Constructing Religious Faith Through Fragments of the Past

The Spirit and Soul of Latin America by Shella E. Lichacz at Dudley House through March 3

A deep religious faith is the inspiration and focal point of "The Spirit and Soul of Latin America," an exhibition at Dudley House by Panamanian artist Sheila E. Lichacz. These strikingly original pieces convey her Catholic beliefs through a juxtaposition of shards of ancient pottery with sand, soil and, in some cases, paint.

Lichacz collected the remnants of pottery, some of which are more than 5000 years old, near her birthplace, Managrillo. She incorporates these into pieces exploring the images of the Trinity, the birth of Christ and the compassion of the Virgin Mary.

Lichacz' works are distinctively hers. In an interview, she described them as "ancient pieces in modern form," and says that no one has ever before attempted the specific fusion she achieves in her work. As a Latin American Catholic woman with a modern aesthetic sensibility, she definitely presents a new outlook to North American viewers.

These pieces are religious in their conception as well as their meaning. Lichacz dedicates all of her works to God. Before she begins a piece, she writes on the canvas the letters "AMDG," the abbreviation for the Latin phrase meaning "All for the honor and glory of God." She then paints or constructs the piece before trying to interpret its meaning: "It is after I have finished that I realize what I have painted," she says.

All her pieces contain circular shapes. As Lichacz says, "The circle has a lot to do with my work. It has no beginning and no end." She associates this form with birth, spiritual regeneration and her own recycling of past artistic traditions. In "Notre Dame," one of the few paintings on display, a red form emanates from a larger, gray shape. Lichacz says she hoped the image would suggest the birth of Jesus--the blood of Christ originating from the Virgin.


The paintings feature brightly colored, voluptuously curved forms which suggest vases, seashells and the female figure. This combination of abstraction and representation recalls the work of Georgia O'Keefe. In addition to these paintings, which she sells, Lichacz creates multimedia pieces that contain more personal significance.

The exhibit at Dudley House concentrates on these works, most of which include unusual found objects and shards of ancient pottery. "Our Lady of the Seas" incorporates shells that the artist's daughter collected for her on a Panama beach. "Thirty Pieces of Silver," as the title suggests, highlights coins surrounding a cross, representing the sum of money for which Judas betrayed Jesus.

Lichacz sees her work as immensely important, calling her art a means of preserving fragments of the past for posterity while adding a contemporary touch. She lives by the philosophy she was taught as a child: "Make the most of yourself. Because you'll never happen again." Her efforts to explore her own talent have yielded some intriguing results.