God's abstract expressionist
By John Rogers
POMONA, Calif. — There's no steeple out front, no rows of pews inside, not even so much as a crucifix on display.
Still, this cramped little art studio in the middle of what, until not very long ago, was a street with as many broken dreams as it has potholes, is the closest thing to paradise the Rev. Bill Moore has found. It's the place where the 60-year-old Roman Catholic priest serves God by creating abstract paintings that he sells by the hundreds.
No ordinary preacher, Father Bill, as he's known throughout Pomona's fledgling arts district, long ago discarded his clerical collar in favor of a painter's smock. Only on Sundays does he trade it for holy vestments to deliver Mass at a local church or one of several detention facilities for youthful offenders.
All other times Moore is head of the Ministry of the Arts for the West Coast branch of his religious order, the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. His job is to serve God by painting whatever comes to mind.
"That's Bill's gift, his talent, and we have to support that," says the Rev. Donal McCarthy, who is the order's West Coast provincial and Moore's superior. "When you've got a creative person, you shouldn't stifle that creativity."
Leaders of the order, founded more than 200 years ago in France, know of no other member whose only mission has been to paint. But then Moore, a child of the '60s who can quote the words of Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and Jesus Christ with equal facility, has been a barrier-breaker since he ignored his provincial's order his freshman year of college to study either philosophy or theology. He majored in art instead.
"The next year, a letter came from the provincial saying all the students are now encouraged to major in subjects of their choice. I thought that was very cool," Moore recalls with a smile as he sits in the lobby of his modest studio sipping coffee. A copy of underground comic-book artist R. Crumb's "The Book of Genesis" sits on the coffee table, and works by Japanese artist Kazumi Tanaka (a personal favorite) are displayed here and there.
Since early childhood, Moore says, he knew he had the calling — to be a painter. The call to be a priest came later.
"I was doing little abstract paintings when I was a little boy, like around 8, 9 years old," Moore recalls.
"My grandmother would just think they were the greatest things," he continues with a laugh. "The rest of the members of my family, they were, ahh, kind of more like art critics."
Not that the art world has been all that harsh on him. Moore's works, which are often compared to those of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, sell for more than $5,000 apiece, and he has been the subject of frequent shows at galleries throughout the Southwest. Any profits he makes from those shows go directly to his order.
"His work, as abstract as it is, has a definite spiritual quality to it," says Fenton Moore, who is curating a Moore exhibition that opened Dec. 24 at the Galerie Zuger in Santa Fe, N.M. "It could be that it comes more from his heart than what you feel from other abstract artists. Or it could also be because he's just a very religious person."
Although he once worked in a realistic style, doing figures and landscapes, Moore decided a dozen years ago that abstract expressionism would be his language.
That has caused some consternation among his order, like the time he was commissioned to do the stained-glass windows for St. Ann's Church in Käne'ohe, and proposed a series of abstract works.
"The pastor there said, 'That's not going to happen,' " Moore recalled with a laugh. So he reverted to a traditional style for that work, as he did for a recent commissioned painting of Father Damien, patron saint of Hawai'i, who was a member of Moore's order when he went to live among the lepers of Moloka'i in the 19th century.
But when he works in his studio, Moore approaches each new project with no specific plan. Working with acrylic paints, he lets his ideas flow spontaneously onto canvas, then adds bits of metal, glass or other discarded, seemingly worthless materials to each painting. They represent redemption, a central theme in his order's belief that God's love is unconditional.
It's that approach, combined with his intricate brush skills, that makes his art so appealing, says fellow painter A.S. Ashley.
"I think the hard contrasts between the light areas and the colored fields are very striking, and they draw you in," Ashley says. "And then, as you get closer, you see not only the textures but also some of the intimate details that exist within them."
Moore, who was ordained in 1975, spent much of his career as a traditional priest who happened to paint. That changed in 1998 when his superiors created the Ministry of the Arts.
Soon he had moved into a studio in a century-old building in this hardscrabble town 30 miles east of Los Angeles. He secluded himself in a rundown industrial neighborhood that was just beginning to reinvent itself as an arts district.
He still lives there, with his cat, in a cramped loft behind his work space. For entertainment, he occasionally tunes in an ancient TV that requires hanging a coat hanger on its rabbit-ear antenna to pull in a local news channel.
But he doesn't mind.
"I don't know what it is to be really wealthy, but I feel so rich," he says, rubbing his hands together enthusiastically. "I get up in the morning and I do what I love to do."