When, last autumn, Tomasz Misztal’s work was part of a showing of Polish artists in Bergamont Station, Los Angeles, the curator of that secular event chose a piece titled First Communion. Misztal sees his work as evangelizing. “The beauty of the art is that I don’t need to talk with people,” he says, adding that if people have questions he is comfortable talking about the Gospel. “If necessary, use the words,” he says, noting that it is a line attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. (Courtesy Tomasz Misztal)
When, last autumn, Tomasz Misztal’s work was part of a showing of Polish artists in Bergamont Station, Los Angeles, the curator of that secular event chose a piece titled First Communion. Misztal sees his work as evangelizing. “The beauty of the art is that I don’t need to talk with people,” he says, adding that if people have questions he is comfortable talking about the Gospel. “If necessary, use the words,” he says, noting that it is a line attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. (Courtesy Tomasz Misztal)
LAKE OSWEGO —Tomasz Misztal sees his life as raggedly divided between what makes sense and the senseless.

The division came Christmas Day in 2017, when the artist’s former wife and their 12-year-old daughter died in a car accident as mother and daughter traveled to Bend from Portland.

From that moment, Misztal said, he truly understood an essential tenet of our faith. “We don’t have anything here. Everything is God’s. We have these incredible attachments that we claim, but they are not ours. They are God’s.”

Misztal spoke from his chilly studio this past winter, a converted space belonging to a friend, a room cluttered with the tools, clays and canvasses of his profession.

He goes to Mass daily, often at Holy Rosary Church in Northeast Portland, each time giving his daughter, Grace, to God at the altar. “Without the Eucharist, I would not be able to function,” he said. “I don’t need to understand it. I’m not capable of that. I just need to be obedient and do what he wants me to do.”

Misztal paused, looking around at his art and tools. “Yes — that makes sense.”

This sensibility contrasts with the irrational geometries of M.C. Escher-like cubes that float in some of Misztal’s paintings on death — images that he began painting even before his daughter died.

Some of his art pieces are, perhaps, secular, if art coming from a man like Misztal can ever be described as secular. Some are abstract. An aqua canvas titled “Pink diver” looks like a cross-cut of a Caribbean pool, hanging with a suggestion of seaweed, lit with a scrape of pink. His subjects can be tender, like the scene of Mary and the pregnant Elizabeth; joyful, like his daughter, Grace, floating in a blue swimming pool; or filled with agony, like his crucifixes. His sketched portraits capture his models’ expressions with an elegant minimum of strokes.

It is, however, in his sacred art that the restlessness and sorrow that infuse much of his art come to a sense of peace, of silence.

Misztal has some international renown. His artwork is in the Vatican, churches, museums and private collections around the world, and yet, he says, “I’m not a successful artist. I’m a stubborn artist.”

Stubborn in that his art speaks of faith, Catholic faith in particular, in a secular age.

Regarding a model of Christ that Misztal created for St. Juan Diego (and was not, in the end, purchased) Father John Kerns, then pastor, said it showed Christ crucified yet triumphant. “I have always thought that depictions of the risen Jesus say too little about his suffering, and images of Christ in death do not say enough about resurrection,” said Father Kerns. Misztal’s image, he said, overcomes those limitations.

Misztal is following an early vocation in his work as a sacred artist. As a boy in Gdansk, Poland, he suffered from asthma and spent hours inside drawing when the other boys played outside. He was an altar server from an early age, and he thought he might become a priest. “It was a matter of finding my vocation,” he says.

At 19, he went to the Gdansk art academy, and his career crystalized as he practiced his art and continued to read about his beloved church. “It’s like being in love with someone, you want to learn as much about them as possible,” Misztal says.

Misztal left Poland for Lisbon, Portugal, and came to the United States when a call for sacred art went out for the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. His artwork was not, ultimately, chosen for that church, but he met his future wife, who was from Bend, and followed her to Oregon.

He’s lived in Portland for 13 years. “I love Portland,” he says, where the weather and light remind him of his homeland.

His process for creating art is similar to how he reads the Bible. In lectio divina, the ancient Benedictine method of studying Scripture, one reads, meditates on what has been read, prays on it, and then contemplates, making the passage part of one’s being. “The way I do art is similar,” Misztal says.

He studies the subject, reads about it and tries to understand the background. “I’m looking around and collecting data, brainstorming.” Then he prays. Lastly, he tries to digest all the information he has gathered, and comes up with options for the client, whether the client is a parish or the Cirque de Soleil circus.

“Creativity is a journey,” he says. “It’s a little like cooking. I take all these ingredients — this mass of data and emotions — and out of that I may create a conclusion or several conclusions.”

He considers the client, the background against which the piece will live, and the light. “All these must be considered. This alleluia should be beautiful.”

A crucial moment comes when he finds a conceptual approach, a temporary sketch. “After all that huge preparation, the work and prayer, it is not up to me,” Misztal says. “The Holy Spirit will guide me — whether it’s sacred or secular.”

Then, says Misztal, comes the work of the Holy Spirit. “The most beautiful moment in creating art is the last part of the lectio divina, when time disappears because you’re in total contemplation.”

Even after decades of work, this remains a mystery to him. “In the end, I see my finished piece and wonder, should I sign it?”

As for himself, Misztal is by turns satisfied and anguished. “God gives me money to pay my bills, but I have so many beautiful pieces in storage.”

He is a different man, he said, than the man he was, the man who saw himself in terms of his career. Now, he depends on God. “He protects me from this grieving and from despair,” he said. “I try to be adequate and true to God and myself.”

It is daily Mass, he says, that keeps him going. “This little piece of faith that I have sustains me.”