By the time he was 18, Tommy Canning had signed his first book deal. Before he became known internationally as a maker of sacred art, what he really loved was comic books, and this first deal was for a comic-book history of the Celtic Football Club.
Tommy says he’s never had any formal training in art, but has been guided by intuition. At a young age, he learnt to draw the human form well and prepared a portfolio of personal drawings to show to various publishers.
‘As a young boy, I was always good at drawing and artistically inclined,’ he explains. ‘If I wasn’t outside playing football, I’d be at the dinner table drawing cartoon superheroes and immersed in comic books. By my mid-to-late teens, that’s where I wanted to be.’
But growing up in Scotland, where football (‘soccer’ for Australians) is tribal, one thing was certain: ‘If you’re Catholic, you’re a Celtic fan.’ Portfolio in hand, he approached Celtic Football Club with his idea for a comic-book history. They loved it and organised for him to meet with a publisher from Random House. In no time, he had a contract and his first advance.
A year later, at 19 years old, Tommy published his second book. It was another comic-book history, this time of Newcastle United, the English football club. He was thrilled that even at this young age, his career was beginning to launch in the direction he’d hoped.
Then came what he describes as his ‘Damascus experience’. On a holiday to Rome that same year, he visited the great basilicas for the first time, and his life changed forever.
‘My whole horizon all of a sudden expanded, to aspire toward something on a different level,’ he says. ‘Everything I had been passionate about, focused on and immersed in suddenly paled.’
Completely mesmerised, Tommy spent nearly the whole day in St Mary Major Basilica studying the art. When it finally came time to visit the Sistine Chapel, he stayed there for the day, too, lying on his back and thinking, ‘I want to do this.’
I was knocked off my horse and blinded by the beauty in Rome, and that completely reprogrammed my thinking. It shifted me ideologically, going from a lukewarm Sunday Catholic, going through the motions, to believing that only God, only the God of the Catholic faith, can inspire this kind of beauty. Nothing holds a candle to it.
The youngest of five boys, he was raised in a Catholic family by a mother who was widowed when Tommy was four and who was a model of stalwart faith. But this Roman holiday was when he finally made the faith his own. It also marked the beginning of his drive to glorify God through his art.
He started emulating the classical and representational style he’d encountered in Rome and found people had a real hunger for it. His brother helped him set up a website, and before he knew it, he was getting commissions from around the world.
One of his earliest commissioned pieces ‘went viral’, he says. It took on a life of its own, and to this day, he sees the piece in confessionals and parishes he visits. Called The Tribunal of Mercy, the painting depicts what really goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in the sacrament of Reconciliation: that it is Jesus himself absolving us.
His discovery of St Faustina and the message of Divine Mercy also had a major influence on his faith, leading him to be ‘completely blown away by the beauty and depth of God’s mercy’. This inspired a whole series of Divine Mercy–related pieces. He has even teamed up with Divine Mercy Publications here in Melbourne for many projects.
In Melbourne, he has found something of an ‘extended family’, and he comes at least once a year, sometimes for months at a time, to work on various pieces.
Speaking of the ‘crucial’ importance of beauty in human life, Tommy points out that for most of Church history, images played a vital role in catechesis. When people couldn’t read or write, they turned to the great works of art that communicated the story of salvation.
‘They inculcated the truth of the faith,’ he says. ‘It’s been part of our patrimony of evangelisation for centuries, and it’s always been a crucial part of the Church’s mission.’
‘When you do see something really beautiful, it’s a revelation. It’s a real epiphany,’ he says. Tommy tells the story of a woman who, though not having gone to Confession for 25 years, listened to a presentation he gave on his Tribunal of Mercy painting and went to the sacrament that very day. The artwork opened something in her that had been closed.
He also points to images like Our Lady of Guadalupe, which appeared in December 1531. While the Church in Europe is being split by the Protestant Reformation, something miraculous happens in South America.
So, what did heaven do? Send an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe to convert 10.9 million in a decade, the biggest mass conversion in the history of the Church, without any words at all.
Beauty, goodness and truth are ‘transcendentals’, Tommy reminds us, which means they’re interconnected. ‘If you draw people to beauty, then that can expose people to the other transcendentals, goodness and truth.’
Tommy believes that many of the ideas that are afloat today resist notions like standards, rules and excellence, even in art. ‘There’s a relativism in art which reflects the moral relativism of our time,’ he says. ‘And the culture is a reflection of where we’re at spiritually.’
In Tommy’s view, modernism was an art movement that in some ways deliberately attempted to distort beauty—a purposeful ‘cult of ugliness’ that rejected past standards, even rejecting the notion of objective beauty. ‘All this abstract and modern art, it leaves people cold,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t really communicate the truth of what a representational piece does in a classical style.’
Even when it comes to architecture, Tommy feels that things have changed dramatically. In previous eras, he reflects, the art and architecture of a town or village or city was reflective of the uniqueness of that place. They each had their own distinctive qualities. ‘If you look at most modern cities today, they all look the same,’ he says. They care more about ‘function’ than ‘form’, and that, he believes, reveals a kind of ‘spiritual illness’. When art and architecture take this turn, it can be demoralising for the human spirit, he says.
He doesn’t think it’s all bad news, though:
Thankfully the pendulum is beginning to swing. People are starting to get it. People are realising it’s not good for the soul, the world, society.
In fact, our culture might be ripe for a renewal in art. In the same way that art played a key role in pre-literate societies, ours is a largely image-based culture, he says, presenting an opportunity for us to create beautiful art for a new generation of young people fluent in images.
Tommy hopes that his own art will inspire faith in people, rekindling something they might have lost and acting as a ‘conduit of grace’. ‘You aim for that, but it’s all God’s grace at the end of the day.’
Images reproduced with permission of Divine Mercy Publications.
VMCH11 December 2023
Melbourne Catholic08 December 2023