John Nava is one of Ventura County’s greatest living fine artists — and in a community that boasts tremendous talent across the spectrum, that’s saying something. The realist painter is known for depicting contemporary settings and subjects in the style of the Old Masters, and his art has been shown around the world, with several public works projects to his name, as well as pieces in the collections of such prestigious institutions as the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Hawaii. His greatest claim to fame, however, hangs in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.
Nava designed 37 tapestries for the Catholic cathedral, which opened in 2002 and serves as the seat of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. These extraordinary works are now the subject of a new book published in November by Angel City Press. Sacred Material: The Art of the Tapestries of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels recounts the artistic process that drove the concept and creation of the tapestries, as well as the technological developments that allowed them to be produced.
“The enormity of the project struck me again,” Nava says about his experience putting the book together. “I spent a total of three years on it. How much I undertook without really understanding it at the time. When I look back, I say, ‘Wow, that was crazy.’ ”
Nava’s approach was groundbreaking from the start. He employed digital imaging to construct figures from multiple studies. He also chose modern subjects to depict the saints, including people of all races and both genders in his designs, and drew a map of Los Angeles for the altar. The idea was to modernize traditional depictions. In the words of the cathedral’s website, “He wanted the figures to look like people we know now.”
The cathedral itself served, in part, as inspiration for Nava’s contemporary style. “The church is a very radical design,” Nava explains. “They embraced a really futuristic piece of architecture.” And unlike the art that decorates many medieval churches in Europe, which often depict scenes of hell and punishment, church officials wanted “to present an image that’s positive, upbeat, inclusive and redemptive.” The painter’s designs perfectly captured this optimistic spirit.
Interestingly, Nava’s original intent was not to design tapestries. When he was commissioned in 1999 to decorate the cathedral, which was still under construction, his plan was for the art to be incised into the concrete walls. But the space needed something to soften the acoustics. “They realized they were going to have sound problems,” Nava recalls. “It was not my idea — [the tapestries] became a solution to this audio problem.”
Church officials considered finding a textile artist, but Nava decided to tackle the job himself. “I realized that this was a huge, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. “They had enough faith in me to let me explore and research and see if I could do it.”
Sacred Material recounts the process of making that plan a reality. Most weaving mills are set up for industrial applications, so Nava’s first challenge was to find an outfit willing to make something on a relatively small scale, with equipment sophisticated enough to capture the nuances of the design. He eventually found one in Flanders Tapestries near Bruges, Belgium. Powerful computer technology was employed to transmit the colors, details and sensuality of the art accurately in fiber. “It became extremely fascinating . . . a much richer kind of work,” he says. “This was a very rare opportunity for a modern artist to take part in this ancient tradition, and do it on a grand scale.”
Fine-art tapestry had become something of a relic of the Middle Ages; it simply wasn’t being “done” anymore beyond a decorative scale (pillows and such). The high profile of the cathedral project — and the extraordinary results achieved by Nava — helped revive tapestry as an art form.
Nava will share his thoughts on Sacred Material, the tapestries and the creative process at a lecture and book signing at Oxnard’s Levity Live Comedy Club this weekend. Focus on the Masters sponsors the event, and a portion of book sales will benefit FOTM’s arts education programming. Attendance is free, but reservations are required.
It’s been quite a journey for Nava’s tapestries, from the original sketches to the publication of this book. “The life of the tapestries, it sort of began when the cathedral opened — and it goes on and on,” says Nava with a touch of awe. “It’s always sort of alive.”
John Nava’s lecture on Sacred Material takes place on Sunday, Dec. 10, 1:30-3:30 p.m. at Levity Live Comedy Club, The Collection at RiverPark, 591 Collection Blvd., Oxnard. RSVP by calling 653-2501 or visit www.focusonthemasters.com.