, God. It is not just about the beautiful things that we percieve. It is about the creation of beauty and making our activity beautiful. In other words the way of beauty is a set of principles that we can live our life by that lead us to God. And this something for everybody, not just artists. It is analagous to thinking of the principles of morality leading us on a path of virtue to God. It is not just what we do, but how we do it. In his address the Pope said: ‘May the Lord help us to rediscover the way of beauty as one of the ways, perhaps the most attractive and fascinating, to be able to find and love God.’ So when we are educated in beauty, we not only learn to recognise it, but we instinctively do things beautifully, or one might say, gracefully – full of grace. This is attractive, it draws others onto the path we are on. One of the key aspects of an education in beauty is the study of whole of Catholic culture, which includes art and architecture, and seeing how the principle of harmony and order permeate throught it. In the end we are talking about a culture rooted in the liturgy. At its source, we need beautiful liturgy too.

4)    Why should students learn the importance of aesthetics?

If by aesthetics you mean a philosophical understanding of what it is, then this is going to help us to understand beauty by knowing what it is. For example, what is meant by ‘integrity, due proportion and claritas’. But it must go beyond this intellectual analysis. The apprehension of beauty happens intuitively, deep inside us. In order to develop that intuition, one needs to practise the creation of beauty. This is why we have practical elements (chant, geometry, iconography, carpentry) at Thomas More College as well as the intellectual rigour. One of the great things about teaching art using traditional methods is that talent is not required. Anyone can learn to draw and paint well. It is like playing an instrument. Some learn more quickly than others but the greatest assets are application and good direction. Most students are amazed at the quality of what they are producing.

5)    How does art overlap with history?

In describing the changing styles of art, one relates them to the different worldviews they protray. In doing so one needs to refer to the historical setting. So we do cover classical pre-Christian ideas, right through to the modern. But the course is not taught chronologically. The thread we follow is a line of truth that leads to and from the liturgy. It is the heavenly liturgy and God that are at the centre.

6)    Please tell us about the WAY OF BEAUTY PROGRAM at your college and your involvement in it?

I think I’ve probably covered most of the elements in brief. Just to add that if you want to read more, go to our website

7)    I have been fortunate enough to go to London, Paris and Rome and have seen gothic architecture up close. Why study this particular aspect of art? 

First, the gothic tradition is one of the three referred to by the Pope as authentically liturgical in form. This means that it is in harmony with, and therefore appropriate for the liturgy. This places it at the core of Catholic culture. I love the gothic. It is the art of claritas – of luminosity. Not just in the sense of being literally filled with light, but also reflecting a divine order that is percievable and can be penetrated and grasped by the intellect right down to the last brick. For example, it sought in to make every aspect of its construction, even the structural elements, such as the flying buttresses conform the divine proportions. Previously, in the Romanesque (another wonderful form), the final appearances conformed to these traditional proportions, but the structural elements were not visible and open to gaze in the same way. The other aspect of gothic architecture is its thrust upwards. It seems to bridge the gap, theologically between the iconographic and the baroque. The iconographic form reflects our heavenly destiny and so calls us to heaven. The baroque has its feet planted firmly in a fallen world, it reveals evil and suffering (symbolically through shadow) but always transcended by the Light, Christ, who is our hope. It makes God present on earth. The gothic spans the divide in a glorious way, not just architecturally, with it spires, but also in the figurative art – it has elements both contained within it.

8)     In terms of art, I have always been impressed by the Cathedral at Rouen and the various paintings of Notre Dame. Who do you see as some of the most important artists in this realm?

I have to admit my ignorance and say that I don’t know which artists you are referring to specifically, but these are gothic cathedrals and many gothic artists are anonymous. I love the Western illuminated manuscripts of the period. If I was to name artists in particular I would go for those of the very late gothic period (sometimes associated with the early Renaissance). I am thinking of figures such as Fra Angelico and Rogier van der Weyden. What is interesting about Fra Angelico particularly, is that he reflected iconographic stylistic elements as well as  some of the newly developed features of the renaissance, such as perspective, but selectively. He used discernment depending upon the theological message he was seeking to portray.

9)    What have I forgotten to ask about your Way of Beauty program at your college?

You haven’t asked me about our summer programme! This is a series of classes that are for all Catholics from aged sixteen upwards, not just artists (although aspiring artist would benefit from hugely from this too). It is a practical training in beauty that will enable ordinary Catholics to live the life of beauty and as such is a training also in creativity. If we are looking to the divine harmony, we not only get more ideas but better ideas. We need skillful artists, of course, and this will help them in their vocation. We also need knowledgeable patrons of the arts and this will help them too. But most of all we need ordinary people who know what beauty is, know how to lead beautiful lives, to use it in their worship, and demand it in their churches, their homes, their workplaces. This is why this program is for everyone. We offer three classes: the Way of Beauty; iconography; and drawing in the Western, academic tradition. You can see more at our website.




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