Spirit of the creator

An emerging artist with a new show, he’s getting raves. Oh, and he’s a Catholic priest.

John Frederick Arens, a teacher and chaplain at St. Sebastian's School in Needham, with sone of his avante-garde works in his Allston studio. John Frederick Arens, a teacher and chaplain at St. Sebastian's School in Needham, with sone of his avante-garde works in his Allston studio. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Dan Adams
Globe Correspondent / August 11, 2011

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John Frederick Arens is a cutting-edge artist.

His Allston studio is stuffed from floor to ceiling with paintings of every size. Stacks of small, colorful abstracts jostle for space in the shadow of a 6-foot blue mammoth. An unfinished sketch of a bodhisattva in prayer teeters on a leaning pile of seascapes. His newest series, scattered amongst the chaos, features oversized, colored-in interpretations of ancient European cave art.

“He’s not afraid to push the envelope,’’ longtime friend and studio neighbor Marilyn A. Lasek said of Arens. “He’s never satisfied, and he never gets in a rut. Sometimes you go to his studio and you wonder how many artists are using it, because there’s so many directions.’’

With that kind of reputation, Arens will have to forgive those who are surprised to learn that the avant-garde artiste with an interest in ancient and Eastern cultures is also a Catholic priest.

“For people who think of him as having religious background,’’ admitted Lasek, “some of this is pretty shocking.’’

But Arens, who lives in Needham and is a teacher and chaplain at St. Sebastian’s School in his hometown, doesn’t see a conflict between two identities.

“Someone said, ‘You don’t paint a lot of religious paintings, you’re a priest,’ ’’ said Arens. “But, in fact, everything I paint is religious.’’

“Painting is a spiritual exercise,’’ Arens said. “If you believe in God, if you believe in the creation of all of it, and us as a part of it, that’s part of your experience when you go to a place, or see people. You’re experiencing that creative energy. And painting, in some ways, is trying to communicate that spiritual experience.’’

Arens was gearing up for a joint show with close friend Robert Weinstein that opened Tuesday at the Plymouth Center for Arts, and has a reception with the artists at 5 p.m. tonight.

Weinstein, a former film and TV director who also started painting later in life, met Arens five years ago after seeing his work in a gallery on Cape Cod.

In conversation, the two have an easy rapport that never betrays their divergent backgrounds: While Arens is a New England-bred Catholic, Weinstein is Jewish and hails, proudly, from Brooklyn.

“I’ve been dying to convert him for years, but he’s still a dyed-in-the-wool Yankees fan,’’ Arens quipped.

Weinstein was unfazed upon learning about his background when they first met over lunch.

“John turned to me before we ordered and said, ‘I gotta say something: I’m a priest,’ ’’ Weinstein recalled. “I felt absolutely no reaction whatsoever. Having been in the business of film, you interact with all kinds of people - straight, gay, whatever their religions are, it doesn’t matter. All colors, creeds and cultures come together, and they become family. To me, it just creates more interest.’’

In fact, their differences can be a selling point.

“That’s how I pitched it’’ to the Plymouth gallery, said Weinstein. “ ‘Did you ever hear the story about the Catholic priest from New England and the Jewish guy from New York who went into an art gallery together?’ That’s the beginning of the story. Plymouth has never seen anything like this.’’

The two still often meet for lunch, where they enjoy friendly theological discussions.

“We joke about our backgrounds and have debates,’’ said Arens, “but we meet on powerfully deep levels.’’

“The discussion could go on forever between us,’’ agreed Weinstein. “We both cross the bridges.’’

Arens, 65, said that while he only started painting seriously about 12 years ago, he has “not known life without art.

“Everyone in my family was artistic,’’ said Arens. “Everybody painted or drew, or was in architecture. I was in the midst of it, but I never gave it serious time. I would always rather be on the water or playing ball.’’

Years later, Arens was assisting St. Sebastian’s in drawing up architectural plans for a new building when colleague Jay Wu noticed his talent. Wu, who teaches math and art at the school, referred Arens to his mentor, Barnet “Barney’’ Rubenstein, a teacher at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts who has since passed away.

Under the tutelage of Rubenstein and others, Arens blossomed at the Boston museum school’s continuing education program, where he was placed in advanced-level classes. Arens said St. Sebastian’s was supportive, even paying his tuition as he moved through the curriculum.

These days, Arens says he spends every nonworking hour at his studio or an art retreat in Stonington, Maine. It’s easy to for him to get lost in his work.

“I set an alarm clock when I paint,’’ said Arens. “You get so much into the zone, wherever that creative place is. You have to know when to stop.’’

For Arens, the decision to join the clergy was a gradual one. His interest grew slowly as a teen, but he was hesitant to commit.

“I figured I’d go and get it out of my system,’’ Arens said of attending seminary. “My first couple years, I wasn’t certain about it at all. I had parents who were wonderful. Right up to the last minute, they said, ‘If this isn’t for you, don’t commit yourself to it, but it’s your decision,’ which was wonderful and freeing.’’

It was losing his brother in Vietnam that cemented his decision to become a priest. Frederick Arens was killed while manning a Navy patrol boat. At the time Arens was also in the Navy, in a program that allowed him to serve as a chaplain prior to his ordination. It fell to him to break the news to the family about Frederick’s death.

“It makes you think more deeply what you’re doing with your life,’’ Arens said. “As a young person you may not think about all of those questions. But the puzzle started to come together really quickly.’’

After he was ordained, Arens served as a chaplain for a Marine Corps unit.

Despite his passion for art, Arens says his life is “firstly devoted to being a priest.’’ A closer look around the cluttered studio reveals clues about his “day job’’ - a book of hymns lays open on a lectern, a small crucifix necklace is coiled on a table, and a painting of Jesus hangs on the wall.

But that doesn’t mean his paintings are overtly Christian. Some explore Eastern religions; one depicts the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem as a series of overlapping Stars of David; and his recent work with cave art is based on drawings made as long as 35,000 years ago.

“The comment’s been made by others, “Oh, he’s a priest painting cave art,’ ’’ said Arens. “But art transcends the particulars of denominations and background.’’

“What is says to me,’’ Arens says of the cave drawings and other evidence of ancient art, “is that we’ve been at this musically and artistically for a long time. What drives us to do it? Being human.

“Art has a way of deepening and freeing you,’’ said Arens. “So whatever you do, it influences you. Art is maybe for those who don’t paint, because it’s giving them a chance for their spirit to share in those moments. We need artistic expression more than ever before.

“Art has a way of gathering and bridging between people.’’

Dan Adams can be e-mailed at

A show of paintings by John Frederick Arens and Robert Weinstein runs through Aug. 22 at the Plymouth Center for the Arts, 11 North St. in Plymouth. There will be a reception from 5 to 8 tonight.
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