This is the second in a three-part series interviewing Catholic female creators of sacred art.
After reading Pope St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” Ali Towle, a watercolor artist from Seattle, realized that she was made to create and bring people to the Lord and his Church through her art. In 2016 she created the brand Saint Script, which focuses on modern sacred art, specifically depictions of the saints. In addition to her saint portraits, she is passionate about creating modern prayer cards.
Radiant had the opportunity to talk with Towle about the inspiration behind her art, including her Saints for Racial Injustice collection, which stems from her conviction to portray the universality of the Catholic Church. A Catholic creative and a mother, Towle hopes her art will inspire others, such as her daughter, to recognize their unique call to sainthood.
Radiant: When did you discover your passion for creating art, and how did you work to develop this skill?
Ali Towle: After I graduated high school, I lost touch with my creative outlet. I reconnected to my passion for art after about a year into marriage as my husband was in the process of getting his Ph.D. I was in a new city without much to keep me busy, so I taught myself how to paint with watercolor. Watercolor takes a lot of trial and error, practice and patience. I am a visual learner, so I learned different techniques by watching videos of other artists painting.
Radiant: What prompted you to create sacred art?
Towle: Artists create their work based on what they are most inspired by. Ever since my teenage years, I have been fascinated with the lives of the saints. As a young adult I had a spiritual director who was interested in traditional icons of the saints. Each icon includes symbols that reflect different aspects of the saint, and I would spend hours reading about them. I read St. Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” which changed the way I saw myself as an artist. For so long I was creating to bring joy into my own life, but I realized that the Lord was calling me into ministry. I noticed that there was a lack of modern representation of the saints within the Church. Each of my depictions of the saints include symbols that reflect the saint’s life. Whether it’s the crown of thorns on St. Rose of Lima, or the barbed wire behind St. Maximilian Kolbe, each detail is intentional. My hope is that they motivate the observer to look into the lives of the saints to see how they loved the Lord in their own unique way.
Radiant: What are your favorite mediums to use?
Towle: I’m obsessing over watercolor. It is a medium that forces you to let go of any control, which is something I struggle with in general. I continue to fall in love with the movement and unpredictability of watercolor, and I’m still learning to hone in on my own unique style. As of recently, I’ve been looking into investing in gouache, which is a water-based paint similar to watercolor but more opaque.
Radiant: What does your art process look like?
Towle: The first thing I do is get acquainted with the saint I want to paint. I do research on their life, get to know them and ask for their intercession. There is always a point in my research where I can picture the portrait I’m going to paint. The next step is to sketch out the saint. And finally, apply watercolor. Watercolor takes a lot of time because you need to allow each layer of paint to dry before you add more.
Radiant: Where does your inspiration come from?
Towle: Often times there will be several different people requesting the same saint at around the same time. That usually prompts me to look into those saints because it seems that they are interceding on behalf of many people. Other times I come across saints on my own. For instance, I learned about St. Gemma Galgani while trying to come up with a name for our daughter. As soon as I knew we would name our daughter after her, I wanted to paint a portrait of her. In the portrait I surrounded her with roses and thorns because her life was one of suffering and also beauty. She is called the Flower of Lucca and the Daughter of Passion. She has interceded on our behalf in very tangible ways.
Radiant: Who is one of your favorite saints and why?
Towle: I love them all, but the one saint who always comes to mind is St. Faustina. She is the saint who transformed my life as I was coming into my faith as a teenager. My youth minister gave me a copy of St. Faustina’s diary, and this little cloistered nun who lived a hundred years ago really captivated me. She had a deep love and friendship with our Lord, and she taught me that a relationship with him was accessible. Then a few years ago, when the news broke about the sexual abuse scandals in the Church, I was heartbroken. Ladies at my Church started to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet every morning after daily Mass for reparation of the sins of the Church, and my faith was transformed once again by the words of that little nun in Poland. I was inspired to create a prayer card for the Divine Mercy Chaplet to spread the news about this beautiful prayer.
Radiant: You are the founder of Saint Script. Tell me a little bit about this and what inspired the project?
Towle: Honestly, Saint Script happened by accident. I taught myself how to paint with watercolor as a hobby. After only a few months I was being asked by several friends and family to sell my art. I never expected it to be a way to support my family. It is truly a gift.
Radiant: Tell me a little bit about the saints in your Saints for Racial Injustice collection. Why did you decide to highlight these two saints in particular, and what inspired the collection?
Towle: The Catholic Church is the most diverse Church in the world. It is a Church for every person because it teaches that each of us are made in the image and likeness of God. Each of us, in our uniqueness, are a reflection of God. After the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, I started to look introspectively at my heart and sequentially at my work, which is a reflection of myself. I pretty quickly realized that my work did not reflect the fullness of the beauty of God because it did not include enough saints of color.
I started to research saints of color and found two new holy friends, Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman and St. Martin de Porres, both of whom experienced racism in their lives, and both of whom faithfully lived out the Gospel despite it. St. Martin de Porres was a Dominican brother who was first rejected by his religious order due to the color of his skin. He was a man of virtue and knew that loving his neighbor was loving God himself. Sister Thea Bowman in particular inspired me because she is a saint of our time. She died in 1990, only two years before I was born. She lived in Wisconsin where I spent much of my young adult life. She spoke passionately about Black Catholic culture and the gift that it is to the Church.
The important thing for this collection is that I used my work to fight for racial justice and bring awareness to the racial disparities that are embedded in every aspect of our society. With the release of each print in the shop, I connect that particular saint’s charism to a matter of racial justice. All proceeds during the week of release were donated to an organization fighting for racial justice in that particular sector of our society. For example, Sister Thea Bowman was passionate about education. All proceeds for the week her print was released went to the Thea Bowman Education Fund, which provides education to the economically disadvantaged children of the Black community. I hope to expand this collection to include even more saints of color and grow awareness of the racial injustices happening in our country.
Radiant: As a new mom, are their specific pieces you create that you hope will help shape your daughter into a woman of virtue?
Towle: As a Catholic creative and mom, I hope my art is a way for my daughter to see the beauty and diversity of our Catholic faith, that in her uniqueness, she is capable of holiness and sainthood. Each saint that I have painted has taught me how to love Jesus in a new way and I hope they inspire her, and others, to do the same.
Photos courtesy Ali Towle.
Susanna Parent is a regular contributor to the Blessed Is She blog and a freelance writer. While a Wisconsin native, she now begins her mornings brewing French press coffee in the home she shares with her husband and daughter in the Twin Cities. When the sun sets, you’ll find her with friends enjoying a glass of red wine, preferably outside underneath twinkly lights. When not exploring all that the Twin Cities has to offer, she is indulging her wanderlust spirit with her family and writing about it later on her blog Fiat and a Lily.