PLYMOUTH — For the final major endeavor of her career, artist Kitty Lynne Klich has taken on a unique challenge: illustrating the face of God in a way that makes him feel real to even the smallest of children.
Of course, the project is, quite literally, much more than that. A commission for St. John the Baptist School, Plymouth, the painting is mammoth in scale (almost seven feet by seven feet) but also in scope. In depicting the baptism of Christ, the oil painting – which hangs at the end of the school’s main hallway – attempts to bring a profound sense of Catholic identity to the almost 200 students who returned to study there last month.
“This is going to be my last project,” said Klich, who has almost 30 years of experience as an artist and painting instructor. She is also a devout Catholic who attends Blessed Trinity Parish, Sheboygan Falls. “I cannot imagine anything else that I would be able to do that would be more important or leave a more lasting legacy for years to come than this painting for the children that come here.”
“It’s telling the story for St. John the Baptist, and really making it seem live for the kids,” said Amy Nelson, school principal. It was Nelson who had the idea to commission a painting of St. John the Baptist.
“I love art, and I was thinking in the beginning, well, maybe it would be neat to have one of our classrooms do some kind of a mosaic or a painting,” said Nelson, who has been at the school for 21 years.
When the St. John the Baptist Christian Women Society heard about her idea, they offered to pay for a professional artist to do the work.
“There was a unanimous ‘yes’ vote from the membership,” said Josette Svitter, president of the society. “(We) found this to be the perfect opportunity to provide an outreach of our faith to the children of the school, both those who attend daily as well as the faith formation students.
“Our children are the future of our parish. The example we set for them will instill in them values that will carry on to future generations.”
An oil painting instructor at the Plymouth Arts Center for the past 18 years, Klich owns her own studio and produces a community cable television program called “Painting Journeys.” She was recommended to Nelson by a school parent, Barbara Steinacker, and the two met to discuss ideas for what type of painting the commission would be.
“I wanted something that looked lifelike … from floor to ceiling, so that as the kids are walking down the hall, it’s almost as if they are next to him,” said Nelson.
It was Klich who suggested the Baptism of Christ as the painting’s subject. She said she was intrigued by the challenge of capturing one of the most impactful moments of Christ’s early public ministry.
“John did not know, when he baptized Jesus, that Jesus was the Messiah. And so when he came into the water and John baptized him and he brought him up out of the water – there’s a minute moment there in time that I’m trying to capture,” said Klich, referencing the baptism account in the Gospel of John. “It’s when God’s voice came down from heaven and said: ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased’…(John’s) eyes are opened and he knows he’s holding the Messiah.”
The painting includes a nod to Klich’s penchant for plein air and landscape painting, with a rich background that depicts a lush shoreline of the Jordan River. She also included a young family —a father, mother and three smaller children — standing by the water.
“The family is the tie-in for the children. Even though the families are not as traditional as they used to be, I still felt that our Catholic values are traditional, and therefore I was going to put the traditional family in the painting,” she said.
Klich took up residence in the school’s gymnasium to work on the painting, the largest she has ever done. The canvas was perched on a makeshift easel of ladders, and the frame for the canvas had to be built on-site. While school was in session, a steady stream of interested students and teachers filed through the room to see her at work.
“It created a lot of good discussion amongst the kids,” said Nelson.
St. John the Baptist’s art teacher, Faith Albert, said having Klich work at the school was “a valuable lesson for (the students) in appreciation of our origin, our present and our future.”
“We are so fortunate here to be able to incorporate our faith as the primary framework for creativity, craftsmanship, culture and art history,” she said.
Klich said she was mindful of the impact witnessing professional art would have on the children, and expressed a great admiration for the schoolchildren’s artistic fluency.
“When school was still going on, they would come in every day and ask me questions … I had a little first-grader, and she had a little notebook and a pencil … she raised her hand and she said, ‘Well, I just want to know what technique you’re going to use.’ I almost fell over laughing – this little first-grader, to know about technique!” she said. “What moved me, what really touched me and sent home to me why I was doing this, was when the kids would come in and … they would be standing in front and looking up at it, and then all the way to the door, they would be walking like this (with heads turned) still looking at it as they were going out the door. I knew then the impact that this painting was going to make.”
Klich completed the painting in June, but returned later in the summer to apply three coats of protective varnish. A plaque accompanying the painting lists Klich as the artist and includes a verse from Scripture: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
The painting’s official unveiling took place the weekend of Aug. 27 and 28, after the Sunday Masses.
“It’s beyond my wildest dreams,” said Nelson of the painting. “I think it’s absolutely turning out gorgeous.”
“Everything that I’ve painted up to this point, everything that I’ve learned, everything that I’m putting into this painting as I come to this easel … is a culmination of everything that I have experienced right up to that moment in my life,” said Klich. “I do not feel that there’s anything larger that I could give, because this is for the children and all the children to come will see this – and so it’s my legacy. It’s what I leave.”