Catholic artist Ken Woo has been working on sacred art for the Church of the Holy Family for two years. Photo by Michael Swan

Artist Ken Woo puts his unique, traditional stamp on Toronto’s Church of the Holy Family

  • August 2, 2018

The way artist Ken Woo sees the Mass, it’s a “gateway to Heaven.”

With that in mind, the Shanghai-born artist has carved out an impressive resume of work over the last 20 years, drawing on family influences, his art training over three continents, and a passion for iconography and Liturgical tradition.

It is a rich blend, melded into his many pieces of church art, including a towering Christ figure that now looms above the altar at the Church of the Holy Family in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.

“The Latin Mass is very important to me,” Woo told The Catholic Register as he supervised installation of a massive altarpiece the parish hopes to have ready in time for the Aug. 15 Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady.

The image of a crucified Christ with his mother Mary on His right and St. John the Apostle to His left was made possible by a gift from parishioner Bob Shea in honour of his parents. Pastor Fr. Martin Hilbert couldn’t say how much the new, original artwork cost. But the parish didn’t hesitate when the opportunity came up, he said.

“We think art can bring people to a deeper appreciation of God,” he said. “We have music. We have vestments. We have pictures, obviously — visual art. This obviously fits into that category.”

KenWoo installationView more photos 

The Holy Family difference, with Mass celebrated in Latin according to the pre-Vatican Council ritual, is reflected in its choice of art that recalls the early Italian Renaissance in Sienna.

“It’s not necessary to copy those early Renaissance painters — Fra Angelico, Duccio (di Buoninsegna),” Woo said. “I w santed to take that style and make it my own as an artist.”

Though he is also a noted portraitist and his body of work includes many smaller scale works, Woo and his wife Zhongqi Qi Cheng have worked on a number of large works for mainly traditionalist parishes across North America. The Holy Family project has lasted around two years, with most of the work completed in Woo’s New Jersey studio then transferred to Holy Family for installation and finishing.

“Right now the Church needs more beauty in the forms of music and art,” Woo said. “We’re on the cusp of seeking for a new Renaissance in art.”

Woo was born in Shanghai with a family already steeped in art, since his mother and grandmother were both painters. Before he was five, his family moved to the United States but he only started painting seriously when he was 16. His development as an artist took him to New York, Italy, China, England and back to New York.

In addition to his art degrees from the New York Academy of Art and the Central Academy of Art in Beijing, Woo has an undergraduate degree in the communications program of the University of San Diego. 

Woo attributes the bulk of his knowledge to years of training under Italian artist Mario Fallani in his studio outside Siena.

“I’ve always been attracted to the early Renaissance,” he said.

He finds the sense of order and transcendence in Renaissance art fits his own spirituality.

“It gives me a personal relationship with God,” he said. “It transcends you away from this Earth.”

Woo has himself become a cause célèbre among traditionalist Catholics who espouse the pre-conciliar Latin Mass. 

In the early 2000s he created a series of 27 very large and very traditional paintings that transformed Our Saviour Church in Manhattan. 

The work, completed in 2009, won several awards. The central, 24-foot-high icon was completed in three phases over six years. In 2015 a new pastor was appointed to Our Saviour and he removed the art in favour of a design that more closely adhered to the mid-20th century architecture of the church.

Conservatives were outraged. Parishioners had financed Woo’s art and less than a decade later it was pulled down from the walls just as the Latin Mass was removed from the parish’s weekly schedule. 

But the fight over Woo’s art has no effect on Woo’s dedication to what he does. When it comes to the new paintings at Holy Family, Woo draws a specific line between what he has painted and the high Mass in Latin.

“It’s specifically designed for the liturgy of this church and the way Mass is held here,” he said.

Is this art polemical or liturgical? Is it ammunition in the Catholic culture war over liturgy? 

Woo’s art shies away from any hint of personal expression or any suggestion of contemporary reality in his work.

“It almost transcends time,” Woo said. “It’s almost like departing from 2018.”

Instead, Woo hopes his painting will strike worshippers who look up during Mass as a “gateway to Heaven.”

“What I look for in the Mass — I’m looking for Heaven; Heaven and the gateway to Heaven.” 

While original art may seem like an extravagant investment in comparison to store-bought decorations, choosing from a catalogue aborts the process by which the Church builds and sustains its culture, according to Woo.

“It’s tremendously important to have artists, working artists, to design works for for the Church,” he said.

Catalogue art might be cheap, but “it doesn’t have the blood, sweat and tears,” Woo said.

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