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Painting the Walls of the Heavenly Jerusalem: Phoenix’s New Liturgical Art Studio

Ruth and Geoff Stricklin are seeking to unify beauty and worship by putting their artistic talents to work for the Church’s liturgy – and their own marriage is in many ways an embodiment of that effort.

As the founders of New Jerusalem Studios, Phoenix, AZ, the Stricklins are producing murals that will seek to bring liturgical art to the foreground of the Catholic liturgical renewal, even as their work serves as a glorious background for the sacred liturgy.

Adopting the principles of the Beuron School of art, the Stricklins seek to integrate the principles of this art style as an organic part of the liturgy, favoring beautiful imitation over provocative originality, and seeking the glory of God through individual talent.

Founded by 19th century Benedictines, the Beuron style adapts the principles of ancient iconography to the needs of the Western Church. The style was named for the Beuron Archabbey, a Benedictine community in the upper Danube valley of southern Germany, where many of these monastic artists worked.

The Stricklins have completed two major projects in the Phoenix area and are preparing to branch out to other parts of the country. In 2007, thenchaplain of Xavier College Preparatory High School, Phoenix, Father John Muir, asked Ruth Stricklin to paint a 25-foot tall altar mural for the school’s celebration of the Mass. The mural, a triptych, depicts Christ coming in glory, surrounded by the heavenly hosts.

In 2014, Ruth Stricklin was also commissioned by Xavier to paint large portraits of the four female doctors of the Church, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Hildegard of Bingen. Each of the four saints depicted has been assigned as a patroness to one of Xavier’s four grade levels.

In 2013, the chaplain for All Saints Catholic Newman Center at Arizona State University, Phoenix, Father Robert Clement, commissioned the couple to paint a 20-foot tall mural for the main sanctuary of the Newman Center’s newly constructed chapel. It too depicts Christ coming in glory. A year before its completion in 2015, the Stricklins officially established New Jerusalem Studios. With new commissions coming in, the Stricklins plan to complete eight additional murals and decorative painting for the Newman chapel in the future.

Currently, they are under contract to work on another 25-foot tall mural for the worship area at St. Mary’s High School, Phoenix, which will depict the Blessed Virgin Mary and Christ crucified. The couple is also committed to design work for the interior of Sacred Heart Church, Phoenix. The Stricklins may also undertake a project further afield at a Catholic university (although since they’re still in discussion with school officials, they’re not at liberty to identify the school).

Life sketches
Having experienced the bad liturgical art of the 1970s and 1980s, Geoff Stricklin knows the important role beauty plays – and ought to play – in Catholic worship.

“I grew up Catholic in Huntington Beach, California, in the 1980’s,” he says. “My experience of liturgy was plenty of felt banners, improvisation, pop music, theologically dubious song lyrics, and extreme casualness in the celebration.”

He’s quick to point out that in his own experience of the faith, he was not immune to the secular drift of the times. “I was negatively influenced by the whole feminist push in the Church,” he says, “the use of inclusive language, and, in general, an adoption of secular moral values on issues such as abortion.” After encountering the writings of Pope John Paul II and attending liturgy more clearly informed by Church teaching, however, Stricklin experienced “a profound conversion of faith and understanding.”

“In contrast to the highly emotional evangelical worship to which I had earlier been drawn, the Monastic style of liturgy exerted a more integrative force, (not overly emotional, nor void of emotion), a quality I later learned that Pope Benedict described as “sober inebriation.” In 2007, working as director of liturgy at St. Magdalene de Pazzi Parish, Flemington, New Jersey, Geoff enrolled in the Liturgical Institute (LI) at University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL.

“During my time at the Institute, my love of the liturgy grew as I discovered deeper and deeper richness,” he says. “The sacramental nature of creation and the economy of salvation became my natural lens.”

Writing on the wall
Taking a very different path to LI, Ruth Stricklin (nee Ristow) wasn’t Catholic when she began to consider the importance of liturgical art in the life of faith. Born in rural Alaska, she grew up as a member of the Church of the Nazarene, an offshoot of the Wesleyan profession.

As a Protestant, Ruth was taught that God’s word needed no visual aids – and that images of any kind in the context of worship were a form of idol worship. Despite these strictures, she says she found enough beauty to inspire her in the Book of Nature and began painting at a young age. While common sights in the Forget-Me-Not State, the Aurora Borealis, Alaska’s mountain ranges, and the occasional moose wandering into her front yard, Ruth Stricklin says, were also for her a window to the transcendent. “To see something so beautiful, I wanted to hold it, to experience the fullness of it and not be separated from it,” she says. “It was my first awareness of God, and I was being drawn to him through the beauty of his creation.” After high school, while on a trip to Europe, Ruth Stricklin discovered that art and worship could find a happy marriage in a Catholic context.

“One of our group’s first stops was in Toledo, Spain,” she says. “We went to the cathedral there, and I was deeply impacted. I remember entering and being overwhelmed by the transcendent beauty. Upon seeing this place, I knew God was real. He was tangible, not just a thought in my head. And when I knew he was real, my first instinct was to fall down and worship him…. This was a moment when my awareness of the invisible God and my love for visible beauty were beginning to come together.”

As her love for beauty and God grew, Ruth began searching for a way to unify the two in her own art. After college, she moved to the Phoenix area and took up this cause with a passion as a freelance artist, designer and muralist for private residences, local businesses and a local evangelical Protestant church she had joined.

“Art became a form of worship for me,” she says of her time with this church. “Worship services were a concert with backdrops and elaborate set pieces, theatrical lighting and projection and so on. It was over the top, but at least I was able to see that God could use my creative gifts to draw me and others to himself.”

New beginning
Taking these gifts back to school, Ruth Stricklin interviewed with the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM), who served Xavier. In 2006, they hired her to work as a set designer for the school’s theater department. “Xavier was a beautiful environment, and a true community,” she says. “I saw the witness of the Sisters of Charity, their communal life, their dedication to service, and how they welcomed and nurtured my gifts. Even though I wasn’t Catholic, I was given many opportunities to grow, I was allowed to thrive, and the environment was welcoming to an open expression and development of faith.”

And grow she did – both spiritually and artistically – as she was invited to use her talents to beautify the regular celebration of Mass in the school’s gymnasium.

“The gym was as you’d expect – a utilitarian space that lacked a sense of the sacred,” she says. “So Father Muir thought that a backdrop displaying the vision of heavenly worship from the Book of Revelation would help the students focus and pray.”

In preparation for the work, she says, she studied the Church’s rich tradition of art and architecture, leading her deeper into the Catholic faith and to a clearer understanding of worship than she had from her own formation as a Protestant.

“During our school Masses, I was drawn to what was happening in the liturgy, the beauty of the ritual that was still so mysterious to me,” she says. “But I knew something important was happening here, and the sacramental signs were bringing it into reality for me . . . the beauty and richness of the vestments, the vessels, incense, the reverence in the ritual – my senses were welcomed in the Mass.”

Liturgical renewal
As Xavier’s chaplain at the time, Father Muir was duly impressed by Ruth’s great passion for beauty. Now serving as pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas, Avondale, AZ, and Assistant Director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Phoenix, Father Muir was ordained for the Diocese of Phoenix in 2007. “With [Xavier principal and BVM] Sister Joan Fitzgerald’s permission,” he says, “I asked Ruth to paint an altar mural for the Masses we would have in the gym,” he says. “After a few conversations – and I don’t think I even realized Ruth wasn’t Catholic at the time – I could see that she had such an instinct for art and beauty.”

In launching the project, Father Muir hoped to be able to transform the school’s gym during Mass and give Xavier students an experience out of the ordinary.

“I realized that it was hard to draw the students into the mystery of the liturgy when they’re looking at basketball hoops,” he says. “So out of nowhere I asked Ruth if she knew how to paint, and would she be able to paint an altar mural. She said, ‘What’s an altar mural?’ That question was the beginning of pretty intense catechesis for her. She approached the subject matter of the art of the mural with the objective eye of an artist.”

According to Father Muir, what began as a research project for Ruth Stricklin turned into an abiding love for the truth. “She did so much research and studying so she could paint it and in the process she was falling in love with the truths she was painting,” he says. “It was the right place at the right time, for me, and I was privileged to be there. I would answer her questions and she would read everything that I suggested to her.” Once the altar mural was unveiled, Father Muir says, the effect on the students during Mass was almost immediate.

“Among the students,” he says, “there was a shift from chapel etiquette to reverence and fear of the Lord. At the beginning we would try to command the students and tell them how they’re supposed to behave in chapel. But when the altar mural was up there, the students would instinctively stop talking and their gaze would go from their friends and rise up to where the mural was. Like anyone, high school students will lose focus in Mass, but they would lose it by gazing at the glorified Jesus in heaven. You could see them reacting more instinctively with a reverence and a good, fruitful fear of the Lord as they came into the presence of God in the liturgy.”

Looking back on his decision to commission the piece, Father Muir says he did succeed in bringing the students of Xavier to a new place in worship.

“The altar mural is physically large and it gave the students a sense that the Mass and the Church is not one more thing in life,” he says. “Instead, with the help of the mural, the students can see that Mass is the all-encompassing mystery of reality and the altar mural in its sheer beauty and size expressed that.”

Life of faith
Even as she completed the murals for Xavier, Ruth Stricklin’s own purpose was becoming clearer to her – and she was received into the Catholic Church in 2010. Shortly afterwards, she says, Father Muir had recommended she take a class at the Liturgical Institute and that’s when her vocation to the married life also came into focus.

“I wanted to know more about sacred art so the chaplain who brought me into the Church recommended a course at LI in sacramental aesthetics. I signed up for this class, not recognizing that it was a grad level class, but I took the class over the summer and I met Geoff. He was in his final period of classes over a five year study program and in another couple weeks we would never have met!”

In 2013, Geoffrey Stricklin moved out to Phoenix to be nearer to his future wife and to take on the duties of theology instructor at Xavier, a position he still holds today. On May 23, 2015, the Stricklins were married, becoming partners for life and partners in sacred art. “Both of us so clearly see God’s hand in bringing us together,” Geoffrey Stricklin says, “not only to fulfill our vocations, but seemingly also for the work of liturgical renewal.”

As if to confirm them in this work, the Stricklins’ art caught the attention of Father Clements, who invited Ruth Stricklin to paint a mural for the Newman Center – and challenged her to consider painting the mural in the Beuronese style. In preparation for the work, she traveled to Conception Abbey in northwest Missouri, which lays claim to the Beuronese legacy in the murals adorning the abbey’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

At Conception, she says, “I learned that the Beuronese style was developed in the late 1800s as a counter to the indulgent and sensual styles of Romanticism. Art in the Beuronese style makes use of muted colors and a sober, sedate, and reverent, tone, thus not drawing attention to itself, but drawing the viewer into worship. The emotional element was restrained as well, much like iconography.”

Paradoxically, Ruth Stricklin sees the restraints and requirements of sacred art – and the Beuronese style in particular – as a way to liberate her artistic talents. In the modern art scene, she says, “there’s a pressure to be self-expressive, come up with your own style and do something provocative. But I found I didn’t have anything to say as an artist in that way, and so when I discovered sacred art, it was a treasure house, filled with rich symbolism. There was a purpose to it – the glory of God – and it helped me focus on particular things for the worship of God.”

By embracing the Beuronese style, Ruth says, she’s not indulging in nostalgia, but undertaking an artistic style that provides a real-time 21st century application to the liturgy.

“We recognize that the qualities of Beuronese art have particular sacramental value,” she says, including “the iconographic spirit, unobtrusive style, and emphasis on the heavenly expression of the glorified figures, among other elements.”

Wall to All
While New Jerusalem Studios has no permanent home yet, when the Stricklins aren’t working in Xavier’s theater, they’ll usually be working onsite for their projects.

“Father Clements is allowing us to paint the Newman Center mural in the choir loft,” Geoff says, “which is up above and in the back of the church. The ceiling is high enough that the remaining murals of the Newman Center will be painted right there as we build the framing and take them down from right there.”

The Stricklins chose to name their studio after the City of God – the New Jerusalem – because of the name’s liturgical implications.

“Essentially when we celebrate Mass we’re participating in that eternal worship in a heavenly city, and it’s sometimes called the New Jerusalem,” Geoff says. “Our mission is to present images that evoke that heavenly worship, so we thought it appropriate to name after that reality.”

Besides providing a livelihood, New Jerusalem Studios also gives the Stricklins a chance to work together in a harmony of hearts and minds in their love for beauty.

“We think a lot a like and our sensibilities are similar,” Geoffrey Stricklin says. “Even though Ruth comes from a Protestant background, she thinks and sees like a Catholic. Since I teach theology, principally revelation, my knowledge of the Bible as the story of salvation helps inform Ruth’s designs.”

Founders of New Jerusalem Studios, Phoenix, AZ, Ruth and Geoffrey Stricklin are under contract to work on a 25-foot tall mural for the worship area at St. Mary’s High School, Phoenix, which will depict the Blessed Virgin Mary beneath Christ crucified. This rendering is an initial sketch of the proposed mural. The division of labor is never sharply defined at New Jerusalem Studios, the Stricklins say; instead, they work in easy collaboration.

“I’ll be in the middle or finishing a painting,” Ruth says, “and Geoff will come up behind me and say, ‘Did you mean to do that?’ when he sees a possible misstep, or ‘Are you going to work on that?’ when he sees a gap. And his suggestion is right every time. I find that I’ll be too close after working on a painting for six months. He’s my second set of eyes and he comes to the work with an integrity I appreciate.”

An important component of the artistic process, Geoffrey Stricklin says, is the spiritual focus involved in composition. “Ruth tries to create a prayerful environment when painting,” he says. “She found this indispensible because she has plenty of talent but she knows that God is working through her.”

According to Geoff, prayer is at the heart of New Jerusalem Studios and the Stricklins work seeks, above all, to enter into the heart of the Church’s prayer. If done well, he says, the mural is a seamless part of the liturgy and helps draw heaven and earth together in a unified and visual whole.

“The earthly liturgy,” he says, “is an image and sacramental sign of the ultimate reality in God’s plan, the heavenly liturgy, where all creation is drawn into the divine life of the Trinity. Properly speaking liturgical images draw together the whole mystery and history of salvation. The present images of the liturgy here on earth give us a clear picture of the worship we are called to, that is, our ultimate destiny.”

Because murals are sacred art painted large, Ruth says that, even in the process of composition on such a majestic scale, the mural proves its merit.

“When I’m painting at Xavier, the murals draw a lot of attention from the students,” she says. “I love that they get to see the process, and it draws them in, even at the beginning process of the painting. The whole community gets to see the project develop and that’s something really needed right now in the Church – a rediscovery of beauty.”

For more information on New Jerusalem Studios, call the Stricklins at 480-242-7018, or contact Ruth Stricklin at ruth.njstudios@gmail.com.

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O’Brien lives on a homestead with his wife Cecilia and their nine children in rural southwestern Wisconsin. He is Managing Editor of Adoremus Bulletin, a correspondent for the Catholic Business journal, and poetry editor and cocktail reviewer for The San Diego Reader. He has a BA (1995) and MA (2004) in English from University of Dallas, Irving, TX.